Do I invite the wolf in—or try to keep him out?

Do I invite the wolf in—or try to keep him out?

Everyone knows the story of the three pigs. From that story, we learned that we should all build our houses out of brick if we are to keep the wolfs at bay.

disintegrating brick columnOur houses have to deal with all kinds of wolfs. There are water-wolves, earthquake-wolves, tornado-wolves, wind-wolves and the dreaded lightening-wolves.

No matter what we build our houses out of, they all need to be maintained or the wolf WILL get in.

This house wasbuilt in 1902 and I discovered, much to my buyers chagrin, that the wolf was having his way with the brick foundation. Those pesky mortar-wolves were patiently eating away at the foundation. Almost anything after 116 years would likely show deterioration and certainly all three of the pigs are dead by now regardless of their choice of building materials. The brick foundation has done its job quite well considering the number of significant wolf-quakes it has stood up to.

But now it is likely beyond repair—or at least extensive repairs that would amount to a new foundation will be necessary. The mortar joints and bricks are crumbling and some beams are no longer supported at all.

Unsupported beam and collapsed brick

Unsupported beam and failed brick

Unsupported beam and failed brick

Unsupported beam and failed brick

Someone will have to make a decision as to whether to let the wolves have it—or to try and keep them at bay for a few more years.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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“Will it stand the light of day,” asked the sow bug?

Home inspectors look for clues to hidden conditions.

For example using a very bright flashlight at a tight angle to scan across a wall or ceiling surface is indispensable in evaluating interior spaces.

Such scanning can find indications of crappy drywall installations, previous repairs to surfaces, closed-in windows and swelling related to water leaks. This one technique can save an inspector a lot of embarrassment later–even while displaying conditions that are “normal” in the seemingly unfavorable light of the bright flashlight.

Agents sometimes grimace a bit when I use this technique, because even normal drywall unevenness will show up under the bright light. Sometimes a little education on what a normal drywall surface looks like is necessary to calm the buyer and the agent, but this is usually not difficult and most appreciate the kinds of information that can be discovered with this approach.

I am sure we have all witnessed the sun shining across a wall or ceiling at this same sort of tight angle displaying for the first time all the drywall seams and nail pops and sunken fasteners–conditions previously “invisible.” All kinds of smooth-wall finishes have some sort of “signature” under bright light.

The inspector can read these signatures to obtain important information as to the condition of the home. This approach is a method of looking for clues.

But, the inspector must be vigilant and ever mindful that sometimes new clues present themselves that can give fair warning as to possible hidden conditions. Such a clue presented itself to me at an inspection recently. I often find the carcasses of sow bugs in the cobwebs and dust bunnies of closet corners. I would typically note their presence because it can often mean there is some wood decay rot present “somewhere” nearby.  These kinds of conditions are what sow bugs love.

In a similar vein, what is an inspector to conclude when several earthworms are noted squirming across the finished basement floors in several areas?

“It is a safe bet,” the sow bugs say, “That there is a nice compost bin hidden ‘somewhere’ behind those finished walls.”

On this day the flash light did not reveal the hiding place of the compost bin–but in time it may.

 

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Your house is an island

Crawl spaces can be one of the biggest contributors of moisture in the attic space. Crawl spaces with exceptionally high moisture levels can overwhelm even crawl spaces that have “technically” adequate ventilation. Moisture as vapor (a gas) will move from the crawl space, through the living space, and end up in the attic where it can condense on the cold roof sheathing. This moisture vapor can overwhelm an attic that also has “technically” adequate ventilation.

On a recent inspection, I had such a crawl space. Much of the crawl space had flooded to such an extent that the vapor barrier was either floating or covered with water.

water-in-crawl-space1

The technically adequate ventilation was unable to deal with this much water. The wooden form-ties had rotted away long ago and evidence of water intrusion was obvious.

water-in-crawl-space2

The high humidity was finding its way through the living space and condensing on the underside of the cold roof surface. Staining and mold or mold-like fungal growth was evident on much of the roof sheathing.

Dark stained areas were actually dripping water

Dark stained areas were actually dripping water

While if there had been adequate ventilation of the attic space, the condition might not have been quite as bad, I have seen attics with technically perfect ventilation that appeared worse than the following picture.  It is more related to the number of pathways that the moisture can find to travel.

An attic with "perfect" ventilation

An attic with “perfect” ventilation

Condensation was such that water was actually dripping out from between the boards at the stained areas of the soffits at the exterior.

water-in-crawl-space4

Homes with this condition can also see lots of condensation on single pane windows or metal window frames as the moisture moves through the living space. To add insult to injury, if exhaust fans are not used or are not functional, the moisture conditions in the attic will be exacerbated.

So what is the cause of this problem?

Some will say that it is the moisture in the crawl space–but is it really?

The real cause of the problem is inadequate, non-functional or non-existent drainage around the exterior of the home and/or improper termination of roof drains. When a home is built, the exterior drainage should not be just an afterthought–it is perhaps one of the most important design considerations. All too often it is not even considered, or just plain ignored.

Too much water in the crawl space is merely a symptom of the problem. Some approaches to repairs will attempt to address the symptoms–and this is where the snake-oil salesmen show up at the door.

Attempts to deal with the problem from the interior are almost always going to be less than ideal–whether it is interior foundation sealing approaches, or interior drainage and sump pump installations. While under some circumstances these approaches may be all that is possible, by far the best approach is to install proper drainage around the exterior of the home such that water can never approach the crawl space (or basement for that matter).

While you may be able to reduce the amount of water inside the crawl space to the point that it is not affecting the attic, it can still be impacting the soils under the house footings leading to structural issues.

A good French drain that both collects surface run-off and has a drain at the bottom below the depth of the house footing will essentially leave the house crawl space an “island” higher than the perimeter drainage. This is particularly effective for homes that back up against steep hillsides with high water tables. Somehow the house must be isolated from all this water.

Of course installing proper drains to collect the roof water–independent of the ground water drains–is essential as well.

Many houses are built such that this “island” approach is not possible–these are typically houses that should never have been built where they are in the first place–but that topic is best left for another rant.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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