Beyond Staging: A Better Home Inspection Report

Conventional sales advice calls for removing the clutter from a home when you put it on the market. Tiding up a home’s appearance helps prospective buyers to picture themselves living in the home without the distractions of the previous owner’s personal belongings. More recently, this has evolved to include staging the home with rented furniture and sometimes a certain amount of judicious redecorating. With the right professional help, staging can make a tremendous difference in the appearance and marketability of the house. This is all the more important in a buyer’s market where you need to differentiate yourself from other properties in the same price range.

You’ve done all the right things to beautify the house on the surface. Why not take a little more time to remove the easily addressed defects beneath the surface? They may not be obvious to the seller or the prospective buyer, but to a Home Inspector they are. By the time the inspector arrives, you have a deal on the table and it seems as if he or she is pouncing on tiny little flaws in an otherwise beautiful home. Each defect, tiny or not, adds to the volume of the report and to some degree can taint the buyer’s overall perception of the house. A short repair list is a lot more attractive to a buyer.

Missing cauking is a quick fixAs a Home Inspector, I see lots of defects that a few minutes attention could fix. It can be as simple as a broken cover-plate on an electrical switch or receptacle, a dirty furnace filter or some missing caulking. Some defects can be addressed with a little physical effort and some might call for a few dollars investment. Here’s a guide that explains a variety of common defects and organizes them starting with the quick and cheap fixes. There’s also a checklist to help manage the work. You don’t have to be a trades-person to do these repairs. But if you are just not into the do it yourself stuff, hiring a handy man for a few hours can get a lot done in a hurry.

By all means acquire the skills of the best Home Stager you can find. They know how to put the right colours and items together to present your home at its best. None the less, a bit of work on your part might cut down the number of defects by as much as a third. Remember, a thinner inspection report is always better report. So if you want to do everything you can to sell your home, take a step beyond staging.

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

The traditional method of assembling the wood framing members that hold up a residential roof structure was a manual process of custom cutting rafters, ceiling joists and the various pieces required. For the last couple of decades, virtually all roof framing is built as factory manufactured components that are assembled on site. There are several advantages to this approach. Engineered designs allow greater loads to be carried with smaller dimension lumber; saving material costs. Greater uniformity in the components helps with the quality of construction. Factory automation provides labour savings on-site as trusses can be lifted into place as finished components. Less skill is required in the field and roof structures can be framed in less time.

Truss manufacturing companies serve builders by efficiently producing trusses at their factories and shipping them to the construction site. Smaller trusses are lifted by hand and larger ones are often lifted by crane to be installed. The process start with specialized design software that takes design parameters as input and creates truss designs that meet load, span and code requirements. In large part, trusses form a repetitious design element where each truss is offset parallel to the next by a standard amount.

A truss is made up of a top and bottom chord and supporting pieces between called webbing that are often arranged in a triangular pattern. There are truss designs to accommodate different requirements like cathedral ceilings, attic storage, tray ceilings and so on. Truss manufacturers cut several of each component and assemble the parts in jigs for speed and accuracy. At the joints, the pieces are held in place by a gusset, which is a plate with many fasteners. In earlier versions the gussets often were a piece of plywood covering the end of several parts held together with numerous nails. Now the most common gussets are galvanized sheet metal cut with many tangs that are pressed into the wood.

Laying out truss components

You can see how the workers assemble each part of the truss on a table according to the design. Gussets are laid on the joints and a press rolls into position and pushes the tangs down into the wood for a strong and secure joint. The process is repeated over and over until enough trusses have been produced for the house. Then they are shipped to the construction site. The first picture shows the layout of pieces and the second the press in action.

Pressing the gussets

In the example shown the trusses are relatively small and only form one half of the roof for a modular home. It’s not uncommon for trusses to span more than thirty feet in length and take the entire load for that distance. This removes the need for load bearing walls in the interior space of the house and facilitates open designs and subsequent interior renovations. Because trusses carry so much of the load in a house, it is critical that the design follows engineered specifications and that the plan is followed accurately on site. Municipal building officials help to ensure that code issues like nailing, bracing and other requirements are consistently applied. As home inspectors, we visually examine the trusses, typically from an attic hatch, to see if we can spot any damage to truss components or improper modifications. Given the limited view possible from this vantage point it can only be a cursory examination.

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

First of all, aluminum is a good conductor. It weighs less and costs less than copper. That’s why utility companies have been using it in their transmission lines for many decades and continue to do so to this day. From the mid-sixties to the late seventies aluminum wire was installed in residential electrical systems because the price of copper had spiked. You may have heard that the presence of aluminum wiring in a house is a cause for concern. I’ll try to explain what the issues are and you can decide what to do from there.

The primary concern is the risk of fire from improper installation. It all happens at the connection points. Aluminum oxidizes when exposed to the air. This really doesn’t matter except at the connection points between wires. Unfortunately aluminum oxide is a poor conductor. It creates resistance in the flow of electrons and it results in heat being generated. If there’s enough heat, there’s a chance of fire.

To add to the problem, aluminum has a different expansion ratio than other metals commonly used in electrical systems. Repeated heating and cooling of connections where aluminum wire joins copper wire or another metal, such as under a receptacle screw terminal, can cause the connection to work its way loose. Once loose, oxidation between the formerly airtight connection now starts to build up.

There are products that have been developed to help deal with these issues. One is anti-oxidant compound that can be applied over the tightly twisted ends of the wires. It looks and feels like grease and blocks oxygen out of the joint to stop oxidation. Special aluminum-rated connectors or “Marrettes” should be used to join aluminum wires and aluminum to copper wires.

Terminal crews on components like receptacles and switches were improved to have more secure terminal screws. Of course these more specialized components come a significantly higher cost. To reduce cost, tradesmen have adopted the practice of “pig-tailing” the final connection. This means that regular components are used with a short “pig-tails” of copper wire which is then properly joined to the longer run of aluminum wire through the walls.

Aluminum wires in electrical panel

So if all this works, why do you still care about whether there’s aluminum wire in the house? One reason is that just the stigma alone may discourage buyers when you go to resell. On the other hand, if it doesn’t bother you there’s likely other buyers who don’t care either. There’s thousands of houses out there that are still happily standing with aluminum wire in them. Depending where you live another challenge might be getting insurance coverage. You are likely to pay a premium price when you find it.

So why don’t you just replace all the wiring with copper? The key question is how much it will cost. The major hassle is accessing those wires behind the walls. Bungalows with unfinished basements are the easiest to deal with since the electrician can get to most of the wiring directly. When you have to open up the walls and repair them things quickly get more challenging and expensive.

Hopefully this article has given you a better understanding of why Home Inspectors try to point out the presence of aluminum wiring in any house they inspect. You should have gained an idea of the impact that its presence may have on you. For some it’s and major issue and for others it’s barely a blip in the new home buying process.

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

At least in a manner of speaking. Everywhere we go we look for cracks in foundations. When we find them we try to classify them and evaluate the surrounding influences that might make the consequences better or worse. Cracks are a foundation’s way of relieving stress. The majority of houses offer one or more cracks for examination. So don’t panic at the sight of the first one. Let me offer a layman’s primer to the types of foundation cracks that may be encountered.

There are obviously ‘bad’ cracks that we refer to as ‘structural’. In inspector language, we might write, “the structural integrity of the foundation wall has been compromised”. What we mean is that the foundation wall is not doing its job of holding up the house properly. The damage is potentially significant and the cost of repair usually is too. The other thing to remember about a structural defect is that we are saying that the damage is going to get worse if you don’t get things corrected. If the foundation is not holding up the house in its original position, the weight of the house above will cause further stress cracks and movement. Don’t lose hope. Just because a crack is significant doesn’t mean that it can’t be properly repaired.

Inspectors look at the size of the crack, its orientation and for any displacement. The wider the gap the worse the crack. If you can get your fingertip in a crack, there has already been significant movement. A horizontal crack is generally of more concern that a vertical one because it suggests displacement. Displacement is when one side of a crack has shifted out of alignment with the other; the two sides are no longer in the same plane. Pressure from the fill around a foundation sometimes causes the wall to start to bulge inwards. Most commonly this happens with block foundations.

Buckling wallThe picture shows a block wall that has started to buckle inwards. It has what we refer to as ‘step cracking’ as the mortar has opened between the blocks. The bulge displaces the blocks out of their vertical alignment and is often detectable by eye when sighted along the wall. Left unchecked further movement will cause the wall to collapse and the home will be unsupported along this section of wall.

The least expansive cracks are referred to as ‘hairline’ cracks. You can see them but the sides are still in contact and aligned. They are often located around basement window openings. Some cracks are caused by the tension in concrete drying out as it ages. Minor settlement can cause these too. If a crack has remained unchanged for years there’s less risk of future movement as settlement usually diminishes over time. The uncertainty is whether a recent crack will widen into something more serious. The pictures we put in our inspection reports can be a reference to refer to later. Wider cracks need special devices to help track millimeter size movements over time.

Cracks that we find in basement and garage floors are the least worrisome. It’s hard to find a house without them and unless the floor is buckling, or contains in-floor heating, inspectors aren’t going to get too worked up about them. In traditional house construction the floor slabs have very little structural significance. They are poured after the house is built and and the roof is on. They don’t play much of a role in holding the house up.

A non-structural crack that occurs in a well-drained, dry environment is pretty harmless. Once past the issue of structural support, the enemy we watch for is potential water intrusion. Concrete is not waterproof and the presence of cracks add to the potential to leak. Past leaks often leave signs and we will certainly comment if we find those. The influences I referred to earlier are things that either bring more water to the crack or fail to take water away from it. The grade around your foundation wall should slope away from the house. Landscape edging or porous fill like river rock can pool water along the foundation wall. The lack of an eves-trough on a roof surface above that drains towards that edge, or downspouts that empty too close can feed large amounts of water to an otherwise harmless crack.

I hope this article has helped to give you a better understanding of what Home Inspectors as thinking about while they look at a foundation wall. Ideally you now have some insight into distinguishing a serious crack from a lesser one.

Photos courtesy of AboveWater Foundation Waterproofing & Restoration Services Inc.

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

House for sale

Now that the big picture decisions of affordability, room layout and neighbourhood are behind them, buyers are going to examine your house in much finer detail. They are trying to picture how it will feel to live there. Everybody gets used to their own messes but other peoples’ are much less appealing. A little extra effort at this final stage can help keep a nervous buyer moving forward.

The goal should be to get as many of the little items taken care of as you can to keep them from bulking up the inspection report. This can help to relieve the anxiety of the buyer, who might be intimidated by the reality of the closing and still has to waive their conditions. Why not reassure them that the house is in top shape in as many ways as possible?

Quick Fixes

Replace any burned out light bulbs. A burned out bulb suggests that you haven’t been keeping up on the little things around the house. A cautious inspector will now spend twice as much time to make sure they see everything.

Install missing and replace damaged receptacle covers (with the power off for safety of course). Inspectors will write up every missing receptacle cover they see as a safety hazard. It is commonly treated as a major safety and immediate item. Why have those items in the report when its such an easy fix?

Make sure your furnace filter is clean and replace if necessary. Furnace protection plans are often transferable to the new owner. Have the documentation out on the kitchen table. It’s a great way to reassure the buyer that their furnace maintenance is up to date.

Inspectors don’t like to see leaves and debris accumulating in window wells. It only takes a few minutes to scoop them out and eliminate another item from the report.

Make sure the pilot light is on in your gas fireplaces. Some inspectors refuse to turn on any gas appliances for fear that they are not operating properly. This ends up in a phone call from the agent or as an item for followup inspection. Its just easier to avoid the possibility and have them on and ready. By the way if your unit uses a remote control to operate, have it out in plain sight.

The inspector is most likely going to detect the signs of significant work such as foundation repairs. Inspectors will report evidence of past water intrusion for sure. Rather than having the prospective buyer worrying about expensive repairs, and possibly losing the deal, a much better impression is made if you freely display the paper work for the repairs that addressed the problem.

A Bit of Elbow Grease Required

Funky smells get noticed and nobody appreciates them. If the kid’s sports equipment or accumulations of laundry are developing a fragrance all of their own, take the time to do the wash and put the equipment in the trunk of your car. If that seems like a gross idea, it just proves the point. Flush toilets, clean litter-boxes and diaper pails. Scrub any mildew around tubs and showers. Emptying and deodorizing garbage pails is a good idea. Take fifteen minutes to air the house out, but don’t over do the chemical air fresheners and deodorizers.

The fewer signs that there are pets in the house the better. It’s a good time to take the pets with you for a walk. Make sure someone has done a thorough poop cleanup in the yard. You may think the buyer loves animals too, but if they show up with Mom, Dad or their Mother in Law, their opinion may be unnecessarily soured. Nobody will appreciate stepping on one of your pet’s landmines.

The inspector is going to climb up to have a look in the attic hatch. Most of these hatches are in closets and sometimes those closets are stuffed with belongings. First, you probably would prefer us not to be handling your stuff to clear out the closet enough to spread a stepladder. And second, although we try to be neat and tidy, its almost inevitable that some insulation will fall down through the hatch. Far better to move a few things now than to have suits to clean later.

Most inspectors won’t run the appliances, but the home buyer might. Empty the washing machine, clothes dyer and dishwasher. If you have a built-in vacuum cleaner, this might be a good time to empty it as well.

Turning off the electrical power is the safest way to inspect the distribution panel. If you have special equipment that requires continuous power try to make accommodation for a brief shutdown. I once had a house with a couple racks of computers in the basement serving several online businesses. In that case it was pretty obvious, but if I had thrown the switch before noticing the computers it might have been awkward. At the very least, make sure the inspector hears about stuff like this before hand. Confirm after the inspection that power has been restored to GFCIs, thermostats and timers you depend upon.

Please make sure there are no dishes or laundry items left soaking in the sinks. Sinks that drain slowly will be reported. It might not be fun, but you can clear them with a plunger or by emptying the traps. Those curved sections under the vanity have a plug or nut that can be loosened to flush them out. Have a tub underneath and a rag handy.

If winter snow has accumulated, clear off walkways, porches, balconies, decks and if possible the driveway. Whatever the inspector can’t see will become a report item. This doesn’t mean that anything is wrong, just that the inspector can’t reassure the buyer of their condition. Don’t shovel snow off the roof. You will more likely damage the roof and it’s a risky activity.

A Few Bucks But Probably Worth It

Squeaky floorboards get noticed. There are special screws that will fix squeals under carpet, hardwood and linoleum floors. They are specially designed so that they tighten the floor to subfloor or joist with minimal visibility. The screw heads snap off to leave a small hole below the surface which should be invisible in carpet floors and easily filled in hardwood. An excellent explanatory video is available from the manufacturer, O’Berry Enterprises, Inc.

Door hinges sometimes need a little lubrication on the hinge pin to stop a squeak. Some people use oil or powdered graphite, but both can be messy and can drip or work its way out where it can be seen. Grease is a better choice. Be careful to use just a little. See your local Lowes or Home Depot for plumber’s grease or alternate product. Here is a handyman site that has a good how to page on this topic.

Ripped window screens can be taken to your local hardware store for repair. The inspector will want to operate your windows. You can find replacements for cranks missing from casement windows at Lowes or Home Depot. Thermopane panels in windows sometimes have failed seals that show up as moisture or stains in between the sheets of glass. This can be a pricey item to fix in any quantity. I’ve seen houses that had more than half a dozen of these located throughout the house and it can become a renegotiation issue. There are three approaches to be considered, replacing the entire window, just replacing the glass or attempting to repair the seal. You may decide fixing a prime picture window location to be a good investment. Then you can provide the paperwork to the buyer when discussing the others. Here’s more window seal repair information.

All inspectors comment on areas where surface water runoff will drain toward the house rather than the preferred direction away from the house. Eavestrough downspouts often deliver water too close to the foundation. By extending downspouts, six feet where possible to a downhill grade, the water runs away form the house and has little chance of soaking down along the basement wall. Toronto Eavestroughing has produced an excellent video explaining how to reroute a downspout. In this case the eavestrough had been flowing underground but the same principles apply to extending a surface feeding downspout. For more explanation see their website.

Carbon monoxide and smoke detectors that are discoloured or nearing ten years of age will be reported. Most detectors are now hard-wired to the electrical supply, so make sure you turn off the right circuit breaker before replacing them. Replacing with the same model or brand can reduce this to a quick plug in to the existing connector. If you are the least bit uncomfortable working with electricity seek help, but its pretty simple and here’s a very thorough video guide from

If you are a bit handy or have access to a handyman these issues can be readily addressed. They aren’t showstoppers but they help to remove items from the inspectors report.

Final Thoughts

Just in case the selling agent doesn’t have your cell phone number with them, it’s a good idea to leave it out on the table. Sometimes a quick answer can help clarify things quickly. For those few hours you are out of the house, disable the security alarm. Everybody might have a good laugh later but the inspection could get derailed. You can always let a neighbour know that an inspection is happening.

If you can take your animals with you it would be best. The non-pet people will appreciate it and there will be people opening outside doors and gates that any escape artists might take advantage of. The inspector needs access to all parts of the house. Dogs with an attitude can stop things cold. If you have work conflicts, you might consider asking someone to watch ‘Spike’ for the day.

Look here for a printable home inspection checklist.

Finally, make sure you are not at home during the inspection. Be out for at least four hours. As welcoming as you intend to be, it can still be awkward for the buyer. Not having the freedom to inspect at their leisure feels uncomfortable. This is a crucial part of the buying process when you want them to feel as much ‘at home’ as possible. One last piece of advice, don’t show up at the end of the inspection and ask how it went. As much as you want to know the answer, the inspector reports to the buyer and the buyer needs time to absorb the contents of the report. Rest assured, you will find out as soon as the buyer is ready to tell you.

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