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

Buyers Worried About Radon Gas in Home

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We are in the process of buying a house and were informed that the sellers installed a radon mitigation system last year. Radon levels before the system was installed were about 7 picocuries per liter. What should we do about this situation, and what are the effects of radon exposure to occupants?  Ananda

Dear Ananda:  If the mitigation system that was installed in the home has effectively reduced the radon level below 4 picocuries per liter, there is no need to worry. Ask the sellers for radon test results taken after the system was installed. If a follow-up test was not done, or if they do not have documentary results of the test, you should request that a test be done as a condition of the purchase.

Radon is a radioactive gas that is produced by the decay of uranium in the soil or in ground water. It is particularly common in areas where the soil contains granite or shale. Radon is regarded as the second highest cause of lung cancer (next to smoking) and is credited with approximately 21,000 deaths annually in the United States.

Radon gas is emitted from the earth worldwide, with an average outdoor level of 0.4 picocuries per liter. When radon emerges from the ground beneath a building, indoor levels can become concentrated. The average indoor radon level in American homes is about 1.3 picocuries per liter. The threshold level for concern, according to the EPA, is 4 picocuries per liter. When indoor radon is measured at that level, mitigation is recommended for the health and safety of occupants.

Fortunately, mitigation systems are simple and relatively inexpensive. The type most commonly used is known as the soil suction radon reduction system. It consists of vent pipes with a fan that pulls radon from beneath the building. For increased effectiveness, cracks and seams in the floor should be thoroughly sealed.

Again, be sure to verify that radon levels have been sufficiently lowered. You should also ask for proof that the mitigation system was installed by a contractor who is licensed as a radon mitigator.

For more information on radon, visit www.epa.gov/radon/pubs.


Installing Dual Pane Windows

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We have old steel frame windows in our home and would like to minimize heat loss. Rather than install dual-pane replacement windows, we’d like to install inside windows and leave the old windows in place. This might not look as good, but we don’t want the mess and expense of removing the old windows. Do you think this is a good idea?  Walter

Dear Walter:  Adding interior windows will reduce some heat loss from your home, but vinyl-frame, dual-pane replacement windows will do this much more effectively and with much less mess that you expect.

Removal of the old windows does not involve removing the frames from the walls. When replacement windows are installed, the old glass and dividers are taken out, but not the frames that are embedded the siding. The replacement windows are installed over the old metal frames.

Before deciding which way to go, check out the prices for replacement windows, and discuss the replacement procedures with the window installer.

What’s Wrong With Plastic Dryer Vents?

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:My handyman did some repair work under the house, and he said that I have the wrong kind of exhaust duct for my clothes dryer. It’s made of white plastic and looks like a long accordion. The dryer has been venting perfectly for over ten years, so I can’t see any reason to spend money replacing it. In your opinion, what is wrong with this kind of dryer duct?  Ben

Dear Ben:  Corrugated plastic ducts are often used to vent the exhaust from clothes dryers, but there are three things wrong with this type of dryer duct:

1)  Exhaust from a clothes dryer can be very hot, especially if you have a gas dryer. Repeated heat exposure to paper-thin plastic can be a significant fire hazard. If a fire were to begin under your house, it could spread very quickly throughout the home. Therefore, a dryer vent duct should be made of non-combustible material.

2)  Plastic dryer ducts become brittle after years of use. Eventually, they crack and fall apart. Then, all of the clothes dryer exhaust vents into the crawlspace, and since no one is likely to notice the damaged duct, this could go on for years, with lint build-up occurring daily and moisture condensation occurring whenever the weather is cold. Dryer lint is highly combustible, which again, raises the issue of a fire hazard. Moisture condensation under the house can cause fungus infection on wood members and can promote the growth of mold.

3)  Corrugated dryer exhaust ducts, whether they are plastic or metal, tend to collect lint. As lint accumulates, the inside dimension of the duct becomes smaller, and this creates resistance to airflow, causing the clothes dryer to overheat. Once again, we have a fire hazard due to a substandard vent duct.

The solution is to install a 4-inch diameter, smooth, sheet metal exhaust duct that terminates on the outside of the building. The fittings should be secured with tape rather than screws because screws on the inside of a dryer duct can collect lint. The maximum permissible length of the duct is 14 feet with a maximum of two 90-degree turns. For each additional turn, two feet should be subtracted from the overall length. If greater length is needed to reach the outside of the building, a booster blower should be added to the duct.

Tenants Held Liable For Cracked Window

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: My daughter lives in a student apartment with a large, double-pane picture-window in the living room. Last month, that window developed a long crack on the inside pane. Neither my daughter nor her roommates have any idea what caused the crack. They just came home one night, and the crack was there. The apartment management replaced the window and the billed the girls $450. The manager said the windows were installed several months ago, just before they moved in, so he holds them responsible for the damage. Couldn’t the crack have been caused by faulty installation or building settlement?  Art

Dear Art: There are several possible causes for the window crack that do not involve liability for your daughter or her roommates. For example, when a sheet of glass is cut, an edge can be slightly chipped, and this flaw can produce a crack at a later time. Sometimes, all that is needed to convert a chip to a crack is a door forcefully closed by the wind or a large cement truck rumbling down the street.

Another possible cause is stress from normal building settlement, particularly in areas that have expansive clay soil. Expansive soil can swell or shrink due to seasonal changes in ground moisture. When this happens, buildings can lift and settle unevenly, causing doors to rub and, sometimes, windows to crack.

If the management company insists on payment for the cracked window, your daughter and her friends could test the strength of their position in small claims court. The judge could decide either way in this case, depending on whose position appears more credible. But win or lose, this could be a beneficial experience for your daughter and her friends. At the very least, they will receive some first-hand education in judicial civics.

Sellers Lied About Buried Fuel Tank

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The home I am buying has a buried fuel tank. This was disclosed by the sellers and their agent weeks after we entered the transaction. At first, they said the tank is made of fiberglass and is only five years old. When my agent and my attorney asked for documentation, the sellers offered to provide it on the day the transaction closes. We asked that it be provided on the day of the final walk-through, but they did not have the papers on that day. Instead, they admitted that the tank is actually 38 years old and is made of steel. If I cancel the deal now, I could lose my deposit. What can I do? Maryann

Dear Maryann: The sellers and their agent have been less than forthright in their disclosures about the fuel tank. First they said that the tank is fiberglass and only five years old, while attempting to withhold documentation till the last day of the transaction. By then, the time for consideration would have passed. On the day of the final walk-through, they reneged on the documents and admitted that their original tank disclosures were false.

In view of their misleading disclosures, you should be able to cancel the transaction without losing your deposit. Check with your attorney to see if this is correct.

If you wish to proceed with the purchase, the closing date should be extended until the true age and condition of the tank can be substantiated. The seller and agent should not complain about an extension because it was their lack of transparency that created this problem.

A critical consideration is the potential for soil contamination and a costly environmental clean-up. A steel fuel tank that has been buried for decades is likely to have rust damage. Fuel seepage into the ground involves serious financial liability. Therefore, an environmental assessment of the tank should be conducted by a qualified, licensed professional, and your purchase of the property should be contingent on the outcome of that evaluation

Proceed with caution if you remain in this transaction. Besides the risk of a costly environmental clean-up, you are dealing with sellers whose credibility can no longer be trusted. Therefore, you should insist upon full and accurate disclosures regarding the fuel tank. At this point, that is essential and should not be subject to debate.

If for any reason you have not already hire a qualified home inspector, now is the time to do so. Who knows what other defects have also been concealed?