Just one more bite?

Lately it seems I have had a run of BIG inspections.

The inspections and the writing of the reports for these big inspections is akin to eating an elephant. The only way to accomplish it, without being overwhelmed, is to go at it systematically—one bite at a time–the same way one eats an elephant.

On a recent commercial inspection, an inspection that took most of the day to inspect and another day to write the report, the eating-the-elephant analogy was useful once again.

At this inspection, in one of the several attics in the building, there was this giant wasp’s nest.

I got to thinking about the elephant and wondered if the construction of one of these nests was a bit like eating an elephant–one bite at a time. Of course wasps get LOTS of help–it is not just one mouth constructing the nest.

In a similar manner, I as the building inspector am just one “wasp” building the nest of the transaction for the whole sale. All of the different wasps have to tend to their own elephant to the best of their abilities in order for the whole nest/transaction to turn into a success.

Can you imagine trying to eat the entire transaction all in one bite? That sounds like an event more explosive than the one more bite of Monte Python’s Mr. Creosote!

Wouldn’t it to be nice if all of us involved in the transaction were as perfect as wasps? The wasp has no choice but to do a perfect job–every single time–every single bite!

Just one more bite?

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Indictment of the Green Movement (The Sequel)

Several years ago I wrote a post called, “A Reasoned Indictment of the Green Movement.”
In that post I detailed a method of building super-insulated houses that did not cost any more than conventional 2×4 houses. A question that came up in comments on that article boiled down to, “That sounds great, but how are they doing now, some 30 to 40 years later.”

I had no adequate answer to the question, so I made it my mission to get back and check on some of them. Fortunately some of them were still occupied by, or at least owned by, the people I originally designed and built them for. I made the trip to the Oswego/Syracuse NY area this past summer and had a blast reconnecting with my clients and visiting the homes.

It is not without a certain amount of trepidation that one takes a step into the past like this.

The very first house I ever designed and built was this house in Oswego NY.  Being just before the Bi-Centennial Year, it even had the Armstrong flooring with the printed date on it.

The first, 1975, 2x6 construction

The first, 1975, 2×6 construction

It was the only house I built on a concrete foundation—concrete block actually. All the houses that would follow, were built on wood foundations.  It has some early passive solar ideas built into it but was a far cry from where the houses would be 10 years later.

Some of the angst over these homes revolved around them being built on wood foundations. While all the homes appeared to be doing fine, the least of their problems were the wood foundations.

Of all of the houses I designed and built, I think my favorite is the octagon house I originally designed for myself but built for my clients in 1983. But before I discuss that house, I will post some pictures of the houses that came before that. There were others besides these, but these are the ones I visited, or at least drove by to take some pictures.

The next two were done in 1976/77. I truly had no life back then as I would work on my client’s house from 4 in the morning until about noon and then go home and work on my own house until it was too dark to see.

1976/77, 2x8 construction with sliding interior insulated shutters.

1976/77, 2×8 construction with sliding interior insulated shutters.


1976/77, 2x6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.

1976/77, 2×6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.


1976/77, 2x6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.

1976/77, 2×6 construction

In 1978, came the duplex that was entered in the 1979 New York State Energy Research & Development Administration (NYSERDA) competition and was one of the winners published in 1979 NYSERDA Passive Solar Design Awards.

1978, Duplex, 2x8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters.

1978, Duplex, 2×8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters.



1980?, 2×8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters. (The addition with the inadequate overhang at the back of the house came later, as did the wrap around deck.)

And now the real stuff starts.

1983 begins the use of 2×10 truss type studs for wall framing. The first of these was in 1983, in Skaneateles, NY—the octagon house.


1983, 2×10 truss studs, with interior insulating shutters

This made the walls R-42+, with R-50+ in the attic—all blown cellulose fiber insulation. There were insulated shutters for the windows.

Before visiting this home, I figured that for sure the shutters would be long gone. But nope, like most of the interior, it looked like the day I left it 33 years ago.


The custom cabinets, built on site, also looked like the day I left.


This house was constructed over a crawl space, and even though it has totally inadequate ventilation by today’s standards, moisture levels in woodwork throughout the space were well below 10%. A double 6 mil vapor barrier under 4 inches of concrete and a small dehumidifier can be credited with these moisture levels. Interestingly, this house is in a high radon area, and levels tested well below 4pCi/L. This result is consistent with all properly installed wood foundation systems that naturally resist radon infiltration to the home.


At the time I built this house there was an idea that felt paper was not really necessary under shingles. All my building career I had the good fortune of having clients that were as big of risk takers as I was and were willing to try out new ideas. After 32 years the roof needed replacement (not bad for a standard 3-tab shingle roof) and the owners were kind enough to share pictures taken of the roof replacement. Here is a picture of one of the segments with just the roof sheathing showing.


My immediate reaction was, “VERY nice job replacing the sheathing!” His reply was, “No—that is YOUR sheathing!” I couldn’t believe it. It looked like the day I installed it 32 years earlier. Note that even along the edge, there has clearly been no ice-damming or signs of moisture at all. As you can see in this next picture, there is ample opportunity for ice damns with the normal snow fall in the area.


By modern standards the attic space would be considered “under-ventilated” yet the attic looked as pristine as the day I left it. This is a testament to 14 inches of blown cellulose fiber insulation, vapor barriers painted on walls and ceilings, raised heel trusses, and adequate air sealing.


The attic as pristine as the day I left it

The next house was done somewhere around 1985, and I was only able to do a drive-by of this house.

1985 or so, 2x10 truss studs

1985 or so, 2×10 truss studs

The last house I built in the area was 1988.  I was fortunate enough to be able to spend the night with my good friends and clients on this visit.

1988, 2x10 truss studs, R-60 in roof.

1988, 2×10 truss studs, R-60 in roof.

With this house I learned that even I am capable of inadequate installation of cellulose fiber, as some settlement was noted with infrared camera.


The purple area at the ceiling to the right of the stove pipe is an area of settlement.

While I still am sure it is possible to install cellulose fiber so it does not settle, I am now equally sure it can be installed such that it does settle. When you have walls that essentially have no boundaries—as with truss type studs, it is difficult to get the necessary compaction consistently throughout the wall cavity.


The anatomy of a truss stud wall

Newer high density installation processes would eliminate this concern and of course these spaces can easily be re-packed with minimal invasiveness. My estimate for this house was that settlement amounted to about one good sized window—and of course the wall would still have a higher R-value than any double pane window.

So while most of these houses seemed to be behaving themselves remarkably well, they still had a lot to teach me. Like any home, some need maintenance more than others. All could benefit from more modern standards and certainly could benefit from what I know now as opposed to what I knew then.

But I guess this is how progress is made. This last house, now 28 years old, had a recent blower door test of under 1 ACH50 (air changes per hour at 50 Pascals). Not too bad when compared to the cost of homes today that meet that level of tightness.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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I think I will skip the home inspection—but thanks for asking!

Having a home inspection done in the context of a home purchase is pretty common now.

This was not always the case.  There is still some resistance to getting them done and the perception they are not necessary is still strong in some cases.

noinspection1For example, some people see new construction as less risky and forego a home inspection.  While this may certainly be truer than it would be for a 100 year old home, the reality is that in the newly constructed homes that I have inspected, I have never not found at least the cost of the inspection in defects. 

With new construction the buyer actually has a ghost of a chance of having these defects fixed by the seller/builder.  They might just be pissing into the wind when making the same requests on an older home–especially if the home is bank owned or the seller is seriously under water.  Even cosmetic issues will usually get fixed on new construction.

Another example of where home inspections are not done is when everyone knows there is going to be multiple offers made on the home. 

Sometimes buyers are coached that if they waive inspection they might be held in a more favorable light than the offer that comes in contingent on inspection.

Makes perfect sense!

It makes perfect sense at least on paper.  But as is so common with so many things in life, if one is not careful one gets what one wants.  I did a “walk-through” inspection the other day for a buyer that wanted me to give the house a quick look-see prior to making an actual offer on the home.  The problem is that after the walk-through there were some expensive issues that would need to be addressed and the buyer would not have considered making an offer without an inspection contingency.

In my market there are people willing to just run naked and blind into a deal by waving the inspection.  In this case the prevailing buyer was willing to wave inspection.  It was a pretty good example of “not knowing what you do not know.”  Based on the very superficial walk-through (actually crawl through too–as I still had to take a look at the crawl space), here are a few of the things that a buyer would have to deal with–sooner or later.

1. The listing stated the house was built in 1950:  Actually, the first part, was constructed in the early 40’s and completely remodeled at least twice–the latest in the early 60’s.  In the context of this remodeling two additions were made to the house resulting in not one but three crawl spaces.

2. No vapor barrier in any of the crawl spaces:  The largest crawl space, approximately 16’x30,’ had NO access at all, due to inadequate clearances.  None of the crawl spaces had a plastic ground cover.

3. Heating ducts lying on the ground:  This was true of all of the crawl space with no access.

4. High moisture levels in the woodwork of accessible crawl spaces:  This condition would likely be even worse in the crawl space with no access that also had no foundation vents.

5. A current leak in the corner of the inaccessible crawl space:  This leak will not be going away on its own.  From the opening I could see where the leak was, but could not get to it due to lack of access.  Vegetation growing in the area and obvious decay/rot in the rim joist and sill plate in the area was testament to this leak being long standing. In the following picture–taken by sticking my camera over the ductwork that made the crawl space inaccessible–one can see the wet ground and the wet foundation covered with vegetation in the far right corner.


6. Missing crawl space vents:  the original house foundation had two vents open and two covered over.  The other two crawl spaces had none.

7. Wood roof needed significant repairs:  Not a deal killer but certainly something that needed to be addressed.

8. The flat roof over the attached carport was leaking:  Of course the fact that the downspout location had been covered over with roofing materials and forced the roof to drain over the edge was a bit of a problem.

9. Zinsco electric panel:  Again not a deal killer but something that needed to be addressed.  The fact that all the wiring from the panel to the home was run underground through 12’ of 2″ conduit from the attached carport closet into the crawl space of the home was a significant problem.  None of the wiring run through the conduit was rated for installation underground—and of course that many wires should not be bundled together regardless.


10. Rodent infestation in the crawl space:  This was a no-brainer given the number of access points noted.

11. Leaking at Master Bath Shower:  Somewhere, buried in the shower wall, there was a leak.  When the water to the shower was turned on, water poured into the crawl space around the pipe running to the shower.  It had been doing this for a LONG time given the amount of “washing” of the crawl space floor.

I am sure there was an even dozen, but I think you can get the picture

This house had GREAT curb appeal, awesome interior, killer yard and overall pretty well built.

Don’t be tempted by the lure of waiving inspection.

It is likely to be a false economy.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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