Proximity to stupid people can affect us deleteriously

The other day I did a post about how to change an electric water heater. The post was about why installing a water heater on your own is a bad idea for most people. The post includes a list of things that if you aren’t familiar with might be an indication that you might want to let someone else do the job.

This got me thinking about other aspects of the home and how there are many things about our homes in general that we might not know enough about. To tackle repairs to these components, or actually creating these components, might be beyond our knowledge and skills. Even thinking, “how complicated can it be” is proof of lack of understanding. Having someone more qualified do these things to our homes, or getting more education ourselves, might be in order.

Even for experienced professionals, the codes can be sinuous and complicated. It often takes years to learn the nuances and “exceptions” to what is allowed or not allowed. The fact that so many issues are found even in new construction, done by trained professionals, is proof that even professionals get it wrong at times.

When homeowners tackle these same installations, the number of defects typically skyrockets. This is not always the case, but certainly enough to prove how necessary code enforcement is.

Americans are cowboys and we all live in the Wild West.

None of us likes being told what to do and yet many of “us” (the collective us) have created the codes over the years either by recognizing the necessity for them–or have earned them by burning down our own house and our neighbor’s house with our “projects.”

It is not easy to get codes implemented or changed because of the “cowboy” factor. In a way it is a check-and-balance for anyone that gets too gung-ho for some particular change.

Population density makes these codes even more important as proximity to stupid people can affect us deleteriously.

Because of this, the codes are there to add a layer of protection from each other. So while your home may be your castle, your castle today must be a safe castle for you, your family and for whomever you sell it to or invite over for a slumber party or kegger.

The house has become a complicated assembly of inter-related, inter-dependent components that can only be understood in the context of the whole building and the environment it lives in. Altering one thing can affect something somewhere else. Here are a few examples of modifications that might affect something that someone doing the project on their own might not think about:

Adding a mother-in-law apartment in the basement that the septic system is not designed for.

Creating a 4th bedroom in the garage on the original HVAC sytem. (And by the way, are you aware that the joists you use in that floor system over the old garage floor have to be pressure treated lumber if there is not access, and that legal access means 18” clearance?)

Finishing rooms in a basement with no means of secondary egress/escape and rescue.

Did you know that when you create finished spaces in the basement, the basement light that switches at the top of the stairs now must have a switch at the bottom of the stairs as well?

Stairs that are “grandfathered” as access to an unfinished basement may have to be upgraded to current standards when the basement is finished off.

There are endless examples like this–some more subtle—some less subtle.

The point is that in the permit process for your project, all the things you might not have thought of, will be thought of by the plans examiner, when they check out the plans for your project.

WHAT PLANS?

You mean I have to have “plans?”

It is amazingly easy to change lines on paper compared to concrete in the ground.

A building permit can easily be one of the least expensive parts of your project and should be seen as an investment—not an infringement of human rights.

While any given contractor might do some aspect of your project wrong, it is usually considerably easier to correct that error than it might be to start the whole project over.

While jurisdictional oversight is typically not what you might think it should be (we typically are not willing to pay what it would take for adequate oversight), it generally catches the big stuff and the safety issues.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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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

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Going above and beyond

As home inspectors we hear over and over that if we go outside the standards of practice we open ourselves up to more liability. 

Let’s put liability aside for a moment (or at least come at it from a different angle) and discuss another good reason for going beyond the standards of practice.  To the degree that we provide a level of detail beyond the sop’s we can have a pool of information to better support what we did or did not do during the inspection. 

This can be accomplished not only by providing more detailed information in the report itself but also by having a large number of pictures that support both the written report and also provide a resource that one can go back to if questions arise.  With excessive pictures (350 to 450 for the “average” home) the inspector can essentially repeat the inspection from their computer.

greatbeyondWe all hate those calls that begin with: “A couple of months ago you inspected my home……..” 

Ninety-nine percent of the time the rest of the sentence goes something like, “…..and now we would like you to inspect another one for us.” 

We keep our fingers crossed about the sentence not continuing with, “…..and you missed XY & Z and we want to know what you are going to do about it.”

I can argue that the number of calls like this goes way down as the level of detail in the report goes up. 

I witness this in the discussions I have with other inspectors that strictly adhere to the sop’s and who routinely surrender the cost of the inspection back to their clients, or pay even larger amounts in claims for things actually missed or that they had no way of “proving” that they did not miss. 

I have even known inspectors that just consider some amount of reverse flow of money a “normal” cost of doing business.  I think it is important to keep this reverse flow of money to a minimum.  I have always been able to support either in the written report or in photos what the “truth” of the matter was.  Given that in 13+ years I have only had two such incidents, I jump to the conclusion that I am doing something right.  In the first of these incidents there were four items that were claimed to have been missed and all were sufficiently covered in the report–and in redundant fashion–and were even in the summary.  Sometimes it is helpful to read the report.

In this case, the client simply did not sufficiently read the report, but instead relied too heavily on what was discussed during the inspection.  While tons of stuff will be discussed during the inspection, it is fairly typical for issues that are not deal breakers to either not be fully discussed or possibly not be discussed at all during the inspection and only fully revealed in the context of the completed report.

In this one instance I should have perhaps made it clearer that the report was paramount to the most complete understanding of the house’s condition.  In any court of law, it is the written report that will largely be relied upon to either support or refute either party’s claims.  I for one would rather know in my heart that in fact the consumer was actually taken care of, even if at first they were not aware of it, than to fall back on a SOP that allowed me to not say anything about something, or did not specify a higher level of detail. With this detailed approach, all parties of the process, agents, buyers and inspectors, are best protected.

In the second incident, the glare of the sun prevented me, or allowed me, to miss the gutter was hanging off the fascia at one end, and I had the washed out picture to show for it.  Unfortunately, the cover picture of the report itself showed the hanging gutter quite clearly.  That cost me $75.00 for client to hire a handyman to reattach the gutter, but was not enough to clean the egg off my face.

While some Home Inspectors will choose to use the SOP as an “out,” I would much rather rely on my report–and of course the minimum Standards of Practice are easily covered by the report anyway. 

Just like the Building Codes are the worst house we are allowed to build, so to the Standards of Practice define the worst inspection we are allowed to do.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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