Structures 101 – What You Should Know About The “Bones”
"This house isn't going anywhere." Or is it!?
Serious structural problems in houses are not very common, but when they occur they are never cheap to fix. Some can’t be fixed at all. This report won’t turn you into a home inspector, but it will give you some of the common indicators.
Uneven floors are typical, particularly in older homes. Here is a trick to help distinguish between a typical home with character and a structural problem. It’s not unusual for an older home to have the floor sag in the middle. On the other hand, if the floor slopes toward an outside wall, there is a good chance that the house has a significant structural problem.
While no house is perfect, this is one area where you should be very careful. Take a look at the house from across the street. If the house appears to be leaning one way or the other, there may be a structural problem. It may help to line up a front corner of the house with the back corner of an adjacent house just for reference. The corners should be parallel. Stepping back from the house to take a look is always a good idea. It is easy to miss something major by standing too close to it! If there is a lean that is detectable by eye, don’t take any chances. Get it checked out.
Horizontal Foundation Cracks are Bad
It is not uncommon to find cracks in the foundation. This goes for new houses as well as old ones. While there is a great deal of engineering that goes into “reading” these cracks, there is one rule that you should never forget. “Horizontal cracks are a problem”. Of course not all vertical cracks are acceptable, but they are generally not as serious as a horizontal crack.
Shrinkage cracks in a new house: Most new foundations will develop small vertical cracks. These cracks are a result of the concrete shrinking as it cures. These cracks are about 1 /8 inch wide or less. They don’t affect the structure. The only concern is leakage. If you see small cracks in a new foundation, don’t panic. In fact, in a new home, some builders will pre-crack the foundation and fill the crack with flexible material.
Few things are more misunderstood than plaster cracks on the inside of the house.
The following crack types are not generally related to structural movement -
- a small crack (less than 1/4 inch) that follows the corner of the room where two walls meet
- small cracks that extend up from the upper corner of a door opening
The following cracks may be related to structural movement –
- large cracks (larger than 1/4 inch in width)
- cracks that run diagonally across the wall
- cracks on the interior finish that are in the same vicinity as cracks on the exterior of the house.
Undertaking A Home Repair
Let's start by differentiating between a home improvement and a home repair. A home improvement, as the name implies, means improving something. It is usually a renovation to create more space, changing the layout of the house, improving energy efficiency, or to making aesthetic changes.
This report will deal with the simpler topic of home repair – basically replacing things that are worn out or fixing things that are broken. Here are some very basic rules to follow.
1. Know what you want done
If you are replacing a worn out furnace, for example, do some research to find out whether you want a mid-efficiency furnace or a high-efficiency furnace. If you are repairing a roof with a leaking valley flashing, determine whether you want the valley flashing replaced or just patched to last a few years until the whole roof needs re-flashing.
If you know what you want done, you can compare apples to apples when reviewing quotations. Otherwise it would be very hard to compare various quotes if every contractor has a different repair strategy.
Be prepared to stick to your guns. Many contractors will tell you that the job is much bigger, much harder, or it must be done his way (because if you don't, it will be “dangerous”, or much more expensive the next time.)
As home inspectors, we are often faced with contractor opinions that differ drastically from the recommendations in our reports. In many of these cases, the contractor is proposing unnecessary work.
2. Find at least 3 experienced, reputable contractors who are capable of doing the work
This may sound easier than it is. While it is best to rely on personal referrals from people you trust, these referrals must be taken with a grain of salt. Former customers of contractors are not usually in a position to comment on the quality of the installation of a furnace, for example.
Also be sure the type of work that you are planning to have done is similar (in size and scope) to the work done for the person providing the referral. Many contractors who are geared to do major renovations are not well suited to do minor repairs and vice versa.
3. Obtain 3 written estimates
Our experience has shown that contractor quotes can vary as much as 300% on any given job. This is sometimes due to different perceptions of what needs to be done. This can be avoided by following Step 1 carefully. However, sometimes the variance is simply the result of how busy the contractor is.
4. Get three references from each contractor
Better than three references is a list of the recent clients that the contractor has worked for. That way you get to choose who you would like to select as a reference. Follow up with these references bearing in mind the comments in Step 2.
While you are at it, ensure that the contractor has appropriate licenses and insurance.
5. Choose the contractor
Don't necessarily base your choice on price alone. Look carefully at what has been included in the estimates. Select the contractor with the best reputation, provided that the price for the job is fair. Avoid paying cash. The benefit of a cash deal is typically far greater for the contractor than it is for the homeowner.
6. Have both parties sign a contract
The contract should include a complete description of the work. It should also include details as to who is responsible for obtaining permits (if there is any doubt regarding the necessity of a permit, contact your local building department).
The contract should have a start date and a completion date. (On larger contracts, sometimes a penalty clause is included for each day the job extends beyond the completion date.)
The contract must also contain a payment schedule. The schedule should not demand very much money up front and the payment should be based on stages of completion as opposed to pre-determined dates.
Remember to hold back 10% of each payment for 45 days after the completion of the job to determine whether any liens have been placed on the property (as a result of the contractor not paying his sub-contractors).
Also, don't expect much in the way of a guarantee if you are simply asking a contractor to undertake band-aid repairs. Many contractors will not simply patch a damaged valley flashing, for example, even if they are 95% sure that the repair will work. This is because there is still a 5% chance that they will get complaints to fix a subsequent leak. In fairness, the leakage is not their fault. They just do not want the hassles. Consequently, many contractors will suggest repairs which are unnecessary (replacing the entire side of the roof, for example) to reduce the potential for complaints.
A significantly lower price can be obtained if you explain to the contractor that you expect him to do his best, but you aren't going to make him responsible for the future of the entire roof based on a $300 repair.
7. Expect delays
Any type of home repair seems to take longer than was first predicted. If the repairs involve any sort of interior demolition, expect dust.
8. Have a contingency fund
Many home repairs end up unearthing something else that requires repair. While this is very common, ask lots of questions if your contractor is proposing additional work.
We trust that the above information will help people in their dealings with contractors, realign expectations, and perhaps avoid pitfalls.
Your New Home: Kick the Bricks!
As a professional house and building inspection company, one of our primary jobs is answering questions. One of the most common questions we get is "Should I have my brand new house inspected?" It's a fair and honest question. The short answer is YES. But you expected us to say that, right? Let me tell you why it's a fair and honest answer.
Let's take the emotion out of it. Let's not call it your home; let's say it's a house. A building with a roof, a structure, mechanical systems, and interior finishes. It requires a substantial investment for you to purchase this building. You are putting your money at risk. It makes sense for you to learn about the qualities of this investment before putting your money on the line.
"But what could be wrong? It's a new house?" Yes, the risk of problems is probably lower than if you bought an old building. It actually depends on the individual properties one is comparing. It boils down to illuminating the risk, rather than assuming there is none.
House vs. Home
But it is artificial to take emotion out of it, precisely because the building will be your home. So you have a financial and an emotional investment. Why is this important? Because even a small problem, like for example a leak at the kitchen sink, will elicit in you an emotional response. What happens when you notice the leak? You get an adrenaline rush, you turn off the tap or the dishwasher, you wipe up the water, you remove the soaking box of dishwasher detergent, you wonder what you should do next, you call someone you trust, you call the builder or a plumber, you wait to make dinner until the service-person arrives. A non-trivial emotional investment, for a minor problem.
For some people, that minor incident will bring on a not-so-minor bout of buyer's remorse, wherein they wonder, "What else will go wrong?" It is better for both you and your builder for the inspector to find the leak so it can be fixed immediately.
Helps the Builder
Your builder has worked hard to put your home together. It takes a phenomenal amount of coordination to turn an empty patch of ground into a dream house. With so many steps and so many hands, it is inevitable that some things will get missed. Sometimes we find electrical outlets that don't work. Sometimes we find un-insulated attics. These were not done on purpose, they just happen. If you hire an inspector to find the things that need attention, you can put the items on the PDI punch-list (the list of deficiencies generated at the pre-delivery inspection that the builder is contracted to fix), or you will have documentation of the issues and can bring them up later. This helps both you and the builder keep track of the final wrinkles to be ironed out. If there are only a few wrinkles, you will gain an appreciation of how well the house has been built.
Many of our clients choose to hire us after they move in, but before the standard one-year builder's warranty coverage expires. This has proven to be a uniquely successful strategy. The waiting period allows the newly built house to "settle-in", making a performance-based inspection more valuable.
No matter how you look at it, getting a professional building inspector to kick the bricks of your new home is a sound idea.
As seen in HOMES Magazine June/July/August 2003. Gerard Gransaull, P. Eng., Engineering Manager, Carson Dunlop and Associates Ltd., Consulting Engineers - Building Inspections, www.carsondunlop.com
Priority Maintenance for Home Buyers
There are so many home maintenance and repair items that are important; it can be confusing trying to establish which are the most critical. To simplify things, we have compiled a short list of our favorites. These are by no means all-inclusive, nor do they replace any of the information in a home inspection report. They should, however, help you get started on the right foot. Remember, any items marked as priority or safety issues on your home inspection report need immediate attention.
- Install smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors as required, according to manufacturer’s recommendations. Know the requirements in your area.
- Make any electrical improvements recommended in the home inspection report.
- Remove any wood/soil contact to prevent rot and insect damage.
- Change the locks on all doors. Use a dead bolt for better security and to minimize insurance costs.
- Correct trip hazards such as broken or uneven walks and driveways, loose or torn carpet or uneven flooring.
- Correct unsafe stairways and landings. (Railings missing, loose, too low, et cetera.)
- Have all chimneys inspected before operating any of these appliances.
- Locate and mark the shut-offs for the heating, electrical and plumbing systems.
- Label the circuits in electrical panels.
- If there is a septic system, have the tank pumped and inspected. If the house is on a private water supply (well), set up a regular testing procedure for checking water quality.
Regular Maintenance Items
- Clean the gutters in the spring and fall.
- Check for damaged roofing and flashing materials twice a year.
- Cut back trees and shrubs from the house walls, roof and air conditioning system as needed.
- Clean the tracks on horizontal sliding windows annually, and ensure the drain holes are clear.
- Test ground fault circuit interrupters, carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors using the test button, monthly.
- Service furnace or boiler yearly.
- Check furnace filters, humidifiers and electronic air cleaners monthly.
- Check the bathtub and shower caulking monthly and improve promptly as needed.
- If you are in a climate where freezing occurs, shut off outdoor water faucets in the fall.
- Check reversing mechanism on garage door opener monthly.
- Check attics for evidence of leaks and condensation and make sure vents are not obstructed, at least twice a year. (Provide access into all attics and crawl spaces.)