Whenever I perform an inspection on a house I note the location of such items as the electrical panel and water shutoffs. When it comes to noting where the shut off for the gas line is I always report it as being located on the exterior at the meter. Now since most homes have various shutoffs for the gas on the interior you may ask why would I overlook those and report only about the shutoff on the exterior. The reason is simple, Safety!
Natural Gas is a heavier than air gas. This means that in the event of a gas leak it will fill the lowest lying parts of the house first. It will fill the basement first and then work its way up. Why is that a big deal and why does that have anything to do with the shutoff? Shutoffs are normally located in the lowest level of a property and if there is a basement it will surely be located there. So in the event you open the entry door to your home after being gone and are hit with the smell of natural gas it is a high likely hood that the natural gas is more heavily concentrated in the basement. At this point entering the house is very dangerous, let alone venturing to the basement to shut off the gas. Something as simple as a static spark from walking across the carpet and grabbing a door handle can cause an ignition of the natural gas. You may noticed on the news reports of natural gas explosions the house is often times completely leveled and surviving a blast and subsequent fireball produced is not a probable likelihood.
This being the case entering the home to go turn off the gas is not advisable under any circumstance. The best course of action is too have planned ahead for such an unlikely but potentially deadly event. A wrench should be chained or connected to the gas meter on the exterior so that the gas can be turned off at that location and then the fire department can be called and all occupants can stay a safe distance from the house. For this reason I always report the location of the shutoff as being only located on the exterior of the home at the gas meter.
Many homes have entryway doors with a feature that is intended to keep occupants safe from intruders, but actually presents a hazard that can have deadly consequences. A frighteningly high number of home owners don’t even know that the hazard exists. About 30% of the homes that I inspect have this hazard, is yours one of them?
I am talking about double cylinder deadbolt locks (also known as “double keyed”). Double cylinder locks are deadbolts that require a key to lock and unlock them both on the outside and the inside of the home. These are often installed as a security measure, so that an intruder cannot break out a window on the entry door, and then simply reach through and unlock the deadbolt with their hand. In theory, this seems like a good safety. However, there are two major flaws in the design, and one of them can be deadly!
First off, let me address the security aspect of the double cylinder lock-set. Most entryway doors open to the inside of the home. This is standard so that a door cannot be barricaded easily on the outside of the home by an obstruction. The idea is that whether it is a snowbank or another object placed in front of the door, the door can still be pulled open to the inside by the occupant. The downside of this is that the deadbolt lock has a much narrower structure to mount the receiver for the cylinder. As a result, the door may be kicked in relatively easily as the door frame will “blow out” when kicked hard enough (as can be seen on most reality police shows on TV). So even if you have a door with the double cylinder lock-set it is usually only offering a false sense of security at best.
Secondly, and a much more important flaw in the double cylinder lock-set, is that the lock on the interior can be locked and then the key can be removed. This presents a very dangerous situation. Let’s say that a fire breaks out in the middle of the night. You wake to smoke filling your bedroom and alarms going off. You rush to get your family and run down the stairs to escape through the front door. You go to try and unlock the dead bolt but the key is missing. Now with the fire blocking the back exit you are stuck. Fire is often capable of engulfing a house in a matter of minutes, and you may run out of time to even make it to a window and kicking the door out from the inside is nearly impossible. For this reason, you should never have entry door locks that are double cylinder locks. A hand turn knob should always be used on the interior of an entry door.
If your home has employed a double cylinder lock-set on any exterior door, I urge you to replace them immediately for the safety of you and your family.
Recently, I had a friend tell me that he had found a house he and his wife loved, but there was excessive mold present. He asked if they should just walk away, and keep looking elsewhere. My answer was, “Not necessarily”. I told him that the mold is the result of a problem, but not the root problem itself, and until they discovered the cause of the mold, they wouldn’t know if the house is worth it or not. Mold is a big concern for many home buyers and owners alike, and rightfully so, as the presence of mold can be very hazardous. Mold is naturally occurring and breaks down organic matter, and returns it to the soil. However the presence of mold in a home can pose significant health threats, ranging from minor irritations to serious infections, and in some cases, certain types of cancer. When mold is found, remediation should be performed immediately. More importantly, however, is the need to determine the cause of the mold and fix the problem to prevent the mold from returning. Finding the cause of the mold may require a professional, but there is a great deal that can be done by a homeowner to locate and even prevent issues.
The first thing to know is that a house needs to “breathe”. A well-designed house is one that has ventilation that promotes good air flow throughout the home. It is not that you want a home to be drafty, but there should be a fair amount of air turned over in a given day. Mold can develop anywhere in a house, but a basement or an attic without proper ventilation, will have a tendency to hold moisture and develop mold.
So how do you know if you have mold? There are a few indicators to look for. Often, the first sign is the presence of a musty or dank smell, if this odor is present you likely have a mold issue and finding and removal is necessary. The second way to find out if you have mold is by visual inspection. Mold can grow on any surface and can actually digests almost any material it comes in contact with, so when you are looking for mold, no stone can be left unturned. Mold can range in color and density. Typically mold will be black, brown/black, green to blue-green, or red to reddish brown. Mildew can sometimes be confused as mold. Mildew is typically white and not as dense as mold. If you think you see presence of mold there are test kits that can be used to identify the exact type of mold; however, they are fairly expensive and not usually necessary, as any mold should be remediated no matter the exact type.
Here are some common areas to look for mold, and some of the more common causes:
Basements: Being below ground, basements are more prone to having poor ventilation and greater moisture content. Some basements may be structurally sound and still will require a dehumidifier to take the moisture out of the air. Others may have foundation leaks or seepage that allows water penetration. Sometimes you will have pipes or shower drains that leak, releasing moisture into the basement. All of these issues can cause mold to grow in a basement and should be remedied to prevent mold growth. In basements, the key is having good air circulation. The most common way of accomplishing this is too have proper HVAC venting. This means ensuring that the proper layout of supply vents and cold air returns are present in the basement space. If you are planning on finishing your basement or remodeling it, you would be well served to have an HVAC expert review your plans to make sure you will have the proper ventilation.
Attics: The leading cause of mold in an attic is a lack of proper ventilation. Air must be allowed to flow through an attic space freely or moisture can build up. Moisture can penetrate from the outside in the form of a leaking roof, improper bathroom vent that terminates in the attic, or simply by moisture permeating up through the structure of the home itself and getting trapped in the attic. Proper attic ventilation will have vents in the soffits along the lower edges of the roof to allow cool dry air to enter, and will have vents at the ridges of the roof to allow the moist warm air out. This is known as “passive” ventilation and in most cases is sufficient. Some houses, because of their design, may utilize a powered fan to exhaust the warm moist air out of the attic space.
Bathrooms: There are two main reasons for mold in a bathroom. The first is no surprise, a lack of ventilation. A bathroom should have one of two types of ventilation; either an exhaust fan routed to the exterior, or a window. A common misconception of an exhaust fan is that it is to be used to dissipate foul odors from a bathroom. That is an added bonus to the presence of an exhaust fan; however, its intended purpose is to expel moisture from a bathroom area. The proper use of an exhaust fan includes running the fan the entire time a shower is being used, and for a period there-after. This ensures that moisture is not allowed to remain in the bathroom space for enough time to promote mold growth. A window has the same function, and should be cracked open during and after a shower so that the moisture is allowed to escape. The other cause of moisture build up in a bathroom is leaking fixtures, especially behind the wall or from the toilet wax ring. Often times, these leaks do not immediately reveal themselves, and by the time you do find them by stains on the ceiling below you have a real mess on your hands. When these issues are found, a qualified person should make the repairs to remediate the issue.
Some other places to look for mold are in laundry rooms, crawlspaces, in kitchens under sinks and behind dishwashers. Once the presence of mold is confirmed, the cause should be repaired and the mold remediated. Bleach or ammonia will kill mold on surfaces. One warning though, you should never mix bleach and ammonia together as it will create a very noxious and dangerous gas called chloramine that can easily be fatal. If the mold is excessive, it may be best to hire a company to come in and do the clean-up for you.
I have one final note. Just because a home has mold that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be eliminated from consideration as far as purchasing. If you can locate the issue and it can be reasonably fixed and the mold eliminated you just may have the bargaining chip in your pocket to get a great deal on the house. However in that situation an expert most definitely should be brought in to evaluate the situation.
In Part 1 I discussed the importance of obtaining proper permits, and choosing which work to do yourself and what to contract out when it comes to taking on a Do-It-Yourself renovation. Another step that is essential to starting the process is to gain as much knowledge as possible about each improvement item you intend take on. For instance, to do a typical kitchen renovation, it would be good to do some research on plumbing, electrical, proper kitchen layout, cabinet installation, lighting and flooring, just to start. There are countless books on each topic, and the library is a good resource for information, without paying $20 for each book at a home improvement or book store. I suggest checking them out, and keeping them throughout the project in order to use them as reference to check your work as you go to ensure you are on track throughout the project.
Next, come up with a detailed plan for what you want to do. This part of the process requires laying out your entire job. Some components of a good plan include a timeline of tasks, list of materials (including prices and suppliers), and detailed drawings. Your timeline should include every aspect of the project, from obtaining permits and demolition, to the installation of each system (framing, drywall, flooring, cabinets, etc.). I will go into depth on each of these items in later articles. Your plan should also include scale drawings of the current layout, and the proposed changes (these drawings will be required to obtain permits); the drawings don’t have to be professional, however, they must be accurate (graph paper is a great tool for accomplishing this) and complete. You will need to mark the location of any added outlets and light fixtures, as well as any major changes to the structure and/or layout of the room. Taking these plans to the building department will often get you a free plan review, and tons of helpful information about your intended project.
Finally, I want to cover choosing your materials. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is often true in this area. On one hand, if you go with bottom-dollar discount materials, you are often going to end up replacing items in a few years because of poor quality and durability. On the other hand, just because something at the boutique store is priced like it is gold-plated and made by magic elves doesn’t mean it is any more durable than the mid-range products. A good practice is to stay in that middle range of products for the best balance of quality and price. Additionally, if you are planning on selling your home in the near future, you should be careful not to over personalize your style and material choices. Potential buyers may be turned off by overly bold choices, making it harder to sell your home; therefore, it is usually best to stick to current trends, and use your room décor to personalize it.
There is a great deal of pride that can be taken in completing a DIY project, especially when others think it was done by a professional. Follow these steps and you will be well on your way to accomplishing just that.
As a homeowner, you may have found yourself facing a much-needed home improvement project, and after watching many of the Do-It-Yourself shows on TV, have said to yourself “I can do that. If they can do it how hard can it be?” Well, it might just be harder than the show (which is heavily edited for a 30-minute time slot) depicts; though not necessarily too difficult for you to tackle on your own, as long as you consider a few important things before jumping in.
My first recommendation is that if you are going to take on a large project–such as a bathroom addition/remodel, kitchen renovation or finishing a basement–is to start at your municipality’s building department. Contrary to what some believe, the local building codes have not been put in place simply to collect revenue. Building codes have been implemented to ensure that houses are built and maintained with at least the minimum standards of safety and good building practices. The professional contractor, if they are good, knows these codes and not just meets them but exceeds them, remember they are minimum standards. The average homeowner who chooses to do their own renovations likely doesn’t know all of the code requirements; however, the municipal inspectors and reviewers do know these requirements, and usually they are more than willing to answer questions, review plans and give advice on code compliance. Furthermore, many insurance companies will void a policy, or refuse a claim, if damage was done to a home, as a result of work that was performed without the required permits. Relatively speaking, the amount of money you pay for permits and plan review is a small cost, when compared to paying for a house that has burned to the ground, or even worse, possibly dealing with injury or loss of life. Bottom line is, get the permits.
The next step is deciding what you should tackle yourself, and what should you sub-contract out. You have to look at yourself not as a Do-It-yourself laborer but a Do-It-Yourself general contractor. In many situations, you may save hundreds of dollars doing the work yourself, but end up spending an entire week in labor, and still not end up with a quality result. A great example of this is drywall. Having been a contractor for some time I now can hang and finish drywall, and make it look pretty good; however, it takes me 4 times longer than a three-man drywall crew. On top of that, even my best quality work doesn’t match the quality of someone who specializes in drywall; therefore, I almost always sub-out the drywall hanging and finishing. You must identify what is worth the savings, and what is not. Sub-out the really technical work that requires years of experience to get right, and you handle the stuff, that with some research and direction, you can easily knock out and meet the desired quality. Doing something that saves you thousands is a no–brainer, but think twice about the work that will only save you a hundred here or there.
The above is a good starting point. In part two, I will deal with some more items including choosing/obtaining materials, considering a time frame and job planning.
Let me start off by saying: Yes, I am a home inspector and this article could seem very self-serving. I would answer any criticism to that by explaining why I became a home inspector in the first place. I had been a contractor for about 15 years. In that time I had been in countless houses to repair deficiencies. Finding the cause of the issues being shoddy work done for people who paid good money and now had to pay again to have it made right quickly became a disturbing trend. Often times the faulty work was hidden from the home owner as they didn’t know what to look for to identify it and the “professional” knew how to cover things up to hide it. These items ranged from minor cosmetic issues to major safety hazards that left unattended could cause serious harm or even death. When I would see that a home owner had been cheated it disgusted me but to see issues that could harm them infuriated me seeing that someone would knowingly put others at risk for an extra hundred dollars in their pocket. I decided that with my knowledge and experience I could become a home inspector and weed out these issues for home owners and prospective buyers and be a great help to them while making an honest living. So is this article self serving? Only so much as it is also a service to others.
So think about this, when you buy a car you often get a vehicle history report, you will research its quality and options and you will test drive it. If it is a used car you might even have your mechanic look at it. Why wouldn’t you do the same for an investment that costs 10-20 times more than a car and that you will have for much longer? In my opinion you absolutely should in the form of a home inspection.
A good home inspector knows good construction practices and how to identify issues. It is their business to know what to look for. They know what every crack in a foundation means. They know how to interpret the bundle of wires leading in and out of an electrical panel. They know what to look for when it comes to signs of mold, past water damage, asbestos and the measures that are taken to hide them. They can tell you how long you can expect your HVAC units to be effective and how much life your roof has left. A good home inspector will go over every foot of the house you are buying and give you the needed information about the true condition of the home. This will give you the knowledge that you need to negotiate the best price for a property and in the end know that you are getting what you paid for.
An average home inspection will cost you between 250 and 450 dollars. If the Inspector is really doing his job it will take 2 hours or more to complete the inspectioon itself plus the time to prepare the report. Though that may seem high the payoff is huge when they are able to point out deficiencies that could cost you thousands of dollars and possibly harm you or your family.
So if you are in the market to buy a home do yourself a favor. Once you find that dream home enlist a Home Inspector that is trusted so that you can purchase with confidence and not end up living in a nightmare.