Home horrors: Lessons from home inspectors
Only a home inspector sees a house for what it really is: an opportunity for countless things to go wrong.
The Chicago couple did as homebuyers sometimes do and opted to pass on a home inspection.
They had a longtime tradesman in the family and figured he could spot any serious flaws. Plus, the home had so many upgrades, what could go wrong?
After buying the house, though, they faced repeated problems with the furnace, one of the upgraded items. It would toggle on and off, or moisture would fill the flue. A repairman would come and they would shell out another $400 or $700.
Finally, the couple called home inspector Jack McGraw, who recognized the source of the problem immediately. That new furnace, presumably installed by a professional, did not come with the new chimney liner it required.
A fuel-efficient furnace does not burn as hot as older models. For exhaust to make it to the top of the chimney, a narrow flue is required. Otherwise condensation can occur, causing various kinds of moisture-related damage.
"If they'd had a home inspector, he would have caught that and recommended they put in a chimney liner," McGraw says.
The real irony: That family member in the trades worked in the heating field.
Home inspectors see a home the way no one else does. They don't care how the kitchen will feel for entertaining or whether the bathroom tiles will impress guests. Their judgment is not clouded by emotion.
Nor do they have any interest in whether the home sells, as long as they're not pals with the seller's real-estate agent. To the contrary, they are financially motivated to find flaws — to avoid liability should something go wrong.
As you're walking through your next dream house, keep in mind the following lessons from the pros. At the end, we also provide some advice on finding a reputable home inspector, not the guy who simply took a test and printed a card.
Just because you're dry doesn't mean the roof isn't leaking
More than once, Utah home inspector Kurt Salomon has crawled across the rafters in an unfinished attic — the eager homebuyers waiting below — only to find a children's wading pool strategically placed to catch drips from the roof.
"I say, 'What's a kiddie pool doing up here? I know the kids aren't swimming up here,'" Salomon says. The owners would have painted over water stains in the rooms below, and neglected to tell anyone the roof needed to be replaced.
"There's supposed to be disclosure, but people have this phenomenon called, 'Oh, I forgot,'" Salomon says. "It happens every day."
Most roof leaks don't leave clues as large or as bright as a plastic wading pool, and it's not always easy to crawl over insulation and find water-discoloration marks via flashlight. "That's the dirty work of a home inspector," Salomon says. "And it's a trained eye, versus an untrained eye."
The money saved in these cases: at least $8,000 for a roof replacement, plus additional thousands to repair water damage to the walls below.
Everyone may think the house is on a slab, but thinking so doesn't make it so
When home inspector Andy Kasznay arrived at the small Connecticut house, he found a young, single mom enamored. Indeed, the house had fantastic curb appeal, with a well-appointed interior. The woman had put every penny toward the purchase.
As Kasznay walked through the one-story ranch-style house, though, he noted a spongy feel to the floor. It wasn't enough give for anyone else to notice, but Kasznay had been told the house sat on a slab, and this didn't feel like a slab.
Kasznay went outside and circled the house until he discovered a window well accessing a crawl space under the house. Wriggling his way down, he found "horrific conditions": water pooling around the house had flowed down into an open sewer drain; mold infested the joists supporting the house.
"I could take a handful of floor joist with my hand because that's how deteriorated the moisture had made this bottom deck to the floor," Kasznay says. Calling the buyer over, he told her, "This is a house you don't want to purchase; you can't afford it."
The owners, sitting inside watching television, had also been unaware of the condition, he says.
"This is an example of what appeared to be a very nice, pristine house that had very serious structural flaws," he says. Had the woman bought it, "she would have ended up with a building lot, and the liability of tearing down the house," and a $200,000 mortgage, to boot.
Just because the floor is level doesn't mean it hasn't sunk half a foot
Kasznay noticed a spongy feel in another Connecticut home, this one a grand 10,000 square feet. Once again, neither the current owners nor the real-estate agent had noticed anything odd.
Noting the slightly soft feel, however, Kasznay eyed the baseboards. They should have been level with the floor, but here the floor sat 4 inches lower. Crawling around in the basement, Kasznay found mold had deteriorated the supports. This house was literally hanging from its rafters, "like a parachute," he says.
"One of these days, a couple of people would be standing in the middle of the floor and they'd go down through the floor," he says. "It's a scary thing."
Stucco can look really nice even when the house is flooding
The owners of a million-dollar waterfront condo in Florida had fixed what they thought was a window leak. Afterward, they noticed no damage, smell or other evidence of water entry. Neither, later, did the buyer.
But home inspector Mark Cramer noticed some subtle staining on the baseboard and pulled up a corner of the carpeting. "I knew if you were going to have leakage, it would be on that spot," he says.
As often occurs, the stucco had not been properly applied. Water had dripped in, rotting the floor. "And the owners living there were completely unaware of it," Cramer says. "It's not something that you would see unless you were intentionally looking for it."
The buyer took the property, but did not have to pay the thousands in repair costs.
So what if the electrical worked then — it's not adequate today
A common refrain among home sellers — and, later, buyers — is, "It works great."
But not only are some items approaching the end of their life span, some are not equipped to meet current needs. Outdated electrical panels fit this category. Bob Sisson, a home inspector in Maryland, constantly sees electrical panels that simply can't handle the juice of a modern home.
"The panel will go up in flames, but it will not trip," he says. Instead, wires become overheated inside walls, where fire can spread long before detection.
Replacing the system involves tearing down walls and hiring an electrician. "Most of the time it's a $2,000 to $5,000 hit," Sisson says.
The water can taste good even if the pipes are about to burst
Another common fixture from the past that could spell trouble, Sisson says: polybutylene water lines. Popular in the 1970s and '80s, they've since been found to burst after prolonged exposure to chlorinated water.
"It's not a matter of if it will fail, it's a matter of when," Sisson says. "You basically have a garden hose in your wall that you can't shut off."
Some insurance companies won't even insure a house that contains this plumbing, he says. Replacement would start at $10,000.
A municipal housing inspector is not a housing inspector
New homes may get a once-through from a city housing inspector, but that inspector can't spend the 2½ to 3½ hours on each house that a paid home inspector does. Home inspectors all have stories of flaws in new homes that the once-through missed.
Salomon has seen even the obvious passed over: chimney bricks that were falling, clogging a water-heater vent; and, another time, missing joist hangers under the deck of a $1 million home. Both were serious hazards.
Finally, not every home inspector is created equal
The home-inspection industry has done a remarkable job making itself known. As recently as a decade ago, many homeowners weren't aware such a professional existed. Today, hiring a home inspector is commonplace.
To meet rising demand, online training classes are easy to find. You can't throw a dart from your new porch without striking a home inspector's business card.
But just because an inspector is certified doesn't mean he's experienced or knowledgeable enough to detect clues to problems in your $300,000 investment. Of the 35 states that offer state licensing, only five require experience. The rest require only a test.
Salomon, who also serves as president of the American Society of Home Inspectors, the country's largest professional organization for home inspectors, was so amused by how easy it is to become a certified home inspector that he offered a friend's son $200 if the boy could pass his state's test, with the help of a pocket guide to home inspection.
The boy, 12, passed the test and received a card in the mail several weeks later authorizing him to conduct paid home inspections. (To Salomon's knowledge, the boy never did.)
"The problem the public has is when they see the word 'certified' they think it means something, and it doesn't mean anything," Salomon says. "It's a false sense of security."
A typical home inspection for a three-bedroom house costs $300 to $450. When hiring an inspector, buyers should ask the home inspector the following:
- How many years have you been in the business? How many hours of home inspections have you completed?
- Do you have references?
- How long are your reports? A report of more than 20 pages smells of an online boilerplate form with extraneous home advice, Salomon says. An experienced inspector will write a concise report in his own words.
- What training do you have? Unlike the 12-year-old boy, for example, Salomon also has a degree in mechanical engineering.
- Are you a member of any local or national professional organizations? How do you keep up with changes in industry?
- How many hours of continuing education do you complete each year?
To find a home inspector that has met ASHI's rigorous guidelines, see the association's find-an-inspector tool. To be listed there, ASHI members must submit 250 paid inspections, which then get verified by ASHI; take 20 hours of continuing education every year; and abide by a code of ethics.
"There's no substitute for experience," Salomon says.
Viewing that video, and being in the business for 42 years , I don't see a hopeless situation for this couple. Fortunately, the work was stopped at the framing stage. That makes correcting everything much more accessible.The spliced rafters can be "scabbed" with solid pieces or steel plates from the eave to the peak. The poor foundation can be undermined and new, bigger footings can be poured around what is there.
The big questio is who pays for all this. The builder's insurance SHOULD cover it, but if that's not possible, most states have a "rescue fund" set up for just such emergencies caused by gypsy contractors like this clown.
The surprising thing is the municipal inspector and his "outsourced" help not seeing this. Someone is being paid off- no question about it. NO ONE is THAT incompetent.
But the couple should be told all is not lost. This house is definitely salvageable ( based on what is shown on the video). And they shouldn't have to pay a penny to get it fixed.
I've been a general contractor specializing in residential remodeling and repairs in San Diego for over 25 years. I have crawled in attics and under houses regularly. I've seen a vast array of conditions good and bad. Mostly bad though.
I considered becoming a certified home inspector. I decided not to peruse that certification/business because it has evolved into a pretty diluted process filled with too many administrative issues that redirect the focus of the true essence of a home inspection.
While I believe a certified home inspection as part of a home purchase is due diligence, it is not entirely effective. There are restrictions on what certified inspectors can do to keep the industry in some sort of balance but the buyer becomes disadvantaged ( crawling in an attic may lead to a foot through the ceiling). Furthermore, real estate agents don't want invasive inspections killing their deals (or causing such a high reduction in sales price that their commissions become diminished.
My solution to this is to offer my friends an-off the record, unofficial inspection. I may not identify a dishwasher that doesn't properly cycle through all the optional selections, but I can see (for example) rotten plywood around a toilet that is not seated properly, that leads to a $10,000 bathroom project if that example further points to MO of remodeling/repair work done on the cheap by some lame Home Depot handyman or real estate agent, or overzealous/under qualified previous homeowner/DIYer.
The golden rule is buyer beware. Government rules will NOT solve our problems. Government has a proven track record of solutions that make problems worse. People need to help eachother and work hard to regain the lost ground previous generations gained for us.
By far the biggest money loser of all is a banking meltdown. That could cost you hundreds of thousands. $ 700 for a furnace? Big deal. The inspector is probably half of that so now it's $1,050.
Are these inspectors qualified to examine the banking system for lies and deceit?
Thats what I want to know before I ever buy another house.
I have bought a couple of homes in the past few years and sold a couple. I have always used a home inspector. The first home I went to buy looked great. I could not see anything wrong, and I have worked in many of the trades, so I have some knowledge of what to look for. But I decided to go with an inspector that was recommended to me by my realtor. He found many things that I had not seen, maybe because I liked the house and he had no interest. What he found made me change my mind on the home and saved me thousands of dollars in repairs.
I have used one ever since then. I have had some better than others and some I would not use again, but the bottom line having someone look at the home that does not have any interest in it and has the knowledge of seeing various issues in the past can only help.
problem this Saloman failed to mention in regards to Inspection Associations is that there are other associations and different requirements in each state. HIS state may allow a 12 yr old to take a test but I think that is made up to sensationalize it. We have to go to an approved testing site at a college and there is no 12 yr old taking it. Further the test is 250$ just to take the test. I have a reference manual bigger than the NY phone book and it has all systems in it in tremendous detail. So a 12 yr old with a pocket reference book passed...Please. He can make legitimate points without making up a story. I have seen plenty that would curl your hair. And also MIKE HOLMES on tv needs to know that an inspector can NOT say asbestos even if he suspects that. He can say he suspects it is asbestos and recommend further evaluation. We also can NOT pull back carpet unless written consent is given by the CURRENT owner. There is too much to list here but there are limits and terms not allowed to be used. The other associations are Nahi And Internachi. An old inspector can have knowledge....if he uses it. Some get into bad habits and aren't as hungry. Can also be buddies with real estate agents to the point that they protect the agents deal. Young and new is not always bad. Didn't he start somewhere?
JoeP731. Holmes does what is NOT allowed by law. Opening holes in drywall etc. Also we can NOT quote CODES. The reason is you have to know all the past codes for homes over 100 yrs old. You look for how the house is functioning in the present and what it needs to do for today's life. There are some things that are required to be replaced because of unsafe issues. BUT a home can do fine with old systems.
Holmes goes off half cocked and makes accusations against someone that may not have done the inspection when there was evidence of a problem. If it is a sunny day and you go into an attic and see water stains you can NOT say the roof is leaking. You can say there is evidence of potential leaking or past leaks. You don't know if they had it repaired already and it is just an old stain. You make the client aware. How many people on his show are truthful and not want the fame Mike Holmes to come to their house and do work. IT is TV.
What is the motivation for a home inspector to screw people over when it is a word of mouth business based on referrals. And he doesn't even know you. Is it worth the career to sting you for 300$. I don't look for lawsuits ! He sensationalizes it and is operating in Canada. Maybe they aren't regulated but we are.
Socal Sammy. Get off the crack. Home inspectors take off the service panel on the electric. We take the cover off the furnace and check the burners on gas. We check what plumbing we can see as would a plumber. Get a clue. Speak of which you know. We cover the entire house but are limited to what we can see. We cannot open drywall or pull back carpets . We can not do damage. We work hard in hot attics and in crawl spaces with racoons snakes etc. I spend about 3 hrs and do a nice report with over photos taken to show the client what the issue is we come across.
I will take hits when it is due but when people spew garbage......quite frankley don't deserve my time.
Like any other field there are good ones and there are bad ones. Check the history of who YOU find, choose, and hire. Be there if you can. I would prefer someone I know had been oin the home construction field though I have seen my share of shoddy builders also. When my father was one he had some that called themselves carpenters (they did not last long) and some that were. He also held his plumbing and electrical licenses and did everything to at least what the code says if not better than. If one of his crew tried to take a shortcut it was redone. He had pride in his work and had many clients come back to him for new homes when they were ready to upgrade.
As for architects and engineers, again, you had good ones and bad ones. Being in the engineering field for 30 years I have seen those that don't care what the regulations say and those that do. I have seen those that believe because they have a P.E. their stuff is always correct and those that admit when they make a mistake and want to correct it.
To the person advocating a Civil Engineer over a Structural Engineer or Architect. YOu seem to need to learn more. A Civil Engineer designs stuctural dirt work such as roads, parking lots, runways, underground utilities, etc. They are not schooled on buildings. They are also schooled on drainage of the land and how to keep it flowing where it does the least damage. Civil work stops 5' outside of the foundation of the building. Totally different discipline. A Landscape Architect on the other hand, while they too play with dirt, they are schooled more towards plants and grading for plants. They are not schooled on how much weight the dirt will support
The consumer is at a disadvantage all the way around. Whether buying, building or remodeling, the consumer is at the mercy of the realtors, builders, contractors, and inspectors who often only have their own interests at heart.
Who can you trust? There are no rating systems the consumer can access. I'm glad HG-TV and the Holmes series had brought this to the light of day.
Home inspectors look at the exterior of the home. If you want to find out what the real issues are, you need to hire a plumber, an electrician and a roofer. Home inspectors miss so much they are nearly useless. But not quite. However, you do need the plumber, electrician and roofer. Likely they will be cheaper as well.
Home inspectors, seriously, useless, but act as a form of insurance for the Real Estate agent. I pay for it, but usually like to see how much the inspectors miss. For instance, the home inspector pointed out black mold in a bathroom. The buyer and I took them seriously and the buyer had a mold company come out, they determined that it was black paint, and the owner remember breaking a marker a few years before.
Or leaks, one of the home inspectors that I had looked right at wall with a leak occuring on the inside of the wall. When I mentioned the hissing sound, the inspector dismissed it and said that he couldn't open the wall. During the walkthrough, I went over the spot of the wall with the owner, pressed on the wall and the plaster came away, the wall melted away and there was a small leak misting away. In this case the home inspector didn't get paid and the small claims court agreed with me.
Bottom line: Home inspection is not useful and never trust the home inspectors, they really don't work the way this article works. More research is required by the writer.
Oh please, who wrote this article. The examples of a furnace not working right and moisture in the flue? Really? Home Inspectors do not do any of those things.
Chris, I find that a bit harsh. Do I have Disclaimers? Yes I do. So does the state Standards that I hand out. I agree that you should educate yourself for any investment. Some people manage their 401k or IRA themselves. Others have professionals do it. Your post insinuates that all of us home inspectors are hiding behind disclaimers and have no idea what we are talking about. What I find odd is that you say home inspectors are not qualified and yet you state that someone with experience will still not find anything due to the fact that they "can be much more elusive". If that is the case your answer is to educate yourself?
I am looking at my Library in front of me while I write this. It has rows and rows of books like NFPA electric code 2009, 2011. Building code for one and two family dwellings. Fuel gas and plumbers code. I reference these every day.
Here is my feeling, My goal is to educate my client on what they are spending all of that money on. I want to provide them with information so they can make an informed decision. I resent that you generalize the fact that we are usually in a conflict of interest. You seem to be trying your best to put us in a poor light. I take pride in what I do. I sleep well at knight knowing that I do the best job I can for my client. It is sad to see your animosity toward my profession. I do not know what caused it but for the rest of you out there, you should educate yourself before buying a home. Educate yourself on the questions you should ask a home inspector so you know if the person you are hiring has experience. Ask them if they have any continuing education and who they are affiliated with. Do not be afraid to ask anything. This is your potential home! Be confidant in your inspector but please, get a home inspector. We know more than Chris thinks.
Yes it is true , the inspection is pretty much a joke with all the disclaimers the come with it and most inspectors have no clue what to look for anyway. The $400-$700 could be spent much more wisely on educating yourself on what to look for before buying.
There usually is an inherent conflict of interest with because most homeowners are getting referred business by realtors and they know if the kill to many deals they won't get called back.
The other issue is that most home inspectors are not qualified to even tell what is wrong let along give an inspection. Marking off things on a checklist is not difficult, knowing from experience what to look for and what the tell tale signs of future problems are can be much more elusive.
The home inspection is just one more way for you to have your pocket picked in a real estate transaction. Most used houses come with problems and if they don't have any problems they will be having problems soon. Buying a house is much more expensive when you factor in the maintenance and up keep costs over the years. It is especially true now that houses are not appreciating much, people would be wise to expect a home to be a losing proposition the next few years due to the amount of deferred maintenance that will be left for the buyer of a short sale or foreclosed home.
When my wife and I purchased our current house 11 or so years ago, we could not find the crawl space entry. We used a professional inspector. The house looked to be on a slab. When we moved in, we found that the owners had covered the entry with the washing machine and dryer. There was a reason. The house sits over an underground stream. There were 1100 cubic feet of water beneath the house. The previous owners had used the crawl space as a city dump. We hired people to help us clean up. I had to open crawl space vents to keep the area dry, then put in a sump well, and working by myself, move 14 tons of earth, and rock in my yard to build a leech field, with advice from a professor at The School of Mines in Golden and Wright Water Engineers. Now every spring, we can hear the sump well running every few hours. On the other hand, I don't have to water my back yard. Fortunately, I am a skilled DIY,er, and a former flooring contractor, but for 10 years this house has been a full time job. We also had to get everything we have done code inspected because the standards were 30 years out of date. The roof sheathing turned out to be only 1/4 inch thick, and the wiring was CoAlar. With home values what they are, we will never recover what I have put into it in terms of just labor.