10 Structural Red Flags
March 1, 2006
No home is perfect. “Owners have reported to us that two-thirds of home inspections uncovered problems,” says Dan Steward, president of home inspection company Pillar To Post, Tampa, Fla.
That’s why many sellers decide to have a pre-sale inspection. “For any homeowner, repairing problem areas prior to putting the house on the market can maintain or increase the home’s value and avoid unpleasant surprises during the sales negotiation or at time of closing.”
At the same time home buyers need to understand what’s normal and what’s not, says H. Alan Mooney, president of Criterium Engineers, a consulting engineering firm that specializes in building inspections. “Most foundations have cracks, and 90 percent are normal,” he says.
Help your buyer clients understand the biggest problems:
- Foundation cracks. Ridges or lateral movement indicate a change in a surface that could be cause for concern. Remember, for the most part it is not the width of the crack that is important, but the displacement of the surfaces on either side of it. Find out why the change occurred to get the problem solved properly. A foundation wall could be inadequate, or too much water may have accumulated outside.*
- Load-bearing walls removed. This problem may be tough for salespeople to spot unless the change caused ceilings to sag, ceilings or walls to crack, and floors to become springy. Pay particular attention at openings in basement and lower floor areas by looking for excess deflection in the middle of the span and cracks in the corners of the openings. A history of a home’s renovation work may indicate that walls or columns were removed that should have been left.
- Faulty or insufficient wiring. Again, this won’t be easy to spot, unless wiring was done poorly or wires remain exposed. Have buyer clients ask whether wiring in older homes was updated and whether wiring can handle all their tech needs. A telecommuter might need extra capacity. A family with teenage children might overtax a system that was fine for an older couple.
- Water, water everywhere. Stains may indicate prior water problems, but so can surfaces recently painted to camouflage past problems. When you smell fresh paint, use your judgment to determine whether the house has been redecorated for sale or painted only in certain areas to mask a problem. When in doubt, ask the sellers. But be wary when they say they’ve corrected past problems; that doesn’t guarantee new problems won’t happen, says Mooney.
- Leaky roofs. Stains within a home may indicate water problems. Even a new roof won’t guarantee that a problem was totally resolved. “An owner may have added another layer of shingles on top of an existing leaky roof. The problem also may be due to inferior flashing,” Mooney says. Buyers should ask how a problem was fixed and who did the work.
- Ineffective windows. Windows that can’t be opened and closed are problematic and should be serviced, repaired, or replaced. Windows that fog up may need maintenance or repair because they leak. The problem may be the result of poor installation which Mooney calls “a major epidemic.” Steward says double-glazed windows that fog up due to faulty seals may look unattractive, but it’s rarely cost effective to replace them if energy savings are the only goal.
- Damp facades. Stains on wood siding may reveal entrapped moisture; cracks around bricks may indicate missing mortar. Know that hairline cracks around bricks may be OK, but in climates where freezing takes place, it’s advisable to seal the cracks to reduce the possibility of freeze/thaw action causing spalling, or deterioration of the brick’s face.
- Pesky pests. Termites and carpenter ants may reside in your home and dine without being invited. They also leave few signs, except some mud tubes and sawdust, known as frass. Best rule: Quiz homeowners about prior unwanted pests and what they did to cure problems.
- Sagging wood floors. Like foundation cracks, variations in wood floors are normal since wood is not a perfect material. Not acceptable: excessive slopes or a floor that feels like a trampoline when walked on. A marble is the simplest device for checking a wood floor. Place the marble on the floor. If it rolls away quickly, call an expert.
- Rot. Most wood that’s not treated is often vulnerable to moisture and fungal growth. Red flags are decay that appears brown and crumbly, breaks into cubes, or is soft. Pay attention to wood that touches dirt since it’s more susceptible to picking up moisture and decay and allows an easy pathway for insects such as termites. Watch masonry or joints that are slow to dry.
If seller clients are required to make repairs before a closing, advise them to get three recommendations and bids before proceeding. If work was previously done, tell buyer clients to check permits to ensure the work was performed in compliance with local regulations.
Sources: H. Alan Mooney, Criterium Engineers, Portland, Maine; Diane Saatchi, The Corcoran Group, East Hampton, N.Y.; Dan Steward, Pillar To Post, Tampa, Fla.