Look for these potentially expensive flaws when buying a house.
Buying a house is serious business. Whether a recently built estate or a modest fixer-upper, getting the lowdown on your potential home is of tantamount importance. A qualified home inspector is always your best bet for a thorough home evaluation, but it's a good idea to have a general understanding of what to look out for.
HGTV.com surveyed several of the top home inspectors in the country — all featured on House Detective — to arm you with information on what to look out for when evaluating your potential purchase.
Rick Yerger is quick to point out that water is enemy number one. "Of the many homes I have inspected," Rick says, "water damage to the structure has been the most damaging and costly, causing foundation problems, rot and the dreaded mold." Rick lists some things to watch out for:
Grade sloping (or draining) back toward the home. This could lead to damp or wet crawlspaces, foundation movement, cracking or settlement. Water wicking up the foundation could lead to rot in the walls, framing members and mold. Some indications of foundation movement include windows that are out of square; interior doors that have large, uneven gaps at the top when the door is closed; or floors visibly out of level. If you see this, know that the cost to correct this problem could add up quickly.
Stucco issues. Homes with stucco exterior surfaces, when applied correctly, will last a lifetime. However, a major flaw we see in the field could add up to water in the living space and big bucks out of your pocket. At the base of exterior walls, where the foundation and the bottom plate (sill plate) meet, a component of a stucco-surfaced wall called a weep screed is applied. We know water can enter stucco through cracks, around unsealed light fixtures, outlets and the like. The water then hits the house wrap and sheds down to the weep screed and out the building. This is brilliant, but when concrete patios, stoops or sidewalks have been poured too high and the weep screed is buried, the system cannot work and water may enter the walls and living space. When you are walking around a house and you see the weep screed disappear into the concrete, this may one day lead to water intrusion and damage.
Roofing materials. As homes age, so does the material covering the roof. This is the component of the house that keeps us and the internal workings of the house dry. As the roofing material ages, it lends itself to water intrusion and can lead to expensive repairs or even replacement. If roofing material is improperly installed, it can lead to premature aging. There are many types of roofing materials used to protect us from the elements. The most common, starting with the most economical, are asphalt shingles, wood shakes/shingles, terra cotta tile, concrete tiles and slate, just to name a few.
Asphalt shingles have a life expectancy of between 15 and 40 years. With age, asphalt roof shingles will begin to cup either up or down. They will blister and have granular loss. Next, the matrix (material holding the product together) will be exposed. At this point, water becomes the main enemy, waiting patiently for the opportunity to make its move.
Wood shingles and shakes will show similar symptoms as asphalt when aging. Cupping, curling, lifting, splitting, insect damage, rotting and missing sections are all possible.
Terra cotta, concrete and slate tiles have life expectancies of about 20 to 100+ years. These materials are very brittle. Expansion and contraction caused by the changing seasons will cause these tiles to crack or become loose. Walking on these tiles can be deadly to the material. Cracking and the signs of aging can be difficult to see from the ground. It will usually take a good pair of binoculars and a solid ladder to get a bird's eye look at the condition of the roof. Any signs of previous substandard repairs should be a warning sign that water may have been leaking into the property.
Home style vs. building materials. When looking at the house of your dreams, look for consistency in the architectural style and building materials. A single-story cottage-style house built in the '40s with plaster walls and clapboard exterior siding that has added a new wing with modern building products may be an indication of unauthorized modifications and substandard workmanship. Should this be the case, it could add up to big bucks to correct and a severe heartache for the unsuspecting buyer.
Electrical wiring. House fires caused by faulty electrical wiring are common. Modern homes have an ample supply of power and electrical outlets. Older homes do not.
It's typical to see extension cords running from room to room in older homes. This places a burden on the electrical system, outlets and cords and thus could lead to a fire. Another common electrical problem found in all ages of homes is exposed electrical wires. Any wire that is exposed is susceptible to physical damage. If this occurs, it's sure to wreak havoc. Open splice wire (when wire is conjoined using only electrical tape and/or wire connectors) is a typical do-it-yourself job and is common in garages, attics and crawlspaces as well as above dropped ceilings. This is high priority, however, and should be corrected by a licensed electrician.
Austin Chase keys in on the year the house was built to provide a list of potentially costly and hazardous conditions or components that may be lurking.
Built between 1900 and 1950: Knob and tube wiring consists of fuses and fuse boxes and is considered outdated and inadequate to cover today's loads.
Built between 1942 and 1958: Orangeberg sewer piping was a sewer line made out of papier mache that connected the house to the main sewer line. This piping was born out of necessity as the military during World War II was using all the iron products for the war effort. A pipe manufacturer in Orangeberg, N.Y., created this piping. If the pipes in the home you are considering buying have not failed as of yet, it is inevitable. The cost of repairs will run between $2,000 and $5,000. A video sewer pipe inspection is paramount.
Built between 1984 and 1990: Defective ABS piping made out of recycled plastic was produced by five manufacturers. The pipe has a tendency to crack within the glue joints. If ABS pipe is present it is extremely costly to replace.
Built between 1990 and 2000: A NOX rod consolidated furnace has heat exchangers that will crack and release carbon monoxide into the home and potentially can cause fires. This furnace was used widely during this time period and is on a recall list. A thorough home inspection will detect this type of furnace.
Homes of all ages: Most important is the number-one defect detected during the inspection process: moisture and drainage. This is the leading cause of dry rot, major structural damage and toxic mold. It is important that grading of the property slopes away from the home. The roof must be inspected and be watertight. Plumbing throughout the home must be free from leaks. These criteria must be met or the results will be catastrophic. Look for the following indicators:
Inspection for moisture conditions may include air quality testing. This process will detect if there are any mold spores in the air. The presence of toxic molds can be extremely hazardous to a person's health and is extremely costly to correct. Be sure to let your home inspector know of any concerns you may have regarding the house you are purchasing.
Home inspector Dave Swartz has developed a list of the 10 most common home defects, many of them emphasizing the issues that Austin and Rick highlighted above:
1. Faulty wiring. Worn or outdated systems and homeowner additions are the most common defects, especially in older homes. Electrical system problems are safety related and require immediate attention.
2. Roof problems. Improperly installed and aged surfaces occur frequently. We also see poorly installed or missing flashing at transition areas. Repairs may be simple or the entire roof may need to be replaced. Follow up any adverse roofing system findings with an evaluation by a competent roofer.
3. Heating/cooling system defects. Improper installations, inadequate maintenance and aged components are common.
4. Plumbing issues. The most common defects are leaking, outdated or problematic systems such as polybutelene. Repairs can often be made, but on occasion total system replacement is the only solution.
5. Inadequate insulation and ventilation in attic. Poor insulation and poor ventilation cause excessive utility costs and lack of occupant comfort.
6. Whole house is poorly maintained. Deferred maintenance represents a potential high cost situation to bring the home back into condition. If the homeowner did not properly care for the home, someone will need to later.
7. Poor drainage around the structure. Water needs to drain away from the structure at its perimeter to prevent water intrusion. Roof gutters and downspouts can sometimes be added to rectify site drainage problems.
8. Air and water penetrating cracks and window perimeters at exterior. Structure cracks and separations at the windows can allow water into the wall cavities, which is conducive to mold growth.
9. Minor structural damage. Cut and broken trusses are often seen in attic cavities and on occasion we also see structural components missing. Usually repairs are needed, however we find it is rarely an imminent safety hazard.
10. Potential environmental problems. Signs of mold growth represents the latest environmental scare. Homebuyers should consider a complete environmental evaluation of the property before buying.