Structural Home Inspection

One of the most important activities of the home inspection involves taking a look at the structural elements. The Structure is actually the skeleton, which ensures the overall safety and stability of a building.

My structural home inspection is performed both inside and out, in combination with other systems.

During a typical home inspection, not all structural imperfections may be discovered due to patching, exterior & interior finishes and past renovations. The building’s structure is both complex and at times challenging to investigate. The easiest way to inspect the structure is before all of the finishing has been completed or by looking at unfinished areas like basements, garages, crawl spaces, attics, storage areas and under stairs…to name a few.

For strata buildings, I take a look at the underground garage to see the foundation wall, ceiling and columns. Inside the unit, I investigate any unfinished areas including all visible columns, beams, floors and walls. Of course I look at the foundation wall from the outside as well.

Some examples of problems that I encounter during the structural home inspection include the following:

Foundation cracks – As discussed during the exterior home inspection, I take a good look at as much of the foundation wall as I can see. It is not unusual however, for much of this area to be covered by vegetation or storage items. Cracks 1/4 of an inch or larger, in several locations on the wall or shearing out in a “V” pattern could be problematic and should be looked at by structural engineer. Sometimes tree roots contribute to foundation cracks. It is always a good building practice to have appropriate waterproofing and drainage installed around the perimeter of the foundation wall. This will help protect the building from leakage issues.

Bowing/ leaning columns or studsThese issues can usually be found in the crawl spaces or up in the attic areas. There are a number of reasons why this happens, but usually it is due to movement, settlement, incorrect design or poor installation. It may look like the vertical component is bending due to excessive force, or as seen in the photo an improper structural member leaning. Again, these issues must be rectified quickly as each failing component will affect other nearby structural areas of the home.

Exterior wall cracks/bowing – The key to looking at a home from the outside is to view at it from a distance and up close, as many clues can be revealed about the structure. Up close I can see if the exterior wall is straight or bowing out. From a distance, I can determine if the properly is level or if there are any wide or long cracks extending down- and what patters are visible. Diagnosing why these problems exist depends on several factors. However, knowing which specialists to help you better understand and solve these issues is what a good home inspector will do. Some of these problems can be fixed inexpensively while other issues will be cost prohibitive.

Chimney cracks – I see a lot of chimney cracks, frequently at the chimney wall connection point. Cracks can also be seen on the broad side. Small cracks can easily be re-pointed. Larger cracks, especially those extending in a “stair step” pattern many require extensive work. A seriously compromised chimney can be a safety problem if the issue is not addressed quickly.

Walkway / driveway cracks – These cracks can create trip hazards, so be careful when you are walking around a property. When we notice cracks right against the foundation wall, revealing a gap, this condition may be serious as water will drain or seep into the basement, crawl space or foundation area. If the property is visibly sinking in one or more areas, the best course of action is to call in a Geo technical engineer.

Column or beam cracks – With wood structures, especially those supporting decks, it is not uncommon to see “checking” or long cracks within the wood structure itself. Small checks are not usually a concern, but if they extend out and widen then pay attention. For all wood decks, stairs and railings, it is ideal to use pressure treated products, especially the supporting beams, columns and stringers. With concrete columns, look at the bottom and top to ensure that these areas are in tact. If you see the bottom crumbling or rusted metal then repairs should be considered a priority.

Cut joists & beams – When I look at the structures revealed in unfinished basements, or crawl spaces, I often see important structural members like joists or beams cut. They are usually compromised to make way for HVAC ducts or plumbing components. This is serious. These structural components are designed to take on significant weight loads and need to be secure. I will definitely recommend repairs or in some cases further investigation by an structural engineer when I come across this.

Over spanned beams or joists – Sometimes beams and joists are over spanned, which can severely limit the structural integrity of the area these members support. This type of condition can cause floors to squeak or dip. “Cantilevered balconies” or (balconies that are only supported at one end) cannot be over spanned or they can cause a bump in the floor inside. They can also be at risk of failure in extreme situations, which we look for.

Although not a typical issue, I have encountered compromised trusses in the odd attic. Trusses are engineered structures that have been factory made, and specially designed to carry specific weight loads. They cannot not altered in any way without first consulting a structural engineer. When they have been cut they can have negative impact the roof structure they support. In the photo to the right, you can see an example of a truss member that was deliberately cut for some unknown reason.

Inside the home it is not uncommon to have squeaking floors and stairs, especially in older homes…but some new homes as well. These areas are not entirely level or do not have the proper reinforcement with double joists, for example, under the area.

After a few years it is not in common to see cracks develop in the ceilings, above and below doors and/or windows. These areas are essentially stress points where openings have been made. To counter this and hopefully develop fewer cracks, all areas above doors and windows should have lintels or header boards to carry the loads around the openings. We always check to see if doors and windows function properly. If they don’t it could be due to structural issues.

As you can imagine, there are entire textbooks dedicated to this topic…but hopefully this article have given you a bit more insight on what we look for during a structural home inspection. For additional information about structures from a home inspector point of view, send an email or call me and I’ll help you out.

Also, take a look at some of the other topics relating to home inspection.

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Home Inspection – Heating System

The home inspection is not complete without addressing the heating system. It is designed to provide enough heat on the coldest calendar day, is reliable, inexpensive to install, quick to respond, is safe and will provide an even distribution throughout the entire home.

There are several types of heating systems out today and there are pros and cons to each one. Unfortunately, there are virtually no heating systems than can perform flawlessly. In order to ensure that the heating system lasts as long as possible, proper and ongoing maintenance is key. When I look at heating systems during my home inspection, I cover the visible components of the heating appliance which could be a furnace or a boiler for example. I look at the distribution ductwork, or pipes, flues and exhaust systems, thermostats, filters, registers/radiators, airflow, and fireplaces. For the purposes of this article, I will only focus on the most common systems found in residential homes.

Some of the newer heating systems out there are more expensive to install, but will give you better return on your investment later on.

I always recommend installing a carbon monoxide detector in your home for any type of combustion appliance. We also look at thermostats. I always recommend replacing the older Bimetallic type with a new programmable one. These newer thermostats will save you money as they allow you to better control your heating costs. There are other clues that we look for, but as a quick reference these are basics we cover.

Below is a list of some the typical heating related conditions we find, so you will have a better idea of what to expect after the home inspection.

Furnaces – When we inspect the furnace, we look for a number of different clues to determine it’s condition.

Some of the most common problems I see with furnaces are:

  • Faulty Thermostats
  • Older, outdated furnaces
  • Dirty filters
  • Lack of or poor maintenance
  • Soot/debris build up
  • Burn marks
  • Dirty/dusty components under the covers
  • Asbestos tape on older duct work
  • Damaged/disconnected or holes in the duct work
  • Fan not working, or going on and off
  • Rust in and around the furnace & duct work
  • Incorrect slope of the exhaust flue
  • Exhaust too close to combustible materials

One of the most serious concerns is the smell of a strong gas odor. This could indicate a gas leak. If you experience this, do not operate any electrical devices. Leave the home and use a cell to call the gas company immediately from outside your home so they can direct you further.

We also test the test the heating system for appropriate air flow at the registers.

Boilers – Boilers are fairly complicated systems to check, because there are so many components involved. If you have a boiler and the heat is not working, I would highly recommend calling a plumber or boiler specialist unless you have the training to trouble shoot the boiler and it’s components. Subsequently, this goes for furnaces as well.

Boilers use water to distribute heat via pipes to either the in-floor system, radiators or water baseboard heat.

The most most common issues that I see with boilers include:

  • Insufficient heat
  • Radiator issues
  • Rusty components/Corrosion
  • Improper piping materials
  • Water leaks
  • Expansion tank problems
  • Defective zones valves
  • Radiator problems
  • Water pressure too high

Electric Heaters – Electric baseboard heat does not have a distribution system because they only heat the room they are in, so inspecting these systems is not as complicated as a furnace o boiler. Typically the heat is working or it is not. The nice thing about electric baseboard heat is that you can warm up a room very quickly. However, many heaters will give off a burning smell.

Some of the problems we find with electric baseboard heat include:

  • Inoperative heat
  • Improper wiring
  • Dirty, damaged or bent fins on the heater
  • Obstructed heaters, usually curtains & dressers
  • Missing, damaged or loose covers
  • Electrical cords on the heaters
  • Poor placement of the heater in a room
  • Faulty Thermostat
  • Outlets installed directly above the heater

As a point of reference, poorly maintained heating appliances account for many negotiations after a home inspection because they can be expensive to fix, and most people do not want to inherit the cost of a failing outdated heating appliance. So be sure to keep it in good shape.

For further information on inspecting heating systems, just call me at 604-729-4261, and I will be happy to assist you. I wish you all the best for a comfortable heating experience over the winter.

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What is a Home Inspection?

We are often asked, what is a home inspection? Why do we need a home inspection?

A home inspection is an overall, non-invasive analysis of the condition of a home at the time of inspection. This includes the different systems, such as the plumbing, roofing, exterior, structure, electrical, the interior, heating/cooling, insulation and ventilation. All of the mentioned components must work independently, while acting as a single system for a home to function properly.

The primary goal of a home inspector is to protect the buyer’s interests…to identify and report on the major deficiencies, unsafe or expensive problems that exist in the home.  Once the inspection has been completed, the inspector communicates the findings through a written report. If possible, the clients should accompany the inspector during the inspection. This way, the buyer can ask questions while the inspector educates the client along the way. I always recommend that my clients come with me because they will leave with a better overall understanding of the home.

In BC, home inspectors are required to be licensed, insured, educated in all housing systems, complete appropriate field training and belong to a professional association like CAHPI. In addition, to stay licensed, we are strictly required to continually update our education by attending relevant courses. The home inspection field is relatively new, when you compare it to other professions. It is continually evolving to keep relevant with the changing building requirements and the educated public. There is a lot of effort involved with this process, which makes the role of a home inspector challenging, yet rewarding.

To clarify the specifics, all home inspectors must follow a Standards of Practice. This document outlines exactly what home inspectors are required to do and not do during a home inspection. The question, what is a home inspection, is answered by reading the Standards of Practice. When inspectors decide to do more than required, they go beyond the standards, which puts them at greater risk from a liability standpoint. This is a business decision for each inspector to make.

There are two types of reports provided. Onsite reports are given immediately after the inspection. They are simple, short, and generic, much like a checklist format. The other type of report is an offsite report, which is sent to the client typically a few hours after the inspection via email. They are a narrative style, which provides greater detail, often pictures, and customized to the home. Offsite reports take much longer to prepare because there is more specific information provided. In my opinion, they are a far better value to the client for their money. I consider my report as an educational resource. My clients can relate their knowledge to the inspection report I provide.

Home inspections are usually requested just before the home is sold, called a pre-sale home inspection. However, on occasion, home inspections are requested before a home goes on the market. This is known as a pre-listing home inspection. Another inspection is a home maintenance inspection. This is often done because the owners did not get an inspection when they bought the home and want to know what repairs are needed, as preventative maintenance, or how to solve a problem they have noticed.

So, the next time someone asks you, “What is a home inspection?”… You can now explain it to him/her… or at the very least, tell them about this article. For more information about a home inspection or related topics, I can be reached at 604-729-4261.

You can read more great Home Inspection articles within my Home Inspection Blog.

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Common Electrical Problems Found by Home Inspectors

The electrical system is one of the more complicated systems in your home which demands great respect because it is the most dangerous. Home inspectors find any safety issues, and then the best way to solve them through recommendations, repairs or other advice. Please do not attempt to work with any electrical equipment unless you have been adequately trained to do so. It is best to contact an electrician first.

Essentially, your electrical system starts when it comes to your home from the city transformer via overhead wires or underground. It travels through the main service panel, then possibly a sub panel and on to various circuits within the home until they reach the outlets. Older homes or homes where renovations have taken place may contain hidden electrical issues behind the walls which cannot be diagnosed by a home inspector.

Every home is different and since electricity is complicated, there are several potential issues for discovery. To keep this article in perspective, I will only focus on some of the more common electrical problems found by home inspectors. They are listed below.

  • Obstructed entrance wires/no drip loop – We look to see how the wires enter the home, and if they are likely to be hazardous. For example, trees can get in the way of service lines, which can ad to stress on the wires. The service wires must also have a “drip loop”. This loop or a dip in the wires is installed just before wires enter service mast outside the home. This is important as it allows water to  drip to the ground instead of running into the home, causing rust at the service panel or other safety implications. We want the wires to have a clear, safe, unobstructed path to the home.
  • Outdated knob and tube wiring – With the updates to the electrical codes, “K & T” wiring has been phased out because it does not have a safe ground wire, was allowed to be spliced (connected points) in the walls without a junction box and became an expensive way to continue. At times, I see existing knob and tube wiring mixed with newer wiring. This is a serious safety hazard.
  • Also, today we demand more branch circuits in each room… Something not required when knob and tube was mainstream. Older homes built before the 1930’s are more likely to have Knob & Tube wiring and fewer outlets in each room, with their 60 amp service. Today, the minimum would be 100 amps. So upgrading should be considered if you live in an older home.
  • Missing or faulty GFCI outlets – Simply put, these outlets are safety devices that will protect someone from an electrical shock by tripping the breaker when it senses an imbalance in the amount of current flowing from the hot (live) wire to the neutral. They are necessary at all water sources, such as kitchens, bathrooms, outside locations, garages, and service panels. Home inspectors check to see if (a) they are installed at these locations and (b) test them to see if they are working as intended. You will recognize them for their two buttons in the middle. One says “test” and the other says “reset”. They should trip when tested and reset when you press the reset button. If they don’t have them replaced.
  • Exposed/damaged electrical wires – Exposed wires, (their ends not spliced and protected) can cause an electric shock or fire. All wires must be properly spliced and protected within a junction box. I often see exposed wires in unfinished areas, typically after renovations. Related to this issues are wires that are unsecured, also usually in unfinished areas. They must be attached to the structural members with special straps or staples, so they don’t get damaged or trip people, etc.
  • Aluminum wiring issues – For reference, it was primarily used in the 1970‘s and also during the 1960s. The wire on it’s own is actually safe. The installation methods can be problematic, especially at the connection points. Aluminum acts differently than copper. Aluminum wires that carry the same current as copper are larger, and silver in colour. When it heats up it expands, and as it cools down, it contracts , more than copper. Each time this happens, the wire will loosen up at the connection points. Furthermore, aluminum has a tendency to corrode if it touches other metal. Over time the wire will get very hot. This, in combination with loose connections is what has caused so many fires. If you discover it in your home, or plan to buy a home that already has it, I recommend that you contact a licensed electrician to check out the following:  (a) It is safe at all outlets and switches and connection points – you want to see “CO/ALR” stamped on the fixture, when spliced with copper. Anti-oxidant paste must be applied at the connections. (b) Only screw connections are used, not push-in terminals, (c) There are not burn marks, melted insulation, etc. (d) Clean workmanship with properly stripped, and stapled wires where appropriate. Covering each detail surrounding aluminum wiring is an article on it’s own, so if you want further details on this topic, let me know or speak to a licensed electrician.
  • Service panel problems – Many common electrical problems found by home inspectors are found in and around the service panels. There is a lot going on here, so I will just give a brief explanation of some of the clues we look for. Inspectors look at the wire sizes in relation to the breakers they are connected to, where wires are coming and going. We check for the arrangement of the wires, crowded wires, evidence of melted, burnt or exposed wires. The sheathing condition/amount, protection by grommets as they come in to the panel, easy panel access and properly secured and stapled wires around the panel, just to name a few.
  • Improper use of permanent wiring/extension cords – All permanent wires have to be properly protected in sheathing or covered in conduit. It is a common sight to see extension cords feeding lights or powering other devices. Worse still, I see extension cords outside as permanent wiring. These cords are not properly protected and could cause a shock, especially if you touch them with wet hands.
  • Missing smoke alarms – Smoke alarms must be installed on each floor of a home. Ideally, on the ceiling just outside of the bedroom(s). I do not recommend having them in the kitchen as smoke and heat may set them off, which can be a nuisance. They typically last between 6-10 years, depending on the brand. it is a good idea to test them every 4-6 months to ensure that they are functioning properly.
  • Missing/burt out light bulbs – Kitchens and bathrooms are commonly where I notice them. It surprises me that when I see this easily preventable and inexpensive issue over and over again.
  • Missing covers for receptacles, light switches, junction boxes and lights – All of these components must have proper, undamaged covers. I usually see these conditions after renovations as people may  not get around to adding them upon completion.

The majority of these conditions can be fixed at a reasonable cost. It can however, get expensive to rewire an old or improperly wired home. So, if you are planning on buying a renovated home, or plan more changes, ensure that the previous owners had their electrical work done by a licensed professional. Ask to see the paperwork and permits for approval.

Overall, correcting these issues will keep your home safer and will ease the process of selling your home. Stay safe and keep informed…

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Common Plumbing Issues Found By Home Inspectors

In this article I point out some of the common plumbing issues found during a home inspection.

Before I go into the details, I’ll briefly explain why we need plumbing in our homes. Simply put, the plumbing system is designed to bring you clean water for domestic use and heat in several locations throughout the building. It is also designed to dispose of all waste, dirty water, and vent gasses left behind from your wastewater.

In order to find these problems, we look at a number of components within the plumbing system. They include supply piping, the water heater and water storage tank, sinks, tubs, showers, drains, vents, washbasins, toilets, fixtures and faucets. We also look at boilers, even though this topic tends to overlap into the heating inspection.

Older copper pipes can develop pinhole leaks within the home. They are tiny holes that develop in the pipes, causing them to drip wherever they occur. We find them anywhere the pipes are exposed, such as under sinks, crawlspaces, mechanical rooms, etc.  It is time to replace the section of pipe once this issue has been discovered.

The older a home is, the greater the possibility for plumbing issues. The reason for this is due to the age of the installed plumbing materials within and around the property. Like all things, old pipes and drainage assemblies tend to wear out and need replacement. Even in brand new homes, it is common to identify plumbing defects.

It is not uncommon to discover leaky faucets over sinks, in bathtubs, showers and below sinks. These issues can be repaired easily and will not cost too much.

Other problem areas include waste lines (large pipes that remove sewage and greywater from a building, followed by venting the gases produced by the waste). These issues may require easy repairs, such as replacing a drain trap or costly endeavors, such as replacing the plumbing itself.

Many sellers focus much of their effort on making the home look beautiful for resale. Although this is important, more attention to must be dedicated to maintaining their mechanical appliances, such as boilers and water heaters. We take a good look at the condition of these units because they are so important to the overall reliability of the plumbing system. Old and poorly maintained water heaters & boilers can be costly to replace.

Home inspectors also look for problematic, outdated plumbing materials, such as Polybutylene. It is light grey in colour. Polybutylene was common in the late 1980’s until the middle of the 1990’s. It is no longer used in modern plumbing as a result of its unpredictability for failing, most commonly at the fittings (connection points). When it fails, it can cause a flood and be expensive to repair.

Other plumbing issues commonly found during a home inspection include dripping faucets, leaking fixtures and slow drains. If you are planning to put your home on the market, I recommend that you take a look to see if there is any of these listed items and have them repaired. This is just one step to make your home selling experience a little bit easier. Let me know if you have any questions or on this topic or past articles.

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Flat Roofs – What Condo Owners Should Know

For many people, condo living is the way to go. Unlike with a detached home, the flat roof is a shared expense that a condo owner must consider when buying in. If the building or group of buildings is quite big, roofing repairs can be expensive.

This article highlights some of the main conditions and parts we look at so you can be better informed about how we do our job, when inspecting a flat roof. There are several other considerations and conditions that inspectors look for, but this is a general guideline detailing some of the most common flat roofing conditions.

Larger buildings, such as condos have some sort of flat roofing system. Although there are several types of flat roofs, such as tar and gravel, torch on or inverted roofs, they all must keep the water out. They do this by having a tightly sealed surface rather than a shedding system that a steep roof would have.

As inspectors, we are concerned with a number of details such as position of drainage, flashing, especially around the plumbing stacks, chimneys, skylights, vents, edges and the wall-roof connection points. Flashing, or materials used at roofing joints, connection and angled areas are designed as reinforcement to stop leakage.

The surface of a flat roof can make it more challenging to keep water out in comparison with a sloped roof. Some of the most common concerns that we look for are:

Blistering/Bubbling/Splitting – Blisters can be a result of air or water trapped between the layers of the roof. As the roof heats up from the sun, the trapped gasses expand and create bubbles and blisters. They can become very large. Over time they can break through the surface and cause the roof to split. If this goes unchecked then water can enter and weaken the roof, later leading to possible leaks.

Patches – It is common to see patches of flat roofs. Patches indicate past leaks or weak areas. If the patching has not been done correctly, these areas are likely to leak again. In my opinion, patches are just a band-aid solution to a larger problem festering. As a general rule, if 25% of the roof is covered with patches, then the roof needs to be replaced.

Water Ponding or Pooling/Vegetation – Most people have noticed pooling or ponding without really paying attention to it. You may have seen it when you are looking at roofs from higher buildings. Flat roofs are not actually supposed to be flat. If built correctly, they will slope to the drainage area provided. Pooling or ponding happens when it rains and the water stays behind because it has not drained properly. When water is sitting on a roof surface for longer than 48 hours, it is considered ponding. Excess water on a roof can be very heavy. The added weight can change the roof structure, create depressions and make a poor slope worse. If this happens, ponding will continue and the drains will not work as intended. Ponding will lead to vegetation. Vegetation that is not purposely landscaped on a roof will grow roots, hold moisture to the surface and deteriorate the surface, reducing its lifespan.

Old/Damaged – With older roofs, especially built up roofs, the best way to determine how worn out they are, besides the obvious signs, is to walk on them and see how they feel under our feet. We look for loose areas, depressions, deteriorated surfaces, cracking, discolouration, etc.

A good way to find out if a roof membrane is old is to look at the metal flashing to see signs of corrosion and rust. The actual age of the roof is less important than the remaining life of the roof. Like any system, proper maintenance will prolong the life of a roof.

No Protective Surface – All flat roofs need a protective surface to protect it from the sun and help keep the roof cool. The major problem without a protective surface (gravel for example) is a much-shortened life expectancy for the roof.  We look to see if there are bald spots, displaced gravel, exposed felts and soft spots, to name a few.

The challenge inspectors face is not being able to inspect the roof. At times management companies deny us access to the roof due to liability reasons. So if your inspector is not allowed on a roof, ensure that you know what the strata council is up to for their roof maintenance plan… it can affect your budget.

For more detailed information or questions about flat roofs just ask me or contact a professional roofing company in your area. If this information has been valuable to you, please share it with others 🙂

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