The Standards of Practice is a Guide—not a Bible

The Standards of Practice that home inspectors operate under are  a “minimum” standard.  It is important to understand that most home inspectors in order to provide better service to their client will go beyond these minimum standards.

Some home inspectors would have the world believe that the inspector opens themselves up to a Pandora ’s Box of liability if they mention anything that is not included in the Standards of Practice.

I come from the position that there are worse things than opening oneself up to perceived increase in liability.  To walk around the home and property with blinders on may more likely “increase” the inspector’s liability.

At a recent inspection, on a fairly large property, there were a couple of detached structures including a well house that serviced four or five other homes in the area.  As I walked around this structure I noted several covers and tubes in the ground.  One was about 16” in diameter with no cover.  Another one had a cover but it was not attached to anything.

Hidden dangers

Hidden dangers

Typically detached structures are not included in a Standard Home Inspection, and the inspector will usually negotiate whether they are excluded, included or partially included.  The cost of the inspection will be set accordingly.  On site, this usually involves a lot of pointing and shouting at these structures–with no written report.  In the case of a well house that is community property, any defects seen might be deferred to the homeowner’s association for further evaluation and repairs.  This would all typically be beyond the scope of the inspection and likely outside any Standards of Practice–except of course that these standards typically pretty much allow us to exclude whatever the parties agree to.

In the case of the above picture, one can see the open, water filled, tube at the top left and the underground storage tanks with unsecured cover next to it.  These are a safety concern for any children that might be playing in the area.  The large black covered tube at the upper left corner of the picture is the access cover to an underground storage tank for irrigation and as you can see the cover when removed in the picture below revealed that the tank was full of water.

Tank full of water

Tank full of water

Not only is the tank full of water and the opening big enough for a kid or pet to fall into, but the electrical connections to the pump in the tank are submerged in the water.

Does it increase an inspector’s liability to report on this or to not report on this–even though it is outside the Standards of Practice or what was agreed upon by the parties?

I for one am willing to increase my “liability” in pursuit of information that will protect my client–and possibly even protect those that are not my client.  For me, being “right” is of little comfort if someone dies.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

 

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Inspector or detective?

Inspectors are always playing “detective.”

In fact, in some countries detectives are known as “inspectors.”

We know the usual suspects.

Every home has the usual suspects. They are not always guilty, but we have to check them out none the less. We never want to discover that some crime has been missed—only to grow into a serial crime spree of untold proportions.

There are the nasty stains on the ceiling that have to be questioned.

We routinely use expensive devices to check around toilets and along shower stalls and tubs. It is very common for crimes to be committed in these areas.

Where chimneys penetrate the roof and ceiling are other areas that need to be checked.

Sometimes the perpetrator is guilty as charged; sometimes it is some past condition where the perpetrator has been “rehabilitated” and perhaps moved on to “greener” pastures in other jurisdictions.

But there seems to be no shortage.

Guilty as charged

Guilty as charged

What is really nice is when the perpetrator just steps right up and “confesses.”

 

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

 

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Strange Days Have Found Us

 

The Doors had it just about right in their 60’s song of the times.

It was not just the drugs and rock and roll—then again, maybe that was part of it.  Even in construction we saw things done that could only be described as “strange.”  Interior and exterior designs of buildings became popular that might be best described as the result of a bad acid trip.

A huge emphasis on flat roofs, minimal overhangs excessive glass were just a few of the features that were common in those days.

A serious lapse of common sense (or loss of brain cells) could be seen everywhere.  It was as if some building practice had been done another way before, it was by definition “wrong,” so all manner of former good building practices went out the window—all the while embracing worthwhile innovations that perhaps could have been arrived at no other way.

Regardless this post is about one of those things that got “thrown out the window”—that really should not have.  Only a collective smoking of the funny stuff could have possibly allowed this oversight to become common place.

Take a look at this picture.  I am sure the defect will jump out at almost everyone.

Be on your guard

Be on your guard

As a Seattle Home Inspector, I have to discuss the lack of a barrier at the balcony and on the stairs in the inspection report.  Is this a “repair” or an “upgrade?”

I know how I handled it—but what would you say?

Repair or Upgrade?

 

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

 

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Dampness and Indoor Air Quality in Coastal Pacific NW

Northwest Light

Northwest Light

I get lots of calls from people in the Seattle area about moisture issues inside their homes.  Sometimes these moisture issues are related to the building itself, such as: roof leaks, plumbing leaks, foundation leaks, flooded crawl spaces, etc.  Obviously these sorts of water issues are typically easy to identify and generally not complicated to address—even if repairs could be quite expensive (like foundation problems).

Perhaps even more common, are issues related to the way the building is being used by the occupants.

Sometimes both factors are involved and it becomes a process of elimination in fixing the issues.  I will refer to the first factor as “bulk water issues” while the latter factor is more of a “building science” issue.  Of course building science is involved with both, but moisture issues related to the occupants can require more head scratching as to cause and a solution will typically require “re-education” of the occupants–a seemingly daunting task.  It requires teaching them how the building functions and what they must know if they want to manage indoor moisture levels and its cousin indoor air quality.

While much of this post is directed at those living in the coastal northwest, much of it will be applicable to other areas.  For the best information about proper ventilation for moisture issues in your area, you should consult a qualified party in your area. The post also assumes there are NO bulk water issues that need to be addressed.

Sometimes, maintaining good indoor air quality requires a means of mechanical ventilation that the occupants have no control over. 

This is especially true of rental properties, where regardless of the amount of information given, the occupants cannot be counted on to use manually operated systems.

It really does not matter too much whether we are dealing with too much humidity in the indoor environment, or too little humidity, we still must understand what we, as occupants, are doing to cause the moisture problems (obviously readers in Syracuse have to think  about too little moisture in homes–at least in the winter).

Since we are not going to eliminate the occupants from the indoor environment we have to come to terms with managing the indoor environment.

It is my experience that the vast majority of home owners or tenants are clueless as to how to do this or that it is even necessary.

This becomes even more important as we seal homes up tighter and tighter to save energy.

We can go ten steps forward to save energy, but then we must go back one step for health and indoor air quality.

In this discussion we are going to assume that there are NO “bulk water” issues in the home.  We are also going to assume that there is no air conditioning of the home—or that at least that air conditioning is very infrequent—as is common in the naturally air conditioned NW.  Perhaps I will revisit this information some other time for those of you that live in hot/humid areas that “require” air conditioning.

The key to controling moisture in occupied spaces in the Northwest is ventilation.  It is likely that if you have moisture issues in your home, you likely have inadequate ventilation for the amount of moisture being produced.  So how do we introduce moisture into our homes?

We do it by:

Gas ranges,

Bathing,

Wet towels/ bathmats,

Watering plants,

Number of occupants,

Activities of occupants,

Evaporation from toilets and pet watering bowls (maybe there is a good reason to close the lid afterall),

Aquariums,

Clothes dryers,

Drying clothes indoors,

Clothes washers,

Dishwashers,

Sports equipment/clothing,

Firewood etc.

What are signs of excess moisture indoors?

Mold behind the toilet tank or on the bottom of the tank,

Condensation on windows—especially double pane windows,

Condensation on metal or vinyl window frames,

Mold growth behind bureaus, and other furniture placed against the walls,

Mold growth behind storage in closets,

Mold growth and condensation on bathroom walls and ceilings,

Mold growth inside tub and shower enclosures.

Some areas of high moisture can be very difficult to control with spot ventilation and a ventilation fan must be run for longer periods of time (showers with closed glass doors may never dry properly–so leave the door open if possible—to some extent this is a “design” issue).  Some newer exhaust fans can be run continuously at very low CFM and then increase as the need arises–even humidistat controlled.  For the average bathroom exhaust fan, if you are not running the fan for an hour after showering, the bathroom may still be under-ventilated.  Squeegeeing showers after use and raising the temperature in the bathroom will greatly reduce ventilation time and greatly reduce condensation in the room in general.

When we add moisture to the indoor environment by any or all of the above mentioned methods, we must ensure that adequate ventilation is happening or eventually the moisture will build up in the air to the point of saturation and then the moisture will leave the air and condense on the cooler surfaces behind furniture etc.  When this happens, surfaces become moist enough to support the growth of mold.  Keeping rooms throughout the home at relatively uniform temperatures is important, but becomes less important if we control humidity with adequate ventilation.

One of the most common locations where temperatures are not maintained adequately is behind tightly closed blinds/curtains.  The warm moist air is attracted to the cooler area of the glass and condensation happens.  Leaving blinds open a bit on the bottom will typically be adequate (unless moisture levels are really high) but even leaving them up a bit, will likely still be a problem with single pane windows (perhaps one of the best reason to upgrade windows).

Obviously this practice decreases overall energy efficiency, but is a part of that step back that is necessary for indoor air quality.  It may not be possible to be 100% energy efficient and maintain good indoor air quality at the same time.

No amount of understanding about how to clean up mold growth will help prevent mold continually coming back if we do not address the ventilation problem or the moisture creation problem.

Occupants of homes must learn how to minimize the ways that moisture is introduced into the indoor environment, as well as how to manage what is introduced.

So let’s get to the heart of the matter.

Are your exhaust fans functional?

If you have none, that alone is a big hint.

This does not simply mean that they make noise when you turn them on.  This does not mean just the exhaust fans in your bathrooms either.  How about your laundry exhaust fan?  What do you mean you never use it or do not have one?  How about your kitchen range hood?  But it only vents to the inside you say?  Kitchen exhaust fans must vent to the exterior and on my planet you would not be able to operate the range if the hood did not come on.  Cooking without a vent hood can add tremendous amounts of moisture to the indoor environment—depending on the types of cuisine being cooked—and especially if it is a gas stove.

Do you know for a fact that the fans are pulling air from the building and exhausting it to a proper location at the exterior?  Are you sure that when you close the bathroom door that the door does not seal so tightly that function of the fan is reduced?  Are you sure that when all windows and doors (in the rest of the home–not just the bathroom) are tightly closed (all with nice energy saving weather-stripping) that the function of the fan is not reduced?  Is there “ghosting” around the edges of doors that show one of the pathways of how air is being drawn into the building?

Newer and smaller houses have more problems with inadequate fan function than older bigger houses, because leaky houses provide make-up air for the exhaust fans easier.  The saving grace with newer homes is that they typically are going to have some means of guaranteeing (theoretically) air changes and a means of bringing in make-up air as well as changing the air in the home (at least in WA State since 1991).  It might be as simple as recommending that the occupant set the timer they didn’t even know they had.

As the damp in the indoor environment increases, so do other things related to a reduction in indoor air quality.  In this sense, the damp is the primary problem while the others can be more secondary issues.  Fixing the damp condition will alleviate some of the other concerns.  Obviously mold is one component of this damp that will be eliminated with proper ventilation and a reduction of moisture conditions, but so too will other larger components of the dirty air be reduced–such as dust mites, shedding pets, shedding humans and household dust.

It is not the focus of this post to go into the long list of contributors to poor indoor air quality because they can happen irrespective of a moisture issue, but many can be exacerbated by high moisture levels and most can be greatly reduced by adequate ventilation.

Ventilation has to be able to keep up with the rate at which these offending elements are being added to the indoor environment.  Here is a partial list of such contributors to poor indoor air quality:

Interior building materials (including new carpet),

Furnishings,

Household products (cleaners, body care products, soaps/detergents, fabric softener, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products.  Perhaps the movie “Hairspray” was actually a horror movie?),

Paints/finishes,

Combustion by-products (Carbon Monoxide, Nitrogen Dioxide)

Smoking,

Pets (four dogs and three cats?),

Dry-cleaned clothing,

Formaldehyde,

Pesticides (ant traps for example)

Moth repellants,

Wood burning stoves/appliances,

Air fresheners etc.

Many homes suffer from multiple items on this list and yet “mold” is deemed to be the culprit.  Mold is just a small component of poor indoor air quality and the aim should be to eliminate, or at least “manage,” all of the offending parties.

One of the common excuses I hear as to why people do not want to increase ventilation is that they are worried that bringing all that 35 degree, 100% humid, Seattle air into the home is going to make things worse.  Fortunately for homes in the NW, the building science does not allow it to work like that.  As that cold air comes in and warms up to the indoor temperature its humidity drops to below the humidity of the indoor air.  As it mixes with the indoor air, the overall humidity is actually reduced.  We can thus actually lower overly humid indoor spaces by bringing in that cold wet air.

The science may be counter-intuitive but I guess that is why it is called science—and why intuition may not be a good thing to rely on all the time.

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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I may be from Mars—but these new receptacles are not!

One of the more obscure, but interesting, changes to the 2014 NEC that Washington State has adopted and goes into effect July 1st, is the requirement for receptacles that are controlled by dimmer switches to be a special type of receptacle. These new receptacles will not allow plugging something into them that cannot or should not be.

Dimmer Receptacle and Plug (From the Lutron Website)

Dimmer Receptacle and Plug (From the Lutron Website—click on the image for more info)

Obviously the lamp that plugs into them will require a special plug that goes with the receptacle.

When I first heard about these, I really wanted to see what they looked like. All the bigger electrical supply houses in Seattle that I have checked, as well as the big box stores, looked at me as if I had landed from Mars or something.

Manufacturers have them up on their website and the following picture is from the Lutron site for all of you, like me, that have yet to see one on this planet.

I probably will start to see them soon, now that the 2014 NEC is going into effect.

Perhaps the electrical supply houses are about to find out what they are—and they will no longer look at me as if I am from Mars.

 

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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