This article sets out in detail 3 sometimes overlooked home inspection items that aren't easy to find problems and require diligent inspections.
Recently my wife and I went through the home inspection process on a large 100+ year old home that we were interested enough in buying that we put in an offer and paid for an extensive home inspection.
We knew enough that we understood the home inspection was very important because overlooked problems could end up costing us tens of thousands of dollars down the road.
While we were like most home buyers, checking for the basic facilities such as working toilets, lights, appliances and running water, we were also concerned about hard-to-spot problems and potential dealing with ventilation, the structure and electrical. In fact, electrical was a major concern because the home was over 100 years old.
It’s one thing to having to replace an appliance after purchasing a house, it’s another thing to replace wiring throughout the home or having to fix structure problems.
Fortunately, we also had the foresight to hire an outstanding home inspector.
IMPORTANT: This is not an exhaustive home inspection checklist. Instead, this article highlights in detail 3 overlooked home inspection problems you need to be on the lookout for and how to address these issues.
3 Overlooked Home Inspection Items
1. Inadequate Ventilation
- New insulation in old properties
- Lack of mechanical ventilation system
- Improper roof ventilation
There are a few different causes of poor ventilation, although one of the most common situations that results in poor ventilation is old houses having upgraded insulation. While most American properties are modern enough to not have to deal with this issue, many properties around Europe suffer from inadequate insulation. Typically, naïve property owners try to upgrade an old building believing that it can be brought up to modern standards with some insulation, sealant and double glazing. However, properties past a certain age aren’t always built to accommodate the requirements of modern central heating. Many buildings that date back earlier than the 1900s were designed to use a fire as a central source of heat and required consistent ventilation to draw heat from the fire around the rest of the building. With no vents to filter air in and out of the home, small changes to the property’s insulation can turn it airtight and cause a few different problems.
The Problems to Look For
- Stale air
- Wood rot
- Structural damage
Without good ventilation and airflow in a property, the quality of air can be reduced quite quickly, especially if you keep your windows and doors closed during the day. When you smoke or cook, or if any strong smells invade the property, without anywhere to escape these scents, pollutants and vapours will hang around in the air. This can include dangerous substances like allergens, toxic mould spores, carbon monoxide, hazardous carcinogenic compounds produced by cleaning products and volatile organic compounds created by aerosols and formaldehydes. Poor air quality can be detrimental to your health over time, irritate respiratory conditions and allergies and, in the most severe cases, contribute to the development of cancer.
Poor ventilation can also contribute to problems involving condensation. Steam produced by hot water and food lingers in the air around the home when there isn’t adequate ventilation. Without healthy airflow regulating temperatures around the house, there are a lot of cold surfaces that this warm water vapour can come in contact with. When it does, it turns back into a liquid and can become absorbed by materials around your home. When this issue is left unaddressed, condensation can result in mould growing around the home, peeling wallpaper and paint, and can cause severe structural damage by seeping into wooden structures.
Improving the quality of your home’s ventilation and reversing the damages it causes can be quite costly depending on how long you left the issue. If you have noticed any signs of condensation around your property, the best option would be to contact a damp treatment expert to conduct a damp survey. Moisture can unknowingly seep into materials around your home when you have an issue with condensation. Dust mites, mould spores and wood rot cannot be easily cleaned away. You may need to have materials replaced and your home fumigated and damp proofed.
To resolve poor ventilation, you need to get the air moving around your home and give any potentially harmful or damaging elements in the air a means of escaping the property. You can do this by installing extractor fans in the bathrooms and kitchen to reduce levels of humidity. You can also install ceiling fans and a whole house ventilation system if outside conditions are too volatile to allow you to keep your windows safely open during the day.
In future, if you don’t want to go as far as to install a ventilation system, there are a few lifestyle changes that you can adopt and small purchases that will prevent issues with poor ventilation in the future:
- Open windows regularly (around 3 times a day), especially if you are having a hot shower or cooking
- When cooking, leave lids on pans to reduce air moisture and when showering keep doors closed so moisture does not travel around the home
- Dry clothes outdoors if possible and do not leave wet clothes to dry on radiators
- Purchase a dehumidifier and a few table-top fans to remove moisture in the air and keep air circulating
- Air out cupboards, wardrobes and pantries that you don’t access often and do not overfill them
- Keep the temperature in your home as consistent as possible, and avoid lowering and raising the temperature throughout the day
2. Electrical Faults
- Damaged wires and cables
- Broken, faulty or poor quality electric appliances
- Exposed or improperly sealed circuit panels
The cause of electrical faults can be something as simple as an old circuit breaker. These minor types of electrical faults result in a few blown fuses or flickering lights. However, there are other, more severe types of electrical faults around your home that can cause irreparable damage and even put your life at risk. Frayed wires, damaged wire insulation, loose connections, water exposure, and overheated electronics and wires can have fatal consequences and should never be ignored. An exposed circuit panel can be especially dangerous and damaging. There are many ways for water to seep into circuit breakers and panels which can cause corrosion and malfunctions.
The Problems that Can Arise
- Electrical fires
- Damaged appliances
- Risk of electric shock
- Expensive replacements and repairs
Faulty wiring is one of the largest contributors to house and electrical fires and causes hundreds of deaths every year. It’s estimated that there are around 53,600 fires each year caused by electrical problems. Faulty appliances and electronics can burn holes in materials around your home and leave scorch marks as well as melt plastics. Electrical faults can also result in damaged appliances and outlets and can deliver sometimes fatal electric shocks. This can be especially dangerous if you have any children or pets living in the property.
Aside from the more dangerous consequences however, electrical faults and damages can be expensive to resolve. Damaged circuit panels, electrical outlets and wires can’t often be fixed. Normally you would need damaged components to be entirely replaced. If your home isn’t properly wired, you may need to have the wiring checked and the property rewired, which can be especially costly.
Many electricians would recommend that you should use a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) to monitor the flow of electricity in circuits. This is especially recommended for areas where electrical appliances may come in contact with water. A GFCI acts as a special type of outlet that monitors the flow of electricity and, should there be any abnormalities, can quickly shut off the current flow. They can detect minute changes that won’t normally trip a circuit breaker or fuse and prevent fatal electric shocks.
In regards to fixing smaller problems caused by general faults, it is possible to fix the problem on your own. If a light or appliance isn’t working, try checking for surface damages, replacing components or turning it off and on again. However, you should never try to fix any dangerous wires or repair appliances while there is still power flowing to them. The best thing to do would be to call a qualified electrician and switch off the breaker.
Not all electrical faults can be prevented and some simply happen as a property ages and things get jostled around. However, you can prevent faults caused by negligence or improper installation by hiring a reputable and highly qualified professional to install and service your home’s electric system. Do not be tempted to cut costs. The same can be said for the appliances you buy. Do not be tempted to buy any damaged or poor quality appliances because they are cheaper. What you don’t pay upfront for the product you may be paying in property damages in the future. Opt for safe, good quality appliances that will last and won’t put your home at risk.
You can also avoid issues with wires by keeping them safely covered and out of the way. Use cable covers and protectors to prevent frays and breakages and keep them out of reach of pets and children. If you notice any burning odours or miscoloured patches near electrical appliances and outlets, cut the power supply to them immediately and contact a professional electrician.
3. Structural Movement and Subsidence
- Shallow foundation
- Shrubs and trees growing too close to the property
- Drastic changes in weather
Structural movement is a condition where the structure of a property has moved or been warped. There are many different causes of structural movement and different types as well. Subsidence, for example, is defined as the foundation of a house sinking and is caused by disturbances to the foundation of a property. On the other hand, heave happens when the earth under a house bulges and moves the structure upwards.
Different types of earth can be affected by temperature and moisture, causing the foundation to shift, which means that particularly hot weather or a leaky drain can disturb the earth under your home. However, structural movement is most commonly caused by trees and shrubs that are planted too close to the home. Certain species absorb significant amounts of water from the earth around them, causing the earth to dry out and shift, while the removal of trees and shrubs can result in water collecting and causing the earth to swell.
The Problems to Look For
- Warped, tilted, bulging or sunken floors
- Cracks in walls and paintwork
- Bulging walls
- Sticking windows and doors
Many different issues can be caused by structural movement, although they can vary in severity and not every property owner sees them as being an issue. Most of the damages that people experience are superficial. They may find cracks in their walls or notice that their floor is sloping slightly. In more extreme cases – particularly in old properties with shallow foundations – more concerning problems may arise. Cracks in walls, ceilings and floors can become frighteningly wide in a minority of cases and doors and windows can become stuck, either refusing to close or refusing to open.
Finding a solution to structural movement isn’t always easy. Some problems can persistently reoccur, resulting in short term solutions and long term costs, while other problems are better left monitored and left alone. Before jumping into treatments and fixes, monitor and assess any damages that may be caused by structural movement. Some type of cracks caused by structural movement can seasonally expand and contract. While this might be strange to live with, you only need to worry if the cracks continue to get larger and extend around your walls and ceiling. Refer to a structural surveyor if you notice cracks that are wider than 2mm. There are also regular safety checks that you can perform to ensure that you properly monitor subsidence to prevent it from becoming any more of an issue.
The first thing that will likely be done to resolve structural movement damages caused by subsidence or heave is to remove the source of the problem. This may involve repairing drains or cutting away or removing trees and shrubs. Some professionals might also recommend that you underpin your property if damages are caused by subsidence. This implies that new foundations will be laid to strengthen the existing foundation and ground beneath as well as hold the structure more firmly. They might also recommend girders if your property is beginning to slope. It’s only in the worst case scenario that any part of your property may need demolishing and/or rebuilding.
On the other hand, small damages may need recurrent repairs. Cracked walls and warped floors might need regular fixes, but there is little you can do to fix them permanently if you have not resolved the issue responsible for the structural movement.
Regrettably, there is not much that you can do to prevent structural movement once you have moved into a property. To avoid falling victim to the damages and costs, a structural survey performed on any new property will highlight the issues and the potential damages.
To prevent subsidence, do not plant trees or large shrubs too close to the property. If they have already been placed there before you moved into the property, you have the option of installing root barriers, which involves placing plastic sheets between the tree and the property. In some cases pruning the tree might be enough to prevent it from affecting your property’s foundation.