No permits? No problem—no listing.

I have discussed flipped houses in the past.

flipperFlipping houses has become as much a part of the American lexicon as Apple Pie and the 4th of July.

The whole topic has been building up pressure in my head like a napping volcano for quite some time.
It has finally melted through and flowed onto my keyboard–pushed to the surface by two nightmare flips in a row.

Given the number of TV shows about flipping houses and the avalanche of online information about how to go about doing them, it would be easy to conclude that flipping houses must be a GREAT idea! While I am sure that somewhere, there are good intentioned investors that are succeeding in saving houses from the bulldozer’s blade and turning them into something that any first time home buyer would fall in love with. Generally speaking this is not typically what happens.

This post is not about those rare exceptions. I say rare because of the dozens of flips that I have inspected, I have only found one (today as a matter of fact)—it had all permits for work done and signed off on by the city. While it had some minor issues, all in all it was a pleasure to inspect. Other inspector’s experiences may be different than mine–but not based on what I hear from other inspectors, most flips are less than professional nightmares.

The more common scenario with flips is that the house is fully remodeled, using the cheapest materials possible, with no permits. The work is “generally” performed by untrained, unskilled persons that are totally unaware of current requirements; which if they were aware of the requirements, they might at least been able to hide the fact that the work was done without permits. All of this conspires to make a report that is guaranteed to scare the pants of any first time buyer or even experienced buyer.

littlehouseRegardless, these deals are wounded, maimed or killed, long before I show up on the scene of the crime.
It is pretty easy to tell a flipped house. If you cannot tell from the glossy HDR listing photos, you can tell by checking the assessors purchase history; or the Google drive-by pictures, date-stamped less than a year before the house was listed.

Inspecting these houses is almost always an “adventure.”

But I do finally have a solution to the problem.

Agents could merely put their foot down.

No permits, no listing.

Forget the disclosure statements (more accurately, “non-disclosure statements”). If one can get a sense that the house was purchased recently, and is now back on the market, a request for any and all permits for work done should be produced before the listing is accepted.

I know there must be reasons why listing agents might not like this idea, but I can’t think of any, at least any that has the best interest of a future buyer in mind–not to mention the best interest of the agent’s E&O insurance. Sure I know they are only really interested in the seller’s interest, but the buck does have to stop somewhere doesn’t it? Either that or I need to charge a LOT more money to do justice for my client, and why should they bear the cost of what a few permits could have avoided.

This type of generally shoddy work pushes the boundaries of “buyer-beware” into realms of unreasonableness.


By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Hope will not help—unless that is the workers name!

Hope is almost always like “frosting on a turd.”

frostingonaturd1People often ask me if it is OK for bathroom exhaust vents to terminate in the attic.  There was a period of time when lots of builders considered the attic “outdoors.”  Well of course, it did not take too long to figure out that the attic environment is anything but “outdoors.”  If the attic was outdoors, the temperature and humidity  would be the same as out doors.  We of course now know that temperature and humidity can vary widely in the attic and this is why proper ventilation of attic spaces is so important.  We do not want to trap moisture in the attic but instead provide a pathway for it to escape.  If we terminate bathroom, kitchen and dryer vents into the attic we obviously risk introducing more moisture into the attic than even the best ventilation system can remove.

Over and over I find attics that cannot handle the moisture that is being added to the attic space.  A vent fan that is not properly terminated to the exterior at a cap with a back draft damper, or one that has become disconnected, can add a lot of moisture into the attic—especially in the winter.  This can contribute to mold and rot in wood structures as well as contribute to ice dams.

I still find lots of homes from the late 70’s and early 80’s with vent ducts that merely aim at a roof vent. This method I consider the “Hope” method of venting.  The installer is “hoping” that the air will simply find its way out through the waiting roof vent and then to the exterior.  This next picture is perhaps one of the best improper vent terminations I have come across.  It is pretty obvious that the screen in the roof vent is completely caked with lint.

Lint clogged roof vent screen

Lint clogged roof vent screen

There are two problems with this approach.  First of all, over time, the vent screen will become clogged with lint.  This will be the end of the hoping and now all that moisture is going to stay in the attic—guaranteed—creating the anticipated turd of a result—mold and decay/rot in the roof structure.  The second part of the equation is that now the roof vent will no longer function to do its job and is being burdened with even more moisture than it should have to deal with to begin with.

It is important that your inspector verify that all of the vent fans in the home properly terminate to the exterior whenever possible.

If you look back at the picture of the vent you will notice that all of the plywood has been painted white as part of a recent mold remediation.

Why was this vent not fixed as part of that remediation?

Dang—there goes hope again!

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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The Macro-view and the Micro-view in home inspections

When inspecting a home, the home inspector must not rush to judgment and must pay attention.  Having a “system” of checks and balances is required in order to not miss the details that would allow the correct conclusions later on.  “Concluding” is the easy part, having the “correct conclusions” can sometimes be illusive.

Photography is a huge part of the checks and balances that I utilize to help me keep track of myself–and perhaps help me answer questions later when I am home working on the report.  Another important aspect is to avoid distractions and maintain a protocol–to do each inspection in the same order as much as possible.  Sometimes deviations are unavoidable, and sometimes taking a few steps back and getting back on track is good idea.  Most clients understand when you tell them, “I have gotten a bit off my protocol and now I need to get back on it.”

At a recent inspection, while inspecting the roof, I noticed that there were no exhaust fan ventilation caps anywhere.(Sometimes the roof vents are used for exhaust fan vents though.)

Roof with no "proper" exhaust fan caps visible

Roof with no “proper” exhaust fan caps visible

To myself, I make mental notes that perhaps the vents are terminating in the attic, that there are no ventilation fans, or that they terminate at other locations.  Nothing to dwell on at that point—just something to store away in my brain until I have more information.

When walking around the home I noticed only two vents terminating at the exterior—a dryer vent and a bathroom exhaust fan vent–in the vicinity of the bathroom window.

Exhaust fan termination cap on the exterior of the home

Exhaust fan termination cap on the exterior of the home

Well this answered the question of where the bathroom exhaust fan vented to–but still didn’t answer the kitchen range hood exhaust vent question.  Since I had not been inside yet, I could not yet conclude that there was none or that it did not terminate in the attic.  Because of the risk of damage to the home from improperly terminated exhaust vents, finding where exhaust vents terminate is very important to me as a home inspector.

Once in the kitchen, I quickly discovered that the vent fan was the recirculating type that does not vent to the exterior.  This is a pretty simple recommendation:  “have it properly vented to the exterior.”

Next came the bathroom.  Normally, unless I can’t reach the fan, I will test the fan with toilet paper to see if it is drawing air from the room or not.  If I can’t reach it I will sometimes put the tissue paper on the floor at the bottom of the door and then turn the fan on–if the fan is moving air from the room it will pull the tissue away from the door–usually.

Bathroom exhaust fan not pulling any air

Bathroom exhaust fan not pulling any air

These methods are not very “scientific,” but they do give at least some indication of function–beyond merely turning it on.  As you can see from the picture, this fan, while it turned on just fine, would not suck the toilet paper up against it.  Since I saw a nice vent cap at the exterior of the home, and the flap was slightly open, it was very odd that it would not pull ANY air from the room.

Some sort of blockage in the pipe?  Disconnected in the attic and buried in insulation?  Back draft damper in the unit itself blocked shut?  So many questions—and no time to jump to any conclusions just yet.

When I got to the attic I found the bathroom exhaust fan and followed its vent pipe.

Vent pipe terminating at roof?

Vent pipe terminating at roof?

It suddenly became very clear that the cap, next to the bathroom window, at the exterior was an abandoned cap from some previous vent fan installation—perhaps a wall mount unit.

I scratched my head for a moment when I saw the pipe terminating at the roof sheathing.  This installation was consistent with a vent cap on the roof—but remember, I didn’t see any vent caps on the roof.

I pulled the vent pipe down enough to see “black.”

Can you see the felt paper?

Can you see the felt paper?

This is a little like seeing “red”–for an inspector–but different.

I took the pipe the rest of the way down and in this next picture one can see the felt paper over the hole which is the underlayment for the roof shingles.

The improper roof vent in the first picture is above this felt paper

The improper roof vent in the first picture is above this felt paper


Now, and only now, we finally have the final answer as to the “how and the where” the fan is vented to–and why it would not pull any air.  All done in the “context” of the inspection, without looking at the house:  individual component by individual component.

Conclusions often come at the end–sometimes on the ride home.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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