Scrutiny on the Bounty
A home inspection is one of the most crucial steps on the path to old-house ownership. Here’s how to use it to determine if you should take the plunge on that fixxer-upper.
Source: Old-House Journal
You’ve taken the leap and made an offer on an old house, and the seller has accepted it. Caught between euphoria and dread, you only have a few short weeks to reassure yourself that it’s the right house for you – and make sure you haven’t agreed to sink your life savings into a proverbial money pit.
And while you need to investigate the neighborhood, the zoning, the schools, and other concerns, the biggest piece of what the real estate people call “due diligence” will be the physical inspection of the house. Much of your decision on whether to go ahead with the sale, and a large part of your plans for fixing the house after you buy it, will be based on this document.
An inspector will look at the building’s systems and components and let you know if they are functional, when or if they might need replacement, whether they could be upgraded, or if their present state constitutes an immediate threat to life safety. A home inspection may not cover absolutely everything – extras like swimming pools, septic tanks, or burglar alarms will probably not be covered, so you might want to get separate inspections for these. (Especially septic systems – if not properly maintained, they can cost thousands of dollars to repair.)
The Inspector Hunt
First, you’ll need to find an inspector. Real estate agents will often refer you to one, but you may want to find one on your own to ensure you’re getting what you want from the evaluation. Inspectors are not licensed in most states, though many inspectors belong to ASHI (American Society of Home Inspectors; ashi.org) or NAHI (National Association of Home Inspectors; nahi.org), which may be able to provide referrals to members in your area. In addition, a subset of ASHI members has formed the Historic Building Inspectors Association (inspecthistoric.org), whose members specialize in older buildings. Many general contractors also perform inspections, but remember, you want someone who is experienced and trained in inspections – knowing how to build a house is not the same as knowing how to inspect one.
Any inspector you hire should carry both general liability insurance and errors and omissions insurance, and the contract should spell out what will (or won’t) be covered in the inspection process. Personal referrals can be helpful, so ask around. It may be more difficult to find an inspector who is familiar or knowledgeable about old houses, especially if old houses are not in the majority where you live. It requires more know-how to inspect an old house than one that’s only a few years old – the inspector needs to know how things were done back in the day, as well as how they’re done now. If you can’t find an inspector who is conversant with old houses, then be prepared to take some of the recommendations you get with a grain of salt.
Nationally the cost of na inspection ranges from around $300-$700, and it should take three to four hours. A larger or more complicated property may cost more and take longer. A $99 inspection with a checklist is probably not adequate for a historic home. You should make sure the inspection includes a narrative written report in addition to whatever the inspector will tell you verbally during the inspection.
Insider’s Tip – When to Run Away Screaming
Almost anything can be fixed if you have enough money – but since most people don’t have unlimited funds, there are a few things that should give you cause to bail out. My personal list of red flags includes major drainage problems or unstable soil, mold problems so major that all the original fabric of the home will have to be removed, or pet urine that’s soaked into the framing.
The Toxic Stuff
MOLD. Though more of a problem in new houses that are so tightly sealed they require mechanical ventilation, rather than in older houses that tend to have a lot of air leakage, mold can still be an issue. Mold is primarily the result of roof or plumbing leaks, damp basements or crawlspaces, lack of ventilation in bathrooms and kitchens, or the occasional flood. Minor amounts of mold and mildew can be cleaned up with bleach, while major infestations may require having the mold professionally abated.
LEAD. Lead was used for years in plumbing pipes, fixtures, roof flashings, shower pans and paint. Although the toxic effects of lead were discovered in the early 19th century, it wasn’t banned as a paint ingredient until 1978, and lead solder for plumbing pipe connections and in faucets wasn’t phased out until 1986.
A lead closet bend under a toiler or lead solder in pipe connections is probably nothing to worry about. Actual lead water supply pipes should be replaced. But the biggest source of lead in old houses is lead paint. Lead-based paint has a tendency to “chalk,” producing lead dust. Flaking lead paint, or sanding or scraping of existing paint, can release lead dust, which is not good for you and is extremely bad for children. To remove lead paint, refer to epa lead guidelines or have it professionally abated or encapsulated.
ASBESTOS. Asbestos is fireproof and impervious to practically everything, which made it an excellent filler and reinforcement. Unfortunately, because it doesn’t break down, it can lodge itself in your lungs and eventually kill you. Asbestos is likely to be found in an old house, typically as pipe or flue insulation, popcorn ceilings, or combined with other materials, as with asbestos-cement shingles or vinyl-asbestos tiles. It was also used in patching compounds, flooring adhesives, and certain kinds of vermiculite insulation. Although asbestos has mostly been phased out, it is still used in roof cement, brake pads and a few other products.
Asbestos poses little danger if not disturbed, so it’s best to leave it alone if possible. Nearly all asbest0s-related disease has occurred from occupational exposure. According to the Department of Health & Human Services, “non-occupational exposure to asbestos in both indoor and outdoor exposures is extremely low.” The time to be concerned is if the asbestos is crumbling or damaged, or if you’re planning demolition or removal. The first thing to do is send a sample to be tested at a lab, as not all popcorn ceilings or tile mastics contain asbestos. If there is asbestos present, it’s best to have it professionally abated.
Asbestos tiles or shingles are less dangerous than insulation since the asbestos is encapsulated within the material and won’t be released unless the material is broken up or sanded, so do-it-yourself removal is a more viable option. Asbestos has to be carefully bagged and taken to special landfills – contact your local hazardous waste authority to find out the rules. Some jurisdictions don’t allow homeowners to remove asbestos at all, while some allow DIY removal of a limited amount.
What to Expect When You’re Inspecting
If at all possible, you should be present during the inspection, and if you want to follow the inspector into the crawl space, then you might want to leave your dress slacks or high heels at home. How much an inspector will look at varies; some will climb on the roof or go into the attic, while others will opt for examining the hard to reach spots with binoculars. Inspectors are not Superman: They can’t see through walls, behind furniture, or into areas that are inaccessible, and obviously they’re not allowed to poke holes to get a better look, since most inspections take place before the close of the escrow.
A good inspection report should cover both the interior and exterior of the house and its various systems, including the plumbing, heating and electrical. This doesn’t mean that every single electrical outlet or window will be tested – generally just a representative sample – but the major stuff should be looked at. A good inspector should have tools like moisture meters, electrical testers, carbon monoxide detectors, and water pressure testers. Be aware that even the best inspector may not find everything – depending on the timing of the inspection, certain problems (such as roof leak or drainage problems in the summer) can be difficult to uncover. Usually the report will include some recommendations for correcting issues that were found, often boiling down to “Get somebody to fix this” or “Get a new one.”
Don’t be disheartened if the inspector comes back with a seemingly endless list of things to fix. Even a brand new house will have a few things wrong with it, and an old house is likely to have lots of things wrong (but no matter how neglected a building has been, it takes a very long time for one to actually fall down). Some will be in the category of annoying rather than life-threatening – broken sash cords, non-functioning doorbells, or missing window screens. Other things that an inspector may consider unsavory will be the very things you find charming about the house – a vintage stove, functioning gas lights, or an original bathroom. Many things in old houses are now considered obsolete, and the inspector might use phrases like “the end of its useful life” or “average lifespan,” but that doesn’t mean that component of your house in going to fall apart tomorrow or that you can’t go on using it for the next 50 years. On the other hand, there may be things that are an immediate life-safety threat, such as gas leaks, a porch in imminent danger of collapse, or rats living in the stove. Most of the inspectors’ finds will fall somewhere between these extremes.
In most cases, there’s no need to fear the inspector – take the report and set forth into the wonderful world of old-house ownership.