Susan West

Associate Broker

2007 

December 

November 

October 

September 

August 

July 

January 

 


A requisite for home inspectors is a sense of humor 

In August of 2006, I had a column about inspecting vacant homes. As usual I got sidetracked and wrote the following paragraph: 

“If a home inspector tells you he has never broken anything in a home he inspected, well let’s just say I’d be careful buying a used car from him. Home inspectors are trying to look at everything at once, so it’s inevitable that we break something sooner or later. I’m proud to say I only make most mistakes once, although there are some exceptions. Twice I knocked something off a windowsill when opening the window. Of course, when I told the sellers, this was a vase that came over on the Mayflower with their great-great-great-great-grandfather’s uncle and is a priceless family heirloom. They’re not quite sure how the Kmart sticker got on the bottom. Twice I bent an overhead garage door when testing the automatic reverse feature. But only once did I start the oven without looking inside. I melted six plastic bowls into one large bowl with a round hole in the bottom. The bowls didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they were Tupperware. That’s the first and last time I bought Tupperware. You’d think bowls that expensive wouldn’t melt at 100 degrees.” 

Recently I was talking to a seller/homeowner scheduling an inspection. After we agreed on the date and time, she said “Oh Mr. West, just one more thing. I went around the house yesterday and removed the Kmart stickers from every vase.” 

I was shocked that she remembered what I said in a column over a year ago! I’ll write a column about GFCI outlets and get questions about them within a month or two. But write a column about my goofs and someone will remember it forever. 

So here’s another funny story. Often when neighbors figure out that I’m a home inspector, they will ask me about my clients, who of course will be their new neighbors. Usually I have not even met my clients yet. But instead of telling the neighbors this I usually say something like “all I know is they need this large home because they have 11 children.” Or sometimes I’ll say “all I know is they need this large yard because they make their living raising pit bulls.” Recently in Prescott Valley, I told a neighbor “all I know is he needs this huge garage because he’s the leader of a local motorcycle gang.” 

This neighbor, whom I’ll call Sue (which should be an alias since I can’t remember her name – I only spoke with her a few minutes) was unphased and told me the following story. In their previous life in California, Sue and her husband had complained to their next-door neighbors several times about their dogs barking in the middle of the night. The neighbors always replied that no other neighbors complain and that Sue and her husband will get used to the barking dogs like everyone else. 

One night when the dogs were barking Sue’s husband went out to the garage and opened the overhead door that opened toward the neighbors with the dogs. He then started his souped-up Harley Davidson motorcycle and aimed the exhaust pipes out the open door. He proceeded to rev the engine for a few minutes. 

I laughed and told Sue her husband should have told the neighbors that every time the dogs wake him up in the middle of the night he was going to go work on his motorcycle. 

Sue gave me a funny look. She looked partly surprised and partly annoyed. Having been married for many decades I recognize this look pretty well. She said that’s exactly what her husband did. I guess she was a little surprised and a little annoyed that I “guessed” the end of her story before she had a chance to say it. 

Well as usual, I am rambling again. So, since I don’t have much room left I’ll finish with a couple of stories regarding other inspectors. Quite a few years ago, I inspected a townhome out near the airport. I had completed my inspection and was leaving the neighborhood when I noticed someone washing their motorcycle in their driveway. The motorcycle happened to be the same make and model as mine, even the same year and color. So, of course I stopped and started talking to this very intelligent man. We were talking about bikes so I hadn’t noticed the “For Sale” sign in the front yard. 

After a few minutes, one of my competitors pulled into the driveway. I’ll call this inspector Dave, since that happens to be his name. Dave got out of his large white van and approached the homeowner. He identified himself and explained he’s here to do the home inspection. About this time, Dave noticed me. Dave got a puzzled look on his face and asked me what I was doing there. I told him I had just completed the inspection and was heading out. 

Dave just turned around and headed back to his van. He was muttering unpleasantries that I can’t repeat here, mostly about Realtors that fail to cancel inspections and waste his time. I let him get to his van before I stopped him and told him the truth. 

Another time I was performing an inspection on a vacant home. When I was on the roof, I noticed one of my competitors doing an inspection on the home across the street. I could see him walking around the yard with about eight people in tow – apparently, his clients brought some of their friends and relatives with them. I took off my tool belt and walked across the street and merged into the group. A couple of them looked at me funny for a second, but no one said anything. I was there for a good three or four minutes before the inspector happened to see my face in the crowd. He stopped in the middle of a sentence and lost his composure for a few seconds before asking, “what are you doing here?” I just played dumb and said I thought I’d tag along to see exactly what a home inspector does for a living. He faltered for just another second before regaining his composure and introducing me to his tour group. 

By Randy West on December 26, 2007 

 

After-market hot water circulators do lukewarm job 

I did an inspection earlier this week and found a gas leak near the water heater. The owners immediately called UniSource Gas Company, who showed up very quickly. They confirmed there was a gas leak, so what did they do? They turned off the gas, locked the gas meter and told the owners to call a Plumber. The owners called a plumber, who also showed up very quickly. And what did he do? He said he can’t find the leak, fix it or verify it’s fixed if the gas is off. So now the owners are calling UniSource Gas Company to come back out and turn the gas back on. 

I assumed UniSource would ‘red tag’ the appliance. I know they do this when they find a gas leak or some other problem with a gas appliance. Why do they turn off the gas and then tell you to call a plumber, who won’t be able to check or fix anything because the gas is off? I honestly don’t know, but I’m guessing that maybe they charge for coming back out to turn the gas back on. 

This week’s question: 

Q: I have a central furnace, and I want to add air conditioning. I’ve had three contractors give me proposals. One said he could add air conditioning to my existing furnace and would put the air conditioner on the rear patio. Another said my furnace could not handle a new air conditioner and wants to install a new furnace in the attic and the air conditioner on the rear patio. The third said since my furnace is almost 20 years it would be smarter to replace it, and proposed a gaspack. Now I’m confused. We’re on a budget, and the first bid to just add air conditioning is much less. I’m thinking if we add air conditioning now, we can replace the furnace when needed and still use the new air conditioner. Am I correct? Do you think a 20-year-old furnace can handle a new air conditioner? I think putting the fan on the roof would be less efficient. Are there other advantages to gaspacks? Any other advice? 

A: I advise you get three more proposals, and get really, really confused. Just kidding. There are several questions here. It’s impossible for me to say if a 20-year old furnace can handle a new air conditioner. Even if I came to your home, this is out of my expertise. I will tell you that from my experience the average life for gas furnaces in our area is 20 to 25 years, so your furnace is hitting ‘old age’. Also, a newer furnace would be more efficient and start saving you energy costs right away. You will be able to replace your furnace later and keep the new air conditioner components, but you will be paying more labor costs than to replace the furnace when adding the central air conditioner. So, if my budget would handle it I would replace a 20-year-old furnace when installing central air conditioning. 

As far as gaspacks, you bring up a valid point. (A ‘gaspack’ is a generic term for a furnace and air conditioner in a single cabinet. These are common in our area, and are usually installed on the roof.) I thought the same thing the first time I saw a gaspack – with the air handler (blower) outside it will be cold in the winter when you’re using the furnace, and hot in the summer when you’re using the air conditioner. This must reduce the efficiency of the system, at least a little bit. 

But when I thought about it I realized you don’t have refrigerant lines, as with a split system (the furnace in a closet and the air conditioner compressor outside somewhere). The refrigerant lines are insulated, but you lose some efficiency through the lines. So I figure it’s pretty much a wash between a gaspack and a split system. If I’m wrong I’m sure I’ll hear about it from a heating contractor. 

As for other advantages to a gaspack, you stated your furnace is in a closet. Installing the gaspack 

(or a new furnace in the attic) will gain you a closet, and I’ve never seen a home with enough closets (that’s like saying ‘my garage is too big’- can’t happen!). Assuming the gaspack is on the roof, it will also be quieter than having the air handler in an interior closet and the compressor on a patio (usually under a bedroom window, of course). With a gaspack there is no (exhaust) vent pipe to install and worry about. 

My other advice is regarding the condensate drain line. An air conditioner removes moisture from the air. The condensate line drains this water to the exterior of the building. Often when a gaspack is installed on an existing home, they simply run the condensate line off the roof into the gutter. This may not look great, but how many people are looking at your roof? If they route the condensate line through the attic (which they will have to if they install the furnace in the attic), find the discharge point and check it every spring. Make sure it has not become obstructed with debris or an insect nest. Everyone should do this – if the condensate line becomes obstructed water will ‘back up’ and possibly cause moisture damage in the walls or attic. I, and all home inspectors, have found moisture damage in attics from obstructed or broken condensate lines. The condensate line is usually a 3/4-inch white plastic line that comes out an exterior wall near the ground somewhere. The line usually comes out of the wall a few inches and has an elbow aiming downwards. 

If the furnace is installed in the attic, they should put a catch pan under the air conditioner. The catch pan has a ‘secondary’ drain line routed to the exterior, again usually a 3/4-inch white plastic pipe. This drain is usually higher on the wall, not near the ground. If you see water coming out of the secondary line call the furnace guy right away – there may be something wrong with the primary drain line. Often the secondary line is intentionally installed directly over a window or door, so you will more easily notice water coming out of it. 

By Randy West on December 13, 2007 

 

Inspecting your home inspector, Part 2 

Recently I was quoted in a Courier column titled Inspecting Your Home Inspector. The reporter asked me for advice on choosing a home inspector. I gave him my usual excellent advice, such as asking about experience, what type of report you’ll receive, professional affiliations, etc. 

The article referred to a home inspection report that missed some defects. I received phone calls and e-mails from some inspectors regarding this article. Some said I “condemned” an inspector that may have been in compliance with the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors (the Standards). They know that I serve on the Enforcement Advisory Committee for the Arizona Board of Technical Registration (BTR). This committee reviews complaints against certified home inspectors, decides if the complaints are substantiated, and makes recommendations for disciplinary action. Some inspectors feel we are too quick to substantiate complaints. 

This is a great topic for discussion. I don’t know any more about this case than what was in the article. This is much less information that I would have in a real complaint with the BTR, where I would have the written complaint, the inspector’s written reply, 

pictures, etc. 

There were three items mentioned. First – the clients noted that one double-hung window would not open and two would not stay open. A home inspector is only required to operate a sample of windows, meaning at least one in each room. It’s possible the inspector did test one window in each room and therefore complied with the Standards. 

The second item was a flexible gas line on a metal edge near the furnace. UniSource Energy does not allow flex gas lines to penetrate a metal furnace cabinet, and this is visible and should have been discovered by the inspector. 

The third item was cracks in the masonry chimney cap. With the limited information available, I would say an inspector should have seen this. 

Of course, the inspector may have done a thorough inspection and completed a great report. He may have reported that some windows were not accessible due to furniture. Perhaps there was no access to the furnace during the inspection. The home was purchased in “early 2006,” so it’s possible that the roof was covered with snow and the inspector was unable to walk on it and see the cracks in the chimney cap. If it’s an older home, it’s possible the chimney was very tall and could not be accessed easily – the article stated the cracked chimney cap was discovered by a chimney professional. 

I’ll try to review these items as I would for a real complaint filed with the BTR. This is for discussion purposes only – remember that I have very little information regarding this case. 

The first thing I do when reviewing a complaint is make a timeline: when was the home inspected, and when were the defects discovered? 

According to the article, the home was inspected in “early 2006” and the windows that would not open or stay open were discovered “last summer”. I assume this means the summer of 2006. Homeowners may not operate windows until summer, so they may not discover inoperable windows until the first summer after the inspection. If the non-functioning windows were not discovered until the summer of 2007, I would not substantiate the complaint. It is unlikely that people would live in a house for over a year before trying to open windows, and it’s possible the windows were working normally at the time of the inspection. 

Regarding the flex gas line routed through a metal opening, I would substantiate this unless the inspection report stated that this area was not accessible. Similarly, I would also substantiate missing a damaged chimney cap unless it was reported that the chimney (or roof) was not accessible during the inspection. 

I do not feel the Enforcement Advisory Committee members unfairly substantiate complaints against home inspectors. I’ve read of other professions that police themselves and rarely substantiate a complaint. We try to be very fair. The first thing we check is did the report meet the Standards? The Standards are the absolute minimum requirements, and there’s no excuse not to comply with them. I reviewed a report once that was only 8 pages long and didn’t tell the client much at all, but complied with the Standards. When I hear an Inspector defending a poor report by stating, “it met the Standards” (or a builder that says “it met code”), I assume I’m dealing with someone that did the absolute minimum he had to. He didn’t do it ‘right’, or the best way, or the way he would for his mother, he did just enough to get by. 

We also consider Industry Standards – what would most home inspectors do in this situation? 

Here’s an extreme example. Our Standards state we must enter a crawlspace, or give the reason why we did not. So what if an inspector states he didn’t enter a crawlspace because he didn’t want to get his new uniform dirty? An attorney could argue he complied with the Standards because he reported why he didn’t enter the crawlspace. However, most inspectors would have entered that crawlspace, so the inspector was not inspecting to Industry Standards. 

Most home inspectors far exceed our Standards. For example, I always check every window and door, or clearly describe which ones I could not access (and why). It takes a long time to do a thorough inspection and prepare a professional report. However, it takes a lot longer to prepare for and go through a complaint or lawsuit. I recommend that all home inspectors thoroughly document items or areas that could not be inspected. It only takes a few seconds to type “I did not enter the furnace room because the owner’s pet boa constrictor was in this room.” It takes much longer to defend a report that did not clearly describe inaccessible areas. 

By Randy West on November 28, 2007 

 

Old homes can never be ‘new’ again, but they have character 

I enjoy inspecting older homes because they are different and unique, and you never know what you will find. Inside the home you may find unusual built-in cabinets, very ornate woodwork, or antique cook stoves (sometimes still in use). Often the most interesting things are not inside the home. Once I found a Studebaker pickup truck tailgate in an attic being used to support a beam. The tailgate was in perfect condition – it looked new. Another time I found some newspapers from the 1940s. The papers were still legible. It was amazing to me how inexpensive cars and houses were. It would also amaze thou how much our language hath changed – I felt like I was reading Shakespeare. 

Anyway, I have several special comments I use in my reports on older homes, including this one at the beginning of the Structural Components section: 

“As is typical of homes of this age, the building exhibits many unusual conditions. Numerous structural improvements could be undertaken. In practice, however, most homes of this nature are improved on an as-needed basis only. Many less than ideal conditions are simply tolerated. Older timbers, for example, may exhibit evidence of rot and prior insect activity. In a perfect world, these timbers would be replaced. In most cases, improvement is only undertaken if the timber fails or is substantially weakened. It is not the intention of this report to make this old house new again. Improvements will only be recommended where they are considered critical.” 

Unless substantial renovation is anticipated, it is important that one have an “old house mentality” when it comes to living in a home of this nature. There are sagging and uneven floors, wall cracks, and doors and windows that don’t latch properly. Like an older or antique car, more maintenance will be needed and occasionally you may have trouble locating parts for older fixtures or appliances. Of course, you have a home with character and features that you would never find in a newer home, and it is much more rewarding to improve and maintain an older home. On to the report… 

I’m proud of this comment and have been using it for years. I believe this comment helps my clients have realistic expectations about buying and living in an older home. 

“It is common that older foundations have settled. And sometimes older stem walls are in such poor condition they are not supporting the wood floor framing adequately. The stem walls are the ‘visible’ part of the foundation, between the wood exterior walls and the ground. The stem walls are usually concrete or block, but can also be stone or brick on older homes. 

There are times when I have to recommend an evaluation by an engineer, and/or foundation or stem wall repairs. Most of the time, however, I recommend wood framing improvements rather than expensive foundation repairs. In older homes, I very frequently see new wood posts and beams installed just inside the original stem walls. These provide additional support, and cost hundreds of dollars to install. Installing new foundations and/or stem walls can cost tens of thousands of dollars. 

I also point out that most foundation or crawlspace framing repairs on an older home are intended to prevent further settlement/movement rather than to ‘level’ the home. Attempting to level an older home would cause considerable distress to the doors and windows, the interior finishes, and perhaps even the water and gas lines. If you decide to level an old home you can expect some other expenses as well. 

In a home I inspected several months ago, my clients are making some improvements. They had two contractors recommend leveling the home and installing new foundations/stem walls (for many thousands of dollars). My clients were justifiably upset because this large expense was not in their budget. 

One of the contractors actually told my clients that their home inspector (me) should have E & O insurance that would pay for these repairs. This shocked and angered me. I explained to my clients that my E & O insurance would not pay for this. E & O stands for Errors and Omissions. There were no errors or omissions in my inspection report, so I would not even turn this in to my insurance company. And even if I did, they would not pay. I did not say the foundation was perfect and the home was level. I said the home was 100 years old, had uneven floors, wall and ceiling cracks, etc. 

Now I understand that contractors have to make a living, and I want all of you to understand that I believe that the vast majority of general and sub contractors are honest and ethical. Unfortunately, as with home inspectors, attorneys, car salesman, and every trade or profession there will be a few individuals or companies that will try to take advantage of their clients. And of course, this is the risk you take with any specialist. I face this dilemma with my computer. When my computer stops working and the computer repair guy says my dielectric ionizer on the inner hard drive magneto bearing has failed, I have to believe him. I don’t have time to get a second opinion, and I wouldn’t understand the next guy either. 

But unscrupulous businesses hurt everyone, whether they’re computer gurus or surgeons. It’s hard for me to believe there are contractors out there that will actually suggest to homeowners that a Home Inspectors E & O insurance will pay for expensive and unnecessary repairs. I could alter my ‘This Old House’ comment to protect myself, but then the comment would sound more alarming. This could cause Buyers not to buy a home that they may have otherwise bought and enjoyed very much. This could upset Sellers, who are proud of their home and know that it is in typical condition for an older home. And of course, this could upset Realtors, especially those that already consider home inspectors nothing more than stated licensed Deal Killers. 

By Randy West on October 10, 2007 

 

 

I-Drives, the BBB, breakers and more 

I have a couple updates to make this week before I tackle this week’s questions. 

Several months ago I had a column about overhead garage door openers. There is a new type of opener called an I-drive. This opener mounts on the wall directly over the door, rather than on the ceiling behind the open door. 

As with all overhead door openers, these openers are required to reverse if the door hits an obstruction when closing. My column stated these doors are also required to have the photo beam across the bottom of the door that will reverse the door if the beam is interrupted. 

I did a little more research on these openers. Most I-drive openers do require the photo beam along the bottom of the door. However, there is one I-drive opener manufactured by Wayne Dalton that does not require a beam, as long as it is used with a specific (model 9000) Wayne Dalton door. To identify these doors look at the spring over the garage door. I copied the following comment off the Wayne Dalton website: 

“This model is engineered to work on Wayne-Dalton pinch-resistant steel doors equipped with the TorqueMaster counterbalance system. To identify whether your garage door has TorqueMaster, look for a sealed tube above your garage door. If the spring is exposed, then it’s not TorqueMaster.” 

So now you homeowners and inspectors know what to look for on I-drive overhead door openers. If you can see the spring, then there should be a photo beam at the bottom of the door. 

In a column last July I made some comments about the Better Business Bureau. I was replying to a question that mentioned checking out home inspectors with the BBB. I went on the BBB website and found I was not listed, which kind of bothered me because I’m the oldest (so to speak) home inspector in Prescott and have never had a complaint filed against me. 

The BBB sent me a form which I filled out, and now I am on their website as an “OK” company. They did some other research too, because they found out my wife is vice president of my company. The only reason she’s VP is because I needed a VP to incorporate. She doesn’t really do anything as VP other than come into my office on the first of each month looking for a paycheck (which she would do even if she weren’t VP). 

I also heard from several home inspectors that are members of the BBB. They told me they do get some referrals from their BBB membership, so I may even join myself. 

I had a call this week from a client who just moved into their home and their bedroom lights and outlets were not working. I told them to check for an AFI breaker in their electrical panel. There was such a breaker, and when they reset it the bedroom lights and outlets worked. I love it when I look good. 

AFIs are breakers that have a “test” button on them. These are different than the GFCI outlets you have in your bathroom and kitchen. GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. These are designed to prevent shocks, and are required at the exterior, garage and near plumbing fixtures. 

AFI stands for Arc Fault Interrupter. These are designed to prevent fires. I saw an interesting film that showed how these work in a laboratory environment. The circuit was “shorted” by driving a nail through the wire. Without an AFI breaker the wire would heat up, melt the insulation and eventually start a fire. But if the circuit was protected by an AFI breaker the breaker would trip before the wire got hot enough to start a fire. 

AFI breakers are required for all bedroom circuits. I’ve also been asked if the smoke detectors are required to be on an AFI circuit. The answer is no, maybe, yes. When AFI breakers were first required many electricians did not put the smoke detectors on an AFI circuit. Technically, any outlet in the bedroom should be AFI protected. Don’t confuse outlets with receptacles. An outlet is anywhere electricity can be removed from the circuit. I use the plumbing system as an analogy. The plumbing lines are the wires, and anywhere you can get water is an outlet, i.e. the sinks, hose faucets, etc. Since smoke detectors “use” electricity (and actually they are plugged in with a small connector), they are an electrical outlet, and therefore smoke detectors should be on an AFI circuit. 

You can tell if you have AFI breakers by looking in your electrical panel. The AFI breakers are usually a different color, and will have a “test” button on them. So if you live in a newer home and the outlets or lights stop working in a bedroom, check for AFI breakers in your panel. 

My last question this week is about smoke detectors. I was asked first why some chirp every 30 or 60 seconds. This means the battery is low and should be replaced. I was then asked why every one in the home goes off if one goes off. This has been required for years, and is (in my opinion) a very smart feature. Imagine you’re sound asleep (or have the TV on loud, or both) in the master bedroom and a fire starts in the room farthest away from you. By the time you hear the detector it could be “too late”, or at a minimum you could have extensive fire and smoke damage. If they all go off you are alerted immediately, giving you much more time to save yourself, pets, wine collection or other valuables. 

Of course, this also means if any smoke detector malfunctions every detector in the home will go off. And the newer smoke detectors have a sensor built in so they will only do this at 3 a.m. on a morning after you indulged in more of your wine collection than normal. 

By Randy West on September 27, 2007 

 

Commercial buildings need inspections, too 

Question: I am a Realtor who specializes in commercial real estate. I have always recommended to my buyers that they get a building inspected by a state certified home inspector. Recently, some Realtors told me that they do not recommend a “home” inspection on commercial buildings. Instead, they tell their buyers to get an inspection by a roofing company, heating/air conditioning contractor, electrician, etc. They say that home inspectors are not qualified to inspect commercial buildings and that there are no standards for commercial building inspections. So my questions are: Do you recommend a “home” inspection on commercial buildings, are Arizona state certified home inspectors qualified to inspect commercial buildings, are there standards for commercial inspections, and do you have any other advice regarding commercial inspections? 

Good questions. Let me answer them in order: Yes, sometimes, yes and no, yes. Our next question this week is from a home seller who wants to know about attic insulation. Only kidding. I’ll give you better answers than that! 

Answer: Do I recommend a “home” inspection on a commercial building? That’s kind of a trick question. I recommend an inspection by a “home” inspector. There are a couple major concerns with just having roofing, plumbing, electrical (etc.) contractors inspect a building: 

First, will they be objective? If a heating contractor tells you that you need a new furnace, how can you question him if you’re not sure? If you had a building inspection, you would know the size, age, location, etc. of the furnace. I’m not picking on heating contractors. Recently, a roofing contractor (not in Prescott) was hired to check a leaking roof on a low-sloped roof on a commercial building. They told the clients they needed a new roof at a cost of over $20,000. Fortunately, these buyers had a building inspection (by a “home” inspector). The inspection report stated there were problems in just one area of the roof. When the clients asked the roofing contractor about this, the contractor explained his bid by saying he assumed the clients wanted a five-year guarantee, which he would only provide if he replaced the entire roof. This $2,000 “home” inspection saved someone $20,000. 

Second, will contractors be thorough? All inspectors have found multiple problems and returned to find a contractor did not find or repair every one. Again, I am not trying to pick on contractors. But their job description is “contracting, building, or installing,” rather than “inspecting.” Here’s a good example. Inspectors frequently find gas appliance vents touching wood framing in attics. These vent pipes are required to have one-inch clearance from combustible materials, so this is a fire hazard (and usually very easy to correct). If you hire a plumbing contractor and he checks the gas water heater located in a closet, will he go into the attic? Maybe some will, but I know some won’t. Especially if the water heater is in the right side of the building and the attic access is in the left side of the building. Most plumbers will not slither through fiberglass insulation in a 140-degree attic to check one vent pipe. 

Hiring multiple contractors will be very expensive, take a lot of time, and could be very inconvenient to the current owners or tenants. And not everything will get inspected unless you hire every possible contractor. For example, you would likely hire a plumbing and electrical contractor, but would you hire a carpenter? If not, who’s going to check the framing in the crawlspace, attic, deck, porch cover, etc? Who will inspect the window installation, soffit and fascia, crawlspace and attic vents? Who’s going to check the condition of the windows and screens, and the operation of every door and window? You get the idea. 

Your second question was whether “home” inspectors are qualified to perform building inspections. Most are. I tell clients I don’t inspect specialty equipment, such as beauty salon or restaurant equipment. Therefore, there’s not much in a commercial building that I have not found in a single-family dwelling. There may be larger furnaces, or more of them. But this is still a heating system and most qualified “home” inspectors can perform general testing and inspecting. 

To answer question three, there are no official Arizona standards for commercial inspections. There are some national Standards for commercial inspections, but I don’t use them. My Commercial Building Inspection Contract refers to the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors. I explain that these Standards are for single-family dwellings or multi-family dwellings up to four units, but I will still comply with them because I feel they’re good Standards. These Standards require that I inspect the roof, enter attics and crawlspaces, open electrical panels, etc. 

But let’s apply this “Standards” question to hiring multiple contractors in lieu of a building inspector. They will not have any inspection Standards at all, and may have little inspection experience. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors state we will enter attics and crawlspaces, operate furnaces and air conditioners, provide a written report telling the client what kind of roofing, insulation, plumbing lines, electrical wiring, etc. are installed. A Plumber or electrician will not be required to enter the attic or crawlspace, and may not even think of it, although these are the locations where inspectors frequently find plumbing and electrical problems. (Which only makes sense- if you find a plumbing leak in a visible area you have it fixed right away. But most normal people do not enter their attics or crawlspaces, so problems in these areas often go unnoticed.) 

Your last question was “any other advice?” I would suggest you or your client interview the inspector carefully. In addition to the “normal” questions, ask how much commercial experience they have, and ask to see a copy of the commercial inspection contract which should explain the scope of their inspection and what (if any) Standards they are following. 

By Randy West on September 13, 2007 

 

Common problems with older decks 

Q: We’re buying a 15-year-old home and our home inspector wrote up several things wrong with the deck. The deck is large and a valuable feature of the home. The home inspector made it sound terrible – he said it’s not properly fastened to the home, the posts are touching concrete, there are no straps and the railing is not up to current code. The deck feels sturdy to us and the sellers state they’ve never had a problem with it and refuse to make any corrections. Should we be concerned? If there’s nothing wrong with the deck why does the home inspector write up all these things? 

A: You’ve mentioned several items that home inspectors frequently find with decks, so I’ll talk about these first and then chastise your home inspector. 

DECKS NEED TO BE WELL SECURED TO THE HOME 

Decks are often fastened to the home with a ledger board, which is a “beam” that is secured to the home. The ledger board is usually a 2×10 or 2×12. The deck joists are secured to the ledger board with joist hangers. It is very common to find the ledger board secured to the home with nails or screws. The ledger board should always be secured to the home with lag bolts (or sometimes bolts with washers and nuts). These bolts provide more strength in preventing the deck from “pulling away” from the home. But the real reason for lag bolts is the shear strength, or keeping the deck from falling straight down. A couple lag bolts provide more shear strength than a dozen nails. 

Decks have been falling off homes all over the country. On June 29, 2003, a porch collapsed on a two story building in Chicago during a party. Over 50 people were injured in that incident, and 13 people were killed. This incident brought national attention to poorly secured decks and porches. 

The lag bolts should be staggered – one near the top of the ledger, the next near the bottom, etc. There was a deck in New Jersey last year that failed because all the lag bolts were within an inch of the top of the ledger. This deck failed when the ledger board split. The top inch of the ledger board stayed on the home and the bottom 10 inches fell to the ground with the deck. Your deck may feel sturdy to you under “normal” use, but what about when you have a lot of people on it during a party. Decks, like many aspects of construction, should be designed and built for a “worst-case” scenario. Lag bolts cost less than a dollar each, so this is not an expensive improvement. 

Framing straps are metal straps to secure the post/beam connections. These keep the posts plumb and prevent separation or twisting at the post/beam connections. These are usually “T” straps that are nailed to the posts and beams. Framing straps are also inexpensive and easy to install. 

Post bases are metal brackets that secure the bottom of the wood posts to the concrete. If a wood post is in contact with the concrete (or ground), it will eventually get moisture damage. Newer post bases have metal shims that keep the wood off the concrete to prevent this. Older post bases don’t have shims and allow the wood to touch the concrete. If there’s no moisture damage to the posts, I don’t recommend replacing old post bases, but state the posts should be monitored for moisture damage and improvement may become necessary. 

COMMON PROBLEMS WITH OLDER DECKS 

The most frequent concern with deck railings on older homes is the size of the openings between the balusters (vertical supports for the railing). On newer homes this opening should be four inches or less to prevent small children from falling off the deck. If I inspect a deck that has five-inch openings in the railing, but the deck is only 30 inches off the ground and there is grass below the deck, I will mention this as a “discretionary improvement”. If the openings in the railings are 12 inches and the deck is 30 feet above rocks and boulders, there will obviously be a much stronger comment in my report. 

Now about that “code” word. I describe my inspections as part code, part performance, and part common sense. But the word “code” does not appear in my reports, other than in a disclosure that this is not a “code” inspection. A code inspection on an existing home would require destructive testing, and most sellers (and buyers, for that matter) get a little distressed when a home inspector pulls out drills and chain saws. I prefer politically correct statements such as “some liberties have been taken with good framing technique at the deck.” 

So I hope your inspector didn’t use the “code” word in his report. Any home inspector would mention these issues with your deck because the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors require us to report on a condition that may be unsafe due to “a change in adopted residential construction standards” (even our Standards avoid the “code” word). 

Enough about decks. I recently answered a question from a local home inspector regarding him losing business to inspectors with low fees. I gave my usual excellent answer, stating that “discount” home inspectors don’t realize the cost of doing business and there is nothing anyone can do to make them raise their prices. The only advice I can give home inspectors is to hang in there and not lower your price. The “discount” home inspectors either go out of business or raise their fees when they figure out they are losing money on each inspection. 

I always wonder why people who are buying a home for hundreds of thousands of dollars will try to save a couple hundred dollars on their home inspection. I’m sure when they need a doctor or lawyer or mechanic they find the best one they can afford rather than the least expensive one. 

By Randy West on August 16, 2007 

 

Everything you ever wanted to know about evaporative coolers 

Q: We moved to Prescott a few months ago. We rented a home with air conditioning until last week, when we moved into the home we bought. Our home is 10 years old and has an evaporative cooler with a large vent in the hall ceiling. We have not been happy with the evaporative cooler. The air does not seem to be very cool, and the paper coming out of my printer curls up like old-fashioned fax paper. We also get an occasional toilet odor that seems to be coming from the evaporative cooler. We have never heard of an evaporative cooler before moving here. Is this normal? What kind of maintenance is required? How hard is it to replace the evaporative cooler with central air conditioning? 

A: To answer some of your questions, I’m copying the maintenance section from the evaporative cooler page in my inspection reports. (I figured I better admit this since anyone with one of my reports will recognize this.) 

EVAPORATIVE COOLERS: Evaporative coolers are common in our area, and I know that some of you are not familiar with them. Coolers are relatively simple devices, are inexpensive to operate, and work very well in low humidity like we have here most of the time. Coolers have a water line that usually connects at a hose faucet, by the water heater, or sometimes under a sink. A cooler consists of a float valve, similar to the one in a toilet, that keeps the proper water level in the cooler. A small pump will circulate the water through small water lines, which will drop the water on the pads. A blower will pull air through the wet pads and deliver it into the home. The water evaporating off the pads is what cools the air. (If you get out of a swimming pool on a hot day, you are cool until you dry off. The water evaporating off your body cools you. This is the same principle.) Pads, pumps and float valves are maintenance items that occasionally need replacing. They are usually readily available and not major expenses. Not much maintenance is required other than draining the cooler and water line before winter and giving it a thorough check and cleaning before summer. To drain the cooler you remove the plug in the bottom of the cooler. You should also drain the water line by removing the line from the cooler, and then removing the line at the valve (use a bowl if needed to catch the water). Most people cover rooftop units during the winter months. If your evaporative cooler has one or two supply vents in the home, slightly opening a window in a room will help circulate cool air to that room. If your cooler is connected to a central furnace, there should be dampers. This damper is often a piece of metal (“cookie sheet”) that slides into the duct or cooler. Sometimes the damper in the furnace is a board or piece of metal placed over the filter. A damper is installed in or near the cooler when the furnace is in operation to keep warm air from escaping out the cooler. When the cooler is in use, the damper in or near the furnace will keep humid air from being blown through the furnace heat exchanger. I often find the damper near the furnace missing, and it is important. Sometimes the ducts have automatic dampers in the cooler or attic, and sometimes these dampers are hard to locate. In these instances, the report will state to verify the existence and location of the dampers with the Seller. To check for a damper, or if an automatic damper is operating correctly, open the furnace blower compartment (often where the filter is) when the cooler is operating. If you feel cold air blowing out of the furnace, the damper is missing or defective (unless of course the damper is in this compartment). NOTE: Never operate a furnace without removing the damper in or near the furnace! 

That answered some of your questions, and made it easier to understand the rest of my answers. Since water evaporating off the cooler pads is what cools the air, the higher the humidity the less effective a cooler. This is why many areas of the country do not have evaporative coolers at all – they are not efficient in humid climates. You moved into your new home during monsoon season, when our humidity is at its highest and your cooler is least efficient. This would also explain your curling printer paper – right now, your cooler is increasing the humidity levels in your home much more than it will when it’s dry outside. The monsoons will be over in a couple weeks, and your cooler will work better and my motorcycle will come out of my garage. 

You cannot “replace” your cooler with a central air conditioner. If you have a central furnace, you can add central air conditioning to the furnace and remove the cooler. Or you can keep the cooler and have the best of both worlds. You can use the cooler when it’s dry or only moderately hot, and the air conditioner when it’s humid outside or really hot. 

You mentioned an occasional “toilet” odor. I assume you mean sewer odor, since toilets don’t really have an odor until someone uses them after eating the wrong food the night before. I’m assuming your cooler is on your roof. Your plumbing vents are also on your roof. The plumbing vents are black plastic pipes (they could be metal or white plastic, but you stated your home was 10 years old so they are likely black plastic). These vents allow plumbing fixtures to drain properly, and they do emit sewer gas/odors occasionally. The first thing I would check is if you have a plumbing vent pipe near the cooler on the roof. An evaporative cooler pulls a lot of outside air through the pads and into the home, so if there is a plumbing vent nearby it could be pulling some of the sewer gas/odor into the home. It is a very minor task for a plumber to alter or relocate the plumbing vent to eliminate this problem. 

By Randy West on August 2, 2007 


Take preventative measures against water damage 

Monsoon season is here! According to insurance companies, water entering homes causes more damage than all other claims combined. This damage can include visible moisture stains or damage to interior ceilings or walls, and water entry into the lower level of a home or the crawlspace under the home (if your home has one). Even very small amounts of water getting into an attic or inside a wall will cause moisture damage, and can also cause mildew or mold. Water getting under a foundation or concrete slab can lead to structural movement or settlement of the home. Obviously, it is very important to keep water out of and away from your home. Now is the time for some preventive maintenance on your home. 

Roof maintenance is best left to a licensed roofing contractor. If you really like to climb ladders and walk around on hot roofs, then you should check the flashings at the penetrations. The flashings at smaller penetrations, such as plumbing vents and gas appliance vents, can usually be caulked. These flashings often have a storm collar, or ‘ring,’ above the flashing at the roof. The storm collar should also be caulked- this prevents water from running down the outside of the pipe into the attic. Larger penetrations are the most common source of roof leakage. These include chimneys, skylights, furnaces and evaporative coolers. These may require more than just caulking. If you suspect you have a roof leak near a large penetration, you should call a roofing contractor. 

Clean your gutters, either from the roof or from the ground with a ladder. You can try one of those hoses/cleaners that attach to your hose. I don’t know how well these work, I’m old fashioned and use a ladder. Once the gutters are clean, check the downspouts. It’s amazing how much water can be discharging out some downspouts. If the downspouts discharge above grade near the home, make sure the discharge water flows away from the home. Install a splash block or downspout extension if needed to carry the discharge water away from the home. 

It is common in our area for the downspouts to discharge into subsurface drains. It is very important to check the subsurface drains. Obstructed subsurface drains are a frequent cause of moisture entry into homes because they allow a great deal of water to accumulate in one area. One way to check subsurface drains is to run a hose into them for several minutes, either at the gutter just above the downspout or by removing the elbow or connector at the bottom of the gutter. Find where the water/drain is discharging in the yard and make sure the end of the drainpipe is not obstructed. 

Running a hose into a subsurface drain will help you find a totally obstructed drainpipe. However, a hose does not compare to how much water will be entering a downspout during a heavy rain. The first time you’re home during a heavy rain you should go outside right after the rain stops and check for water backing up by the home near the downspouts. If a subsurface drain is obstructed you can try to clean it by running a hose or cable through it. If this fails, you can replace the subsurface drain, or abandon it and install an extension or splash block at the downspout. 

While you’re outside walking in the mud, check for water ponding near the home. The soil near the home should visibly slope away from the home for several feet. Adjust the soil if needed. If your lot is not level, then it is especially important to watch the grading on the sides where the lot slopes towards the home. Keeping the soil sloped away from the home on these sides of the home will make a swale, or shallow drainage ‘ditch’, a few feet from the home. There may also be swales farther away from the home, or at the gutter downspouts. Often swales are filled with rocks to prevent them from filling with dirt or eroding. 

Remember- if you add soil near the home you should keep the soil six inches below any wood siding/trim, and six inches below the weep screed in stucco walls. The weep screed is a horizontal lip/drain in the stucco wall. Covering the weep screed or wood siding with soil can cause moisture damage and can be an entry point for wood destroying insects. 

It can be very hard to eliminate water ponding next to your home on concrete (or any other hard surface). If this occurs the ideal solution is to replace the concrete. If this is not practical or affordable, you should keep the concrete sealed at the exterior walls of the home. This is especially important if there is a gap between the concrete and exterior walls of the home. Caulk can be used to seal smaller gaps, you can use concrete patch to seal larger cracks. 

We have a pretty dry climate in Arizona most of the year; so many homeowners fail to realize how important maintaining proper site drainage can be. Remember that when we do get rain in the monsoon season we usually get a lot of rain! Checking the gutters, downspouts and site drainage takes only a few minutes. Most site drainage improvements are not difficult or expensive. Maintaining proper site drainage around a home can prevent more expensive repairs down the road. 

By Randy West on July 19, 2007 

 

Plumbers can cap, pressurize gas lines to check for leaks 

In my last column, I “picked on” UniSource Energy, our natural gas supplier, for shutting off the gas to a home when I discovered a gas leak at a water heater. UniSource locked the gas meter, so when the occupants called a plumber he could not turn on the gas to check for a leak. I received some responses from my comments, including this one: 

“Hi Randy, 

“As a retired building and housing inspector of many years in California, I always enjoy reading your column. However, today’s feature topic was a little perplexing to me. 

“How do you think they test gas lines for leaks in new construction? They are not hooked up to the gas utility, and frequently the meter isn’t even set. Any gas lines, and entire systems can be capped off, and pressurized with air. Gauges can measure loss of air pressure, and soap tests can be performed to locate leaks. 

“I believe UniSource is very aware of this, and a knowledgeable plumber should have been able to proceed with detection, location and repair of any gas leak. I think your explanation that UniSource was looking for an opportunity to ‘charge for coming back out’ is a bit unfair – and no, I don’t work for UniSource.” 

-Larry G. Parkhurst 

Prescott Valley, Ariz. 

Larry, of course, you are absolutely correct in that gas lines can be capped and pressurized to check for leaks. I guess I’m a little spoiled from our last gas supplier, Citizens Gas Supply. When Citizens found a problem with a gas appliance, they would turn off the gas to just that appliance and place the dreaded red tag on it. The red tag would state the problem (gas leak, improper gas line, etc.) and state this must be repaired before turning the appliance back on. 

In my column, I inferred that UniSource may charge a fee to return to turn the gas back on. I asked UniSource what their policy is regarding gas leaks. I was told there is no charge to check for a gas leak, nor to return and turn the gas back on after finding a gas leak. So I owe UniSource an apology, and they owe you a free month of gas. 

Q: Hi Randy – I know you are an inspector, but hope you’re familiar with our problem. Our 11-year-old, two-story dark wood frame home sits on a hill in Prescott and is subjected to wind and intense sun. This necessitates painting with semi-permanent paint every three years. A neighbor suggested finding a contractor to apply stucco over the wood frame, thus saving the expense of repeated painting. What might be the pitfalls of such an application? What questions, other than the basic license and Better Business Bureau information, should we ask the contractor? Are there any contractors in the area familiar with this type of stucco application? 

Is stucco over wood a sound idea or should we resign ourselves to spending money every three years to repaint? 

– Barb in Prescott 

A: Many homes in our area have stucco installed over solid wood wall sheathing. So why couldn’t you install stucco over wood cladding/siding? Stucco, like any masonry product, is not completely waterproof. When stucco is installed on wood frame walls there is a moisture barrier installed between the stucco and the wood, and there is a weep screed (drain) in the stucco to allow moisture to drain from the wall. Without this moisture barrier and weep screed water would penetrate the stucco to the wood framing, which can cause moisture damage, mildew, mold, or other nasty undesirable things. 

I’m afraid I don’t know which contractors in our area may be more familiar with remodeling. My advice is to get a bid for the stucco application from at least three local contractors. There are several types of stucco, including traditional or three-coat stucco, one-coat stucco, and EIFS (exterior insulation and finish system), which is commonly known as synthetic stucco. I would stay away from the EIFS on a remodel. 

I suggest you meet the contractors at your home and ask if there are any special considerations regarding your installation. This will give you a chance to sound them out. After you get the bids, you can determine how many paint jobs you could have done for this amount of money to determine if this is a cost-effective venture. 

You mentioned the Better Business Bureau. I have, of course, heard of the BBB, but did not actually know much about them. After receiving your letter I went on the Arizona BBB website and looked up my company. There was a vague comment about the BBB not having any information on my company, so it was likely I had been in business less than a year. I sent the BBB an e-mail explaining that I have been in business for 14 years and have never had a complaint filed against me with Arizona, a professional organization, the BBB or anyone else. I asked why my company was listed as a “less than one-year-old company.” I never got a reply, but now I am not listed on their website at all. This surprised me, and changed my opinion of the BBB. I personally will not rely much on information from it. 

As for checking on stucco contractors, I advise you check for any unresolved complaints with the Arizona Registrar of Contractors at www.azroc.gov. 

By Randy West on July 5, 2007  

 

Inspections uncover a comedy of errors 

A couple of months ago, I had a column where I told some of my “war stories.” This seems to be the column people remember the most, so I thought I’d share one of my funniest stories. 

About 10 years ago I inspected a 2-year-old home. The home was a builder’s own home. The builder lived there, and of course supervised most of my inspection. 

When I opened the main electrical panel, I noticed all the circuit breakers were rusty. The owner noted the puzzled look on my face. I told him I had never seen this much rust in a two-year-old panel. The seller stated he had power-washed the exterior walls prior to painting a month or so earlier. I told him a one-time power washing could not account for this rust. 

An hour or so later I was inside the home checking the whirlpool tub in the master bath. After operating the whirlpool for a minute I turned it off and headed outside. The seller asked why, and I told him I was going to press the test button on the GFCI breaker in the main electrical panel and come back inside to verify the whirlpool was off. He followed me outside. This was monsoon season; it had been raining very hard for about a half hour but had let up to a drizzle by this time. 

We walked up to main panel, and I reached for it to open the outer cover. I froze with my arm extended toward the panel. To my amazement there was water pouring out the bottom of the panel. In fact, the glass meter was half full of water, and I remember thinking there should be a goldfish swimming around in the meter. 

The builder and I were both speechless. We were also thinking alike. We looked at each other for a moment. We closed our mouths. We both looked up to see where the water was entering the panel. The service wires were underground, and I had already verified there were no openings in the top of the panel that could account for this water. We then both looked down, and in unison slowly swung our heads to look at the rear adjacent neighbor’s home, which was sitting quite a bit higher than this home. 

I then went for my camera, and the seller went for his phone. In about five minutes he had the city building department, the fire department and APS at the home. The fire truck arrived first. I went over to ask a fireman why the breakers were not tripping off, and why the house had not burned down. Before I could speak, he looked at me and asked, “Why aren’t these breakers tripping off? Why hasn’t this house burned down?” 

APS arrived next and within a half hour had corrected the problem. The home behind and above this home was built about a year previously, which was about a year after this home was built. The owner of the new home had done a wonderful job with the site drainage. He had installed a full gutter downspout system, and a large rock lined swale that carried all the water to the corner of his lot. The water went directly into the Arizona Pubic Service transformer on the ground in the utility easement between the homes. The water was entering the transformer box, and the plastic conduit with the underground service wires was performing just like a plastic waste pipe. Since the main electrical panel on the home I was inspecting was lower than the transformer, the water was pouring out through the panel. 

The APS employee near the main panel was a lot less amazed than the seller, fireman and I were. He has seen this before. Within a few minutes APS had three trucks on site. They raised the transformer, added “extensions” to the support and conduits, and pulled new service wires from the transformer to the main panel. They did this in a very short time; we were all pretty impressed. 

Before the last APS worker left, I asked him why the breakers did not trip off. His answer: rain water. He said that rain water is almost pure water, which is not a good conductor. Most water has enough minerals in it to become a conductor. He said that if you filled an electrical panel with a garden hose the breakers would trip off. 

I am not sure of this answer, but I do not have any other explanation. I have not filled a breaker panel with water from a hose to test the theory. 

To complete this story, about five years ago at one of our Arizona ASHI classes our speaker finished a little early. Our vice president, who was conducting the class, announced we would have a “war story” contest to end the day. I told this story and it was voted the best, so I won the prize. When I went up to the front of the class to accept my prize, I had to laugh. The prize was an electrical circuit tester! 

By Randy West on January 5, 2007