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Friday, January 11, 2008

Look at 3 + 3 in a house…

I heard a good explanation from a home inspector recently about the three things that are important to look for in a house and I believe that he would have gone on to explain the three important systems to look at, too, had he thought about it a bit more.

The three things that he was advising my client to look at were the foundation, the structure above the foundation and the roof. I certainly have no argument with the importance of those three elements, which pretty much comprise the physical structure of the house.

His advice started by telling them to look at the foundation for cracks that would indicate potential major issues. Vertical cracks in poured concrete walls he advised aren’t a cause for major alarm and can be easily fixed with modern epoxy injection techniques. It's the presence of horizontal cracks or those that go down a poured wall at an angle that are cause for alarm, because they indicate forces at work that are trying to shear the wall and which could cause eventual failure and collapse.

The next major are to look at is the wood structure above the foundation and there he advised you would be looking again for signs of forces at work – cracks over doors, doors that don’t fit, cracks at corners and other signs that forces other than normal settling might be at work, many times in conjunction with foundational issues. Other things to look for included mold and interior wall water damage, such as bowed walls. There is also the possibility of infestation from termites, carpenter ants and powder-post beetles, all of which occur in this area.

Finally there is the roof, the umbrella for the house, so to speak. Things to look for there include any leaks and the condition of the shingles as well as the provision for air flow to the inside of the roof. Poor airflow will often result in mold on the interior of the roof decking and/or early failure of the roofing shingles, due to excess heat build up I the summer. Common mistakes include not enough ridge vent area or not enough can vents and blocked eaves vents - this is sometimes caused by homeowners being overzealous when adding extra insulation and running it all the way out to the edges, thus covering over the soffet vents air flow. This inspector said that he has seen many cases of improperly installed ridge vents where there were actually no holes pierced in the decking materials to allow any air flow to the ridge vents. Another common mistake is covering over gable vents when new vinyl siding is installed. when looking at the inside of the attic look to see how much insulation is there. Many of the older homes were built when the code called for 12" of insulation for this area. Now the code specifies 24" and you should plan for additional insulation, if you find too little.

To these elements of the house’s structure, I’d also add that there are three key systems in the house that can either be in good shape or cause major problems – the plumbing, HVAC and electrical systems. Homes with old or poor systems in any of those three key areas can become major money pits.

Looking at the plumbing one should look closely at how water gets into and out of the house – the age and makeup of the plumbing system. Look for copper instead of lead-based pipes on the feed side and PVC instead of cast iron on the waste side. Look also at the water heater, which is likely the shortest life span item in the system (other than maybe fixtures). If one doesn't exist, you should also put on your "to-do" list to put a good, easy to access, clean-out into the waste side of the system.

The HVAC system is one of the more costly systems in the house and also one with a finite lifespan. If the HVAC system is more than 10 years old it is likely getting ready for replacement. If the unit has central air, make sure you look at the condition of the condenser outside. Often these are ignored for maintenance or owners allow shrubs and bushes to overgrow them. If the old unit didn’t have central air, replacement time is the time to add that to the house. Also look at adding modern air cleaning and humidifying systems at that time, too. And don't overlook the duct work, which may need a good cleaning to prevent dust and mold allergens from being circulated by the system.

Finally there is the electrical system, which many people overlook. An old fuse-based electrical system is both a pain in the butt to live with and potential dangerous. Get it replace with a modern circuit breaker box and take that opportunity to get the service to the house upgraded. Lots of older homes had less than 100 Amp service to the home. Get at least 150 Amp, if not 200 amp service run to the house. Things have changed since the 50-60-70’s and there is lots more household items that put electrical demands on the system in the modern home. Also look for GFCI circuits in the kitchens and baths and install them if they are not there now.

So when you have the home inspected, look at all of these areas. If you’ve stumbled upon a really good house – one that has had one or more really good owners in the past – you’ll find that most of these areas are up to date. Unfortunately these are areas that are all to often “out of sight and out of mind” and so become quite dated and even dangerous.

These six major areas are the really big money areas that should be of concern in any house that you look at. These areas cannot be helped with a new coat of paint or any other of the simple things that you might do to improve the appearance of the house. These are the real monsters in the closet that come back to bite you big-time. Pay attention to them in the front end, before you make the buy decision.

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