Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

Buckling of hard wood

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We installed new hardwood flooring on our concrete slab floors about 12 years ago. Last winter, we began to notice darkening and buckling of the wood flooring in one area of our hallway. A contractor made some holes in the nearby walls to see if there was any plumbing leakage, but he found no pipes in those walls and everything was dry. So now we have two questions. Should we replace the bad floor-boards before selling the house? And if we leave the floor as it is, will this scare off buyers? Miriam

Dear Miriam: The buckling and darkening of the hall floor-boards are definitely moisture-related, but this is not likely the result of plumbing leakage. A more probable cause is seepage of ground moisture through the concrete slab, possibly at small hairline cracks. This sometimes occurs when the installer of the wood flooring lays the boards without placing a moisture-proof membrane on the slab surface. You can talk to a wood-flooring contractor about possible repairs, but new replacement boards will most likely not match the existing ones. Another solution is simply to disclose the problem to the new buyers when you eventually sell the home. Buyers have differing reactions to disclosed defects. In fact, buyers are often willing to accept defects that are honestly represented, especially if the house is to be remodeled or redecorated anyway.

Dear Barry: We installed new hardwood flooring on our concrete slab floors about 12 years ago. Last winter, we began to notice darkening and buckling of the wood flooring in one area of our hallway. A contractor made some holes in the nearby walls to see if there was any plumbing leakage, but he found no pipes in those walls and everything was dry. So now we have two questions. Should we replace the bad floor-boards before selling the house? And if we leave the floor as it is, will this scare off buyers? Miriam

Dear Miriam: The buckling and darkening of the hall floor-boards are definitely moisture-related, but this is not likely the result of plumbing leakage. A more probable cause is seepage of ground moisture through the concrete slab, possibly at small hairline cracks. This sometimes occurs when the installer of the wood flooring lays the boards without placing a moisture-proof membrane on the slab surface. You can talk to a wood-flooring contractor about possible repairs, but new replacement boards will most likely not match the existing ones. Another solution is simply to disclose the problem to the new buyers when you eventually sell the home. Buyers have differing reactions to disclosed defects. In fact, buyers are often willing to accept defects that are honestly represented, especially if the house is to be remodeled or redecorated anyway.

Radon: Is There an Affordable Cure?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We are planning to sell our home and have learned that we have high levels of radon. Is there an inexpensive way that we can solve this problem before we list the property? And why do some homes in our neighborhood have high radon levels while other homes do not? Ann

Dear Ann: Radon mitigation is a fairly simple process for a qualified contractor, and in most cases is not terribly expensive — usually about $1500. To understand why one home will have high radon levels, while the next-door property does not, let’s review some radon basics.

Radon is a radioactive gas that is emitted from certain types of rocky soil and is naturally diffused into the environment. If the soil is covered by a building, such as your home, radon can become trapped and may reach higher concentrations than normally found in the open air. In homes with raised foundations, radon is seldom a problem because subarea vents allow radon to escape into the atmosphere. In homes with concrete slab foundations, hairline cracks in the slab enable radon to enter the dwelling space where concentrations can increase to unsafe levels. This poses a health risk for occupants because radon exposure has been linked to lung cancer.

The key to radon mitigation is the fact that radon gas is attracted to low-pressure areas. Radon mitigation contractors take advantage of this characteristic in the following manner: A metal duct is installed near the center of the home, in an inconspicuous place such as a closet. The duct extends from beneath the slab to just above the roof. A slow, quiet fan motor is installed in the duct with an upward draft, creating low-pressure suction beneath the slab. This suction draws nearly all of the radon that is emitted from the soil beneath the home and conveys it to the exterior where it dissipates into the atmosphere. Once this is done, your home should be able to pass a standard radon test.

Home Inspector Missed Cracked Furnace

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I recently bought my first home and was extremely proud of myself because I’m just 23 years old. I found an older home that needed some work and hired a home inspector who was recommended by my Realtor. The inspector found a few minor problems, so I bought the house. But 5 months later, the heating system failed. The repairman said the heat exchanger was cracked and was giving off carbon monoxide. If my home inspector had told me this, I could have had the sellers replace the furnace, or I could have bought another house. What can I do now? Julie

Dear Julie: If you haven’t already replaced the damaged furnace, you should contact your home inspector immediately and request a reinspection of the heating system. If the crack or any related defects are visible and accessible, then the home inspector would be liable for failing to disclose those conditions.

In many cases, cracks in a heat exchanger are located within the dark recesses of a furnace and are not visible to a home inspector. Sometimes, however, there are symptoms that can alert a home inspector to potential problems with the heat exchanger, such as irregular flame pattern, abnormal flame color, or soot near warm air registers or inside the flue pipe.

The big question, therefore, is whether faulty furnace conditions were visible at the time of the inspection. If so, then the inspector would bear some liability for negligence. Be aware, however, that the degree of liability could be limited by the wording of the inspection contract, by state laws, and by the inspector’s willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of a professional error.

Dear Barry: We are first-time homebuyers and have made an offer on the condo we are presently renting. We’re trying to decide whether to get a home inspection, and several friends have advised us to save our money. They say we can do away with it because the condo is priced very low and the equity will more than cover the cost of needed repairs. Are we taking a big risk if we buy without having an inspection? Jean

Dear Jean: My email box is littered with laments from homebuyers who bought homes without having them inspected. In many cases, their decisions were based on well-meaning advice from friends and relatives or inexcusable advice from misguided agents.
The reasons given for bypassing an inspection are numerous and always erroneous. For example, your friends say the equity in your condo will enable you to pay for needed repairs. But how will you know what those repairs are if you don’t hire a qualified home inspector? If there are problems with the electrical wiring, the plumbing, or the heating system, symptoms may not be evident until serious consequences occur.

Regardless of low price and high equity, you need to know the true condition of the home you are buying. You need to know that systems are not only functional, but safe and in compliance with applicable building standards. You’re preparing to buy a commodity that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Spend a few hundred dollars to protect that investment. But before you do, be sure to find the most qualified and experienced home inspector available.

Can I learn to self inspect my home?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’ve considered taking a home inspection course to learn more about defects in houses, to assist me as a real estate investor. Would this be beneficial? Steven

Dear Steven: The additional knowledge will adefinitely help you to do preliminary evaluations when shopping for an investment property. But when you find a property you like and enter a purchase contract, don’t let your own inspection substitute for an in-depth evaluation by a qualified, experienced home inspector.

Should Home Inspectors Inspect Septic Systems?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We purchased our home 10 months ago and had it professionally inspected. The septic system was included in the home inspection, but our inspector missed some major problems. During the inspection, he was unable to find the D-box where the septic pipes are connected or the seepage pit where the wastewater drains into the ground. All he found was the holding tank, and he said that it looked fine. Now that we’re selling the property, the buyers hired a septic specialist, in addition to a home inspector, and the septic guy found major problems. The buyers are now demanding that the system be replaced, and the bid for replacement is nearly $25,000. How could our home inspector have failed to see these problems? Susan

Dear Susan: My answer to your question will arouse indignation among those home inspectors who offer septic inspections as part of their services. The truth, however, is glaring: Home inspectors are not equipped to inspect septic systems and should not mislead homebuyers in the belief that they are able to do so. There, I said it. Now the flood of irate email from those home inspectors can begin.

The reason for my firm position on this issue is simple: A home inspection, by definition, is a visual inspection only. Home inspectors report conditions they can see and nothing more. This eliminates septic systems from the scope of a home inspection because septic systems are not visible or accessible to home inspectors. In order to inspect a septic system, it is necessary to locate the tank, to excavate the top of it, to remove the lid, and then to pump out all of the wastewater and sludge. Once the tank is empty, the true inspection begins. The walls and baffles can be inspected for damage or deterioration, the capacity can be considered relative to the wastewater output from the home, and the rate of flow into the seepage system can be tested.

The reason that home inspectors cannot inspect a septic system is because they do not have the equipment necessary to expose the components that need to be inspected. Only someone in the business of installing and servicing septic systems is likely to have the tank truck and pump equipment that is needed to expose the bowels of the system. Anything less than this, as a means of inspection, is totally inadequate and reveals nothing about the true condition of the system. Home inspectors who purport to inspect septic systems, but do not pump the tanks, need to face this reality and to refer septic inspections to qualified specialists.