Poorly Constructed Decks

As a home inspector, I see more poorly built decks than properly built ones. Many are built in a way that failure will be inevitable. Give the right conditions and enough weight, a collapse will happen. It is estimated that 50 percent of decks built in the USA were constructed without a permit, therefore skipping the inspection process. When built at a height more than a couple of feet from the ground, deck failure can lead to serious injury. The following are frequently seen components of decks that have not been built properly and are commonly called out as a safety concern during a home inspection.

Railings- When a deck is more than 30" from the ground, the perimeter of the deck should be protected by a railing that is at least 36" tall. This railing should be able to withstand the force of a 200 lb load. The spacing between each baluster on the railing should not be greater than 4", as a child could pass through. 

Ledger Board- Decks that are attached to the home should have a ledger board connecting the deck to the house. Assuming the siding is not stucco, EIF, or a brick veneer, the ledger board should be bolted (not nailed) to the home in several places. Ledger boards cannot be supported by a cantilevered (bump out) section of the home without additional supports placed under this area. A piece of flashing should be installed under the siding and over the ledger board to prevent water from entering the home where the ledger has been bolted. It is estimated that 90% of deck collapses occur where the ledger board connects to the home. I often see it installed improperly. 

Support- Concrete piers, which support posts rest on and are attached to, are often placed above grade, allowing for movement from the settling or heaving of the soil. Piers should be installed on undisturbed soil and below the frost line. Posts should be properly connected to the piers to prevent separation. On taller decks, 6x6" posts should be used instead of 4x4", as the smaller posts can twist under heavy loads. Support beams should rest over the posts and be properly attached. Beam splices need to be supported by a post directly underneath. Beams and floor joists should be constructed with at least 2x6" boards to properly support the weight. 

Hardware- Using the correct hardware is imperative when it comes to a properly built deck. Sometimes deck screws are used to attach joist hangers instead of 16d nails. Joist hangers are sometime even omitted completely, instead nailing into the end of a joist which is the weakest connection point. Rusted nails are found during inspections, indicating that the improper hardware has been used. On treated lumber, stainless steel or galvanized nails must be used because the high level of copper on the treated wood speeds up corrosion, weakening the hardware.

As you can see, there are many components of a deck that can be constructed improperly, leading to a major safety issue. Often, the decks are built close to the ground, preventing a complete inspection of the deck structure. While a deck failure from a couple feet off of the ground may not seem significant, many homeowners who have experienced it would disagree. With safety standards becoming more stringent on the building of decks, home inspectors around the country are calling out more safety defects than ever.  While it is always up to the homeowner to address these issues, don't expect your home inspector to look over these deficiencies because the deck has been standing for years. Improperly constructed decks can fail dramatically and without warning, leading to serious injury and damage to the structures. 
 

Stairs- Each step or riser height, should be around the same size. Often, the last step on the stairs is shorter than the rest due to the size of the planking. The maximum riser difference shall be less than 3/8", as a large difference between step height can be a trip hazard. Risers  (between steps) should be framed in since they typically will have a space over 4". Handrails should span from the top step to the bottom  and should be continuous and graspable, meaning you can run your hand up the railing without having to lift off your hand. Often the railing is separated by newel posts (support posts) and not considered continuous. 

Deck Planking- The planking on the deck should have a small separation between each plank to allow water to pass through. Nail heads should not be under driven as they become a trip hazard, nor over driven as they allow water to pool in the impression left behind from the head of the hammer. Each plank should be staggered and bear its load on at least 4 joists. When heavier planking like composite is used, the joist span may be less than the typical 16" on center,  based off manufacturer recommendations. When composite planking is used on stairs, additional stingers are often required to properly support the load. 

 

Common Defects on New Construction

When somebody purchases a new home, they have certain expectations. Like a new car, it is expected that the house will come without dings and scratches and with that new home smell. It is expected that the home is built properly and up to current safety standards. After all, it was inspected by the city or county right? Well, contrary to popular belief, new homes are not always built correctly. Sometimes things are overlooked in order to expedite the project. Sometimes shortcuts are taken to save the builder money. To the untrained eye, evidence is not always in plain view. Listed below, are some defects found in new construction that you wouldn’t expect to be present on a brand new house.

 

Exterior Painting- Paint on the exterior is what's protecting the wood from the elements. Paint is sometimes neglected on the top and bottom trim, as well as on siding pieces. If an exterior door opens to an uncovered area, the top of the door should be painted similar to the outside of the door.

Caulking- This should be present on areas where wood products meet, in order to prevent moisture, air, and pest intrusion. Sometimes this is overlooked in areas and is even added to places where it shouldn't be. For example, hardiplank siding should not have caulking at the end joints. Instead the manufacture recommends that the end joints have a small gap for expansion and contraction of the house. They also recommend a piece of flashing be installed behind each joint, instead of caulking.

Roof- Shingles are sometimes found to be installed incorrectly. Nails are over driven, causing damage to the shingle itself, or under driven, causing damage to the shingles installed above. Gutters are installed with a minimal amount of downspouts to save costs during construction. This causes the home to rely on fewer points to discharge the water from the roof's surface. Often, downspouts from an upper roof discharge onto the lower roof covering, ending up in the lower gutter system. This causes premature roof deterioration to the shingles below. Drain waste vents may be left covered from the initial testing during the construction. This prevents proper ventilation of the plumbing system, possibly allowing sewer gases to enter the home. 

Decks and Patios- Patios have been found slanting towards the house, allowing water to accumulate near the foundation instead of draining away from the home. Decks are often built incorrectly. The ledger board may lack flashing or be improperly installed. Sometimes, the deck is not even built with a ledger board. Joist hangers are installed without the correct hardware and sometimes omitted completely. Nails are often found over driven into the planking, causing water to puddle around the nail heads. Handrails may be absent when there is a 30" or more drop, which poses an obvious safety issue. When handrails and stairs are installed, the space between the balusters or risers are found to be installed with a gap larger than 4", which poses a safety issue for children.

Window Screens- Believe it or not, a lot of new homes do not include window screens. Something that would seem standard is no longer the norm when home builders increase their profit margin.

Grading- The soil around the home will sometimes slant towards the house instead of away, allowing water to accumulate near the foundation. Over time, water accumulating around the foundation will allow water to enter basements or crawlspaces.

Attic Insulation- On a new home, it is expected that the insulation was properly and sufficiently installed. Infrared cameras can spot areas lacking insulation, and it happens more than expected on a brand new home. Unfortunately, city and county code inspectors rarely enter the attic to verify proper installation methods before their final approval.

Ducting- Improper sealing around the ducting is sometimes found during a new home inspection. This unintentionally heats areas of the home that shouldn't be and increases electricity bills.

Truss Altering- While the truss system was inspected during construction, tradesmen will sometimes alter the trusses post inspection in order to install their hardware in a tight spot. Trusses should never be altered in the field without a structural engineer evaluating the impact and capabilities of their load.

Electrical- Hot and neutral wires have been found to be double tapped, creating a potential fire hazard. Open junction boxes with electrical splices are sometimes found in crawlspaces and attics, which is not allowed. Electric panels are even installed incorrectly, leaving large gaps between the edges of the panel and the sheetrock surrounding it.

Dishwashers- Anti-siphon devices and high drain loops are often omitted.  The high drain loop and air gap are needed to prevent potential backflow water contamination of the dishwasher.

Cosmetic Issues- Dings, dents, and scratches are often found on finished surfaces. While not typically pointed out on an older home, it is commonly included in the report for new construction. Sometimes trim pieces are missing, especially on the inside of small closets, where their lacking may not be easily noticed. Scratches can be found on countertops and floors as well.

 

As you can see, new construction does not mean a home inspection should be skipped. Often, small things have been ignored, and sometimes major items overlooked. Be sure you are diligent with your new home purchase. Always have it inspected by a third party before your home builder hands over the keys.

 
 

Homeowner Routine Maintenance Chores: Spring Edition

As a homeowner, you have a lot on your plate. In the back of your mind, you know there is always a chance that something major could go wrong in your house, resulting in thousands of dollars in repairs. You know you can lower the odds of large system failures by addressing the small maintenance tasks, but where would you start? 

 

Exterior:

  • Clean the roof - A clean roof is the first step in maintaining it. Debris and moss hold moisture on the roof, promoting the opportunity for water to seep into the house. Those "harmless" black stains running down composition shingles are actually an algae feeding off of the limestone in the shingles. Keeping your roof free of debris and organic growth will help to preserve the life of the shingles and allow you to assess the condition regularly. Note: Be sure to never pressure wash your roof as you can cause significant damage to the roof covering. Always use a push type broom to remove moss and other debris.
  • Inspect the roof for damage - You should be looking for shingles that are missing, have heavy loss in granules, have exposed fibers, or ones that are cracked or curling. Special attention should be paid to any roof penetrations (e.g., skylight, chimney, roof vent). These are the areas that will be most likely to leak into the attic below (maybe even into your living room)! Check for calking or sealant that is cracked or missing around vents as well.
  • Trim tree branches - Tree branches lying on top of your roof won't only damage your roof covering and hold moisture; they also act as an interstate for rodents and other small animals. For instance, rats have been known to jump over 4 feet horizontally and squirrels up to 9 feet! Having your trees trimmed regularly not only lowers the likelihood of a big branch coming down onto your house during a storm, but it can assist in keeping your home rodent-free.
  • Clean and inspect gutters - A clogged gutter is an ineffective gutter. Winter storms may have filled your gutter with pine needles or small branches, slowing down or preventing the flow of water. Heavy granule loss from your roof shingles tend to slow down the flow of water as well. Check the gutters for holes or disconnected  downspouts. Verify that the downspouts are discharging into an underground drain system or that they are at least 6 feet away from your house’s foundation. Note: If you find significant granule loss in your gutters, it is time to have your roof inspected by a roofing professional as this is a sign that the shingles are beginning to fail. 
  • Seal any holes - Any open holes on the outside of your house are an open invitation for moisture or pests to enter. Did your cable guy install a new outlet for your mounted flat screen this winter? Verify that all wall penetrations are sealed up, to lower the likelihood of unwanted entry. Attic and crawlspace ventilation screens should be complete to deny entry of birds or rodents. The window calking should be checked as well to prevent air infiltration. 
  • Pressure washing - Regularly cleaning the moss and mildew from the driveway, walkways, porches and decks is not only visually pleasing, it can also help to prevent a slip and fall hazard. You should be cautious when pressure washing wood or painted items as the high-water pressure can damage them. As mentioned before, NEVER pressure wash your roof!
  • Paint or stain - Exterior wood is protected from the elements by paint or stain. It doesn't last forever though! This spring is a good time to assess the condition of all of your exterior wood products and paint or stain the areas where the wood is exposed. If nothing else, you can start mentally preparing for your summer project.
  • Evaluate the condition of your home's exterior - Has some of your wood siding been damaged? Do you have some missing mortar on your brick chimney? Did you notice a new crack in your foundation? Now is a great time to check out how well the exterior of your home is holding up to the elements and time.
  • Check drainage - If you have water puddles sitting around your house for more than 24 hours, consider how well your property is draining. If water is accumulating near the foundation, you may need to bring in some dirt and regrade around the perimeter of your home. Water accumulation near the foundation may lead to foundation and basement dampness issues. With proper grading, the soil should slope away from your house, at an incline of at least 6 inches for the first 10 or so feet.
  • Air Conditioning - If you live in Western Washington like me, there is a good chance you don't have AC. However, if you do, cleaning leaves and debris off the condenser unit outside is a great idea. It is also recommended that the AC unit be serviced annually by a professional to make sure you get the most life and efficiency possible.
  • Fertilize lawn - Now is the perfect time to fertilize your lawn. Remove the moss, kill the weeds, and feed the grass before the hot weather kicks in.
  • Windows and window screens - On a cloudy day, take some time to clean the exterior of your windows. The sun will bake on your cleaning product and make your life more difficult. Make sure your window screens are in good shape when you put them back on. Duct tape is a great tool for temporary repairs when it is hidden, but it's not a good use for repairing your window screens.
 
 
 
 

Interior:

  • Check smoke and CO detectors - Test and replace the batteries of your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors a couple of times each year. Even if they are hardwired, a new battery is critical. Smoke detectors are highly suggested by the entrance of each room used for sleeping and on each level. Carbon monoxide (CO) detectors should be installed on each level of the home and outside of the rooms used for sleeping. Even if your house doesn't have natural gas, CO detectors are a great safety feature.
  • Fire extinguishers - Verify that all of the occupants in the building know where the fire extinguishers are located. Check that the pressure gauge on the extinguisher is at "full" and that there are no signs of wear and tear.
  • Garage door - Automatic garage doors should have an auto reverse feature. This will lift the garage door should it detect pressure from underneath, or if the photoelectric eye lens is crossed. This important safety feature aids in preventing an unwanted closure on an object or person. It can be tested by pressing the remote to close the door, then applying an upward pressure under the garage door as it is closing or waving a foot in front of the photoelectric eye. Both of these features should be working correctly. When your door is disconnected from the automatic opener (manual mode), you should be able to open the door to about three feet from the ground and the door should hold in that position. If it doesn't remain open on its own without being fully up or down, the door needs to be counterbalanced by a professional.
  • Furnace filters - Your furnace pulls conditioned air from the inside of the home though a filter before heating it up and redistributing it throughout the house. It is important that the filter is cleaned or replaced regularly to maintain air quality and to get the most life from your furnace. It is typically recommended that the furnace filter is checked monthly or quarterly, depending on the furnace manufacturer.
  • Refrigerator coils - A typical fridge can use up to 15 percent of the home’s total power. Using something like a vacuum cleaner to clean the coils on the rear (or bottom) of the fridge can improve the efficiency, increase its life, and help to guard against an electrical fire.
  • Dryer vents - While you have the vacuum cleaner out, clean out the clothes dryer’s exhaust duct (vent pipe). Of the fires that involve a clothes dryer, an estimated 35% are a result of a failure to clean out clogged lint. If your dryer has a plastic exhaust vent, replace it with a smooth metal one. Also, be sure that the vent cover on the outside of the house can be properly opened and closed, and that it isn't blocked by a screen that will catch and hold the lint.
  • Oven and range - Now is a great time to clean out the seemingly impossible to remove spills inside of your oven. Most modern ovens have a self-cleaning mode that is simple to use and will make the inside of your oven look new again. Check your owner's manual for self-cleaning instructions. Don't forget to clean the grease from your range hood filter, too!
  • Garbage disposal - Over time, a garbage disposal can smell pretty terrible. Besides checking to be sure the disposable under the sink is secured properly and not leaking, putting some slices of lemon down the drain while the blades are running can freshen up the sink. Running it while dumping ice into the disposal will help to remove food particles as well as sharpen the blades, too. 

This article is for informational purposes only. This list of homeowner maintenance tasks does not cover every item of a home, as each home has different features. Some items may need to be handled by a professional. Safety should be the first aspect considered when performing home maintenance tasks. 
 

Lead In Homes

The Leading Cause

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What Is Lead?
Lead is a naturally occurring chemical element that is found deep within the earth. It is one of the earliest metals used by humans, due to its low melting point and pliability.  Thousands of years ago, the Romans used lead to make multiple items like coins, dishes, weapons, and plumbing. The current term plumbing actually comes from the Latin word plumbum, which means lead. Even at that time, the Romans knew lead was dangerous and tried to limit their exposure. 


Where Will I Find Lead?
Even though lead was banned from residential use in 1978 by the Environmental Protection Agency, it is still found in many US homes. Whether it is in the pipes that deliver water to your house, or in the paint that covers your walls, lead is still around and is something that should be on your mind. Homes built prior to 1955 can have up to 50 percent lead in the original paint! Old paint that has chipped off of the exterior of a house will increase the amount of lead in the soil. Leaded gasoline from before the 1996 ban can still be found in old tanks. Furniture that was passed down from Grandma is likely to have lead in varnish . Even the dust in the air of a house being remodeled can introduce lead into your lungs. 


How Can Lead Affect Me?
The negative effects of lead are not always immediate. It can take months or years before you attribute your health issues to high levels of lead. Children are most susceptible. For one thing, small children are more likely to put things that they are not supposed to into their mouths. Whether they are trying to eat a chip of paint off the floor, or the leg of the antique table, they just don't know any better! Children absorb lead more quickly than adults and it stays in their soft tissue for a longer amount of time. Lead exposure in children can cause slow growth, speech problems, hyperactivity, brain damage, and more. Pregnant women who are exposed to high levels of lead have had documented effects on their unborn babies, including damage to their central nervous system or to their brain. Adults can often have recurring, chronic headaches, as well as other symptoms, when exposed to lead. Although the current "acceptable" limit is 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, lead has no satisfactory threshold for being considered safe.


How Can I Limit My Exposure To Lead?
If you have a house built before 1978, there is a good chance that house contains lead and you may not be able to completely get rid of it. You can, however, limit your exposure. If the pipes that supply your water are made of lead, running cold water from the tap for 15-30 seconds prior to using it for drinking or boiling can make it much safer. Hot water will absorb more of the lead from the pipes. You can't see, smell or taste lead and boiling water will not get rid of it. If you have lead in your paint and it is in pristine condition, it should be left undisturbed, as it is typically not a hazard. Attempting to remove lead paint in good condition can cause more harm than good. Lead paint in poor condition becomes friable and can be easily inhaled as a dust. If you are remodeling a house built prior to 1978 and disturbing more than 6 square feet of the interior or 20 square feet of the exterior, the EPA requires the work to be performed by a company that is Lead-Safe Certified.  Home test kits to measure levels of lead are not always accurate and testing should be performed by a licensed professional. Sweeping or vacuuming in a house containing lead could make problems worse by stirring up the air. Cleaning should be done with wet towels, soap and water. A good way to limit lead in the body is to have a balanced diet. Minerals like calcium and iron, as well as Vitamin C, have been shown to lessen lead absorption. 


Conclusion!
In today's housing market, people love the idea of buying an older house and fixing it up. However, renovating an older house may mean more than just adding another bathroom or replacing the knob-and-tube electrical wiring. Even the minor homeowner tasks like repainting the siding may come with a hefty price if your house contains lead. Taking everything into account, homes with lead can still be completely livable, although more caution must be exercised. You have to know what you're dealing with. Make sure you don't ignore the facts and end up being led to the wrong decision.

 

Note: A home inspection will not determine the existence of nor test for lead unless it is specifically advertised. This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered conclusive . For more information regarding lead or lead poisoning, please visit https://www.epa.gov/lead
 

Bed Bugs

Bed Bugs: The Unwanted Gift That Keeps on Giving

What Are Bed Bugs?
Bed Bugs (Cimex lectularius Linnaeus) are small insects that feed on blood cells, typically when their host is in a deep sleep. Almost eradicated in the 1950's, they have recently made a comeback in a major way, often being referred to as a modern day pandemic. The cause of the exponential increase in the United States may be due to the banning of DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) in 1972, along with the prevalence of international travel. It is estimated that bed bugs are increasing by an average 50% each year and spreading faster than ever.


How Do They Spread?
Most commonly, bed bugs move around by hitching a ride on your clothing or suitcase. This includes transferring of an item such as a book or piece of furniture, from an infested household to an uninfected one. For example, you utilize the Uber or Lyft car service on vacation. This vehicle may have already taken 10 trips from various hotels to the airport that day. A bug can climb off of a suitcase and onto the carpet of the trunk, later climbing onto your stored bag and ending up on your bed when you get home to unpack. From there, they hide and wait to come out when you are sleeping to feed.


Where Do They Live?
Once infested, the bugs are going to camp out close to their food source, typically within 5 feet of where you sleep. The most common hiding place is along the seams of your mattress or box spring. Corners and cracks of your bed frame also make for cozy living quarters. Anything close to your bed can be a potential hiding spot for bed bugs including: curtains, nightstands, clutter on the floor, under rugs, along trim and molding, and even behind electrical outlets.


How Can I Identify Them?
While difficult to spot, all forms of bed bugs can be seen with the naked eye. Adult bugs are around the size of an apple seed, typically rust in color, and have oval shaped bodies. It’s unlikely you will notice them, unless you are looking in the areas referenced above. Recently hatched bed bugs are semi-transparent, light tan in color, and about the size of a poppy seed. Unhatched eggs look similar to a shiny small grain of rice. They tend to leave behind trails of black feces, small blood stains where they last fed, and remnants of exoskeletons that are shed as they grow.


Why Do They Feed on Humans?
They like the way you taste! When you breathe out, your expelled air is rich in carbon dioxide which attracts the bugs. They follow the scent and reach your warm blooded body, a vast source of food for them. The bed bugs prefer humans over animals due to challenges navigating through their fur. It is important to note, if the only source of food is an animal, they will target pets as well. These bugs have been reported to live up to 18 months without eating, although they typically will want to feed once a week. Although, newly hatched bed bugs will need to feed right away or they will not survive.


Will They Harm Me?
Emotionally, Yes! Physically, they rarely cause more than itchy, mosquito like bites. Victims of these blood suckers may notice a distinguished pattern of 3 or more bites in a row. Besides the skin irritations caused by the small bites, bed bugs are not known to transmit disease. In some rare instances, anaphylactic shock has occurred in small parts of the population due to an allergic reaction. 


How Can I Get Rid of Them?
Complete extermination of bed bugs is not an easy task. Common pesticides will not kill bed bugs. Many people do not take the proper precautions and end up throwing out items that have been infested, only to have the problem reemerge. One slow way to kill the bed bugs is to dry them out, along with starving them from their food source. This can prevent newly hatched bugs from surviving. Bed bugs can be dried out by forcing them to travel through fine powders such as talcum powder or diatomaceous earth. These penetrate their exoskeleton, resulting in a slow death from the inside-out. Referenced powders can be sprinkled around the border of the room and sleeping quarters, acting as a permeable boundary that forces the bugs to travel through it in order to reach their food source. Placing traps under the feet of the bed will make it difficult for the bugs to reach you while you are sleeping. Sprinkling diatomaceous earth into the trap is a double whammy to rid your home of bed bugs at a faster rate. Of course, it is essential your bed is moved away from walls and the bedding does not come into contact with the floor. The only sure way of ridding your house of bed bugs is to seal it up and raise the temperature of the house and all of its contents to at least 118 degrees. This will effectively kill all bugs and any unhatched eggs. Assistance from a pest management professional is strongly suggested, as homeowners can make the problem worse by attempting to eliminate the bugs on their own.


Conclusion!
Bed bugs are not a gift you want to receive nor pass on to your friends or family. They are not something you want sucking your blood, while you try to get your beauty sleep. Bed bugs are difficult and costly to get rid of and just plain gross! You might not even know you have them until you have a major problem on your hands. Next time you choose the discount hotel because “it's just for one night” or take your favorite blanket to the movie theater with the reclining seats, consider what could be hitching a ride home with you, waiting to make you its next meal.


Note: A home inspector will not be able to determine if a house has bed bugs nor is it in the scope of the job. This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as fact. Any professional advice regarding bed bugs should be referred to a Pest Management Professional.