The heating ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are a technical and critical part of any inspection. Like plumbing and electrical, the initial work should have been done by a licensed trade person. In the South, the air conditioning half of the system is almost always present as part of the central HVAC system. It is important to understand and inspect the HVAC components as a system. The HVAC components not only supply heating and cooling to the house, but they are also a critical part of the health of the home. We will discuss these aspects as we examine each HVAC component. It is also important for the inspector to be sure the customer is comfortable with the system’s function as the inspection proceeds. Remember, the customer may have never had air conditioning, gas heat, a heat pump heating system or replaced a furnace filter before. All these areas should be discussed with the customer to prevent future questions and relieve some buyer anxiety.
An inherent characteristic of a thorough home inspection is that some parts of the inspection are much more technical than others. The inspection of the electrical, plumbing and HVAC components fall into this category. If there is a defect or deficiency in any of these categories, it is almost always based in the codes that were adopted for these trades. It is important to note that this does not mean that the inspector is doing a code compliance inspection but the deficiency he or she is pointing out has been defined in the particular code for that category. For example, if the inspector notes that there is a cover missing from a junction box in the attic, this has been identified as a problem because it is considered a potential safety or fire issue by the National Electrical Code. Junction boxes must have covers. The electrical part of the inspection can also pose serious electric shock hazards for the inspector. Missed or improperly identified items can also expose the property’s occupants to shock or fire hazards. It is clear to see that only qualified inspectors should be used.
Some of the electrical inspection is done on the outside of the house. If the service entrance cable is coming in overhead from the street the cable has to be identified, clearances checked and splices and supports inspected. Overhead service cables must be a certain minimum height over lawns and walkways. If an exterior ground rod has been used, its condition must be accessed. Many homes have the main electrical disconnect on the exterior of the house. The disconnect must be accessible to the property’s occupants and its ampere rating or size noted.
The inspection of the electrical panel involves more single observations than any other component of the house. Every wire and connection must be examined and any problems noted. It is also one of the more dangerous parts of the inspection because the panel contains exposed wires carrying 240 volts. The panel is first inspected with the cover on. This is the easy part. Panel openings, labeling, current and voltage ratings and the general condition of the panel are noted.
When teaching home inspection classes, there is usually one question that is always asked. The answer is, “yes, you have to take the cover off the electrical panel.” The inside of the panel is the most revealing because all the wires and over current protection is exposed. Every wire and connection must be inspected; wire sizes and over current devices, (fusses or circuit breakers) must match. Workmanship and general panel condition can be viewed. There are over 20 separate things to look for on the inside of the panel. Improperly wired receptacles and the interior of the electrical panel are the key locations to tell if electrical work was done by someone other than a licensed electrician. Remember, the standards for proper electrical work are based on safety and fire prevention. If the workmanship is not up to standard it can be a fire or safety issue. This is why home inspectors always point out the dangers of poor electrical work and recommend that problems be corrected by a licensed electrician. If the home owner did the lousy work initially, we do not want him to come back and try to fix it.
Some homes have electrical panels that have been added to expand the panel’s capabilities or are used to feed a basement or detached garage. These sub panels are inspected with the same detail as the main panel. During the interior part of the inspection the inspectors is also checking receptacles, switches and electrical fixtures. There are over 16 different observations made when checking these devices.
The one area of the electrical inspection that causes the most problems and confusion is the reporting on GFCIs, Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters. As the electrical codes evolved from the 1980s the location and use of the GFCI devices were updated and changed. There is no requirement that the home owner must update his/her home whenever there is a change in the building codes. As concerns GFCIs, their location and operation must be identified. If a GFCI is missing or does not function properly, it should be noted. The inspector is in error when he/she uses current codes to call out GFCI issues on receptacles that were installed when a different code edition was in effect.
Less confusing because they are new are Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters, AFCI. These devices are currently in circuit breaker form and therefore located in the electrical panel. When first introduce the AFCI breakers only covered bed room circuits. They are now used for branch circuits throughout the home.
One of the least understood but very important parts of the inspection is verifying the house electrical ground. Proper grounding is essential to the safety of the people in the house. Receptacles, fixtures and electrical panels are supposed to be grounded and tied to a common point. This common point may be a ground rod, a water pipe or part of the building ground. Time and effort sometimes are required to find the ground and assure it is properly connected but the inspector must be diligent in its verification.
Many home inspection reporting formats include the smoke detectors in the electrical section of the report. The location, type and operation of all smoke detectors must be noted. Missing damaged and nonfunctioning units must be identified. If carbon dioxide detectors have been installed, there location also has to be included. Whenever possible all detectors should be tested with the test button.
Over the age of a home it is very likely that the home owners, handymen or some other unqualified person has attempted electrical work on the house. Amateurish and generally poor electrical workmanship is one of the more common areas of problems found during inspections. Because of the safety and fire issues correction of these deficiencies by a qualified electrician should be a high priority.
The next article will be an exciting trip through the attic. Hope for a cool day and bring your dust mask.
Other articles on What the Inspectors Inspect can be found on our website, edificeinspections.com
The garage can be considered as not being as important as other parts of the house when performing a home inspection. This actually is not true because of the safety issues that are inherent in garages. Remember, garages are the storage space for vehicles, lawn mowers and associated gasoline storage containers. For our discussion we will focus on garages and not carports. The carport has to be identified and inspected but has fewer possible areas of concern as compared to a garage. The garage must be identified as attached or detached, where it is located on the house and the number of cars for which it is intended. If the garage is detached, the roof is also inspected. For our discussion we will assume the garage to be attached to or under the house.
The exterior or shell of the house is exposed to the harshness of our climate and has to be continuously checked and maintained to prevent deterioration. Even homes two or three years old may be suffering the consequences of thinning paint and shrinking caulking. Pointing out wood damage or maintenance issues on the exterior can be enormously helpful to the buyer. Tips on future maintenance issues and explanations on conditions are also very useful. Remember, all buyers are not from this area and are not familiar with our maintenance issues. Having the buyer at the inspection is important because if he/she is walking the exterior with the inspector, problems can be identified and remedies discussed. This is much better that having the customer read about problems later when they get the inspection report. A good inspection and report should not contain any surprises if the buyer attended the inspection.
The 1990’s were witness to a flood of law suits involving wood composition siding and synthetic stucco (EIFS). Many of the issues leading to the product failure have been addressed over the years but much of the siding is still on older homes. The type and condition of all exterior cladding must be identified and evaluated. Detailing problems like swelling, over driven nails and the siding been too close to the ground will assist the buyers when repairs have to be made. Improperly installed siding can lead to premature deterioration and may void the manufacturer’s warrantee. All sidings are subject to moisture or impact damage and have to be carefully inspected to assure water is not attacking the wall cavity. Asbestos siding on older homes must be identified and the customer made aware of the options available in dealing with Asbestos. Cracked mortar in brick veneer can be evidence of settling beams or moving foundations. The severity of the cracking and the time involved is important in determining if the movement is a serious structural issue or minor typical cracking.
Wood trim, soffits and fascias are all exterior components that are particularly susceptible to the effects of wind, rain and heat. Once wood damage starts it can accelerate rapidly. Damaged trim and window sills can allow water to enter the wall cavity and cause structural damage. Clogged gutters and gutter fasteners slanted toward the fascia can direct water to the wood fascia and soffits. Knowing the extent of any damage may be difficult to determine until repairs are actually started and the damaged material is removed. The inspector must provide the customer with as much information as possible so repair and cost estimates can be made. If repairs become part of the real estate process, the seller may perform the repairs or an agreed upon price for those repairs may be negotiated between the buyer and the seller and the buyer becomes responsible for the repairs. In either case, the best information is required. Even homes with metal, vinyl and other non wood trim can have issues and also have to be inspected. Amateurish workmanship should also be noted because it could be covering up other problems or will become a maintenance problem in the future.
A frequent surprise to a home buyer during an inspection is that the house or portions of it may need a paint job. Even with a three or four year old home, the paint and caulking may have deteriorated to the point where wood rot has already started in isolated locations. Many home owners and buyers do not know when the paint is thinning until they have wood damage. The ideal time to paint and caulk is before you have rotting wood that has to be replaced or repaired. A home buyer may look at his/her prospective home and think the paint is fine. The home inspector however, may recommend that wood trim or siding be painted in the near future to prevent deterioration and maintain the appearance of the home. Many times this comes as a surprise. Sometimes a paint job is needed immediately and sometimes it can be put off for a short while. The extent and time frame should be made clear to the customer so they can prioritize their household projects.
Insulated windows, doors, storm windows and storm doors are also included in the exterior part of the inspection but they are also inspected from the interior. These items cannot be evaluated as to efficiency but their functionality should be determined. Do they operate properly? Are there screens installed and what condition are they in? Some loan programs require a house to have screens. Whether an insulated door or window has a failed Thermopane seal is usually more easily determined from the interior but also should be noted.
Exterior doors are also inspected from both the interior and exterior. A primary concern is security and safety. Do the doors open and close properly to provide easy egress? Are the proper locksets and dead bolts installed and are they installed properly? Weather stripping is used to reduce air infiltration and it should be working correctly. Improperly installed or missing weather stripping can also allow rain to be blown in around the door trim.
The last item on our exterior inspection list is the chimney. The chimney is best inspected from the roof but again this is not always possible. A good set of binoculars can bring you up close for a good viewing. Chimneys are also inspected from the interior and the attic. The chimney may look innocent enough looking at it from the ground but a proper inspection involves many observations. The chimney material, height, condition of the cap and spark arrester and any obstructions should be noted. Loose cracked or damaged brick or mortar should be recommended for repair. Flashings need close analysis and evaluation. Brick chimneys built partially on the exterior of the house must be carefully inspected. On some homes, the chimney above the roof line is improperly supported on the wood framing in the attic. If this is not done properly, the weight of the brick will cause the wood to compress and the chimney to crack and lean toward the house. Fixes for this problem are not inexpensive and are quite extensive. If the chimney is visible in the attic, mortar joints and the brick condition can be evaluated. Is the flue lined? Is there creosote build-up requiring the chimney to be cleaned? A very common finding in older homes that have been rehabbed is the absence of a flue damper. This can be the equivalence of having a hole through your house the size of a soccer ball. There is however, easy inexpensive fix for this problem.
The next stop is the garage, small but important.
The single largest category for complaints against home inspectors is missed roof leaks. Leaks can be masked and unknown to the home seller. Leaking roofs can cause tremendous damage and are costly to replace or repair. The inspector must use all resources to determine the condition of the roof covering and if it is keeping the water out. Consider that an average Atlanta roof can shed 30,000 gallons of rain water a year. For comparison that is 18,750 toilet flushes. That is a lot of water hitting the roof, running through the gutters and finally hitting the ground. Roof style, height, pitch and roof covering materials are all important in determining what we can expect for roof water shedding performance. The inspection standards also require describing how the roof was inspected. Actually walking on the roof when possible is the best inspection method. This allows the inspector to look closely at the entire roof. Due to height and roof pitch, walking on the roof is usually not an option. Using binoculars, viewing from the ground, looking out windows and putting a ladder to the eave edge are all acceptable alternatives. Some parts of the roof may not be viewable due to height or pitch. Those areas must be identified in the report.