Thursday, May 20, 2010

2 Items Conflict in Looking for Home Inspectors

Consumers look for Home Inspectors usually based on one of two competing criteria, value or price. Those that are looking based only on price are constantly pushing for a cheaper price and don't realize they are affecting the value of what they will receive. Do you really want a cheap Home Inspection? Do you really want someone to rush through an inspection of possibly the biggest purchase in your life? Do you want the expert you hire to protect you in this transaction
to rush his/her work for you?
Think about it. When you go to the doctor or a lawyer, do you want the cheapest professional you can find. What kind of job can you expect when price is the criteria of choice? Probably the worst, as the professional will have to sacrifice time and quality in order to meet your price, as there is no free lunch. Do you want the doctor to rush through his exam , to cut corners or feel pressured because of your price pressure? Do you want the lawyer to hurry and not research the law that applies to your case? How many of his last 10 cases did he/she win?

Deciding who you want to inspect your home should be based on value! That is to say an experienced professional who charges a competitive rate for their services. That way their focus is on the house and defects not on time and money. Ask what their background is, ask what their specialty is, whether they are insured? Ask whether they are competitive or fixed price! Ask them to explain their pricing policy. Check their state license to see if there are any complaints. Check to see how long they have been inspecting and how much experience they have in the trades. Checkout their website or their BLOG like this to see who they are.
I always check to see if my doctors are board certified before I choose them. I always get referrals for a lawyer from people who have used them and won their cases! Choose your Inspector based on the value you get for the money they charge and you will not be disappointed, I promise! Choose based only on price, and you will get what you pay for, but you may not like what you get!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Pick a Winner when looking for a House; not a Money Pit! Inspectors see Houses, Buyers see Homes, Sellers see Money!

Looking for a home is more than picking a neighborhood, a school system, a solid town, and proximity to work! Buyers seem to get blinded by these items and neglect to look at the "House" and evaluate it on it's merit, not a sales person's vision of what it can be. Sales people have a habit of looking to the future when reality has short comings, and that is their job. Your job is to evaluate reality, do the math, and keep an eye on the future. So yes pick the right neighborhood and dream what the house can be, but be sure of what it is today, and get a Home Inspection from a professional that is recommended to you. But before you decide to spend money on an Inspection, be sure to watch out for these big items as sort of a filter.

First, narrow it down to three choices if possible. In this market there are many houses to choose from that will be a great home in a lovely neighborhood, in a growing town. That way you can weigh the value each brings and you will have backups in case your first offer is refused. This strategy cuts down on impulsive or emotional decisions and keeps you in control, not the seller. When you only have one final choice then comparisons are difficult and negotiations become leveraged against you. Realtors may not agree with this strategy. If so, ask them why and listen closely to their logic.
Time is not kind to houses, in particular if they are not built well or not maintained consistently. So shop for the newest houses you can afford. They will be up to code and have plenty of life left in them. Older homes, if better built, can also be up to code, and if well maintained, can offer plenty of life in them. The hard part is figuring out their current condition and their useful life. For the same money, do I want a smaller newer home, or an older well maintained home with more space? The difference may be in cash flow for maintenance and repairs on the old versus the newer house price. The devil is in the detail so look closely.

The condition of the roof, siding, windows, foundation , heating/cooling systems , septic systems, etc, are all big ticket items that if used up or fully depreciated can be quite expensive to replace. Homes that are over the 20 year mark may have issues with some or all of these, so look closely for leaks, stains on the ceilings, i.e., roof leaks.
Look at the siding to see if it's tight to the weather, no cracks, splits, curls, or obvious rot. Look at the windows to see if they are old single pane, loose, broken, or the drapes move with the wind. Window systems do not last forever and newer ones will pay for themselves in 2 to 3 years depending on the cost of your heat and insulation.

Is the foundation concrete or something less strong? Is it solid with no cracks, holes, bellies, or damage? Foundations hold up the house, so this area is important to be solid and preferably dry. Is the basement dry, no stains, no obvious rust or rot?


Heating systems last an average of 25 years, but gather lots of rust and corrosion along the way. The best indication of its condition is if it's running and the heat is up in all the rooms that are heated. Has it been maintained with service tags attached showing the dates? When was it installed? How much fuel was used last winter? New 98% efficient systems can pay for themselves in 3 to 5 years in the money they save.

Systems are a huge item that can cost a lot of money to replace. Is there a Title V inspection report in hand by the seller? Has the home been occupied consistently before the inspection? Has the system been pumped out every 2-3 years or when was the last time? Most importantly is there a food grinder/disposal in the kitchen sink? This has a huge impact on the life of a system if it was not engineered for the additional load, etc. Most towns do not allow them, yet somehow they are left off Title V evaluations on occasion with lots of excuses. A new septic system can cost as much as new windows on the whole house. If you see huge puddles in the lawn and it smells, it could be a septic problem.

You don't have to inspect every little item, that's for an inspector to do. But if these big items are addressed or filtered out, then you may have a winner to have inspected by a professional. Keep in mind that Time and Money can fix almost anything! So first step is to identify the issues, price the repairs, then do the math on your offer. Keep in mind that assessed values, listing prices, appraisals rarely reflect the items above, but rather reflect a house in good condition. A house with all of these issues can still be a find, if the asking price reflects the repairs that need to be done. That's the math work that needs to be done.

A professional Home Inspector will evaluate all the systems in a house and give you their current condition with comments on their useful life where applicable. The goal of an inspector is for you to have no big surprises when you move in, provided everything was accessible and visible. So when checking out who to use for inspections, be sure they cover everything. There are no quick, cheap inspections unless you skip things. A professional inspection on an 1800 sq ft house is a good 2.5 hours more or less. Depending on age and condition it may take longer so set your expectations.

Picking a winner in the house race is not easy; it requires hard work, time, and the right experience! There is a right one for everyone who is willing to invest the time!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Not All Roofs are Created Equal! Flat and Near to Flat

Shingles and rolled shingle material are suitable for roofs here in New England that have enough pitch to allow gravity to drain the water down and away from the material. I have run across several Dormers, porches, add/ons, that were constructed with roofs that have 3 in 12 pitch or less , and yet they are covered with shingles or the rolled material of the same construction. The results are always the same, leaks, stains, mold. The area is usually not accessible from the ground with field glasses, as it is a second floor, and the pitch is almost flat. The rolled material also has a much shorter life than regular shingles, tending to crack and leak.
As an owner, one should get several estimates from reputable roofers on price, as well as the type of roofing that is required for the pitch of the roof. If all 3 are saying that you should use a rolled rubber roof, then that is the proper roof for the pitch! Getting a permit from the Town and advice from the building inspector wouldn't hurt either.
As an inspector, one must make every effort to see what's up there, if accessible. If not you must be clear to the client what portion of the roof has not been seen, and hence is at risk. Asking for receipts, etc, is a good way to scope out what has been done, and who did it!
Not all roofs have the right pitch for the geographic area, i.e., snow and ice accumulations, so do your homework before you get ripped off, especially on flat or near to flat roofs.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Buying a House with Rose Colored Glasses On

There is a condition, sometimes called “rose colored glasses” that affects buyers of houses while they are looking at homes. One or more of the couple falls in love with the house, or rather the concept of the home. The view is an optimistic one, and it tends to ignore or discount the flaws that others might try to make visible to them.
The condition can be enhanced or helped along by a “sales person” who keeps telling them how great things can be, when you move in. Or they try to draw your attention to what paint and new wall paper can do when installed. They do not concentrate on what exists with its plusses and minuses, but rather call on your imagination to see what might be, down the road, of course with no flaws, hence the “rose colored glasses” that see the good, not the actual conditions. I know, I have worn the glasses myself once.
As a Home Inspector I run into this condition, usually affecting one of the two people when a couple is purchasing a house. On occasion, both buyers are under the spell and looking through the rose colored lenses.
I try as hard as I can to describe the conditions of the house and its systems. I try to get the attention of people who do not want to hear about defects. I try to overcome any suggestions from sales people that these items are only “cosmetic”. Most of the time I am successful in getting through to at least one of the two partners, in getting them to acknowledge the conditions as they exist. My role is not to be the devil’s advocate, but to ground the vision in reality by accurately describing the condition of the entire house and its’ needs. The last thing I want is for the rose color to wear off and someone to ask “why did I buy this place” or “what was I thinking of”?
My written report is often the best and final sobering thought in the process. If the house has few flaws and just needs a little TLC then the report will show it. If on the other hand it has a litany of problems, large in fact, the written word seems to have a sobering effect on folks when they read it. So it’s always a challenge when I "hear"the Rose Colored Glasses coming, to stay on my toes and do my very best, like I do every time. I inspect each one as if they were for my own son or daughter and that’s the best I can do!

Rule of Thumb for Older Houses

While house hunting it's important to view the house you are looking at with a paradigm or profile that will help set your expectations. Systems in houses for the most part, are designed around a 20-25 year life cycle. Some systems are designed for more like foundations and structure, other will last less, like floor boards on porches and hot water heaters. But a good general rule of thumb is the "rule of 25".
When looking at houses under 25 years old, then you are looking to see what's left of useful life of systems depending on how they were taken care of. Roofs maybe be half used up, porches may or may not need replacing or heavy repair. Window systems may be solid because they have been maintained and painted. Wood that has been painted and stained will still look good, compared to those systems that have been exposed to the weather.
With that in mind, when you look at a home that was built 25 years ago, more or less, you are looking at a house that will likely need a heating system, is on it's second or third hot water heater, needs a roof, and will likely need windows replaced. A lot depends on the preventative care and exposure from weather, some of it is just time related wear and tear.
When you look at a home that's 50 years old or so, you can expect that systems designed for a 25 year life, have either been replaced twice, or are in sore need of replacement. A heating system working that long will show its age and is way past being fully depreciated. Original roofs would be leaking and wood systems would need serious repair or replacement. There are exceptions, but this is a guide not an absolute.So if the listing on the 50 year old says new roof,new boiler, and new windows, that's a good start as it shows major systems have been replaced
When looking at houses that are 75 to 100 years old or older, you are looking at older technology, i.e., no insulation, wood shingle roofs, coal converted boilers, gravity systems, slate roofs with rusty nails, and brick with mortar failure, horse hair plaster, etc. The homes were built when the building codes either didn't exist or were being ramped up. So the support structure may be "old style" and be built with dimensional lumber, meeting minimums of years past but possibly not of today's building codes. Certain types of construction used then are not used anymore due to the design failure of those methods of construction, i.e. brick on top of rubble foundations.
Home Inspectors have this type of paradigm in their minds, tempered by experience, when they start to review houses. You can set your own expectations and be ready with questions when they review the property with you.
Bottom line, be wary as you look at older homes and keep in mind the maintenance cycles that should have gone on to keep the house up to snuff. Older homes can be more interesting and have appeal, provided that the maintenance has been kept up. So do the math before you leap!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Every House Has a Story to Tell, Catch the Signs!



Recently the house I did was on the top of a hill, on the seacoast, with a steady wind upon arrival. The wind actually caught my hat as there were few trees on the top of the hill with the house. The view was tremendous but the house a story to tell. First indication was the excessive wear on a 14 year old roof. Then there was the missing mortar in spots on the chimney. There was heavy erosion and shifting of concrete supports on the back deck facing the water and weather side as well. In the garage were the doors with water stains inside. The water stains on the ceiling at the back wall, again the weather side, indicated water from above, and a strange 1/2 inch drain pipe. Standing water in the bulkhead, but no cracks, just seals that needed replacing to keep the driving rain out. Efflorescence on the walls indicated a high water content in portions of the foundation, despite the perimeter drains that were supposed to be there.


The hole and pipe for the air vent on the stove were there but not connected? Bathroom on the second floor had a vent, but not vented outside to the weather side. Water stains on the sheathing in the attic on the chimney side and a ridge vent that was cut in , but capped over?


The master room upstairs actually had floor drains in the tile in front of the picture window doors leading to the small cantilever deck. Drains for what you ask. For the wind driven water!


The doors were old and tired, but caulked. All the doors on the weather side were caulked extra and sealed against the water. The owner had installed the drain as a second line of defence!


The price of the great view, is a constant battle against the weather, water, and wind. All homes face the elements this way, but coastal homes with few tree's face the battle even more. They have more extensive wear and tear, more chances of leaks, and wind damage. The story is this 14 year old house showed the scars from battling the coastal elements and had fared well, but needed a tune-up for the next 14 years of water and wind. My client understood the story, and now he is making an informed purchase. He knows that the price of the view, is a constant war with the weather!


So watch the signs and it will tell you the story of what the home is up against, but you have to connect the dots, and not miss anything to get the full picture!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

That's Cosmetic!

There must be a school somewhere that teaches real estate agents to respond to every defect I find, with the comment "that's cosmetic". One of the definitions of cosmetic is: " done or made for the sake of appearance". Stress cracks in the ceilings of multiple rooms, that are aligned, are not cosmetic. Woodpecker holes in wood shingle siding that is rotted are not cosmetic. Missing mortar and cracks with holes in a rubble foundation are not cosmetic. Yet in all these cases and more I get the same comment, almost as a reflex. Mind you it is not posed as a question, but as a statement of fact.
As a licensed Home Inspector cosmetic items are not really what I'm looking for. Scratched paint, peeling paint, floors that need new shellac, faded wall paper and dirty carpets are cosmetic. They are not critical systems, not structural, and not safety items. In the scheme of things cosmetic items have a lower cost and are arbitrary and for appearance.
I'd like to think the overuse of the phrase is a lack of knowledge as to what a defect of substance is and what a minor item or possibly cosmetic is.
I have offered to many agents to present to them what we are looking for and in short educate them a little more. I have had a few takers on my offer, but most never call. I wonder why?
Bottom line, as a buyer, is to be wary of anyone who labels items you are concerned about as “cosmetic”. Only a Home inspector should make that determination. For the record, I never comment on the price of a house, the neighborhood, or whether it’s a good or bad buy. It's not my purview. So consider the source and qualifications of comments on the property you are buying, and remember the Home Inspector works for you, and is paid by you, not the seller!