We are not inspecting houses of horrors.

Home inspectors have a lot of fun sharing house horror pictures that show how poorly things get installed in homes and “fixed” in homes, but I am concerned with an over emphasis on defect recognition in inspection training.  It can leave inspectors unable to truly communicate what is actually going on and therefore inhibit recommendations that may be necessary.  Ultimately it leads us further down the road to mediocrity.

The question is: Can students be better trained by showing them thousands of examples of defects or by teaching them how things are installed correctly, and why things should be installed a particular way? Or perhaps a combination of all three?

A home inspector could see thousands of wrong installations of something and someone will always come up with some installation of that component they have never seen before. If the inspector is trained on the proper installation of components in the home, the defects make themselves visible.

No cornucopia of defects can show a person the correct way to do it.

Proof of what I say (for those of us that follow the home inspector forums), is, every day someone posts “Is this wrong?” type pictures. Now if they knew how the item should be installed, knew the codes or MFG instructions about how the item should be installed, knew a bit of the science of how things work, there never would have been a question in the first place.

Inspectors must also have a good grasp of the “history” of requirements as well. Codes change, manufacturer’s instructions change, and new products come on line all the time. Are we seriously going to wait until defects with these products get added to the mountain?

I think setting up demonstrations of some conditions can be useful, but attempts at “building-the-mountain” of possible defects just supports the myth that learning every defect is somehow more important than learning the hows and whys. Add to that the shear impossibility of doing such a thing. 

Entertaining inspectors is not the same as teaching inspectors.

Where Snake Oil comes from

The home inspector does not even have to find all the issues, as long as he or she adequately communicates the house condition to the the client.

There is one thing that teaching the “hows” and “whys” cannot really deal with and that is “product defects.” For this we must rely on experience and ongoing involvement with our peers–by not living under logs where we do not get wind of information about such issues. While we hide under our log, our peers are most certainly sitting together on the log figuring out how to deal with these issues. Knowledge is power.

If all we did is study the codes and manufacturer installation instructions we would not be awake to older LP Siding, Polybutylene piping, and a host of recalls. So these are things we must embrace as well.

Fortunately they are a very small hill however compared to the mountain of other information we must embrace.

Because home inspectors are under the illusion they can learn all the possible defects, they will never come to an understanding of how the component was supposed to be installed in the first place.

It is interesting to me that learning a mountain of defects is a larger hurtle than learning the hows and whys and yet we continue to choose the bigger mountain. I think it is the sheer pleasure derived from looking at wacko installations that encourages this.

Some of the blame for why inspectors are taught to learn this way, goes to the home inspection training programs around the country. A lot of these programs are geared too much to teaching what inspectors will find wrong in the field. There is not so much attention paid to the science of houses, or the proper installation of components, whether it is how it relates to manufacturers requirements or the code requirements of component installation.

This leads to the erroneous notion that the best inspectors are ones that come from the trades–this does not have to be the case and often is not the case.  While they may have a better working knowledge of their particular “component” of the house it still does not mean they are going to have a clue about many of the others.

However, the more an inspector can embrace an understanding of “How Things Work,” and “Manufacturer’s Installation Instructions, and the “Building Codes, very little actual teaching of defects is necessary—the defects simply speak out loud and clear for themselves.

We have all heard the statement “We are not code inspectors,” which reinforces this approach. If you want to routinely have egg on your face, ignore the codes and manufacturer’s requirements. Oh, and also, crawl back under that log.

Did you guys hear there is something fishy in the water?

No repertoire of horrors can ever teach a person how something should be installed or constructed.
They are fun—not much more.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

If you enjoyed this post, and would like to get notices of new posts to my blog, please subscribe via email in the little box to the right. I promise NO spamming of your email! 🙂

Is your insulation doing what you think it is doing?

I do not want to tackle the huge ugly topic of whether fiberglass insulation should be used at all–as it frequently is in attics.

For today, I just want to talk about one obvious issue with fiberglass insulation that prevents it from performing as expected.

The short version of what is wrong with fiberglass insulation is that it is not an air barrier, therefor, if it is not encapsulated and air sealed on all six sides its performance suffers. In an attic, at most, only five sides is likely to be sealed leaving the entire top not sealed.

This post is about the sides, which can and must be air sealed. The vented sides are typically not adequately air sealed, especially along the eaves. Insulation baffles, designed to keep insulation out of the lower roof venting and to allow for air flow into the attic, rarely gets adequately sealed.

Soffit vent that allows air flow into the attic

Because the baffle/top plate connection is not air sealed, and because fiberglass insulation represents very little resistance to air flow, air pushes its way into the attic right through the insulation. As it does this, it either cools the ceiling in the area, or warms the ceiling in the area depending on the season and/or side of the house.

In the winter and/or the north side of the home, the air will tend to make the ceiling cooler in the area of the vent. In the summer, especially on the sun side, the air will tend to warm the ceiling in the area of the vent. This will increase both heating and cooling loads of the home.

This next picture shows what that area looks like at the interior ceiling with Infrared camera on the South side of the home. Warm air is moving through the insulation and warming the ceiling.

In the same house on the North side we can see how the ceiling area near the vent, as indicated by infrared camera, is “cooler.” In the actual picture we can see the fungal growth present because this vent happens to be in the area of the bathroom. The moisture in the bathroom condenses on the cooler surface creating a perfect environment for mold growth.

The only real repair for this condition is to pull back the insulation and properly air seal the gaps where the insulation baffle and the house framing meet.

Spray foams are good for sealing the areas where the baffle makes contact with the framing as indicated in the circle in the picture above. Of course, in a perfect world, we would not use fiberglass insulation at all, and instead use types of insulation that are much better at stopping the flow of air. Cellulose fiber insulation can do a much better job at this.


Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

Sometimes the inspector must be wishy-washy

Most of the time, in report writing, it is advisable to be as clear and to the point as possible.

leaking around toiletWhen reporting on issues discovered in the home, we want to describe what the issue is, what the consequences will be if nothing is done, and what repairs should be made and who should make the repairs. Most of the time this is not difficult for an inspector, and the more experienced the inspector is, the number of times this is not the case goes down.

Sometimes however, it simply is not possible to “know” with any degree of certainty what is “actually” going on, or what the “actual” consequences will be.

An all too common example of this is moisture around toilets.

How can the inspector determine this? Well obviously if the area is visible from a crawl space and the floor is all wet, the written narrative is pretty easy and straightforward. But let’s say it is a second floor bathroom with no access under the toilet. If the inspector checks around the toilet with a moisture meter, and they notice what appears to be moisture under the floor covering, can the inspector categorically state there is moisture under the floor covering?  If there is in fact moisture under the floor covering can the inspector tell how much damage there is or is not?

They certainly should not conclude there is moisture under the floor without other forms of confirmation. Some types of floor coverings will allow moisture meters to indicate either “false positive” or “false negative” readings.  A lack of temperature differential will even result in thermal imaging to be of little use–or at least to a high level of confidence.

If salts are present around the toilet, this could confuse the moisture meter. Houses with boys can often have this issue. Cleaning the floor can often eliminate this variable.

I routinely hear of home inspectors stating something like: Moisture was noted around the toilet as indicated by moisture meter. I recommend repairs by a licensed plumber.” The plumber subsequently shows up and finds nothing wrong with the toilet seal when the toilet is removed and no indication of moisture under the toilet.

There are two big problems with the inspector’s statement. Just because the moisture meter says there is moisture does not mean there is moisture, and repairs may not be necessary.

So the inspector has a problem.

How do we communicate this finding to the client?

All we can do is comment something like this: “A moisture meter was used to check for moisture in the floor around the toilet and it indicated the possibility of moisture. The only way to know for sure is to remove the toilet and check. False positives are possible and common. I recommend further evaluation by a licensed plumber and if any leaking is found I recommend that proper repairs be made as deemed necessary. Damage discovered may also involve other parties that might need to make repairs to the structures under the toilet. Hidden damage is common, but often times there is no damage. This is especially true when the toilet is in fact leaking, but moisture is confined between layers of floor coverings.”

How is that for wishy-washy?  However, this is what is necessary to communicate an issue that cannot be “positively” confirmed in the context of the home inspection. Stating that there “is” moisture is not adequate and stating there “is not” moisture is not adequate.

Sometimes the inspector MUST be wishy-washy.

Black and White has little place in the lives of home inspectors, and sometimes we must live in the greys and is part of establishing inspection expectations.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

If you enjoyed this post, and would like to get notices of new posts to my blog, please subscribe via email in the little box to the right. I promise NO spamming of your email! 🙂