Building Officials and Home Inspectors: Not the Same

I know there is confusion out there about what a Home Inspector does. Over the years that I’ve been a Home Inspector, I’ve explained it several times to clients who ask for an ‘Appraisal”, an ‘Assessment’ or a ‘Building Inspection’. Sometimes they had the right understanding but used the wrong title, other times they truly misunderstood the roles and a more detailed explanation was required.

HomeXam Inspector

Appraisals are performed by an Appraiser to establish the market value of a property; usually for the purpose of securing mortgage financing (see The Difference Between a Home Inspection and an Appraisal). Assessments also set a value on the property but for property tax purposes and typically lag behind the current appraised market value.

This morning I happened across yesterday’s article in the Calgary Sun entitled “City improves home inspection process”. The caption reads, “Getting a home inspection done on a property is a sure way to identify major structural problems in your prospective home.” Unfortunately the headline and caption are a mismatch for an article that clearly describes the work performed by a municipal building official.

Building officials conduct their series of inspections in step with the construction stages of a house. Here in Ottawa, builders go through nine different inspections by building officials, plus a geotechnical soils report confirming soil-bearing capacity, electrical inspections by the Electrical Safety Authority and septic inspections, if warranted. Your municipality may define the stages a bit differently but will the share the same intent. This is all a mandatory part of the building permit process for new homes that builders must comply with. The eventual homeowner has no need to be involved as long as an Occupancy Permit is successfully obtained. Clearly municipal building officials take on a lot of responsibility for the quality of homes being built in our communities. While the article applauds the value of their efforts, it is only fair to correctly attribute the credit to the right profession. Thank you Building Officials.

In contrast, Home Inspectors do the the vast majority of their work after the home is already built. The most common type of home inspection is performed as a condition of sale to discover issues with the home before a purchase agreement is fully executed. We don’t get to see the footings, behind finished walls and ceilings but still have a long list of items to review. In addition to structural and safety issues we also assess the condition of the major components of a home as it ages. New home inspections are sometimes performed to help consumers with warranty reporting when their province has such a program.

While some of the knowledge base and items inspected overlaps, Home Inspectors have a different job to do than Building Officials. Both are needed at different times in the life cycle of a home to protect consumers. It’s pretty simple really. Just to clarify this for consumers, Home Inspectors do home inspections; building officials do building inspections according to the building code in response to the issuance of a building permit. Kudos to the City of Calgary for their improvements to their building inspection process. Let’s hope city hall doesn’t get too many calls for home inspections next week. If you need a home inspection visit, the Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors at www.cahpi.ca to find a qualified Home Inspector.

Radon Gas in Canadian Homes

Radon is an odourless gas that seeps from the ground into homes to varying degrees in all traditional single-family residential dwellings in Canada. If the concentration of radon gas is high enough, for long enough, you and your family are at risk of developing lung cancer. It’s a serious situation as Health Canada states that 3,000 deaths a year in Canada are attributable to radon gas exposure. So that’s the bad news out of the way.

On the brighter side your home’s Radon level is something you can measure and take steps to reduce to safe levels. Testing for radon is simple and you can find do it yourself kits that are under $50. Even if you have high levels of radon in your home, they are usually straight forward to take action to reduce. Of course you can’t do anything about a problem unless you understand what you’re dealing with.

Awareness of the radon gas exposure issue is growing in Canada. I was fortunate to be able to arrange an interview with Kelley Bush. Kelley is the Head of Radon Education and Awareness for Health Canada and provided a great deal of useful information for you. Thank you Kelley. Homexam has published the interview as a video with transcript available.

Inspecting

The 15 minute video is a good introduction to radon and explains:

  • what radon is,
  • why you should pay attention,
  • where higher concentrations have been found in Canada
  • how to find out if your home has a problem
  • why you need to test even if your neighbour’s radon levels are ok
  • long-term sampling versus short-term
  • what you can do to reduce your risk
  • roughly how much it costs if you need professional help
  • and where to find certified radon professionals

Additional Resources


Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2014 HomeXam Inc.
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The Difference between a Home Inspection and an Appraisal

Every once in a while I get a question from a client which reveals that the distinction between these services is not always understood. In a nutshell, an appraisal provides an estimate of the value of a property, as opposed to an inspection which is an assessment of the condition of the property. Although the condition of a property can effect a home’s value, the two services are distinct and separate. They each have their own process, tools, education, professional associations and are almost always delivered by different individuals.

Inspecting

A typical appraisal begins by calculating the cost to physically reproduce the home. The cost of each of the major components is added together to give an approximate value. For example, a two car garage would be worth a set dollar value with a triple garage being more and a single being less. The total is then adjusted to reflect the price of comparable properties in the same neighbourhood. Of course unique homes and a scarcity of adequate comparable homes recently on the market can pose a challenge for the appraiser.

A large part of the appraisal market is driven by the mortgage industry. Lenders use appraisals to manage the risk of not getting their money back should the mortgage go into default. By only lending up to a limited percentage of the value, lenders expect to recoup the money should the property have to be repossessed and sold. The balance of that equity can be used for the transaction costs and as an incentive for the homeowner. Lenders often try to pass the cost of the appraisal on to the homeowner. It sometimes pays to ask if the fee can be waived.

Completing an appraisal is a step in the lending process. The bank’s Loans Officer must have it to approve the loan. Although appraisals can and do happen in parallel with inspections, since any significant repairs can impact the the amount borrowed, it makes sense to get the inspection done first.

A home inspection is a visual examination of the home looking for functional and safety issues. It should be conducted by an experienced and trained inspector according to an industry accepted standard of practice. For more of an explanation read The Purpose of a Home Inspection.  Hopefully the distinction between an inspection and an appraisal is now crystal clear; or at least less of a mystery.


Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2014 HomeXam Inc.
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Home Inspectors Find the Skeletons in Your Attic

So you’ve been on a home inspection and your inspector climbed up a ladder to look in the attic space of your prospective new home. Usually we gain access through a hatch found in the ensuite walk-in closet. It’s often the last thing we inspect before starting our report. If you’re lucky there’s not much to say about it and you might be wondering what we could possibly see that would be worth the effort. Sometimes the sights are more significant. Here are a few of the things we have run into over the years; some more common than others.

The attic hatch should be sealed to prevent warm moist air from escaping into the attic. This can be a major loss of heat energy and can start other problems rolling. The black patch you see here is mold that is being fed by the moisture that condenses when the house air mixes with the cool attic air. The solution can be as simple as applying weatherstripping to the hatch opening. Attic hatch mold
Once past the hatch, we commonly assess the amount of insulation in the space against modern building practices. From time to time we see areas around the edges missing insulation that storm winds have aside. Sometimes we discover that the bedroom that was always cold may never have had any insulation installed at all. No insulation
Insulation practices and materials have improved over the decades and upgrades can be found in older houses. There as a time when vermiculite was a common insulation material. Since the discovery that it can contain asbestos, it has been superseded by other materials but it can still be found in use. In this case, the vermiculite was hidden under a newer layer of fibreglass insulation. Vermiculite
Occasionally we find evidence of little visitors to the attic. Droppings of various descriptions are tell tale signs of course, as are rodent traps like in this picture. Most buyers want to be informed of such uninvited tenants. Mousetrap
Evidence of larger visitors is a concern of course. Most people think skeletons are only found in closets but it’s not always the case. The next photo has the advantage of being lit by a camera flash but imagine the surprise of discovering this attic skeleton by flashlight.

Attic skeleton

Hopefully by now you’re convinced that having your inspector take a look in the attic might be worth the trouble. Here’s a sampling of other issues we’ve discovered in attic spaces.

Grow Op Mold
Grow Op Mold
Bad Chimney Broken blocking
Bad chimney Broken blocking
Cut rafters Open plumbing stack
Cut rafters Open plumbing stack

Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2014 HomeXam Inc.
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Why Buyers Fall in Love With a House

We all have driven by a house, or seen a magazine photo, that instantly appeals to a degree that we wish we lived there. Realtor.com recently ran a survey with 1,000 respondents that had admitted that they had experienced crushes on real estate properties. They wanted to know what factors about those houses appealed to the respondents. Curb appeal

So what observations can we make that will benefit us in our house purchases and renovations? The obvious one is that we should add these items to the list of criteria when we purchase. This gives us the enjoyment of these features while we live there and the best opportunity when it comes time to sell.

Top factor causing crush on a house (%) Women Men Combined
– outdoor living spaces 54 46 100
– open floor plans 42 30 72
– curb appeal 29 35 64
– garages 40 40
– updated appliances and fixtures 29 29
According to Realtor.com survey, Real Estate News Feb 13, 2014. Rachel Stults

But if we already own a house, what does this survey imply? The thought that comes to mind is that it turns the old wisdom of where to invest renovation dollars on its head. Conventional wisdom called for investing in the kitchen and bathrooms for best returns. This survey suggests that as long as these areas are presentable, we are better off spending to upgrade outdoor living spaces. To some degree we may get double benefit if the design adds to curb appeal as well.

Open floor plans are high on the list as well. I interpret this to mean open main floors. Most things can be achieved with enough money. The thought I would like to add is that bungalows new enough to be constructed using roof trusses have an advantage. Interior walls tend not to be load-bearing and are easier and cheaper to remove. You will still need to have approved plans before you start swing the sledgehammers but it’s a nice criteria to add to your list.

So far the top factors have appealed to both men and women. The battle of the sexes is between the appliances and fixtures versus garages. I will suggest that responses here are much lower and you won’t be getting the same bang for your buck. Tread cautiously here. It’s easy to spend more than the market is willing to pay back. On the other hand, if you are going to stay in the house for a few years a different logic may apply.

The overall conclusion is that to the degree you can create beautiful outdoor living spaces and curb appeal, the better your home is likely to appeal to buyers. Fortunately much of this work is easier to tackle as weekend do it it yourself projects than interior renovations.


Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2014 HomeXam Inc.
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Tips to Help your House Make the Grade

Proper grading is a key factor in maintaining your home. Over time poor grading caused by settlement or poor landscaping can funnel water towards the foundation, potentially causing a damp basement and the accompanying health concerns. Most people give site grades and drainage next to no consideration. Other factors are far more eye-catching and thus relegate drainage to an issue that homeowners only consider after the damage has been done.

Hillside catches water Basement wall
Hillside catches water Sloping patio stones
Border hold water Driveway settlement
Border holds water Driveway settlement collects water

The first picture shows a more extreme example than is often found, but clearly displays the concern. The terraced hillside surrounding this home acts as a funnel capturing rain and feeding it down the hill towards the house. No doubt in this case storm drains have been installed to capture the runoff. However, at properties with much less severe grades the necessary measures can be overlooked. It only takes a few inches of slope in the right or wrong direction to turn the tide, so to speak. I inspected a home this summer with moisture in the basement where the backyard and the neighbours lot behind it sloped directly to the back wall of the house. This usually escapes notice but once you are aware it can readily be evaluated at a glance. The good news is that in many cases the matter can be addressed with a truckload of topsoil and some grass seed.

Walkways and patios have runoff that should be directed away from the house. In this case the slope of the patio stones is clearly feeding water to the foundation wall. Although some hard work is required, often interlock pavers and patio stones can be lifted and relaid on a regraded base. Poured concrete slabs are more problematic and may have to be repoured. Before committing to that, take some time to investigate services that hydraulically relevel slabs.

Another common problem is landscaping that captures and holds water against the foundation rather than releasing it to flow away. Consider this flowerbed and its border. There are multiple drainage ‘sins’ at work here. First, the downspout has no extension and delivers it’s water right at the edge of the foundation. Second the porous pea gravel cover encourages water to soak straight down into the soil rather than draining away. And finally, the attractive border of interlock bricks turned on their sides creates a dam that prevents any water escaping. A little redesign and downspout extensions can improve things greatly.

Nearly every asphalt driveway we see has settled at the mouth of the garage. Sometimes the drop can be four or five inches resulting in water ponding in front of the garage. The fault is not with the asphalt but the material beneath it. After the excavation is back-filled with loose fill, compaction occurs gradually over the first few years resulting in settlement of the driveway surface that sinks far below the garage slab. The real solution is starting out with a properly prepared base the first time out. After the fact an asphalt patch or complete driveway replacement will have to considered.

When touring homes for possible purchase, add lot grading to your list of items to make note of. Some grading repairs amount to some hard work and a few dollars of materials. Others can require considerable expense and it would be best to know that before it becomes your problem. Don’t forget that the main reason we care about the grading is to protect the basement from water infiltration.


Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2014 HomeXam Inc.
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Household Mold De-Mystified

Mold are asexual fungi. They reproduce via spores which are small enough to be easily carried in air currents. As a consequence, mold is virtually everywhere. It’s not a question of whether there’s mold in a any given house; it’s a question of how much. As a home inspector, I know my clients are concerned about the levels of mold in the house they are considering buying, but determining the quantity, variety and measures to be taken for remediation are beyond our standard of practice. In fact, we even resist using the term ‘mold’ before the buyer has test results in hand. We will however raise questions should it become apparent that further investigation is warranted. Specialists can come in to take samples for examination at a lab.

Attic hatch seal Basement wall
Air leak at attic hatch Damp floor wicks up wall
Discoloured roof sheathing Toilet condensation
Poor ventilation in attic space Condensation from toilet
Wet bedroom wall Wet subfloor around toilet
Wet bedroom wall Wet subfloor around toilet

Buyers and agents often focus on the suspected mold as the problem. They worry about the health risks of exposure and allergic reactions. Legitimate concerns, but they need to understand that mold is actually a symptom of other underlying problems. For mold colonies to grow they need four things: a few spores to seed the colony, organic material to feed upon, moisture at suitable temperature and time to sporulate or reproduce. Our homes are full of organic materials like, wood framing and trim, paper coatings on drywall, exfoliated skin cells and soap scum in bathroom fixtures. We can’t eliminate these materials, nor change the temperature range we maintain in our housing. The factors we must control are the presence of moisture and how long it remains. Without fail mold colonies are found in moist environments.

Home inspectors are trained to look for signs of discoloured building materials in damp areas. Attic spaces are susceptible due to high humidity levels if ventilation is poor or through other poor building practices such as terminating plumbing stacks or ventilation ducts inside the space. It happens more that you would think. That moisture produces black patches that can cover the entire underside of the sheathing. Long, hot showers without turning on the bathroom fan can trap a lot of moisture in a home. Condensation from toilet tanks and leaking seals can be a source of moisture that rots wooden floor sheathing. Blocked clothes-dryer vents are a common source of humidity. Basements are particularly susceptible for a number of reasons, not the least of which, is that water will run to the lowest level it can. Less obvious sources are back-drafting furnaces and gas water heaters that can produce large amounts of humidity, not to mention deadly levels of carbon-monoxide. Unfortunately we can’t tear things apart to look for problems inside walls so there’s a limit to how much can be detected visually.

Modern homes are designed to remove as much excess moisture from a home as possible. Improved attic-space and bathroom ventilation, damp-proofed foundations, weeping tiles, floor drains, sump pumps and heat recovery ventilators are all innovations designed to control interior moisture levels. Humidity can vary greatly but as long as high levels are brought under control relatively quickly (under 48 hours), mold doesn’t have the time to sporulate and its growth is curtailed. So the best strategy is keeping things dry and if a mishap occurs make sure it gets taken care of in short order.

Mold is a surface phenomenon. Test kits are available if you want a lab to pin down specifically what you are dealing with. But in general if it smells funky, it’s there somewhere. If you recognize a small problem area early enough you can clean it up yourself with soapy water or by wiping with alcohol. This won’t address any staining but it will kill the fungi. Dead spores are just as toxic as live mold so get rid of any rags or sponges used in the cleanup. Anything very extensive will require professional removal or remediation, but this can be a significant cost. So get a handle on any problems early on and remember that any repairs you make to keep your home dry are helping to avoid major expense and potential health issues later.


Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2013 HomeXam Inc.
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Infrared Home Inspections; More Guesswork than Detection

Country home

The short and simple explanation of an infrared camera is that it displays a picture that represents the various temperature readings of the surface it is focused on. The camera can’t see behind the surface. As a home inspector, you have to apply your knowledge and experience to ‘interpret’ the image. You could just as easily describe it as an educated guess. Well hopefully education is part of the analysis.

I am still skeptical about the use of infrared cameras during a home inspection. I could be convinced with a compelling argument and evidence of course, but in the mean time I question whether the use of infrared cameras should be part of a standard residential home inspection. While this ‘sexy’ new tool searches for markets to exploit, you might want to rethink how much value it brings to the table in a home inspection.

I’m sure there are enthusiastic proponents out there who sell the cameras and the required training needed to ‘interpret’ the ‘results’. The many inspectors who have invested the time and money to offer ‘infrared inspections’ have a stake in the game as well and may be emotionally and financially committed to the device.

All home inspectors are aware of infrared cameras but many choose not to use them. Even inspectors who have purchased them often seem to lose their enthusiasm for using them on home inspections. Price is less of a stumbling block than it was, as it has fallen considerably, but still infrared cameras have not swept the marketplace. They are just not necessary to do good home inspections. In fact, I think they take up time that can be better spent inspecting the property visually. The industry claims that with just a ‘few minutes per room’ you can add infrared inspection to your routine. Conservatively that adds over an hour to an inspection, or takes time away from current investigation activities.

I have attended about thirty home inspections with a trained infrared camera operator. Only once did he suggest to a buyer that he saw something of interest. It turned out to be a minor and totally meaningless observation that added no value to the inspection. One of his practices was to use the camera to confirm temperature of airflows from heat registers throughout the house. I can pretty much rely on my hand for the same purpose. In questioning the inspector, I can’t remember any great stories he had to offer of catches that otherwise would have gone undetected in the previous couple of years of infrared use. His own observation was that the camera was ‘mostly a marketing tool’; meaning that it looked cool and people might prefer to have their inspector use one but they wouldn’t pay extra for it. If infrared cameras were really that beneficial in home inspections surely by now the marketplace would be demanding their use and people would be lined up to pay an extra fee. The reality is nothing like this.

There is only so much time that can be spent on-site a a home inspection. There are lots of things to inspect and many signs to look for that help experienced inspectors to detect defects without the use of an infrared camera. I am not saying that once a problem is detected that infrared cameras might not help in assessing the extent and confirming the specific location of a problem. But I would suggest that it is more than just a coincidence that the inspectors who throw in a free infrared camera inspection tend to be the lowest price practitioners in the market as well. Before you fall for lure of the sexy technology on your next inspection, I would give more thought to what the inspector brings to the table in terms of know-how and genuine caring than his tool-bag.


Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2013 HomeXam Inc.
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When Should I Change My Furnace Filter?

Conventional furnace filters capture dirt as it returns from the house before it enters the blower compartment. This means that the side furthest away from the blower, or fan, is the one that’s going to get dirty. As time goes on, the dust and dirt clogs in the pores of the filter and then starts to accumulate in a layer on the filter. If you can easily tell the difference in colour from one side to the other, the filter is ready to be changed. The change is overdue if it looks like there is a dirty blanket of lint built up on the filter.

Filter change past due. Collapsed furnace filter.
Way past due. Sucked into the blower.

So why do some people say to change it every month, while others say three months and some say as long as a year? All these answers are correct for someone, but might not be right for you. The time frame that it takes for a filter to get dirty enough to replace varies by a number of factors. Families with pets, or that have a woodworker creating sawdust in the house are providing more particulate matter for the filter to catch. Some people buy filters that have very fine pores in them to capture pollen and such to help a family member with allergies. These smaller pores clog up faster. In each of these cases, furnace filters are going to need to be changed more frequently.

Conventional filters are one inch thick. Some high end filters have a special housing that hold filters that are as much as five inches thick. Because the pleated filter medium they use has so much surface area, they typically last much longer.

A clogged filter lets less and less air through to the furnace. The blower motor has to strain to provide air to the furnace and may eventually fail; requiring an expensive repair. In other cases, the fan can pull the clogged filter right into the fan compartment. With the filter collapsed and out of the way, dirt will get straight through to the furnace components that the filter was designed to protect.

As a home inspector, I often find filters that are past due for replacement. It seems like a minor oversight but the cost can be significant. You should check your filter every month until you get used to the frequency that suits your family. Set a repeating alert in your smart phone to remind you when you need to have a look.


Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2013 HomeXam Inc.
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How to Fall Off a Ladder

Those of you who wish a long, healthy and unexciting life will probably not want to read this article. You’ll be one of those folks who always sets up your ladder on level ground; consistently leans it against a solid surface at a ratio of four units of height to one unit out from the wall; secures the top of the ladder; thinks to use a non-slip map under the ladder’s feet on a wet or slippery surface; and always keeps a hand free to grip the ladder.

Now those of you willing to trade a little excitement now for a lot of discomfort later, you can always flaunt the guidelines above. If you disregard them in creative combinations you’ll never know what heights of adventure you may reach. Do make sure you have a video camera filming every climb because we won’t want to miss it on Youtube. Speaking of which, here is an excellent educational video from a health and safety instructor who missed out on the guidelines.

There are some truly inspired ladder climbers out there. Here are a few pictures that show what’s possible if you take your ladder climbing to extremes. Can you imagine the pictures we missed of the extreme climbers who didn’t have any friends left to film them? Perhaps someone thought to immortalize their efforts with a Darwin Award.

So why would you want to fall off a ladder? Well a couple of ideas come to mind. All you have to do is fall off a ladder once or twice early in a relationship and you are pretty well excused from any maintenance jobs involving a ladder for all time. There is always the invalid/pity gambit to exploit as well. Deliberately crippling yourself can really payoff for about six weeks of meals served on the couch and in bed. Of course there’s the rest of your life to think about.


Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2013 HomeXam Inc.
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