Home Inspection

It's Swarming Season

It’s an unwelcome sign that spring is here, but swarming season has begun. If you spot these winged reproductives, call you local Pest Control Operator.

In Idaho, I call them carpenter ants. In Washington, due to regulations, they are ‘suspected wood destroying organisms.’

In either case, they’re trouble.


How Old Is This House Again?

I was having a discussion with Chip Kenny, the inspector at Inland Northwest Home Inspections, about a house he was inspecting. The visuals - type of foundation, etc. - didn’t match the age of the home listed in the public sources.

I have run into this three times in the last year. The easiest one was a house listed as a 1965 building in a neighborhood in Pullman that was newer. The house had engineered trusses in the attic and the concrete foundation appeared to more modernly formed. When I opened the electrical panel, I found an inspection card for 1985. That fit much better, and I adjusted my report accordingly.

This structure was listed as a 1953 home - but the framing says 1900-1920.

This structure was listed as a 1953 home - but the framing says 1900-1920.

The nastiest one had the listing agent blow a gasket and shriek at the buyer’s agent. This particular Clarkston house was listed as a 1974 home but none of the features matched the vintage. The attic was sheathed with dimensional wood, the attic framing was 2x4 rafters, the number of outlets was low, the foundation system was funky. It didn’t feel like 1974.

When the buyer’s rep showed up, I asked her about this. She commented that the seller had put a 1955 date in the disclosures. I ran with that and suggested a video sewer scope of the main drainage line. As it happens, the material was Orangeburg pipe and was in lousy condition. Given the extreme over-reaction of the listing agent, I wonder if she already knew that the line was questionable. Hmmmm?

Anyway, to the point. How does this happen? How does an old house get listed as a newer home?

The answer is not that the real estate agent is deliberately deceptive (usually!) What happens is that the house undergoes a major remodel, so much so that the home is nearly new in a functional sense. The owner applies for, and gets, a new certificate of occupancy from the municipality. The records get updated with the new C.O. When the house gets listed again, anyone (or any computer algorithm) will locate the last certificate of occupancy and that date gets assigned to listing.

This is not a 1974 attic space even though that was the listed age of the home.

This is not a 1974 attic space even though that was the listed age of the home.

The only time we used to see this happen was when a home was moved. With tighter controls coming into play at the municipal level, I expect to see more of this sort of mischaracterization occurring. The home inspector community will need to be aware of the potential for the actual vintage of the building to be different from the documentation. Unfortunately, with so many new inspectors arriving on the scene that lack the thousands of houses of experience to recognize the oddities, this likely will get missed.

360° Pictures are Here!

Want to show your parents, your kids, your friends your new home but finding the photo options limited? 

Safe@Home has a solution for you! We've invested in new software and cameras that will allow us to put 360° pictures into your report. We're excited about this new feature and are offering it without any additional charge! All you have to do is ask!

Things that Inspectors Find

Old houses are always a treat for inspectors since they've had plenty of time to accumulate oddities. In this case, I manage to squeeze into a tiny crawlspace and wormed my way around underneath this house in Eastern Washington.

I did not expect to find an entire tree stump under there. I took some video because it was fun but I have to apologize - the lighting conditions were not really terrific.

For those of you curious, yes, it is mandatory for the inspectors to enter crawlspaces if it is accessible and safe. Obviously, accessible is a relative term. I get into a lot of spaces that others simply can't because I'm a touch on the skinny side.

Angie's List Super Service Award Winner

If you look to the right-hand side of the front page, you will notice that I have a new award. In my first year with Angie's List, Safe@Home Inspections won their prized Super Service Award for 2017.

These are the sorts of things that happen by accident. It requires an enormous investment in giving my clients an outstanding inspection along with great service before and after the inspection.

Personally, I'm incredibly pleased. I'm also looking for ways to do even better this year. 

My thanks to all the clients and their agents that placed their trust in me!

Three Questions to Ask Your Home Inspector - The Answers May Surprise You!

You can find a dozen sources for questions to ask your home inspector. Let me add a trio that most lists won't have.

Do You Have Relatives Worrking in Real Estate? 

The answer may well be yes. Our region has a surprising number of inspectors who have close relatives working as Realtors or other related industries. In an ideal world, this would be disclosed whenever a conflict may present itself. In the real world, things are more gray. Ask. If the spouse or siblings aren't involved in any way, great. If so, you know and can make your own judgment.

Do You Perform Repairs for Concerns You Find?

Most inspectors will answer 'No.' Most, but not all. While I was still on the Home Inspector Advisory Board, I had an inspector call to complain about precisely this conflict in the Tri-cities area. From the rumor mill, it's happening in just about every region despite the fact that the Washington standard prohibits work-for-hire for one year post-inspection. 

Your inspector should not have a financial interest in finding concerns. The inspector's job is to observe and report, accurately. That's it.

Does Your Inspector Follow One Standard?

This seems like an odd-ball question since inspectors obviously follow a standard. The complication comes in with the fact that most inspectors in this area work both sides of the state lline. Washington State has a very well-developed Standard of Practice. The problem comes on the other side of the line. Idaho has no requirements, so some inspectors use a different standard there. 

I recently saw a seller blind-sided because his inspector two years ago failed to identity a potentially hazardous electrical panel. Why? Because it was not require in Idaho though is was in Washington. He knew the panel had a lousy reputation and failed to inform his client.

Your inspector should use one standard, the most restrictive. Here, that's the Washington SOP.

So there you go. Three extra questions to ask. It's okay to spend time on the phone with an inspector getting a feel for them and the way they do their job. Take you time, ask lots of questions, and good luck with the inspection. 


A Question to Ask Your Inspector

Search the internet and you can find a raft of questions to ask a home inspector. Many will have a variety of questions, usually involving cost, expertise, experience, and availability. Quite a few have a question along the lines of “Do you participate in continuing education programs?”

It is an okay question that I have never had a client ask me. Why is it only an okay question? Because it is a straight yes-or-no. Let me give you a better question.

What changes have you made to your inspections or reports because of continuing education?

The difference between the two is dramatic. In the first case, the inspector either has or has not done continuing education. In the State of Washington, the answer should always be yes, they have. It is mandated that home inspectors complete 24 hours of continuing education ever licensing cycle. What isn’t mandated is taking classes that expand the inspector’s knowledge. The individual inspector can literally and legally take exactly the same classes each cycle and get credit for it.

By moving past the CE question to discuss how that has changed the inspector’s process and reporting, you can get a reasonable idea of whether that inspector actually applies the new knowledge on behalf of his customers. More than a canned response about how long they’ve done inspections or what contracting work they used to do, this question cuts to the heart of their expertise and professionalism.

A good inspector is likely to do far more than the minimum in continuing education. As an example, I’m taking the 12th of July off to attend a training seminar put on by Washington State University on the latest changes in the Washington Residential Energy Code. This class won’t count for CE’s since it isn’t approved, but I will learn a wealth of good information and some of that will find its way into my reports.

Likewise, when I went to Seattle in March for the Western Washington chapter of ASHI seminar that had course approvals that counted toward my total, I picked up a wealth of new information. Not all of it is immediately useful, but it does inform me of potential issues to be aware of so that I can provide good advice.

I make two trips per year to western Washington specifically for the seminars. I take my computer with me so I can make changes to my report structure while the information is fresh. Since I take continuing education seriously, it impacts my business very directly.

“Describe any deficiencies of these systems or components.”

Since we do have continuing education requirements in Washington State, every inspectors reports ideally should be evolving. The quote above, taken right from the Washington State Standard of Practice for Home Inspections, means that as the inspector learns new things, it should be reported. Be leery of any inspector who is still doing reports the same way as they did five or ten years ago. Either they are not applying the knowledge they have acquired or they aren't actually committed to continuing education as self-improvement.

How do you verify?

Ask your agent who’s reports have changed the most over the last five years. They see the reports on a regular basis. In this region where we have small communities, they should be able to answer that question about the inspectors they are referring.

Who swiped my square footage?

It's getting to the point where I much prefer doing a 1960's rambler over a new home. At least with them, I know what kind of problems to expect. Not so with new homes - and our builders are getting sloppy and the municipal building inspectors are missing defects, a lot of them.

Case is point, yesterday I did a new home, built last year and occupied in December. I followed my usual protocol of inspecting the exterior first, then roof, then interior spaces, starting at the finished basement.

I started at the store room at the back of the house, where the furnace was located. Lots of stuff in there in the rectangular room. That's when a warning bell went off. Made a "unh?" sound and ran up the stairs to fetch my laser measure.

Measured upstairs, from the sliding door to the far edge of the kitchen. 24'2". Add a six-inch wall. Measured the width of the laundry room. 11'1". Total, 35'9". Got it.

Ran back downstairs. Measured from one side of the store room to the other. 24'7".

Ran back upstairs, hurried past my clients. Got into the laundry room and stomped with my heel. Echo-y sound, so definitely not slab-on-grade. Basement or crawlspace. Checked the only closet. No access hatch. Stomp to make sure. Hatches bounce, making them sound slightly different that regular sub-floors. Nope.

Meanwhile, my clients are looking at me as though I am a touch daft. "What's under here?" I asked, pointing to the laundry room floor.

More looks questioning my sanity. Fortunately, I've worked with this couple before, so I get the benefit of the doubt.

I explain myself, that the dimensions don't match. Off we go, down the steps, 'round the corner, and we collectively stare at the store room wall. The husband asks if blueprints would help. "Absolutely!" They're friends with the sellers (it's a FSBO) so they text about plans and the crawlspace.

The reply comes back - they have no plans, nor is there a crawlspace.

Au contraire, I think, got to be something under there. It's not a slab, and it isn't a basement, so crawlspace is the default answer.

This, too, gets explained to the clients. They ask why I need to get in there, given it is a new home. I point out that I need to verify the insulation, vapor barrier, ventilation (I didn't see vents on the exterior wall, so it may not be vented, another code violation), and make sure it is dry. If it isn't dry, we have a potential mold and rot issue waiting for us.

Termites in Pullman are a very rare occurrence, fortunately, or I'd add them to my list of worries.

My clients are bright; they get it. They also don't panic as we analyze the best way to create access. The home is still under warranty, so the builder will be doing the work.

I felt pretty pleased. Like Sherlock in the story "Silver Blaze" with the dog that did not bark, I had done the harder part of inspecting. Any one can see what is there, but a really good inspector will recognize what isn't. It was a good catch.

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident."


Building Permit Research

Curious if the home you are considering purchasing has a Certificate of Occupancy?

One of my clients was, on a relatively new (six year-old) custom home, and took the time to go down to the local Building Department to do the research. To the surprise of both of us, a CO had never been issued on the home. Since I had already referred him to a structural engineer due some very odd cracking and bowing in the walls, this was the final straw in the deal.

That was a couple of weeks ago. This past week, while resolving a disagreement on electrical bonding with a contractor, I discovered that another home that I had recently inspected never had a permit purchased or an inspection performed on a brand new roof.

If home inspections were done to the same standard as a commercial inspection, visiting the Building Department for document research would be automatic. Not so for home inspections.

Maybe that should change.

I'm am now including an add-on service for residential inspections. For $125.00, I will gather the available relevant documents including permit applications, inspection reports, and Certificates of Occupancy and deliver them to you as a .pdf file.

I am recommending this for homes 25 years old and older, homes reported to have been recently remodeled, and custom built homes. The reasoning is that it takes some time in the house's lifecycle to get to the remodel and retrofit phase. Roofs and mechanical equipment usually do not need change-out earlier. Remodels trigger their own permit requirements. Custom homes fall across a broad spectrum of professional competencies. In the case above, the builder went out of business, leaving the current owner in a major lurch.

I do not recommend it for spec-built homes. Companies such as Copper Basin and Hayden Homes are consistent about acquiring the necessary permits. They are too big to fly under the radar for the Building Departments.

A minimum of three business notice required.

Surviving the Home Inspection Hits #1 On Kindle!

Very excited that my book, Surviving the Home Inspection, hit the top spot (probably briefly given the ephemeral nature of Amazon's bestseller lists) in the Kindle store in the Buying and Selling Homes category.

I'm already planning my next project- deciphering FHA, VA, USDA, inspections for the sellers.

How Much Difference Does Insulation Make?

I did an inspection in Lewiston late last year on a very cute little bungalow near Normal Hill. The home was classic brick with trees lining the street in front. The clients were a young couple buying their first home.

One the findings that we came up with is that there was nearly no insulation. The home had an old beast of a furnace that kept the home warm - when it ran, and it definitely like to do that.

Jack asked me for some advice about how to handle this. We talked about the advantages and disadvantages of blown fiberglass and blown cellulose. One nice thing about our local Home Depot is that they will essentially lend you the equipment to insulate the home yourself if you purchase a set amount of the insulation from them. It's a pretty good deal, one that I took advantage of in my home.

Jack sent me these pictures, a before-and-after of the attic space. It's pretty impressive, though it's going to make it a lot tougher for the next inspector to traverse the attic.

Jack put in about a dozen inches of new insulation. One of the advantages of the blown cellulose that he chose is that it air seals much better than fiberglass. It's also much less expensive.

It always makes me happy when I get a chance to see my advice make a positive difference for the people that I work with. In this case, it's a young couple who just spent one afternoon and made their house much more affordable from an operating expenses perspective.

How more affordable?

Jack sent me the numbers - bear in mind that this has been a really mild winter, so the numbers are a little lower than in a cold year.

  • Month 1 - $209 for gas and electric.
  • Month 2 - $125 for gas and electric.

So, the bill dropped by 40 percent over the course of a month. Pretty darned impressive and I'm awfully happy for the family. Good job to them!

Changes Abound

I haven't posted regularly to the blog. Bad Paul.

I did, however, do a full site redesign, and hopefully the site will be easier to use and easier on the eyes. I've moved the blog off the landing page now that I have a decent looking site.

Bells and whistles are coming - some are still in, like online scheduling. A new feature is the ability to sign the inspection agreement electronically. I'm looking at putting a means for paying online as well - I know it sounds simple but the federal regulations,  hoops that come in a multitude of sizes and heights, make it a bit interesting.

You might also notice a name change. I've left the NPI family. This was done at my request and based solely on the changes that we've had in life - the addition of three sons-in-law and six grandchildren, some success in publishing. With the additional commitments of time to personal ventures, I didn't feel that I could properly abide by the requirements of the franchise. Roland Bates, President of NPI, was enormously gracious in releasing me from the non-compete clause in the contract.

For years, I've been the hardest working inspector in the region, frequently working seven days a week. I'm looking to drop that to five and a half days per week. Totally selfish, I know.

I've eliminated a few things, most notably the toll-free number. In an age on unlimited long distance calling on cell phones, the expense does not make sense.

Still coming:

  • a complete redesign of my inspection report with the aim of making it more informational and more user-friendly.
  • A course for inspectors on residential fire suppression systems
  • My book for home sellers, Surviving the Home Inspection (available March 15th)

Should be an exciting year. May yours be equaling exciting and fulfilling!


Play day in a crawlspace!

I've had folks tell me that you couldn't pay them enough to go into a crawlspace. St Ignatius Hospital 005 I usually don't have that problem. Today, though, I did it for free.

Why? A) Because it was a 120 year old building that I knew I'd end up referring to an engineer; B) it was a 120 year old building that was totally cool to check out. Went from one basement, all the way through to the other basement addition, climbed out on a piece of abandoned equipment and had to climb up the old elevator shaft on a rickety old homemade wood ladder wired onto some old conduit.

Dang, I got a great job!St Ignatius Hospital 017

The Antidote for Nastigrams

I wonder sometimes whether home inspections matter a darn given that I get nastigrams from sellers and their agents with depressing regularity. Then I get this from a client, via email: "Hi Paul, I wanted to write and thank you for recommending I get the gas heat stove serviced in the house on Van Buren St you inspected for me in the Spring. That recommendation saved my life, and my dog's life. "

It matters.

Is Your Attic Like A Dry Sauna?

Summer time has arrived in Lewiston and Clarkston with it's usual suddenness by bursting upward 20 degrees in just few days to bust the 100 degree barrier. Fortunately, as they say, it's a dry heat.

Pretty much what I expect from attics this time of year.

High attic temperatures are not uncommon and, to a small extent, unavoidable. The average roof acts as a large solar energy collector and, depending on the axis of the house, can accumulate very high heat loads. My home, orientated with a east-west main axis, has extensive roof exposure to the south that matches the arc of the sun through the sky. Ideal when I someday add solar PV to the roof, it now acts to increase my heat loads.

High attic temperatures cause several problems inside and outside the home.

Inside, the heat places an increased load on any cooling systems that you have. I've measure ceiling temperatures as high as 120 degrees from the heat generated in the attic. The less insulation you have, the more pronounced (and expensive in utility costs) this becomes. In high humidity environments, this is even worse due to the lOWRY 002 (1)nature of water and its ability to act as a heat sink, absorbing the energy. To balance it out, you end up running the air conditioner longer, adding to it's wear.

On the exterior, shingles are subject to thermal cracking. That is, the backing material of the shingles, usually fiberglass, is impregnated with asphalt and over-laid with granules. When the roof temperature climbs, these materials go through a wide range of expansion and contraction, but not at the same rate. The backing material can split or the asphalt cracks, just as you've probably seen it do in a driveway.

Either way, you have shingle damage that will lead to early failure.

Preventative measures include improving the ventilation in the attic. Too little ventilation traps energy as the air becomes superheated. My record for attic temperatures was 154 degrees. I wasn't in there long and it took a good hour to recover. 140's are not uncommon.

Attic ventilation can be improved by ensuring that the appropriate venting is in place. Often I see ridge vents improperly cut. Too narrow a vent does not allow enough hot air to escape, raising the temperature. The same will happen if there is no ridge vent and the static or gable vents don't move enough air.

Another common defect is to have too little air entering the attic space or from the wrong location. Older homes may only have gable vents located of either end of the home. Building science has demonstrated that this creates an air passage way flowing directly from gable to gable without ventilating the lower reaches of the roof assembly.

Improving this in the short term can be as easy as adding new soffit vents to improve air intake, adding a ridge vent (or having it properly cut), or adding an attic fan to increase air movement. All of these, by the way, have beneficial effects on mold and fungus growth.

A longer term approach is to plant trees carefully, determining where they will provide the maximum amount of shade without endangering the home.

Remember that southern face on my house? I have a 100 year old walnut tree on that side and, on the east, a quaking something-or-other (I'm a home inspector, not an arborist. Sorry.) The old folks had the right idea, a century ago.

They did forget to plant on the west corner. I've put in an Asian pear tree. It will be a few years until it gets tall enough but I can wait. When it does get big, it's a two-fer: shade and fruit.




Governor Inslee's Executive Order on Energy Efficiency

Governor Jay Inslee has issued an Executive Order EO 14-04 yesterday that will mandate significant changes in how the residents and businesses of the state will obtain and use energy.  

The State Building Code Council is tasked with:

develop, and implement to the extent possible and consistent with state and federal law, a new statewide program to significantly improve the energy performance of both our public and private buildings, taking into account existing state and utility efforts. The program must accelerate the cost-effective energy efficiency retrofit of existing buildings, with a support system that provides information, consumer protection, and assistance to businesses and homeowners. The program must ensure that all new buildings are as energy-neutral as possible, with advanced envelopes, efficient appliances, on-site generation, smart controls, and other features, where practicable.

This change will affect rental property first as evident in the third bullet point:

Support vulnerable and low-income populations through weatherization assistance, setting minimum standards for rental housing energy efficiency, . . .

I fully expect that the provisions that Governor Inslee has set forth will lead to large changes in the manner in which homes are constructed and the way that remodeling is done. I also anticipate that these changes will be relatively expensive to implement.