For the purposes of this article we are going to start with an expanded definition of foundations. Our foundation will be any structural part of the house that transfers the weight of the house to the ground. Included in our definition will be the outside perimeter foundation, piers, columns and the poured concrete slab. Foundation issues can run the gamut from a typical concrete crack to a catastrophic failure. The experienced home inspector must know the difference and how to advise the customer. As we proceed with the various components in our inspection it will help if you can visualize the weight of the roof actually setting on the foundation. The weight is being transferred through the various framing members down through the house.
I know there are a bunch of great jokes about plumbers. Some funny, some not so much so, but none that I can think of that would be suitable for this article. Perhaps as an attempt to convert this clumsy introduction to a clever segue, we can say that there is nothing funny about having plumbing problems.
We are going to approach this article a little differently than the others. Water flow has a definite sequence as it is used in the house. A kind of journey takes place from the street, through the house and then out the drain lines back to the street. We will follow this path to help you understand how water flow works and what is involved as part of a plumbing inspection.
Home buyers typically spend the most time viewing a prospective home on the interior. Are the rooms going to work for what they need? Are there sufficient bedrooms and baths and are there any issues that would typically be spotted by the average home buyer? When a home inspector enters a bedroom for example, he/she is making many observations. In what condition are the walls, floors and ceilings? What are they made of? Do they indicate any symptoms of structural issues? Do the doors and windows operate properly? Are the electrical receptacles correctly wired? Is there sufficient HVAC air flow in the room? Do the ceiling fixtures operate as intended? Have there been obvious repairs and what do those repairs mean? Are the cracks in the drywall a result of settling or just a drywall joint separation due to the framing drying out?
I know I promised you a tour of the interior next, but I thought this next article was important enough to go to the head of the line.
Several weeks ago, our office received a call from someone who wanted to know if we tested houses for mold. Cheryl took the lady’s number and I called her back later in the day. During the course of our phone conversation, she told me that she and her family had moved into an apartment about a year ago. Since then, both she and her husband had been hospitalized for respiratory ailments and what felt like very strong cold and flu symptoms. Both of her children had on-going sinus problems, colds and other mild ailments that would not go away. When I asked her why she though the health issues were caused by mold, she gave me the history of what had happened during the time they lived there.
One of the least glamorous but more important parts of the inspection is the attic. A hot July afternoon in Atlanta can make you wish you had gone into a different line of work. Attics can easily reach temperatures exceeding 120 degrees and the inspector does not look his best when he finally comes down the attic ladder. The trip is necessary however because it is one of the few places in the home where the framing is exposed and a general assessment of the quality of the framing can be made. The exterior inspection of the roof is critical but the attic can provide evidence of current or past water entry that may not be evident anywhere else in the house. Since the attic, like the crawlspace, is a place the home owner rarely goes, there may be problems in the attic that are not known to the occupants of the property. Remember, one of the biggest complaints against home inspectors is missed roof leaks. Although both an exterior and attic inspection of the roof is important, this inspector believes that more information on the quality of the roof condition can be obtained in the attic.
The standards require that the type of attic access be identified. Pull down ladders, scuttle holes, stairs and door access are the typical means. How was the attic inspected? Some attics can be walked and others because of construction or stored material must be inspected from the furnace platform or the top of the ladder. Whatever the means used must be identified and the reason why the inspector did not walk through the attic. Also identified are attic areas that were not accessible. The information gathered in the attic usually falls into five categories, insulation, ventilation, framing, leaks and pests. Any inspection information on furnaces in the attic is contained in the Heating and Cooling section of the report.
The energy efficiency of the home is primarily determined by the quality and condition of the insulation. The attic is one space in the house were the insulation is exposed and can be inspected. The type, depth or thickness and condition of the insulation are all identified while avoiding estimates at R value. R value is how insulation efficiency is rated and can change if the insulation has been disturbed or compressed by stored items or pests that have found their way into the attic. Blown-in Fiberglass and cellulose insulation and Fiberglass batt insulation are the most common types. Older homes may have only several inches of insulation or none at all. In contrast, newer homes can have 10 to 12 inches in similar spaces. Since the quality of the insulation is a reflection of energy efficiency, many inspection reports recommend the installation of additional insulation in those homes where it is deficient.
One of the key elements of house dynamics in conventional construction is how well the attic is ventilated. Household moisture finds its way through walls and ceilings and much of the moisture ends up in the attic. Consider too a hot afternoon with the sun shining on the roof. The attic gets very hot. A well ventilated attic will remove heat and moisture in both the summer and winter. In colder climates, icicles can form in poorly ventilated attics in the winter time. In warmer climates, high attic temperatures will cause the air conditioning to run longer. In any climate, high attic moisture can lead to mold growth and wood damage. Passive attic vent types include soffit, roof, ridge and gable end. Power vents or fans are also used and their operation needs to be determined. The type of venting used is less important than how they were installed. A properly ventilated attic will have ample vents along the lower portion of the attic space to allow air in. The upper part of the attic space must also have sufficient venting to allow hot air and humidity to flow out. Roof style of construction can dictate what type of upper roof venting is best. The inspector must be able to make a judgment about the type, amount and condition of ventilation and make recommendations on any suggested corrections.
Some homes have a large fan in the upper part of the house that vents into the attic. These are called whole house fans. As the name implies, these are house fans and not attic fans. They are intended to move large amounts of air through the house with the intent of drawing cooler air from the outside. For those us living in the South the whole house fan should only be used for those few weeks in the spring after pollen season and before air conditioning and in the fall after the humidity has left us. For those of you who have no experience with whole house fans remember that the windows you open for outside air must have screens on them or you will suck in every bug in the neighborhood. We will talk more about air conditioning and air moisture in the Heating and Cooling article.
As stated earlier, the attic may be the only place in some houses where you can actually see the framing. Framing crews usually frame the entire house so accessing the quality of visible framing may suggest how the unseen portions of the house were framed. In the article covering the interior we will discuss things to look for that indicated structural issues. The attic framing and roof sheathing remember is also the back part of the roof system. Proper construction practices are essential to assure the roof system is not only sufficient to hold up the roof but also to protect the house against high winds. Hurricane Andrew in Florida proved we didn’t know as much about roof construction as we should have and caused building practices to change. Also, just because the State or municipality may adopt a revised building code word does not always filter its way down to the guy actually building the house. In new construction, the inspector must follow the building code in place when the permit for the house was issued.
We stated earlier that the single biggest complaint against home inspectors was missed roof leaks. As leaks or water entry points age, the amount of water being allowed into the building shell increases. A small or insignificant leak today may become a major water entry point in a few months. Stained roof sheathing and framing, stains or water marks on vent pipes going through the roof and insulation that is matted or has changed texture are all signs of water. If you know that the shingles on the house are original and you see staining in the attic, you have a leak. It may have been patched and is no longer leaking but it is a valuable piece of information and must go in the inspection report. The Holy Grail for the home inspector is when a stain indicates elevated moisture with a moisture meter. “Active leak”,game over. It also gives the prospective buyer a possible bargaining chip in the buying process.
The last item on our attic hit list is pests. If squirrels and rats can get on the roof, they will find their way into the attic. Traps, droppings, matted insulation, chewed wiring and wood framing are all signs of unwanted attic critters. Health and safety concerns are the issues here and should always be reported with a recommendation that the condition be handled by a qualified pest control company. Any other evidence of pest found elsewhere in the house should also be reported with the same recommendation.
I have purposely not included termites in our discussion of pests. Some home inspectors also do termite inspections but most do not. If the home inspector finds evidence of active or past infestation it should always be reported. However, the wood destroying organism industry is a State regulated industry in Georgia and termite inspections should only be performed by licensed members of the pest control industry.
That concludes our tour of the attic. Don’t forget to rehydrate and probably put on a clean shirt. Our next article will cover Heating and Air Conditioning.