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.

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 to find a qualified Home Inspector.

Indoor Air Quality in Our Homes

Indoor air quality affects our health and we should be aware of the types of contaminants that are frequently encountered in our homes. With the quantity of synthetic material and chemicals being used in the materials we build and furnish our homes with, this issue impacts everyone.

Francis Lavoie, a Biologist with Health Canada focused on the health risks associated with indoor air quality, was interviewed via phone to produce this video.


The 13 minute video is a good overview of indoor air quality related issues and explains:

  • what kinds of pollutants are a concern,
  • does duct cleaning help,
  • detecting air quality issues,
  • “tupperware houses”,
  • strategies to improve air quality

Additional Resources

Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2014 HomeXam Inc.
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Painting Tips for Homeowners

Whether you are getting ready to sell your home, or just want to enjoy it looking it’s best, fresh paint is like a face-lift for your house. Eye-catching accents and inviting crisp surfaces bring new appeal to tired looks. With a day or two of effort, year’s worth of the bumps and bruises of everyday living can disappear. Given it’s modest cost compared to other renovations, new paint is one of the best investments you can make in the appearance of your home.

Jessica Davidson is a professional painter living in Ottawa, Canada. She started painting with her Dad holding the ladder and moved on to work in her brother’s summer painting company while going through school. Having graduated and explored other career avenues, Jessica yearned for the satisfaction that delivering newly painted walls everyday gave her. Taking the chance to be her own boss, Painted Spaces was born and her hand-picked team started to grow. Since then Jessica has painted her way through jobs of all sizes in homes, companies and government institutions.

I thought homeowners might appreciate learning from a professional painter, so I invited Jessica for an interview. We managed to find time between jobs to conduct the interview and the product has been published as a video: Painting Tips for Homeowners.


The 12 minute video is a good overview of painting related issues and explains:

  • your home’s first impression,
  • what to paint for curb appeal
  • what makes a paint high quality
  • brands this pro uses
  • which roller for which job
  • is it easier and cheaper to do it yourself?

Additional Resources

  • Jessica Davidson’s website Painting Spaces.
  • A series of painting tips from Dulux.
  • Painting do’s and don’ts from HGTV.
  • How to pick colours.

Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2014 HomeXam Inc.
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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 about $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.


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.


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. 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 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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Home Inspector Licensing in Ontario

The Ministry of Consumer Services of Ontario has been holding discussions with various stakeholders to investigate the possibility of introducing the licensing home inspectors (see stakeholder report). For the record, I am in favour of licensing for home inspectors, if done properly. So here’s my take on what ‘done properly’ means. The goal here should be to ensure that consumers receive at least the minimum level of competency when they hire a home inspector. Not only does this include the working knowledge that a home inspector must have before taking on their first inspection client, it should also include the a basic definition of what must be inspected.

Inspecting Panel

Let’s start with the education component. At the moment, anyone can claim they are a home inspector. If a rookie ‘inspector’ has never owned a home or had significant construction experience, it seems fair to question their ability to offer a home inspection service. What might be less apparent is that even for people with significant construction experience, there’s still a lot to learn. The trades operate as specialties that address different construction tasks. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, heating and cooling specialists, roofers, drywall, are just a subset of the segregated roles played in constructing a house. Also, there are those who work for decades on commercial projects rather than residential construction. My point is that for business reasons home construction has become very specialized and a narrow field of experience is not enough for doing home inspections. There’s no doubt that trade experience and knowledge is helpful; but it’s not enough. You might not expect it, but tradespeople hire home inspectors too.

Home inspectors by training and experience are generalists. They are able to examine multiple aspects of a home looking for signs of functional problems and safety concerns. As a rule, we don’t have the depth of experience that trade people do, but we have more breadth. If we find signs that call for that detailed knowledge, we will call for further evaluation of that aspect of the home by a contractor or trades-person.

As for the basic definition, there won’t be much value in any licensing scheme that fails to establish a consistent baseline on the minimum scope of a home inspection. Every inspection should review the roof, exterior, plumbing, electrical, heating, cooling, insulation, interior and structural elements. Individual inspectors may choose to look at more than this baseline, but all licensed inspectors must review this minimum scope of work to call their service a home inspection. In the professional association that I belong to we refer to this baseline as our Standard of Practice.

The home inspection industry has a problem with it’s position in the real estate sales process. There is an inherent ethical issue when the real estate agent’s compensation is paid by the seller and they are allowed to influence the hiring of the home inspector. The temptation to refer work to inspectors who might be less thorough is a concern. The home inspector should always act as an objective and independent information resource for the buyer. In addition to the consumer, the real estate industry will be well served by removing this perceived conflict of interest by not allowing agents to refer home inspectors under any circumstance.

There are also some concerns about the possible costs and bureaucracy that might evolve into the process of licensing. To address these issues and to successfully implement a licensing process, I offer these guidelines for consideration:

  • A minimum program of education that covers the breadth of the standard of practice and professional ethics to be successfully completed with written exams before practising. Existing college programs to be considered for exemptions.
  • An ongoing educational requirement that can be fulfilled by attending relevant conference seminars and courses.
  • Mandatory errors and omission insurance with sufficient competition to maintain costs.
  • Significant fines for unlicensed inspections.
  • Reduction of the reporting window to two years from the date of inspection.
  • License fee of $250 or less.

Some concerns arise when unnecessary requirements come into the mix. I have heard the idea of criminal background checks being required. Inspections are always accompanied. There seems little risk of this being a problem. While it might seem like a prudent precaution, I have yet to hear of an inspector accused of theft. I have had to undergo background checks for being a landlord, for my volunteer work, and to drive my daughter and her team-mates to sporting events. When did it become standard practice to prove you have not been convicted of a crime to work in our society?

Finally, there is some discussion around the idea in the field testing of inspectors to be completed on a five year cycle to remain active. I can see where this gains support with the tougher is better crowd, but I find the value of this to be questionable. If you are successfully doing inspections and pursuing ongoing education, I see little need to keep re-qualifying. My fear is that this is more about revenue generation than improving inspectors and all these cost must eventually be paid by consumers.

The fundamental service that a home inspector provides is to help inform the client of the presence of issues in a home they are in the process of buying. A key component of the value proposition of a home inspection is that the client leaves the process more informed about the condition of the home. There is a lot of confusion in the marketplace about what a home inspection is and there are some common home inspection myths held by the public. Licensing home inspectors should help to ensure consumers have common expectations of home inspections and are consistently provided quality reports. I have tried to outline the major issues with respect to the licensing of home inspectors operating in Ontario and hope that the final process will benefit all.

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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Water is the Enemy; A Home Inspector’s View

Country home

One of the many things a home inspector looks for is evidence of the entry of water into the building envelop. That’s just a fancy way of saying that water has gotten inside and its left a stain or other damage. So is seeing a stain a big deal? Maybe not, but we should always treat it as if it is until we know for sure. The real question is has the problem been fixed and what damage has the water done in the mean time? This can be impossible to fully assess from just a visual inspection and in severe cases contractors may have to be called in to open up the walls. Left for prolonged periods, even modest amounts of water can do a lot of damage to a home. In this article, we will provide an overview of a number of ways that water can enter or be trapped inside a modern home.

Interior water leaks are bad enough when they do cosmetic damage warping hardwood floors, softening drywall and bubbling paint. The repairs can be many thousands of dollars and a severe inconvenience to family routine. Things get more serious when structural damage is done. The presence of water is one of the main growth factors required for mold as explained in Household Mold De-Mystified. Of course another name for mold is ‘rot’ and having the lumber holding up your home rot is a serious issue indeed. Not only is the strength of the building compromised, but the framing is often covered with layers of ruined building materials that must be removed and replaced. The bills can add up quickly.

Let’s start with the roof and work our way down. Although most people naturally suspect the shingles to be the prime culprit, if they are properly installed, it’s much more likely to be the flashings that are at fault. Flashings are metal or rubber trim pieces used to seal a roof in valleys, along surface transitions and around openings like skylights and plumbing stacks. The flashings are intended to sheet water safely over a joint between materials. Unintended openings can start in ageing caulking and from the expansion and contraction of joints. Properly applied, a five dollar tube of caulking can save you thousands of dollars of repairs.

Somewhat similar problems can be discovered as we inspect the building exterior. Door and window openings need well maintained caulking as well. Poorly installed siding can capture water rather than shed it away. Brick or masonry walls that are cracked and let moisture in can be expensive repairs in their own right. Sometimes we see masonry walls that have been built without weep-holes or that have had them plugged up by a well-intended home-owner. The weep-holes are there to allow water otherwise trapped behind the wall to drain out. Blocking the holes defeats the purpose of the weep-holes and can cause significant damage to the wall and house framing behind it.

At ground level, we look to see that precipitation is able to readily drain away from the foundation. I don’t think most people appreciate the importance of handing all the water that can fall or run onto a property. Even a moderate rain can deliver thousands of gallons that all flows downhill. We want to keep that water from flowing into your basement. The remedy starts with the eves-trough. They capture all that water that falls on the roof and discharges through the downspouts in am attempt to get it away from the house’s foundation. In nearly every house that we visit, we find that the downspouts drain too close to the foundation wall. We routinely recommend the installation of downspout extensions to take the water far enough away to protect your basement. We recommend a six feet as a normal objective and to make sure that it end on ground that slopes away from the building. See Tips to Help your House Make the Grade

City building departments all ask for grading plans for new houses these days. They know that all that storm water needs to be properly dealt with. This applies to all houses, but especially if your house is built at the bottom of a slope or below the level of your neighbours, you need to be careful that grading around your foundation runs water away. Its very common to find settling of the fill around the foundation wall has created a depression that feeds water right to the wall. Your driveways, patios and sidewalks should also be modestly sloped away from the house for the same reason. Even-though builders often wait months to pave driveways, the majority of subdivision homes have significant settling in front of the garage door. Besides being a trip hazard, water ponds and freezes creating slip and fall opportunities for home-owners and unsuspecting guests.

We’ve worked our way down to the foundation walls. If the property is doing a good job of draining water away from the house, we are much less likely to find a damp or out-right wet basement. That being said, there can be groundwater to deal with as well. Modern poured concrete foundations are damp-proofed with tar and a dimpled plastic membrane that channels water to the foundation drainage tiles. Sump pumps or natural drainage is used to to handle any water that might otherwise accumulate underneath the slab. Properly functioning these measures eliminate water outside the wall that might try to find it’s way in.

Now we need to consider the potential internal sources of water in a home. People underestimate the amount of water that is in the air of a modern home. Indoor plumbing has brought water problems indoors too. In the old days, homes weren’t sealed so well and if things got damp the air leakage helped dry things out fairly quickly. Nowadays the water that enters a home stays there unless we take steps to remove it. Excess humidity can come from many sources: steaming cooking pots under an unused range hood, long showers without bathroom fans on, and blocked clothes dryer vents are just a few examples. Once that moisture is in the air it travels to a cold surface and condenses depositing water on surfaces that may rot or produce mold. Some times one water problem leads to another. A toilet that runs continuously can waste a lot of water, but it also chills the toilet tank and supply piping which can create puddles in the wrong places. If the humidity levels get high enough, mold can show up anywhere there is an appropriate foodstuff.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, but these are only some of the ways water can enter a modern home. Fortunately many techniques and technologies have developed to protect us from water entering our homes and others to help us to remove it when it does gets in. We have heating, air conditioning, heat recovery and other ventilation systems that attempt to manage our comfort, air quality and humidity in our homes. This all adds to the complexity of our homes. I’ve tried to give an overview of the many vulnerabilities to water that our homes have. You can follow the links provided to other articles which address specific concerns in more depth. The most important message I can offer you is that if you notice a water problem starting to occur, the faster and more professionally you deal with it, the less trouble and expense you will have to go through over the long run.

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