Water is a Jerk -- Part I

If asked about how water moves, most people would say with gravity or that water flows to the point of least resistance. Which is certainly true, but I want you to get that out of mind when thinking about water infiltration into your house.

Think of it like this instead. Water is actively and maliciously trying to ruin you and everything you love.

Imagine that water is actively trying to get through the most microscopic cracks in your foundation wall to ruin that new carpet in your basement. Or that it’s eagerly seeking a path it can take through a crack in your vinyl siding so it can get behind it and start growing mold. Or that it’s gathering in the attic because of poor ventilation to ruin your ceiling and make potential buyers balk because they see a stain on the ceiling.

Billions of malicious drops and they all hate you, specifically.

Billions of malicious drops and they all hate you, specifically.

Protect your home from water like you owe it money and insulted its sister.

There’s a lot of different ways that water can get into your house, so I expect I’ll make this a mini-series. Today’s topic, though:

Grading

One of the first things a typical home inspector looks at when inspecting a house is the grading around the house. It can often identify other problems, such as flooding in the basement, before we even step inside the house.

Grading refers to the slope of the ground around the house. By code, it should slope away from the house at a rate of one inch per foot for six feet. That means that six feet out from the house it’s dropping an inch a foot. Why is that important? Because it allows water to run away from the house—away from the foundation wall or the wall covering. If water runs into the house, you end up with foundation damage and potential basement leaks.

Sometimes its impossible to have a slope away from the house because of the terrain. In that case, you can install a French drain. This is a buried pipe that catches water flowing toward the house and whisks it off to somewhere it can’t do harm.

This all sounds pretty simple—and indeed it is, but it is one of the most common problems I list on reports. Many times too, when people have problems with water in their basement they turn to other solutions: painting the walls (effective only for a very short time), tarring the outside of the foundation wall (a good plan, but only part of the solution), or in the case of one house—pouring concrete in the basement to attempt to funnel the water toward a sump pump.

For some reason, when I searched stock images for “why”, I got mostly cat pictures. I’ll throw in a cat picture later just for fun.

For some reason, when I searched stock images for “why”, I got mostly cat pictures. I’ll throw in a cat picture later just for fun.

The latter was the least effective of all, as you might imagine. An effective solution would involve fixing the grading around the house and ensuring all gutters and downspouts are working properly and not clogged. Ah! About downspouts . . .

Another common problem are downspouts terminating in such a way that they direct water toward the house. This is so, so easy to fix. All that has to be done is to put an extension or piece of corrugated pipe so that the water is directed well away from the house. This sounds simple, but is often overlooked by homeowners. My house has had a problem with basement flooding and just adding pipe or extensions to some of the downspouts that needed it cut that problem in half. Just that simple!

Remember, water hates you and your family, but it has its limitations. It can’t disobey the law of gravity (thought it can be creative) so it can’t flow uphill. Exploit this weakness in your opponent and keep your basement carpet warm and dry, like it should be.

As promised.

As promised.

It's Electric--Most Common Problems With Electrical Panels

Most people are never going to open their electrical panels and that’s a good thing. If you’re at the point where you’re opening your panel it probably means something is wrong. As home inspectors, opening the panel is one of my favorite parts of the inspection because it’s one of the parts of the house that really need a good review. Your electrical system is essential to modern life and it’s frustrating when it doesn’t work properly. It can also be expensive to fix and needless to say, it can be dangerous when it goes wrong. House fires and electrical shock are a very real concern.

There’s a myriad of things that we’re looking for when we take the panel cover off, but it’s pretty easy to narrow down the most common issues we find to four. Here are the most common problems we end up putting on the inspection report about the electrical panel:

  1. Double Tapped Breakers

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For a breaker to be double tapped means that there are two wires running to it instead of just one. Electrical code requires only one wire per breaker (aside from a few breakers that are built specifically to allow it)—and there is a good reason for that. Double tapping increases the chance the wires will become loose—which can lead to arcing, scorching, and/or fires.

Luckily, fixing it is easy if there’s enough room/amperage available in the panel. You simply have to install a new, appropriately sized breaker and run one of the wires to that instead. Easy peasy.

2. Empty Punch-Outs

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Every panel comes with punch-outs (or knock-outs) that are designed to allow wires to enter the panel in any way that might be necessary. Typically, they aren’t removed unless they’re actually being used, but sometimes we find one punched out and left empty. Similarly, sometimes one has wires running through and no connector—meaning the wires are rubbing against the rough edge of the panel. In either of these cases, it’s again an easy fix. A connector can be used to seal the gap so that moisture doesn’t enter the panel—or insects or pests. None of those are positive things to have around that much electricity.

3. Spacing

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The electrical panel shouldn’t be blocked—which makes sense. If something goes wrong, you should be able to get to it! It’s pretty common to see the rules bent or broken on this, though. The National Electric Code requires 36 inches in front of the panel and 30 inches from side to side (it doesn’t necessarily have to be centered on the panel) to be free. The worst offenders are when we can’t actually access the panel at an inspection because of personal belongings blocking the way. We have been in some homes where we had to just take a picture of the panel from halfway across the room because of the sheer amount of belongings, tools, and clutter in the way. Don’t let that be you!

4. Loose Wiring

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As mentioned in #1 above, loose wires are trouble. Loose wires can cause arcing in the panels and fires. We’ve removed panels before that have scorch marks all along the inside of the panel cover—telltale sign of arcing breakers. There are a lot of causes—corrosion from moisture penetration, aluminum wiring, double-tapping breakers, improper installation, and just plain age.

There are a ton of things we can find in an electrical panel. These are just a few of the most common. Have a questions? Feel free to comment or send us an e-mail! We’re glad to help.

On Radon

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It's whispered in hushed tones during real estate conversations.  It's kept realtors up at night, hoping that it wouldn't tank a sale.  The EPA has published scary documents talking about its dangers.  But, what is radon, really?

I did a very scientific poll (I asked a few friends) what they knew about radon:

-"Isn't that some kind of gas?"

-"That's poisonous to breathe, right?"

-"You find that in basements, right?"

Those are all actually pretty accurate, but several other people I had talked to had no idea what it was or why it was dangerous.  Because most of the areas we service are in a moderate risk zone for radon (see this handy map here) we thought it would be a good idea to shed some light on what radon is and why it's important.

Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that occurs naturally from the decay of Uranium in the soil.  Uranium exists in trace amounts in just about all rock formations, so this is normal.  It is drawn into the lower level of homes through cracks, floor drains, and the like because of pressure differential between the soil and the air in the home.  After the radon gets in the home, it decays, releasing isotopes that attach to dust particles that can be breathed in.  Once in the lungs, these particles decay further, releasing radioactivity into your lungs.  Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.

There’s no safe level of radon, but the EPA recommends action be taken above 4.0 pC/L (picoCuries per Liter, a measurement of how much radon gas is present in the air).  Some level of radon is normal and unavoidable with current technology.  Lynchburg sits in a zone 2 (moderate potential) area for radon risk and some surrounding counties like Campbell and Appomattox sit in a zone 3 (high potential) zone. 

It doesn't matter if you have a new house or an old house (newer houses are actually at a higher risk for radon problems than older houses because of how well sealed up they are).  You should still test for radon.

Even neighboring houses can have very different levels of radon, so the EPA recommends every homeowner test for radon.  A homeowner can conduct a long-term test and follow-up tests on their own, but a real estate transaction requires a certified measurement professional.  If high levels of radon are discovered, radon is actually not as expensive to mediate as you’d think--often around $1,000-$2,500 depending on the home.

During a radon inspection, we will do a visual inspection to identify areas of potential radon entry and then set up a device to measure radon and give hourly readings.  We leave that device over 48 hours and then generate an average radon reading.

All in all, radon isn't something to live in fear of.  It is something that should be tested for and mediated if necessary, but that mediation is common and won't cost an arm and a leg.  Maybe just a few fingers.  All jokes aside, though--that's better than costing you your lungs and life.

Change is in the Air

This month, something crazy has happened.  As of July 1st, no home inspector in VA has a license.

Well, that's a bit misleading.  No home inspector has a physical license--they just started shipping them out today.  See, Virginia is moving from a voluntary certification to a mandatory license.  What that means is that now anyone doing a home inspection is required to have a license.  Those of us who already had the certification are getting a license mailed to us, but it's the government, so they didn't even start until today and I don't expect mine until maybe . . . I don't know, August?  2019?  (joking, they should come in two weeks tops)

Fortunately, that doesn't mean that there isn't anybody who can do home inspections in the meantime.  You can still look up the license information of anyone online at the VA Department of Professional and Occupational Regulations (yeah, I spelled that out like I was trying to make a word count on a high school essay).  Here I am:

So, now that everyone knows that my middle name is Edwin (which is an endless source of amusement to some--I don't know) . . . you can see that the license lookup allows you to make sure any Joe Schmoe you have doing your inspection actually has a license and is qualified to do it.

How does one become qualified to be a home inspector?  Well, it's 25% memorization and education, 25% practice, and 50% handing over your wallet.  Here's how you become a home inspector in Virginia under the new laws:

  1. Pay for 70 hours of classroom education from an DPOR approved course
  2. Pay for the equipment you need and do 25 inspections with a licensed home inspector
  3. Pay for (and pass) the National Home Inspector Exam (who knew in high school that later in life you would pay for the privilege of taking a three hour test?)
  4. Pay for insurance **you may have to pledge your firstborn child to the insurance company at this stage in the process**
  5. Pay the application fee and send the application in (the state is a lot faster to cash that check than to process your application, so be patient.  They get a lot of applicants.)
  6. Pay for another class and application fee if you want to be allowed to inspect new construction.

I think the new regulations are great and a long time overdue.  Prior to five days ago, anyone could do a home inspection.  My cat could've swung a home inspection (and I've seen some reports that look like they were done by a distracted feline).

Well, the missing TPR valve on the water heater can lead to . . . IS THAT YARN?!

Well, the missing TPR valve on the water heater can lead to . . . IS THAT YARN?!

The new laws protect the consumer from people who don't know what they're doing.  All jokes aside, it's good that the process is gated by financial commitment and difficult tests.  It means that only the serious and well-trained applicants can get licensed.  Overall, the quality of home inspections across the state should go up.  And considering a home is the largest investment that many of us make in our lives, that's a good thing.

Why Hire A Home Inspector?

So you’re buying a house and you might need a home inspection soon.  Or you’re considering buying a house and are thinking really far ahead.  Or you are considering the possibility of eventually purchasing a home and are one of those people who like to have all their I’s dotted and T’s crossed before doing something.  Good for you—I can’t keep a plan together longer than a few hours. 

          Artistic rendering of my best laid plans.

          Artistic rendering of my best laid plans.

I’ve actually had a fair number of people ask me why a home inspection is necessary.  They are rather expensive—my company prices inspections right now around $300 at the lowest (and that’s for a really small house)—and we’re among the lowest in the area.  For a big house with an attached garage and other bells and whistles you could run over $500.  So a lot of people wonder if it’s worth it to have to pay that much just to have someone take a look at your house.  I mean, if it was falling down, wouldn’t you be able to eyeball it yourself and tell? 

                *Newly Remodeled Living Room!*

                *Newly Remodeled Living Room!*

It’s definitely true that there are things that can be spotted easily by the average home buyer.  What you’re paying for in a home inspection, though, is for an expert to go through the house slowly and carefully.  There will be things you didn’t know to look for, things you didn’t were even problems.  That’s what a home inspector is there to see (along with the obvious things, too).

I’ve noticed that a lot of people are also a little unclear as to what a home inspection is for.  Sometimes I’ve been asked if a house “passed” after doing an inspection.  That’s not really what a home inspector does—you’re thinking of a county or city building inspector who inspects new construction to make sure it’s up to code.  Even a 10 year old house probably won’t be up to modern codes; they just change too fast.  Then there’s an appraiser for the bank—again, completely different fellow. 

Fact:  This is what everyone who works for the bank looks like.

Fact:  This is what everyone who works for the bank looks like.

A home inspector is usually hired by a prospective home buyer to look over a house that’s under contract to determine any safety hazards or potential expensive fixes.  We don’t look at decorative things—only the “guts” of the house.  Electrical, structural, heating and air condition, plumbing, the attic, the basement, etc, etc.  We don’t care about paint jobs or the like—or my house would have a few more pages on it’s report when we had it inspected.

Like this green, but a bit more vomity and on a wall in an actually habitable space.

Like this green, but a bit more vomity and on a wall in an actually habitable space.

A home inspector will look at everything we can see (we can’t take anything apart or move other people’s stuff of course, it’s still someone else’s house!) and write a report based on what was found.  You or your realtor can then ask whatever you want to be fixed, the price to be lowered a bit based on the report, you can just buy the house like nothing has changed, or you can walk away from the sale entirely (at worst case).

It’s very rare that a sale has fallen apart thanks to a home inspection I’ve done, but in the few cases that one has it was because there was a flaw in the house that needed to be corrected and would have cost WAY more than the prospective buyers would have been willing to pay.  Dropping a five digit number on unexpected repairs after you’ve bought a house is not the way you want to start in a new home!

It's not just major defects—most of what an inspector will turn up is relatively easy to fix.  Junction boxes with no covers, broken slates on the roof, slight grading issues against the exterior walls—these are usually relatively inexpensive and easy to fix.  Fixing them, though, can prevent house fires, leaking ceilings, and water penetration in the basement (all problems the previous mentioned things can cause).  So, the “little” stuff is important too. 

It’s not just that.  A good inspector will give you information about the house—not just a list of problems.  For example, I usually put in my report the capacity and type of the water heater and explain what that means for your showers.  Do you like long luxurious showers with scalding hot water?  Do the other four people in the house like that?  Well, just a heads up:  your 40 gallon electric water heater is not going to like it.  I include the size of the furnace filter, what outlets a GFCI operates, location of the main water shut-off valve, other useful things like that.  If you already know a lot about home maintenance you might not need to know all of that but even if you do it can still be a huge help to you.

So why get a home inspection?  A house is a huuuuge investment.  It’s worth it for the peace of mind, and it’s worth it to learn as much as possible about your new home.  Find yourself an inspector who is licensed/certified (for those in Virginia, a home inspector is required to have a license effective July 1, 2017), insured, and professional.  At James River Home Inspections, we are all three (in addition to being just simply fabulous blog writers)—if you need an inspection in the greater Lynchburg, VA area—give us a call!