Q: How can I know the condition of my roof?
A: A noticeably worn out roof is an easy call to make, but a roof that is only starting to age is a more subtle defect that a professional home inspector can uncover. Because the resurfacing of a roof can costs thousands of dollars, eliminating problems before they start is smart. For a potential home buyer, a roof needing to be resurfaced in the foreseeable future may be a negotiable item to a sales transaction.
Tar and gravel roofs, also known as built-up roofs, are among the most common of all roof types. They are installed on countless homes and on the majority of commercial buildings. The most frequent concern with built-up gravel roofing is the need for periodic maintenance to retain gravel coverage on all surfaces. Sun exposure to bare spots can lead to deterioration and shortened longevity of the roof membrane.
Another common roof problem is ponding -- standing water that results from inadequate pitch of the roof. This can be due to substandard framing at the time of construction or sagging of the roof structure. Ponding can also result from blocked roof drains; so it is important to keep the roof free of debris and foreign objects.
A detailed roof evaluation is a standard part of every competent home inspection. Home inspectors typically inspect a roof by walking on the surface, as this is the best way to observe and evaluate all pertinent conditions. There are some conditions that could keep an inspector off the roof (barring these circumstances, a competent inspector should include a walk on the roof):
- The surface is too steep to provide safe footing
- The surface is too high for access with a normal length ladder
- The roofing is so deteriorated that foot traffic would cause further damage
- Surface conditions such as snow, ice, moisture, or moss make the roof too slippery
- The roofing consists of tiles that might break under foot pressure
- The sellers have ordered the inspector to stay off the roof
Q: What are the earthquake strap requirements for water heaters?
A: Unfortunately, divergent methods and opinions abound among those who install, inspect, or approve various kinds of strapping. At the root of the problem is a lack of adequate notification by the state agency responsible for the advent of current seismic standards.
Since 1982, the Uniform Plumbing Code has mandated seismic safety straps for most water heaters. The purpose of this requirement is to prevent fire, explosion, or water damage if a water heater should topple during an earthquake. Originally, the code merely stated that water heaters "shall be anchored or strapped to resist horizontal displacement due to earthquake motion." But no installation standards were included with this code. Types of hardware and methods of attachment were left to the discretion of the installer.
In the 1990's, strapping requirements were upgraded. According to the newer code, "Strapping shall be at points within the upper one-third and lower one-third" of the water heater. To date, this is all the plumbing code has to offer on the subject. Two straps are required, but there are still no specifications as to techniques and materials to be employed.
Unknown to many, however, is the fact that the plumbing code, as it relates to water heater strapping, has been superceded by higher standards set forth by the California Health and Safety Code. In 1989, Assembly Bill 1890 was passed by the state legislature, establishing the following health and safety standards: (1) All water heaters sold in California shall be braced. (2) Manufacturers of water heaters must provide installation instructions for seismic straps with each fixture sold; (3) The Office of the State Architect must prepare generic installation instructions with standard details illustrating minimum standards for earthquake strapping.
The State Architect's specifications, published in 1992, stand as the legal criteria for adequate strapping of water heaters in California. Unfortunately, efficient communication is not the hallmark of common bureaucratic practice, and in keeping with this deficiency, individuals at the state level seemingly neglected to inform building departments, home inspectors, and plumbing contractors that new seismic standards had taken effect. Consequently, years have transpired since the inception of current state guidelines. Violations and misapplications remain commonplace, because professionals who should have been advised remain unaware that new statutes have been established.
Basically, the effective standards are these:
- All water heaters must be strapped, whether gas or electric.
- Two straps are needed, one in the upper one-third and one in the lower one-third of the fixture.
- Straps may consist of either plumbers' tape (at least 24 gauge) or half-inch diameter metal conduit.
- Straps should wrap all the way around the body of the water heater. (Note: Many of the strapping kits available in hardware stores fail to comply with this requirement.)
- Straps should be secured to adjacent walls and from opposing directions.
- Straps should be secured to the wall studs using 1/4" diameter by 3" long lag bolts with washers.
Dissemination of the foregoing protocols is essential and long overdue. To obtain an illustrated copy of these standards, contact the Building Standards Commission at (916) 445-1230. Ask for a copy of 'Earthquake Bracing of Water Heaters for Residential Use.'
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Q: Should I get my fireplace inspected?
Both CREIA and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommend a yearly, professional inspection to include the checking of chimney, flues and vents for leakage and blockage by creosote and debris. Leakage through cracks or holes could cause black stains in the outside of the chimney and flue. These stains mean that pollutants are leaking into the house. Most people are not aware that a fireplace inadequately maintained and vented can produce more carbon monoxide infiltration into the home's interior than several furnaces and water heater flue vents combined.
Several problems may occur at the chimney and firebox that the average homeowner is unaware, such as corroded or inoperable metal smoke damper, a damaged metal ash dump cover, eroded mortar joints at the rear and side interior hearth fire brick walls and base, inadequate hearth extension, improper clearance from combustible materials at the hearth opening or at the chimney within the attic space, a cracked flue liner or no flue liner at all especially at older chimneys, a damaged cement cap at the chimney top which can allow moisture intrusion into the chimney interior chase ultimately deteriorating the entire system. Also, there is the possibility that the ash dump pit is overfilled, the exterior clean-out cast iron cover is missing or below exterior grade or under the house within the foundation crawl space area (which is no longer an approved location as the spillage of hot ashes under a home presents a distinct fire hazard). The chimney top should be equipped with a weather capped spark arrestor to help prevent seasonal moisture intrusion into the chimney interior and the escape of hot embers when operating the fireplace. This is very important when the home has a wood shingle or shake roof covering.
Consider the following advice when looking to hire a fireplace specialist: check to see if the company or individual you call is a member of a state chimney guild or association; check with the local Better Business Bureau to see if there is a record of any complaints; and most important, do not allow the fireplace/chimney inspector perform corrective work for any defects that are reported (this is a conflict of interest). Get a written report from the inspection specialist, then hire and then hire a state licensed masonry contractor to do the actual repair work.
Q: What's the best way to "winterize" my home?
A: The most destructive element to a home's structural health is moisture infiltration through openings in the building envelope. Water is insidious in its efforts to find even the smallest crack and attack any and all cellulose materials, which includes the both exterior and interior coverings including the structural framing members - often resulting in "dry rot" (a misleading term because continual moisture contact with wood usually results in "wet rot" which is the breakdown of cellulose materials).
Another area of concern when dealing with moisture infiltration is pest infestation - the invasion of wood destroying insects, carpenter ants and wood eating beetles that thrive on cellulose materials. And of course, moisture problems can also lead to mold.
If your home has inadequate grade slope away from the perimeter foundation, there may be the possibility of water intrusion into the foundation's crawl space area, which can be compounded if the home contains below grade rooms and storage areas.
The most common means of moisture intrusion noted by home inspectors in California are through the following avenues: gaining entry below the structure; worn roof coverings; deteriorated roof vent flashing serving both plumbing fixtures and mechanical equipment; improperly installed or worn chimney flashing; and doors and windows that have not been properly weather sealed.
Below is a simple list of maintenance tasks for the homeowner to perform to help prevent moisture infiltration both into and below their homes:
- Clean all rain gutters, including downspouts, and make sure all gutter joints are properly sealed.
- Insure that rain gutter downspouts are directed away from the perimeter foundation. This may take adding some corrugated plastic extension piping you can purchase at your local home store.
- Check to see there are no low areas around the home's perimeter foundation where water can collect after a rainstorm. Standing water will eventually work its way beneath the home and can lead to building settlement and foundation support failure.
- Carefully check all of your exterior doors and windows and adjacent trim to see if they need any application of exterior type epoxy or sealants.
- Immediately after the first heavy rain, check under your house to confirm that the ground is reasonably dry.
- If you think the surface grade around the perimeter foundation is a source for concern and more than you can fix with a garden shovel, consult a state licensed drainage contractor for their recommendations - they will provide a cost estimate for corrective work which may include the installation of an underground drainage system.
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Q: What is "toxic mold"?
A: While the existence of toxic molds in the environment has been documented for centuries, due to modern construction practices, poor quality control and a lack of proper maintenance, they are now linked to illnesses and other medical disorders that are affecting the lives of families across the continent. Most of the attention regarding toxic molds has been focused on the compromised health and shattered lives of the home's occupants along with the inevitable litigation that follows. What has been missing throughout all this firestorm of media activity is discussion regarding the conditions contributing to toxic mold manifestation.
There are many factors leading to fungal development within a structure. The primary cause is water intrusion; a fungal contamination requires several conditions in order to survive and grow. There must be a moisture source, limited ventilation and a food source that is commonly any cellulose substrate on which the fungal contamination can grow on and become a colony. The typical gestation period for a mold colony is only 12 to 48 hours from the onset of spore exposure to the cellulose substrate.
When dealing with a possible toxic mold contamination inside a structure, the first course of action is to locate the moisture source and remediate it. There are several common areas of moisture intrusion to consider, such as;
- Roof leaks
- Plumbing leaks
- Poorly maintained heating and cooling systems
- Window and door leaks
- Improperly adjusted landscape sprinklers as well as many other possible sources
Homes should be thoroughly reviewed, including an inspection of the roofing materials and penetrations, such as heating and plumbing vents. Other common leakage areas, such as chimney and/or skylight flashings should also be examined. Exterior wall penetrations, such as windows and door openings, electrical fixtures and receptacle boxes, should be examined for signs of water intrusion as well. Additionally, the plumbing system, including pipes in crawl spaces and attics should be thoroughly reviewed for signs of leakage. All heating and cooling equipment should be operated and inspected for signs of moisture intrusion, and or creation. Residential air conditioning systems can produce two to three quarts of water per day when operated for extended periods of time. "If the air conditioning condensation line is not properly routed, you could put a bathtub full of water into the walls before you noticed it," explained Harper.
Due to the complexities surrounding moisture intrusion sources, CREIA recommends consumers not attempt these investigations on their own, but rather hire a professional home inspector that is trained and equipped to perform such work. A qualified CREIA inspector is trained to identify conditions leading to and causing moisture intrusion. CREIA qualified inspectors are equipped to access roofing materials, attics, and crawl spaces. Although specific identification of fungal contamination is beyond the scope of a typical home inspection, some CREIA inspector members have received additional education and training in this discipline and offer this and other ancillary environmental services in addition to their usual inspection services.
Q: What is proper drainage for my home?
A: It's an old industry adage that warns: "A lot of water in short period of time can cause major damage and a little water over a long period of time can cause major damage." CREIA warns that amateur solutions to complex drainage problems often result in poor guesswork with no assurance that the money and effort invested will produce desired results. Causes and cures for excessive ground water conditions can be perplexing, even challenging the most knowledgeable of drainage professionals. Failure to properly diagnose and address such conditions can have significant long-term effects on the integrity of a home, including possible jeopardy to the foundation itself.
A nonprofessional's recommendation, such as boring a drain hole in a foundation wall, may appear to resolve the problem but is actually little more than an uneducated guess. The problem with this approach is its reliance on the following poor assumptions that by simply draining a bore hole in the foundation: 1) all ground water in the sub-area will flow to that opening and that there are no other low areas where standing water could remain beneath the building; 2) the water flow beneath the building has not caused soil erosion at the piers and foundations (ongoing erosion could lead to eventual undermining of the structure) 3) there has been no moisture condensation on the wood framing. Condensation is a common cause of fungus and dry rot and can also lead to rust damage of structural hardware. If water damage is occurring, increased ventilation could be essential, and the addition of a plastic ground membrane may be an important consideration.
The California Real Estate Inspection Association recommends that you have your home's foundation and drainage issues looked at by a qualified home inspection professional. After a careful professional inspection, your home inspector may recommend further evaluation by a qualified drainage specialist, such as a licensed geotechnical engineer to determine the source of water entry. A drainage system should then be installed to prevent further intrusion of ground water. Improvements could include installing a french drain near the building, adding gutters to the roof, regarding the ground surfaces around or below the building, installing a water pump beneath the structure, and possibly more. Only a drainage specialist is qualified to determine which methods of correction are appropriate.
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Q: How does a home "shows its age"?
New Home. With the purchase of a new home, expecting a finished product free of major problems is justified. However, minor repair items often found in a new home may include incorrectly wired circuits, cracked roof shingles, missing miscellaneous hardware, binding doors, paint touch up, cracked window panes, dirty HVAC vents and filters, scratches in finished wood, and drywall nail pops. A new house should not show any signs of foundation settling, water intrusion, soil erosion, or improperly functioning appliances or mechanical components.
Two to Ten Years Old. A house that is 2-10 years old may begin to show routine wear and tear, but should be structurally and mechanically sound. Most foundation settling will occur by now (however, if a drainage problem is left unresolved future damage may occur). Caulking, painting and other routine items should be checked. A review of the electrical and mechanical systems should also be conducted to assure proper operation.
Eleven to Twenty Years Old. A house that is 11-20 years old will begin to show additional signs of age and degradation. There may be a need to repair and replace some components such as wood rot, sealant, roofing shingles, and cosmetic surfaces. If the appliances are original, they may be nearing their expected service life. The structural elements, as well as the major electrical and mechanical equipment, should still be in adequate condition at this age.
Up to Forty Years Old. As a building ages, it is common to experience some settling or movement in the foundation, floors, walls, ceilings and other areas. Anticipate replacing some major systems and components such as heating and air conditioning equipment, roofing materials, major appliances, and some electrical and plumbing fixtures.
Historic Buildings. When purchasing a historic home be aware that there might be significant structural issues, as well as outdated construction techniques and components that may need addressing. Mortar may be failing and fireplaces may not be safe to operate. Settling, spauling plaster, binding doors, inoperable windows, inadequate electrical and heating components, and inadequate insulation are common with homes of this age. Extensive repairs and upgrades should be anticipated and budgeted.
The above generalizes the anticipated conditions for homes of various ages. A professional inspection can inform a homebuyer of important issues. An inspection consists of a thorough visual examination of a home's structural components including the foundation, superstructure, and roofing systems, where accessible, plus the major electrical and mechanical components. Much of what an inspector points out is for the buyer's edification and not intended to be a catalyst for immediate repair. The role of the inspector is to provide potential homebuyers with accurate information on the property so that they can make an informed purchase decision. .
Q: How important is it to have clean ducts in my home?
A: Home owners need to be aware of potential health hazards from the accumulation of dust and filth in a home's ductwork. While not the case with all forced air systems, in many homes, occupants are unknowingly breathing air that has been circulated over layers of visible filth.
Although the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not address duct cleaning, air ducts provide a common harbor and distribution mechanism for biological air contaminants. In many older homes, forced air heaters may have been operated for years with dirty filters or with no filters at all. The accumulated dust on the inner duct surfaces is often oily or moist and may contain mites or various species of molds or fungus. In newer homes, where air-tight construction methods are employed for enhanced energy conservation, the growth of mold spores has become recognized as a significant indoor air quality hazard.
The EPA reports that molds can be found almost anywhere; they can grow on virtually any substance when moisture is present. Molds produce tiny spores to reproduce, just as plants produce seeds. Mold spores waft through the indoor and outdoor air continually. When mold spores land on a damp spot indoors, they may begin growing and digesting whatever they are growing on in order to survive. There are molds that can grow on wood, paper, carpet, foods, even dynamite. When excessive moisture or water accumulates indoors, mold growth will often occur, particularly if the moisture problem remains undiscovered or unaddressed. There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment; the way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture.
Molds can trigger asthma episodes in individuals with an allergic reaction to mold. If mold is a problem in your home, you must clean up the mold and eliminate sources of moisture. Recommendation by your professional inspector to clean you air ducts should be heeded to help provide a safe and healthy home.
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Q: What are the pool fencing requirements for homeowners?
A: Homeowners should take pool fencing requirements seriously. According to recent studies, more than half of all pool drownings that occur in the U.S. involve children under the age of five. Attention to pool fence and other safety issues is a vital imperative for everyone owning or living near a pool or back yard spa.
Requirements for pool fencing are not as rigidly set as most other standards in the Uniform Building Code because they are contained in the appendix portion of the code, rather than the main chapters. Municipalities that adopt the code into law have the option to include the fence requirements in the appendix or to write specific standards of their own. It's wise to consult your professional home inspector or local building department with regards to pool or spa safety.
In jurisdictions where standard fence requirements are in force, there are ten basic rules to keep in mind when fencing an area around a pool or spa:
- Fencing should totally surround the pool area.
- Fencing should be at least four feet, but preferably six feet, in height.
- The bottom edges of fencing should be within four inches of pavement or within 2 inches of unpaved ground.
- To prevent children from squeezing between vertical components of a fence, the spacing should not exceed 4 inches.
- Fencing should provide no footholds or handholds that would facilitate climbing.
- Diamond-shaped chain-link fence openings should be no larger than 1.75 inches, or have inserts to prevent climbing.
- Pedestrian gates should be self-closing, self-latching, and latch mechanisms should be out of reach of small children.
- Pedestrian gates should swing in a direction away from the pool (so small children do not push them open).
- Gates for non-pedestrian use should remain locked when not is use.
- When the exit doors from adjacent buildings enter directly into the pool area; each such door should be equipped with a self-closing device and an audible alarm.
Pools and spas can be very enticing to small children, sometimes with tragic results. By following these basic standards and consulting your local building department for additional requirements, your pool area should be reasonably protected from child access.
In addition to these guidelines, an inspection by a professional home inspector may determine if the pool or spa is equipped with an anti-vortex drain cover. This inexpensive, yet important device, helps prevent children or small adults from being trapped by the suction of the pool drain. Other areas inspectors review may include diving boards and/or slides, which may be "fun", but can produce serious injuries. Hand rails, steps, gripable coping, GFCI protected lighting and general foot traffic issues are also important safety aspects of a pool and/or spa that a professionally trained home inspector will review.
Q: What is the safe and proper way to care for washers and dryers?
A: Check your washing machine water supply hoses regularly. The hot and cold water supply hoses to your laundry washing machine are under constant water pressure 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year unless you turn off the water supply valves between loads (which many folks do not do). Like anything else, hoses wear out and burst &often at the most inconvenient times such as while you are on vacation. The flood damage can be very expensive.
CREIA recommends you give serious consideration to replacing hoses at least every three years with the improved steel-strengthened type. When leaving on a trip make sure to shut-off the valves and leave a note reminding yourself to turn them back on when you return with the inevitable loads of laundry.
Check your dyer's venting system. Terminating a dryer exhaust beneath a home is a common construction defect and is prohibited by the Uniform Mechanical Code. There are two reasons for this prohibition: continuous lint build-up in the subfloor area poses a fire hazard, and moisture condensation beneath the structure can cause damage to the wood framing. The warm most air produced by the dryer is conducive to the cultivation of mold and the encouragement of wood destroying organisms and pests.
Crushed and blocked clothes dryer ducting can result in a home fire. Without adequate release and dispersion to the exterior lint trapped within the ducting may catch fire or at the very least cause longer drying cycles thereby raising the cost of energy to dry your clothes. Because many ducts pass through combustible wall framing and through the foundation crawl space it is imperative that during normal homeowner maintenance these duct be checked and cleaned as necessary.
To vent your dryer properly, the use of four-inch diameter smooth walled rigid metal ducting is advised. The duct connections should be secured with tape, not screws, because lint built-up on the screw ends can restrict the free flow of air. A dryer vent hood should be installed at the exterior of the building to prevent back drafting and pest access. Also, make sure to check the overall length of the air duct. The maximum allowed length is 14 feet. Some floor plans do not enable compliance with this requirement, but keeping the duct as short and straight as possible minimizes airflow resistance. Dryer ducts running upward through the roof require closer attention and more frequent maintenance.
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Q: What do I need to know about stucco?
A: Stucco adheres best when applied directly over cement-based materials; a stucco color coat, when correctly installed, should be expected to last for 20-50 years, or more. Stucco problems can arise as a result of money-saving shortcuts that occurred in the stucco application. When stucco is installed over paint, adhesion is compromised, resulting in chipping and peeling. Adequate surface preparation should include the removal of old paint by means of sand blasting, or application of a special primer. Failure to sandblast or prime is a sign of faulty workmanship. Stucco applied to paint is a substandard condition that creates ongoing maintenance problems due to continued delimitation. Periodic patching will be needed to maintain a presentable appearance, and disclosure to prospective buyers will be necessary when the property is sold.
Not every stucco crack is an indication of a serious problem. When you see cracks in newer stucco finish, it does not necessary imply trouble. Only when cracks are large and excessive is there likely to be a problem. Some pre-1950's homes have fewer cracks than their newer residential counterparts. This is because the studs used were larger, came from more mature trees, and were kiln-dried.
In 1982 the California Contractors License Board published a set of workmanship guidelines that addressed cracks in stucco. The guidelines say "Hairline crack if not excessively numerous are acceptable. If cracks exceed 3/32 of an inch it is unacceptable and should be repaired." All stucco cracks have their own unique patterns. A qualified home inspector can investigate and report these conditions to a potential buyer or to the seller.
Q: Should I be concerned about aluminum wiring in my home?
A: The California Real Estate Inspection Association wants homeowners to avoid confusion about the existence of aluminum wiring in their home. Many people make the mistake of fearing that their house must be completely re-wired. The mere presence of aluminum circuitry does not always justify rewiring the entire home. In most cases, replacement of aluminum wire is an over-reaction to what is often a manageable problem. Aluminum wires were installed in many homes during the late 1960's and early 70's (especially mobile homes and trailers). In some dwellings, electrical fires occurred within a few years of construction, which is why most aluminum branch wiring was discontinued. However, the actual cause of these fires was not the aluminum wire itself, but the tendency for aluminum connections to become loose at outlets, switches, fixtures, and circuit breakers. Aluminum wiring, in some instances, is known to be hazardous, but it is still commonly used for 220-volt circuits. If installed according to manufacturers' specifications, it presents no significant fire hazard. In fact, most electric power companies use aluminum for their main service lines.
To ensure the safety of the aluminum connections in your home, alterations can be made, rendering the system safe, without the exorbitant cost of rewiring. For example, copper wire ends, known as "pigtails," can be retrofitted at all terminals. There are two primary rules governing the proper attachment of aluminum wires: The connecting terminals must be rated for aluminum wiring, and the wire ends should be treated with a special compound to prevent corrosion. Only a licensed electrician should be entrusted to perform electrical work on your home.
Depending on the age of the alloys and the initial workmanship of the installation, the type and extent of necessary repair could cover a wide range of choices. Many houses wired with aluminum in the 1970's have shown no problems, while the problems with some houses in the 1960's could actually be made worse by improper diagnosis and installation.
There are those houses where the only realistic solution is a complete rewiring job, and there are others where nothing needs to be done. A professional home inspector can recommend that an electrical contractor familiar with the problems of aluminum wiring be retained to evaluate the system and recommend appropriate actions. The California Real Estate Inspection Association (CREIA) includes inspection of the electrical system as part of their Standards of Practice for all member inspectors. A professional home inspector has an obligation to inspect the electrical system of a home, unless that portion of the home is inaccessible. In that case, lack of access should have been specifically noted in the inspection report, with a recommendation for further evaluation as soon as access can be provided.
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Q: How important is good drainage around my home?
A: Moisture intrusion damage and plumbing leaks are the largest repair expense most homeowners face today. Deferring maintenance for any moisture problem is not wise. Plumbing and drainage problems can escalate to health issues as molds can grow on virtually any substance when moisture is present.
Make sure your home's roof, grade-level, and underground drainage systems are designed to redirect water flow away from the perimeter foundation. Properly installed drainage systems help prevent flooding, soils erosion, excessive moisture conditions, foundation settlement, and moisture infiltration into below grade rooms and storage areas. Typically, these drainage systems are referred to as a "French drain." A French drain consists of trenches that are lined with drainage cloth, filled with rock, and contain perforated piping with the holes at the four and eight o'clock position. Ground water favors French drains because they provide an easier flow path than the natural grade of the property. Simply stated, a French drain creates a more permeable route for flow and carries the water to a safe disposal point.
The migration of moisture against either a home's perimeter concrete foundation stem wall or beneath a concrete slab type foundation can be costly for homeowners because of the potential damage possible to a home ?s support systems, as well as to personal contents and mechanical systems, along with the possible encouragement of mold and pest infestation.
To ensure that a home's drainage system is adequate in design and effective during wet weather, make sure it is evaluated by a qualified and experienced inspector. If a problem is discovered by a professional home inspector, a geotechnical expert may be further recommended to perform a site evaluation and provide specifications and a cost analysis for the proper drainage system.
If any flooding has recently occurred, the foundations, subfloor framing, and other building components should be carefully examined for possible moisture-related damage. Your inspector has a professional obligation to inspect the crawlspace beneath the dwelling, unless that portion of the home is inaccessible. In that case, lack of access should be specifically noted in the inspection report, with a recommendation for further evaluation as soon as access can be provided. The California Real Estate Inspection Association (CREIA) includes the inspection of the crawlspace as part of their Standards of Practice for all member inspectors.
Q: What are some good summer maintenance tips for my home?
A: The California Real Estate Inspection Association (CREIA), a nonprofit, consumer-benefit organization recommends the following maintenance steps for the summer months.
- Decks and Patios. Since wet and cold winters take a toll on wood decks, check your decks to determine if new paint is needed, hammer down any nails that have popped up, and secure any loose supports. Consider applying a water sealant to help improve the longevity of your wood decks. Also exam patios, walks and drives for cracks. Consider resurfacing or filling any cracks to avoid water intrusion that can cause lifting.
- Fences. Look for loose or broken posts and check safety latches, especially around pool areas.
- Sprinkler Systems. Monitor your sprinkler system for leaks around pipe joints and the anti-siphon values. Test your sprinklers for full coverage of your grounds while adjusting them to ensure water does not hit your house.
- Windows. Look for glazing putty that has dried out around window of older homes. Glazing putty should be redone to properly seal the window frames and conserve energy during the warm summer months.
- Roofs. Inspect your roof from the ground for any missing material and signs of aging or weathering such as severe cracking and brittleness. Roof penetrations and flashing can dry out from long exposure to the extreme sun and cold weather. If these signs are present, you should consider repairs in these areas. Also have the roof and gutters cleared of debris.
- Garage Doors. Examine the springs on tilt-up garage doors and tracks and the hinges on rollup doors. Check the safety reverse system on automatic door opener systems by using a roll of paper towels. The garage door should reverse within two seconds of contact.
- Pools/Spas. Check the swimming pool slides for cracks, broken supports, broken ladder and/or ruptured water lines. Ensure that the diving board is supported well on the deck and test the board to see if it is rigid or pliable. Examine all pool/spa values, gates, and dams to see if they turn freely and are lubricated properly. Be sure to have all electrical connections of the pool/spa equipment inspected for potential electrical hazards.
- Air Conditioning & Heating Systems. Air conditioning systems should be serviced by a professional. Air filters on the fan unit of the air conditioning and heating system should be changed every two months.
- Ventilation. Check that vent systems and turbines are clear and turning. Make sure that if you covered the turbines on the roof with plastic during the rainy season that you remove the plastic.
- Fireplace. Depending on how often you use your fireplace, the summer is a good time to get the flue cleaned by a chimney sweep. Gas fireplaces should be inspected annually by a certified gas technician with expertise in fireplaces.
- Ceiling Fans. Check that ceiling fans are properly secured. Often wiring for ceiling fans is left in dismay. Wiring in the attic should be in a junction box with the colored wire nuts placed on the connections.
- Smoke & CO Detectors. Smoke and CO (carbon monoxide) detectors should be tested regularly. If needed, batteries should be replaced.
Homeowners should also consider a professional inspection to identify conditions that may have developed over time and may not be visible to the "untrained" eye. Homeowners who are equipped with a professional inspection report will know not only what items are most significant and in need of immediate attention, but what deferred maintenance items will need to be corrected before becoming more costly to repair or a high priority safety issue.
A professional inspector is third party, independent investigator who visually inspects and detects conditions in a home. He or she is a trained generalist, identifying and sorting through the multitude of major systems and components. The inspector investigates, operates, and systematically identifies the major systems and components of the home. The inspector is addressing health and safety issues, making recommendations, and counseling on repair options and maintenance. Professional inspectors should not perform or offer to perform any repairs to a home, thus eliminating conflict of interest. Health and safety concerns and adverse conditions are discussed and documented by the inspector.
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Q: Should I be concerned about a backflow of water between indoor and outdoor faucets?
A: The faucets in a home's kitchen, bathrooms, laundry areas and exterior hose bibbs provide what is know as "potable water". Potable water is defined as "fit for human consumption." Non drinking irrigation water is usually termed "non-potable". Both get their water from the same supply line - that is, the local water company's water meter located on your lot. This means all water outlets at every location on your property (including both inside and outside) get their water from the same source. This results in a "cross-connection" between your garden hose and your faucets providing drinking water. A cross connection is not a good thing unless there is an anti-siphon or "back-flow" prevention device installed between the potable and irrigation water supply system.
A dangerous cross-connection can occur under the following scenario: Husband is outside fertilizing the lawn with weed-killer fertilizer pellets. Immediately after applying the chemicals he places the hose in a trench or turns on the sprinkler system. While this is occurring Wife is taking a shower and at that moment one of the children is getting a drink of water from the kitchen faucet. The child later becomes sick and a hospital visit reveals weed poison in the child ?s blood. This scenario is possible because a change in water pressure can create a siphon effect where the irrigation water containing poisonous chemicals that has leached through the lawn and entered broken or low laying sprinkler heads or coiled hose openings are drawn into the home's potable water supply.
The California Plumbing Code's (Chapter 6: Water Supply and Distribution) deals with this hazard by requiring exterior faucets (hose bibbs) and all landscaping water systems to be equipped with properly installed "back-flow" prevention devices. These devices prevent garden water from backing up into your home's potable water system. However, if your home is an older property, you may not be protected from this potential danger.
A professional inspector can help you determine if your home is protected from cross contamination. All CREIA inspectors are familiar with these devices and they are addressed during their inspections under CREIA's extensive Standards of Practice.
Q: When I sell my home, what are my disclosure obligations?
A: California law requires sellers to furnish prospective buyers with a completed Real Estate Transfer Disclosure Statement, commonly referred to as a "TDS". The TDS is basically a list of obligations sellers have to disclose regarding any and all known defects that could be interpreted as a material defect. A material defect is a condition that significantly affects the value, desirability, habitability, or safety of the building. Any such defect would also directly affect the marketability of the property.
The purpose of the disclosure statement is two-fold: The most obvious is to inform buyers of the condition of the property they are buying. The added benefit, often overlooked, is the liability protection provided for sellers. In this respect, the disclosure statement helps to minimize the likelihood of claims, disputes, or lawsuits occurring after the close of escrow.
Reasonable buyers are not likely to be troubled or concerned about small repaired item such as a hairline crack, but there are litigious individuals with whom the seller must be cautious. It is not whether you are required to disclose the crack, but it is to your advantage to disclose it. In so doing, that condition becomes one less issue with the potential to incite future conflict. In the unlikely event that a problem regarding the crack should ever arise, your defense would be strengthened by the fact that you had made full disclosure. The process is actually quite simple: just declare, in writing, that the crack was evaluated and repaired by a reputable licensed general contractor, and include a copy of the paper work that you received from the contractor. This should reassure, rather than alarm, most potential buyers.
There are several misunderstandings and/or misconceptions held by the general public regarding "As Is" real estate listings. When the property listing states the house is being sold "As Is", this does not relieve the seller from certain real estate laws relating to the sale and transfer of ownership of real estate in California. In an "As Is" transaction the seller is still required to disclose all known material facts to the buyer. Thus, a residential dwelling being sold "As Is" is really being sold "As Is As Disclosed" and that the seller is not going to fix nor credit the cost of the fix to the buyer.
Buyers should know that many times home sellers are not always aware what defects may lurk on the roof or in the electric, plumbing or heating/cooling systems or even within the attic or foundation spaces. That is precisely why it behooves all sellers to strongly consider obtaining a pre-listing home inspection. This will allow the inspector to perform a professional evaluation of all of the home ?s systems and components without the buyer being in the picture. It also affords the seller the opportunity, without duress of time constraints, to make a judgment whether to correct any defects listed within the inspector's written report, schedule further evaluations where suggested by the inspector, and/or to just list the defects discovered and described by the inspector in the seller's TDS and set the home's sales price accordingly. It is imperative to secure the services of a competent home inspector.
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Q: What kind of seismic safety upgrades should I consider for my home?
A: Usually, recommended seismic upgrades by a professional home inspector are offered as suggested improvements, not mandatory requirements (with the exception of strapping of water heaters, there is no state law requiring a seller to bring an older home into compliance with current earthquake resistance requirements). However, seismic improvements are prudent and, if done properly, can significantly limit structural damage in the event of a severe earthquake.
Many property owners have chosen to reinforce their foundation systems against earthquake damage, especially since major quakes have occurred in California in the past decade and seismic upgrades were found to be very effective in homes which had been reinforced prior to those events. In most cases, effective seismic upgrading consists of following basics:
- Installation of additional anchor bolts to provide adequate attachment of the wood sills to the concrete foundation. This is only necessary when the existing bolts do not meet current building standards.
- Addition of plywood sheets, known as shear panels, nailed to the "cripple walls" to prevent collapse of those walls when lateral seismic forces are exerted against the building. Cripple walls are the short framed walls that extend from the top of the foundation to the base of the floor structure.
- Placement of hold-down brackets to secure "cripple walls" to the anchor bolts. This ensures that the wall studs will not separate from the wood sills when a quake occurs.
- Reinforcement of post and beam connections with plywood gussets or T-straps to ensure against separation or displacement.
In many homes, the floor joists are installed directly on the sill plates, rather than on "cripple walls." In such cases, the second and third recommendations above do not apply. Instead, tie-down brackets can be added to ensure secure attachment of the floor structure to the wood sills.
The average cost for these improvements can vary greatly, depending upon the size, age and location of the building, as well as the type of construction. To ensure optimum reinforcement, it is recommended that the specifications for upgrading any building be determined by a licensed structural engineer.
Q: What do I need to know before I start construction on my brand new dream house?
A: Homebuyers building their new dream house have many important decisions and considerations. Below are some of the most significant:
Soil Conditions: Soil stability is one of the most important considerations for your new home. Soil conditions play a vital role in the structural integrity of your future home and can even determine whether a building permit will be issued for the project. To ensure that all is acceptable in this regard, have the property evaluated by a qualified geotechnical engineer. In addition to site stability, a qualified engineer can detect conditions affecting ground water, drainage and can assist in determine the most advantageous building location on the property.
Utilities. Be sure your have made arrangements for the utilities. Some utilities, such as electric power lines should be provided by the utility company, while other basics, such as well water and septic systems may need to be arranged by the buyer in some new construction sites. If a well is needed, you should consult with local property owners who have existing wells and with professional well drillers who work the area. In this way, you can determine the likelihood of finding water, the likely depth of the water table beneath the property, and the general water quality to be expected. With regard to the septic system, the seller of the property may be able to provide you with a perc test, to determine the ability of the soil to absorb wastewater. On properties where percolation is limited, expensive septic systems may be needed.
Building Contractor. Another concern is the availability of qualified building contractors when you need one, especially when the construction business is booming. At such times, people often make the mistake of hiring just anyone, sacrificing quality for the sake of a construction deadline. Avoid this error by setting quality concerns before time constraints. Make sure you find a highly reputed contractor, and then schedule your project according to his or her availability.
Professional Home Inspection. Finally, be sure to hire a professional home inspector for a final review of the project. No matter how good a job your builder does, a competent home inspector may find defective conditions that managed to slip through the cracks of the construction and municipal inspection processes. A detailed inspection report can provide a pick-up list for the contractor, before you occupy your new home.
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Q: What are the most common defects found by home inspectors?
A: When hiring a home inspector, manys typically believe that stability of the foundation is the main focus of the inspection when, in reality, serious foundation problems are among the some of least common building defects. Below are the "top ten" most common defects found in residential real estate?
- Roofing defects: Problems with roofing material, due to aging, wear, or improper installation, are likely to be found in the majority of homes. This does not mean that most roofs require replacement, but rather that most could use some type of maintenance or repair.
- Ceiling stains, indicating past or current roof leaks: Unfortunately, you often can't tell if the roof still leaks unless you inspect on a rainy day. Some stains are merely the residual effects of roof problems that have been repaired, while others may be related to leaky plumbing.
- Water intrusion into basements or crawlspaces due to ground water conditions: Faulty drainage can be pervasive, difficult to resolve, and sometimes very damaging to buildings. Correction can be as simple as re- grading the exterior grounds or adding roof gutters. Unfortunately, major drainage improvements are often warranted, requiring costly ground water systems such as french drains designed by geotechnical engineers.
- Electrical safety hazards, especially (but not always) in older homes: Examples are ungrounded outlets, lack of ground fault interrupters (shock protection devices), faulty wiring conditions in electrical panels or elsewhere in a building, etc. Such problems may result from errors at the time of construction but often are due to wiring that was added or altered by persons other than qualified electricians.
- Rotted wood at building exteriors and at various plumbing fixtures: In areas where wood remains wet for long periods, e.g. roof eaves, exterior trim, decks, around tubs and showers, or below loose toilets, fungus infection is likely to attack, resulting in a condition commonly known as dry rot. If left unchecked, damage can be quite extensive.
- Building violations where additions and alterations were constructed without permits: Homeowners will often tell a home inspector, "We added the garage without a permit, but it was all done to code." This is a red flag to most inspectors, because no one could possibly know the entire building code, let alone the average person without construction knowledge. Whenever an owner offers code assurance, problems are likely to be found.
- Unsafe fireplace and chimney conditions: Problems with wood burning fixtures can range from lack of maintenance to faulty installation. Most common are missing spark arrestors and faulty placement of freestanding fireplaces. Wood-burning stoves are typically installed by homeowners and handymen, persons without adequate knowledge of fire safety requirements. Common violations involve insufficient clearance between hot metal surfaces and combustible materials within the building. Fire hazards of this kind are often concealed in attics, where they remain undiscovered until a roof fire occurs.
- Faulty installation of water heaters: In most localities, less than 5% of all water heaters are installed in full compliance with plumbing code requirements. Common violations include inadequate strapping, improperly installed overflow piping, unsafe flue conditions, or faulty gas piping. What's more, today's water heaters are designed to have shorter longevity than in times of yore. Leaks can develop in units that are only five years old.
- Hazardous conditions involving gas heaters: Most gas-fueled heaters are in need of some maintenance, if only the changing of an air filter or a long-overdue review by the gas company. In some cases, however, gas heaters contain life-threatening defects that can remain undiscovered until too late. These can range from fire safety violations to the venting of carbon monoxide into the building. A cracked firebox, for example, can remain undiscovered unless found by an expert or until tragic consequences occur.
- Firewall violations in garages: Special fire-resistive construction is required for walls and doors that separate a garage from a dwelling. Violations are common, due to faulty construction, damage or alterations to the garage interior, or changes in code requirements since the home was built. In older homes, where firewalls are not installed, sellers and agents will often suggest that the building predates the code. However, the fire separation requirement for residential garages dates back to 1927.
Q: How can I make sure my chimney and fireplaces are in safe working order?
A: A proper evaluation could save your home from a catastrophic structure fire and possibly save someone's life. The chimney condition in your attic, as reported by a qualified home inspector, is not a matter to be dismissed. While there are numerous types of fireplace/chimney systems which all should be routinely inspected, a couple of the more problematic systems/conditions are:
* Metal Chimney. Most metal chimneys consist of two sheet metal shafts, one contained within the other. The purpose of a double-wall chimney is to prevent the outer surface from becoming hot enough to start a fire in your attic. The air between the two chimney walls can be extremely hot and therefore must vent into the open air above your roof. When the top of the outer chimney wall terminates inside the attic, heated air can scorch the wood framing to the point of combustion. When a hot metal chimney touches a wood surface, the ignition temperature of the wood is lowered (known as pyrolysis). Gradually, over a period of time, the temperature at which the wood will ignite is reduced. Eventually, the heat of the chimney itself can ignite the wood, causing a fire. Metal chimneys should never be in direct contact with combustible materials. In most cases, the clearance requirements are listed plainly on the chimney itself. Standard clearances are usually one or two inches. These specifications may be stamped into the sheet metal chimney or printed on an attached label.
* Pre-Cast Fireplace. Another common chimney is the pre-cast fireplace made of a single pour of concrete. They are factory-made and delivered to a construction site in one piece. The insulation plate is the Achilles heal of this type of fixture because it is only two inches thick, and a crack in this plate can allow the passage of heat and smoke into the wall area, causing a potential fire hazard. Even when there are no signs of other damage to the fireplace, the insulation plate may have failed. There is another concern with this system: calcium chloride was added to the concrete at the time of assembly; this additive reacts with the steel reinforcement and causes vertical and horizontal cracks in the structure. This reaction may also result in failure of the fireplace system. Unfortunately, the repair cost is high because the fixture cannot be repaired but must be replaced.
Serious safety concerns arise whenever there is an improperly installed or damaged fireplace or chimney system. Charred wood and other indications of heat exposure can be easily detected within the attic space. To ensure adequate clearance and proper installation within your attic, have the chimney evaluated by professional home inspector with the expertise in this area, or by a certified fireplace & chimney inspector to make sure your system complies with all pertinent fire safety requirements. These professionals are familiar with problems, specifications and code requirements pertaining to all types of fireplaces, inserts, and wood-burning stoves. The most important part of fire safety is to consult the appropriate expert. When chimney conditions are suspect, the services of a professional are imperative.
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Q: Is my furnace hazardous?
A: Improperly or weaken furnace seals are a common occurrence, especially in older homes that have not been inspected in many years. Review of your furnace is recommended by a professional home inspector as a cautionary measure to protect the inhabitants of the home from the possible mixing of combustion gases, such as carbon monoxide, with the circulating air in your home.
One way this fatal mixture can occur is through small gaps at the base of the furnace. The lower portion of your furnace is known as the return air plenum. This is where the air from your home is drawn into the furnace to be reheated and then blown back into the rooms of your home. The blower unit performs this function by creating a vacuum. If the base of the furnace is not sealed to the platform, this vacuum can pull exhaust gases from the furnace into the air stream. These exhaust fumes can then be circulated to every heat register in the house, to the obvious detriment of you and your family.
If your home inspector advises repair, immediate attention to this concern is recommend. The repair is a fairly simple and affordable procedure. All that is needed is to caulk the perimeter of the heater base to the wood platform. When completed, you can call the Gas Company for a final inspection. Make sure your retain the services of a qualified inspector who is trained and experienced in home inspection and is a member of a professional association such as CREIA.
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is warning California homeowners with gas-fired horizontal forced-air furnaces in their homes that they may have a dangerous and defective product under their roof. There have been over 30 reports of fires and damages to homes in California from defective furnaces. The defective furnace was sold under several names, the most common being Consolidated Industries and The Premier Furnace Company, among others.
Many of these dangerous furnaces are still in use (these furnaces were installed exclusively in California). These furnaces are typically installed either in attics or in crawl spaces. Such difficult locations may require a professional inspector to perform evaluation on these potentially deadly products.
Consumers need to be aware that the manufacturer of these furnaces is currently in bankruptcy and repairs parts are unavailable. Replacement will be necessary. Consumers are encouraged to contact their local professional inspector to identify and evaluate this product. Home owners are further cautioned to make sure that any home which has a gas-fired horizontal forced-air furnace manufactured between 1983 1994, be inspected by a licensed and qualified HVAC contractor as soon as possible.
Q: Are there any precautions that can be taken to better ensure my family and home’s protection against water intrusion?
A: Although no one can prevent natural disasters from occurring, there are many things that can be done to make the impact less devastating for one’s home and family. Priority should always focus on your family’s safety. Make sure you have a safety plan which includes differing routes of evacuation for the home’s inhabitants. Practice the plan with all family members. Make sure to turn off the gas, water and electricity before you evacuate. And don’t forget the neighbors elderly, disabled and small children may need help. Remember also to have an emergency supply kit with first aid and other basic items handy.
There are also precautions that you can do to protect your home. Heavy rains and severe winter weather in California have caused moisture problems for many homeowners some of which could have be avoided. The most common means of moisture intrusion noted by home inspectors in California are through the following avenues: gaining entry below the structure; worn roof coverings; deteriorated roof vent flashing serving both plumbing fixtures and mechanical equipment; improperly installed or worn chimney flashing; and doors and windows that have not been properly weather sealed. Plumbing and drainage problems can escalate to health issues as molds can grow on virtually any substance when moisture is present.
Below is a simple list of maintenance tasks for the homeowner to perform to help prevent moisture infiltration both into and below their homes:
* Clean all rain gutters, including downspouts, and make sure all gutter joints are properly sealed.
* Insure that rain gutter downspouts are directed away from the perimeter foundation. This may take adding some corrugated plastic extension piping you can purchase at your local home tore.
* Check to see there are no low areas around the home’s perimeter foundation where water can collect after a rainstorm. Standing water will eventually work its way beneath the home and can lead to building settlement and foundation support failure.
* Carefully check all of your exterior doors and windows and adjacent trim to see if they need any application of exterior type epoxy or sealants.
* Immediately after the first heavy rain, check under your house to confirm that the ground is reasonably dry.
* If you think the surface grade around the perimeter foundation is a source for concern and more than you can fix with a garden shovel, consult a state licensed drainage contractor for their recommendations they will provide a cost estimate for corrective work which may include the installation of an underground drainage system.
Make sure your home’s roof, grade-level, and underground drainage systems are designed to redirect water flow away from the perimeter foundation. Properly installed drainage systems help prevent flooding, soils erosion, excessive moisture conditions, foundation settlement, and moisture infiltration into below grade rooms and storage areas.
The migration of moisture against either a home’s perimeter concrete foundation stem wall or beneath a concrete slab type foundation can be costly for homeowners because of the potential damage possible to a home’s support systems, as well as to personal contents and mechanical systems, along with the possible encouragement of mold and pest infestation.
If any flooding has recently occurred, the foundations, subfloor framing, and other building components should be carefully examined for possible moisture-related damage. To ensure that a home’s drainage system is adequate in design and effective during wet weather, make sure it is evaluated by a qualified and experienced inspector.
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Q: When I go to sell my house what do I need to tell a buyer?
A: “If the buyer doesn’t know, why should I tell them?” asks the home seller anxious to close the deal. The California Real Estate Inspection Association strongly urges home sellers to disclose before they close. The expression, "when in doubt, point it out" certainly holds true for sellers; it is a good practice for sellers to err on the side of over-disclosure.
The best answer to any disclosure question is to disclose all that you know or that could possibly be of concern to a buyer. If a problem has been thoroughly repaired, there is no reason to withhold the information. Most buyers will appreciate the fact that you are being so thorough in your disclosures. This approach can help to assure buyers that they are dealing with someone who is honest and who is trying to do the right thing.
What about simply putting "As Is" in the sales contract to protect against repair demands? There are some misconceptions regarding the so-called “As Is” sale of real estate. When a seller states they are selling the property “As Is”, this does not relieve the seller of certain responsibilities under California law relating to the sale or transfer of ownership of real estate. In an “As Is” transaction where the seller does not warrant the condition of the property, the seller is still required to disclose all known material defects to a buyer. A property being sold “As Is” is really being sold “As Is…As Disclosed”. Merely inserting “As Is” terminology into the listing does not relieve the seller of the burden of disclosing defects. It is also a common error to think that disclosure alone relieves a seller from the burden of certain repairs. An "As Is" sale does not exempt the seller from the need to comply with the law such as requiring a working smoke detector and at close of escrow, and does not exempt them from the law requiring water heater strapping.
But there’s good news! Most buyers, upon knowing all the facts, seldom back away from their purchase decision. It is the fear of the unknown, followed by its eventual discovery, which sends people in court. “Peace of mind" is very relevant in the sale and transfer of residential property…it is the prime reason for including a qualified home inspector in the sales process.
Sellers should always obtain an independent professional property inspection to know the current condition of their property. Begin by hiring the most qualified home inspector in your area. Once you've got the inspection report, attach a copy to your disclosure statement. Furthermore, explain in your disclosure statement that every effort has been made to discover and report all problematic conditions, but that you urge the buyers to hire their own home inspector, just in case, to ensure that no significant defects were missed by your inspector. In this way, you will have documented an unusually high degree of willingness to disclose all problems. In the unlikely event that surprise defects should surface after the close of escrow, it would appear unlikely that you had deliberately concealed the problems (and should a conflict proceed to legal action, your position would look very good to any fair minded judge).
Q: When I sell my house do I have to repair everything on the buyer’s inspection report?
A: The California Real Estate Inspection Association (CREIA) cautions home buyers not to misunderstand the purpose of a professional inspection report. The inspector’s role is not to identify a complete repair list for the home, nor is it the sellers obligation to repair any problems discovered by the home inspector.
Potential home buyers often incorrectly view an inspection report as a mandatory repair list for the seller. The fact is sellers are not required to produce a flawless house. They have no such obligation by law or by contract. The purpose of a home inspection is not to corner the seller with a repair list.
With a home inspection, most repairs are subject to negotiation between the parties of a sale. Typically, buyers will request that various conditions be repaired before the close of escrow, and sellers will usually acquiesce to some of these demands. But with most building defects, sellers make repairs as a matter of choice, not obligation; to foster good will or to facilitate consummation of the sale.
Sellers maintain the legal right to refuse repair demands, except where requirements are set forth by state law, local ordinance, or the real estate purchase contract. Legal obligations include earthquake straps for water heaters and smoke detectors in specified locations. Contracts usually stipulate that fixtures be in working condition at the close of escrow, that windows not be broken, and that there be no existing leaks in the roof or plumbing. Most sellers will address problems affecting sensitive areas such as the roof, fireplace, gas burning fixtures, or electrical wiring.
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Q: What kind of electrical hazards are present in a home?
A: Most electrical accidents occur because of unsafe equipment, installation or improper use. Here are some tips to keep your home safe:
* It is better to not use extension cords. If you feel you must use one, make sure that it is not frayed or worn; do not run it under a rug or twist it around a nail or hook.
* Never overload a socket. Avoid using "octopus" outlets; outlet extensions that accommodate several plugs are strongly discouraged.
* Do not use light bulb wattage that is too high for the fixture. Look for the label inside each fixture, which tells the maximum wattage.
* Check periodically for loose wall receptacles, warm to touch cover outlet and switch cover plates, loose wires, or loose lighting fixtures. Sparking means that you've waited too long.
* Allow air space around the TV to prevent overheating. The same applies to plug-in radios and stereo sets, and to powerful lamps and electric-powered equipment.
* If a circuit breaker trips or a fuse blows frequently, immediately cut down on the number of appliances on that line.
* Be sure all electrical equipment bears the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) label.
* In many older homes, the capacity of the wiring system has not kept pace with today's modern appliances. Overloaded electrical systems invite fire. Watch for these overload signals: dimming lights when an appliance goes on, a shrinking TV picture, slow heating appliances, or fuses blowing frequently. Call a qualified electrician to get expert help.
* Remember, only state licensed electrical contractors and qualified electricians should perform electrical system repairs, modifications and upgrades.
A professional home inspector can evaluate the electrical wiring in the various breaker or fuse panels, as well as inspect the outlets for safe and proper wiring. When safe and accessible, the home inspector checks the electrical system by removing the cover from the electric service panel. Once the wiring is exposed, the home inspector will look for conditions in the panel such as burned wiring or over-fused circuits where the fuse or circuit breaker is too large for the wire size. Improper wiring connections, unsafe openings in the panel, rust, corrosion, and improper homeowner installed wiring are also reported on by a professional inspector. A representative sampling of electrical outlets, when accessible, is checked for open ground and wiring reversal conditions, as well as dead-ended wiring and exposed wiring.
Q: What do I need to know about clothes dryer safety?
A There are several common clothes dryer problems that may cause a safety issue for your home, including fire hazard.
Terminating a dryer exhaust beneath a home is a common construction defect and is forbidden by the Uniform Mechanical Code. There are two reasons for this prohibition: continuous lint build-up in the subfloor area poses a fire hazard, and moisture condensation beneath the structure that can cause damage to the wood framing.
To vent your dryer properly, the use of four-inch diameter metal ducting is advised. The duct fittings should be secured with tape, not screws, because lint built-up on the screw ends can restrict the free flow of air. Also, a dryer vent hood should be installed at the exterior of the building to prevent back drafting.
Another annoying problem are exhaust vents that cause water stains and the built up of lint on the filter screen at the vent opening at the roof. There is a simple solution. The next time you climb the roof to clean the filter screen, just tear it off and throw it away. The Uniform Mechanical Code specifically prohibits the use of screens on clothes dryer exhaust vents. Screens on dryer vents inevitably become clogged with lint. This congestion reduces efficiency of the dryer and can cause over-heating. Additionally, a congested vent can cause water condensation within the duct, and this, most likely, is responsible for the water stains.
Removing the screen may remedy these adverse effects. And while you're at it, check the duct connections to make sure there are no sheet metal screws. These are also prohibited, because lint built-up on the ends of screws can restrict airflow.
Also, make sure to check the overall length of the air duct. The maximum allowed length is 14 feet. Some floor plans do not enable compliance with this requirement, but keeping the duct as short as possible minimizes airflow resistance.
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Q: What is the essential difference between home construction and home inspection as distinct professional practices?
A: General building contractors deal primarily with constructing things that are new and applying standards that pertain to what is new. Their daily experience is with construction that is in accordance with accepted codes and established building practices and conducted under the authority and regulation of required building permits. In short, their experiences are with things that are standard, rather than substandard; out-of-the-box, rather than worn and weathered; built and assembled by professionals, rather than by amateurs.
Home inspectors, on the other hand, deal routinely with properties that are new, old, very old, and with those that are combinations of all three. They deal with homes that are well maintained, poorly maintained, or totally deteriorated; with buildings that are original or have been altered; with homes that are altered with permits or without them; homes with defects that are readily apparent or cleverly concealed; homes with problems that are commonly recognizable or that require esoteric knowledge. They inspect quality craftsmanship, mediocre workmanship, and substandard handiwork. They inspect homes with major and minor defects; with minor problems that appear major and with major problems that seem minor. In short, home inspectors must recognize and identify defects in every imaginable situation within the realm of modern and not-so-modern housing.
Aside from differing bodies of professional knowledge, contracting and inspecting are totally dissimilar practices, utilizing wholly divergent skills. General contracting involves the acquisition and assembly of a multitude of building components, the planning and coordination of time, materials, subcontractors, employees, and the unexpected eventualities of the daily workplace. It is a complex process of orchestrating and directing the innumerable procedures of transforming a vacant site into a usable, functional property.
Home inspection, on the other hand, is the process of investigative discovery. It involves the observation, recognition, and conclusive evaluation of countless related and seemingly unrelated conditions. It requires numerous judgments and decisions as to degrees of severity, proposed means of correction, advisements for further evaluation when necessary, warnings of inherent risks to life and property, and the likelihood of future problems. The skills of forensic evaluation are essentially unrelated to other professional practices, as can be attested by any police detective, fire investigator, or research scientist. The ability to investigate cannot be learned by building houses, any more than by riding a bicycle or practicing the piano.
Each of these professions is specialized and has its place. When building a house, a general contractor is the appropriate choice. When buying or selling one, it is best to engage the services of a qualified, experienced home inspector.
Q: How can I make sure that my central cooling system is functioning properly and safely?
A: A professional home inspector is governed by standards as to the inspecting of an air conditioner. The most widely used standards of practice in California, published by the California Real Estate Inspection Association (www.CREIA.org) state the following with regard to the inspection of central cooling systems: The inspector shall identify and report on
1. cooling equipment and operation using normal user controls
2. cooling distribution system(s) including a representative sampling of ducting, duct insulation, outlets, piping systems and valves
3. energy source and connections
4. condensate drains
There are a number of other exclusions listed in these standards some of which state that the inspector is NOT required to inspect electronic filtering systems or determine uniformity, temperature, airflow or balance of cool air supply to any room determine cooling supply adequacy or distribution balance. Please refer to CREIA’s Standards of Practice, which you may download from CREIA’s web site for a complete list of what is and what is not included in a normal property inspection.
Turning on the unit to see that the machinery is physically active complies with industry standards; competent inspectors will make a good faith attempt to determine functionality of an air conditioning system. Some employ technical equipment for measuring the temperature and/or volume of airflow at the vents. Others simply place a hand against the register to determine that airflow is reasonably cool. However, depending on when the inspection occurred such as in a colder season it may have been difficult to know whether any cool air was flowing. Other central cooling system concerns include defective controls, inoperative emergency switches, and evidence of past malfunctions.
A profession inspector will report on the presence or absence of an air conditioner electrical disconnect switch. Air conditioner systems need to have a disconnect switch that is visible and readily accessible. The switch may be located on the inside the fixture, as stated by the air conditioning contractor. However, most air conditioning contractors express strong disapproval of internal switches on air conditioners, regardless of the code as it could result in injury (or worse) to the workman during servicing or repairs. Internal switches are extremely rare and are regarded by home inspectors as a significant "red-flag" condition. Conditions cited by home inspectors may not always prove to be truly defective, but when electrical compliance is in doubt, a wise inspector will always err on the side of safety.
A very important aspect of air conditioning system maintenance is the air filter. Be aware that there is no established time requisite for the scheduling of air filter changes. Filters should be changed when they begin to become dusty, and this can happen sooner or later, depending on a number of variables. Check filters periodically to become familiar with the needs of a particular system. Routine maintenance is strongly recommended. Air filters that are sorely neglected may accumulate thick dust layers for periods of several years and reduce efficiency of the system and cause damage.
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Q: How can I avoid moisture problems under my home?
A: Many homeowners make the mistake of closing sub-area vents around the foundation of their homes sometimes for cosmetic reasons or because they erroneously think it will make the house more energy efficient. The California Real Estate Inspection Association warns homeowners and homebuyer to avoid this common error that can have costly consequences.
The purpose of foundation vents is not to adjust the energy efficiency of the building. It is to prevent humidity caused by ground moisture from condensing on the structure. Condensation can rot the wood framing and rust the structural hardware. Therefore, open vents should be maintained at all times (especially during the rainy season where there is an increase in ground moisture).
The building code requires that sub-areas be cross-ventilated. Minimum ventilation is defined as one square foot of vent opening for each 150 square feet of floor area. In some cases, this is not sufficient to prevent condensation, and additional vents may be needed. If condensation beneath your home is occurring mainly at the corners, the addition of corner vents would be advisable. If the moisture problem persists, have a plastic membrane installed on the ground surfaces beneath the building. This will prevent evaporation, the source of humidity.
Make sure to have your home inspected to determine if excess moisture below the building is causing symptoms in the living area of the home, moisture damage to wood members could be extensive in the sub-area, especially if there is inadequate ventilation. All of these conditions warrant immediate evaluation. If any flooding has occurred beneath the home, the foundations, sub-floor framing, and other building components should be carefully examined for possible moisture-related damage.
Q: How can I find out if there is asbestos in my home?
A: Asbestos is a known environmental hazard, which has been discontinued in residential construction since 1978. However, there are still thousands of older homes that contain this potentially lethal material. Asbestos was used for generations in residential construction, primarily as an insulation material. The most common areas for this material to be present are at heating ducts and equipment, and, in some instances, in acoustic ceiling material (also know as “cottage cheese” ceilings). In the 1960's and 1970's, numerous studies linked asbestos to various forms of cancer, and, as a result, the federal and state governments banned its use for any residential building constructed after 1978. As a hazardous substance, the material is quite costly to remove and dispose of. Such costs may impact the purchase decision. Therefore, consumer concern is quite valid.
The question of who will test for asbestos is more complex. In residential real estate transactions, home sellers are bound by law to disclose the presence of such materials, if known. Unfortunately, many home sellers are unaware. It is also an unfortunate common misconception that a professional home inspector will test for the presence of asbestos. This is simply not the case. Unless the home inspector is individually certified by the California Division of Occupational Health (Cal/OSHA), they, cannot, by law, test or even offer conclusive opinions, for these materials. While some home inspectors are properly certified, most are not. Additionally, the testing of asbestos, or any environmental hazard, is not part of the Standards of Practice of the California Real Estate Inspection Association, the leading professional group of home inspectors in the state. Therefore, consumers who are purchasing properties constructed prior to 1978 are encouraged to seek the advice and services of a properly certified professional for such environmental services.
Many home inspectors will inform consumers of the approximate age of the property, which may help determine if the home was constructed before 1978. Some inspectors may even explain some of the "clues" when identifying potential asbestos-containing material. Generally speaking, thin insulation material around the heating plenum and ducts that is a white or light gray, and which has a "chalky" type texture, has a higher probability to contain asbestos. However, only proper laboratory testing can confirm this suspicion. For more information on this important subject, homeowners and potential buyers are encouraged to contact Cal/OSHA at (916) 574-2993 or visit online at www.dir.ca.gov/DOSH.