So who’s stairs are they anyway?

One of the challenges of being a home inspector is learning how to language defects in terms of the time frame they occurred.  For example the way an inspector would report about improper spacing of stair treads with open risers would be different if the home was built in 1910 as opposed to having been built in 2010.

In an older home the wording would lean more toward “upgrading” for improved safety.  If it was new construction, the wording would lean more toward “repairs” of the defect.

There are lots of requirements for the proper construction of stairs, but I only want to focus on two issues right now.

The home had a completion date of 2010, I found stairs that did not comply with current regulations in place at the time of construction for the jurisdiction it was built in and likely almost any jurisdiction.

More than 4" spaces

More than 4″ spaces

Modern codes require that there be no more than 4” between the treads when the risers are open.

The second issue is regarding the triangular space between the bottom of the side barrier the shape made by the tread and the riser which is not allowed to be larger than what a 6” diameter sphere could pass through.

More than 6" spaces

More than 6″ spaces

It is only a little bit over 6″—but still more than is allowed.  I find it a little odd that these issues got past the jurisdictional inspector.  As a former builder, these sorts of concerns were on the “short-list” of things the jurisdictional inspectors looked hard at on the final inspection.  But regardless, somehow these did get signed off on, and now it will be up to the new owner to deal with it–since it is now a short sale–and the bank is not likely going to fix the stairs.

To make this particular problem even more difficult is that these are public stairs used by four townhouses with no association.

So whose stairs are they really?

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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How to cope with roofing defects

Home inspectors are always finding things done improperly.

A very common defect is where wood siding does not have proper clearances to the roof covering.

Siding that just can't cope

Siding that just can’t cope

Two inches of clearance is recommended and when it is closer than this the wood will be subject to decay/rot because it is more likely to stay wet–especially as vegetative debris builds up in the area.

Sometimes there were adequate clearances originally, but with the addition of multiple layers of roofing the siding has become too close to the roof–and sometimes even buried by roofing materials.  This is another strong argument for not going over other layers of shingles–even when “allowed” by code or manufacturer.

At a recent inspection I found this defect done in the most perfect way I have ever seen.

If you are going to create a defect it might as well be a perfect defect.

The siding had been replaced and was actually coped to fit around the shingles.  This is going to be a less than ideal situation over time, and cutting the siding back to allow for proper clearances is recommended.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Some people need expansion tanks!

How difficult can it be to figure out what a house’s water pressure is?

It is a good thing taking one’s own blood pressure is not as difficult.

Water Pressure too high

Water Pressure too high

One of the first things I do around the exterior of the home is test the water pressure at the first outside faucet I come to.  They all get checked eventually.  At a recent inspection the first faucet had a pressure of 120 psi–a wee bit high.

I usually recommend that the house water pressure be set below 80 psi, and it is fairly routine to recommend installation of a pressure regulator on the piping when I find pressures this high.  Knowing the area this house was in, and having not seen water pressure this high before, I began to suspect there might be other issues, so I took off the test gauge and ran the water a few seconds and then re-tested the pressure.  This time it tested at a more normal 65 psi.

I was not surprised–I see this condition quite frequently.

More normal water pressure

More normal water pressure

Before I go into the reasons for this condition I want to point out about the importance of inspection protocols.  I like to do this first pressure test prior to running any water for the exact reason that the high pressure would not have been noted had the pressure been relieved by running the water first.  Of course if someone is living in the home it is a moot point, but this condition is quite common in houses that have been vacant for a while.  This one had been vacant for several months.

When I find this condition, it is a guarantee that there is some sort of back-flow protection on the system–possibly even a pressure regulator on the system without a thermal expansion device (tank).  Some newer water meters being installed have built in back-flow protection.  Many jurisdictions are changing out the older style meters with these newer type meters.  Without this back-flow protection, any expansion of the water due to heating of the water used to be simply absorbed by the city water supply.  It leads me to wonder if the local water utilities are notifying home owners when they change out the meters–and recommending installation of expansion tanks.

Sure enough, there was no expansion device on this system.  As the water heater sat heating away in the months while the house was vacant, the pressure was slowly building up in the system.  It is really a pretty easy fix–as simple as installing an expansion tank on the system.  All of this is why modern installations of water heaters all require some means of protecting the system against the buildup of undesirable pressure within the piping when a means of back-flow protection is present.

High water pressure can damage sensitive electronic valves, water shut-offs and other plumbing fittings–not to mention waste water.  Water conservation guidelines call for water pressure to be set below 70 psi.

So now you can see that figuring out what the water pressure is at the home is a little more complicated than just sticking a pressure gauge on a faucet and reading the gauge.

I know my own blood pressure is better now—how about yours—and how come humans don’t come with expansion tanks?

I certainly know a few that could use one.


By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle


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Electrical sub-panels—going against the rules

Electricity is fascinating stuff.

Whether it is the kind that you can stick a balloon on the ceiling with or the kind that can split a 150 foot Douglas Fir tree from top to bottom.

A long time ago, some dudes that were a heck of a lot smarter than me figured out that they could control the stuff and make it do work for us.  Few would argue the benefits of no longer going blind while trying to read by flickering candle light.  Of course it has allowed us to ignore the natural rhythms of the day and night, and our bodies have likely suffered accordingly–now the city never sleeps.

But back to controlling the stuff.

There are very specific rules related to electricity that must be obeyed to keep it where it belongs.  I am going to resist getting all technical here and suffice it to say that when we don’t keep it where it belongs it will still try to do its thing even if that means trying to “light up” the unsuspecting user.  For a light bulb to “work” we force current through a resister called the filament in the bulb.  Because the electricity has to work hard to get through the filament it heats up and starts to glow.  It is the glowing part that we are looking for–because now we can read past bedtime—and warm our hands with it—just like a candle.  As long as everything stays nicely contained inside the bulb and the wires all is good.

To cut to the chase, humans do not make very good light bulbs.  We either dance around insanely or we just lie there and don’t do anything–ever again.

On a recent inspection I found this electrical panel that was indeed a curiosity.

Very Strange Sub-Panel

Very Strange Sub-Panel

In most electrical circuits we need to have a hot wire and a neutral wire–of course 240 volt circuits are a little different, but in its own way a neutral is also present.  I don’t want to get into all that right now.  Of course in modern wiring there will be a ground wire too–but that is not necessary to make the light bulb light up or for you to light up.  The neutral wire is there to carry the unbalanced load of the circuit back to ground–or in the case of a circuit that has a ground and a neutral, whatever amount of current the appliance is using would travel on the neutral–and not the ground wire.  Whenever we use any electricity a small amount of current will always be running on this neutral wire back to ground in either a 240 volt circuit or  a 120 volt circuit.  If the current is too great–as in a short circuit–the fuse would blow or the breaker would trip.

So take a look at the panel above.

Only two wires?

Only two wires?

If you look closely, you can see there are only two wires coming into the box–there is no neutral wire at all.  You can see that each wire connects to the main lugs of the panel.  This means that any unbalanced load on the circuits is going to be traveling on the metal conduit that surrounds the two wires running into the panel.  This of course assumes that the metal conduit is in fact connected to ground back at the service panel.  (We can guess that this might be so because the circuits were in fact functional.)  Obviously anyone touching that metal conduit is at risk of electrical shock if they themselves are grounded.  Under the right (actually wrong) conditions the person might be electrocuted.

This is a fairly costly repair and a new wire will need to be run to the panel to make it safe.

The next logical question, one might be wondering about is, how did this get to be this way?

Well if you look at the panel you can see it is fairly new looking.  The wire in the conduit to the panel is old looking.  The original panel used to be a 120 volt panel—which would have only required two wires—one hot and one neutral.  Someone, at some point, wanted 240 volts at the panel location so they merely commandeered the neutral wire and made it a hot conductor–unaware (apparently) that they also needed a third wire to make everything safe for the 120 volt circuits that needed a neutral wire.

They have lost control of the electricity and it will make up its own mind where it wants to go.

Not a good plan.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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The infamous “nit-picker inspector” is apparently a myth?

As a home inspector this is an important question because we are accused of being nitpickers so often.

Lets nit-pic this roof

Lets nit-pic this roof

I will take some “liberties” with Wikipedia’s definition of “nitpicker.”

In defining a nitpicker, Wikipedia refers to “the pastime of finding mistakes in movies (homes) and television shows (buildings). These mistakes can range from very trivial mistakes that regular viewers (real estate agents and home buyers) don’t notice, to very serious mistakes which disrupt the suspension of disbelief in the show’s story for even casual viewers (first time home buyers).

I would argue that it is hardly a “pastime.”  One person’s trivial, is another person’s serious matter!  While most inspectors get a “charge” out of some of the crazy stuff we see, I think there are actually very few inspectors that go out of their way to get “creative” about what they see–except perhaps when they write about it on their blog.  In inspection reports that I routinely see, inspectors often ere on the side of so little information as to make the report meaningless and irrelevant to the purpose at hand.

This definition of nitpicking as a pastime is quite a departure from the origins of the phrase.  Originally it simply described someone that actually picked nits.  Before the days of delousing shampoos, for a person to be good at this job, it took incredible patience, persistence, vigilance, and thoroughness–and typically a large amount of “caring”–as well as super human powers of observation–to find every last nit.

Don’t these sound like the very qualities one would want to see in a good home inspector?

I guess that makes me proud to be considered a nit-picker.

No inspector can afford to be in a position of attempting to figure out what a buyer doesn’t want to learn about their home.

So who are these “nit-pickers” that agents refer to?

I would argue that that the ones that make a “pastime” of home inspections don’t really exist, but that instead, there are just agents that hate nits.  That is not to say there are no “lousy” inspectors or “lousy” agents.  Perhaps these agents had a bad experience with nits when they were a kid or with their own kids.  But as with kids–when they come home from school or day-care with that note that says:  “Little Jonnie has head lice,” you just have to dig in and deal with it.  Why would anyone think it would be any different with house defects?  Whether that house is lousy with louses or only has a couple of louses–sooner or later someone has to pick those nits!

It basically comes down to: “Too much information is never enough.”

After all–if you miss just one nit, the cycle starts all over again.

Now we don’t want that do we?


By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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