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.


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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How to remodel a remodeled remodel

remodel1There is a tendency for people to view the world from the narrow time frame of their own lives—-and extrapolate that information to mean that things have always been that way—-or at least for a longer period of time than is statistically meaningful historically.

One example of this is this idea that somehow tomatoes and Italian cooking are virtually inseparable.  The reality is that Italians have only known tomatoes since the discovery of the New World—-not really very long in terms of the total history of Italian cuisine.

The same sort of thing happens in the way we look at houses.  We sometimes want to know if the house we are interested in buying has ever been remodeled.  We tend to ask this question as to mean “remodeled” in the context of, “brought up to current standards.”   I find houses all the time that have been remodeled.  Some fit this definition of being brought more up to date, but most fall short because standards change so fast and vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

I even find homes where changes to the house were made before it was even completed.  In other words “remodeled” before it was even “modeled.”  I know this happens because as a builder I had to do it many times myself.

Sometimes in older homes I find where homes were remodeled within a few years of their original construction so that even the newer portions are really no more “up-to-date” than the older part—-at least in terms of today’s standards.

Take a look at the following picture.  This house, built in 1901 (very old by Seattle standards), was remodeled.  As part of this remodel the original REALLY tall ceilings were lowered to 8 feet creating this nice crawl space between the new ceiling and the original ceiling.

In the picture, one can see the old lath and plaster and also see where the electrical needs of the home have been “upgraded” with the “new” knob & tube wiring.

Remodel of the remodel

Remodel of the remodel

It would be difficult to determine when the “remodel” was done—-but most likely some time between 1901 and 1950—–since 1950 is just about the end of the use of this wiring method.  So by modern standards this remodel doesn’t even count—-it is all hopelessly outdated.  Perhaps due for another “upgrade.”

Now take this information and extrapolate it to a building that is “actually” old (like in Europe) as opposed to “pretend” old like we have here in the United States.  The old farm house that I grew up in, in Connecticut, is about 200 years old—-pretty old for the United States.  Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited dwelling is 860+ years old—–just think about the number of remodels that home could have gone through—-and the stories its walls could tell.

Now we are talking archeology.


By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Damaged houses in difficult times

We are a country of both incredible “bounty” and “waste.”  Perhaps they always go together like two sides of a coin.

As a builder, I have seen people take perfectly good houses and remodel them into monstrosities, and I have seen “sows ears” turned into “silk purses.”  I didn’t really like the jobs where I would install one thing and then when it was done, and the client didn’t like the finished product, it was ripped out and thrown in the dumpster and started over—just because we could—and they could “afford” it.  Fortunately in my 33 year career as a builder that was an exceptionally rare occurrence—-really only a couple of times.  But I also know I was “lucky,” because builder friends used to have it happen over and over to them.  I did often however rip out things that didn’t need to be replaced just because it was “no longer in style.”

I remember one job where we got the entire bathroom tiled with white tiles—-walls, floors, and tub/shower surround.  The owner picked out the tile and even delivered them to the site.  When we were all done—-and he had watched the install from the start—-he says, “they are pink.”  Well, it turns out the tiles were a “warm” white and against the cooler blue-white of the fixtures they sure as hell did look “pink.”  So we ripped them all out and did the job again—-because we live in a country where we can do that.

How do we decide when it is time to remodel something?  Are there guidelines that are more “socially” and “environmentally” conscious than others?  It just doesn’t seem logical with all our interest in “green” that there isn’t also a “green” approach to remodeling.  A green rationale for when remodeling is “appropriate” and when it is just “ego.”

Do we always get to do what we want “because we can?”

I inspected a house the other day where remodeling the bathroom was necessary because it was a “health hazard”—-no ifs, ands or buts.  No one anywhere would question it.  They might argue that the whole house should be demolished—but that would be another story.  So here is a picture of the bathroom—-maybe I can take the sink to “Second Use” or the “Re-Store?”

Broken porcelain sink

How much damage could you live with


Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector

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