Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

How to Inspect Your Own House, Part 1: Roof and Chimney

July 22nd, 2014 | 1 comment

I recently blogged about how popular homeowner maintenance inspections have become, and said I’d follow up with a blog post on how homeowners can conduct their own maintenance inspections.  I’ve already blogged about how potential home buyers can conduct their own cursory home inspections (Exterior Home Inspection Checklist and Interior Home Inspection Checklist), but a homeowner maintenance inspection is a little bit different; this inspection can be much more involved, as there are no time constraints.

Roof

The best way to inspect a roof is by walking its surface.  If it’s safe to do so, get on the roof to inspect it.  Need a ladder?  I recommend the Little Giant.  If it’s not safe to walk the roof, inspect it by leaning a ladder against the edges in several places to get a close look.  If that’s not possible or not safe, walk around the exterior and carefully inspect all sides of the roof.  If needed, use binoculars and slowly scan everything.  Pay special attention to the south-facing portions of the roof; these areas almost always fail first.  If there are curled or deteriorated shingles, it’s probably worth having a follow-up inspection done by a trusted roofing contractor.

Loose or missing shingles should be addressed right away.  Identifying loose or missing shingles can sometimes be tough to do from the ground though.  Click on the photo below for a large version; do you see the missing shingles?

Roof with missing shingles

The missing shingles were located at the ridge, right by the tree. Click here for a close up shot.  Again, if you’re using binoculars to inspect the roof, scan everything slowly.  This type of inspection should be conducted at least once a year.

I have several examples of other roof defects that can typically be seen from the ground at the very beginning of this post: http://www.structuretech1.com/2013/04/home-inspection-checklist-exterior/ .

Kickout FlashingAlso, make sure kickout flashing is installed at all of the locations where the roof edges end at walls.  Kickout flashing is one of the cheapest, easiest, and most critical parts to preventing major water damage to the your home.  I wrote a whole blog post about kickout flashing here: Kickout Flashing

If there are any tree branches in contact with the roof or even close to the roof (or siding), trim them away.  Tree branches prevent the roof from properly drying, provide an easy way for pests such as raccoons to get on the roof, and can easily rub holes right through the shingles.

Tree branches rubbing on roof Damaged shingles

If the roof is covered with debris, such as leaves and tree branches, clean the roof off.

Masonry Chimneys

Chimneys can only be fully inspected by getting up on the roof or by using a ladder that’s as tall as the chimney, if the chimney is located along an outside wall.  Perhaps the most important part of the chimney to inspect is the crown, which is the top of the chimney that sheds water and prevent water intrusion.  If the crown is cracked or washed out, water can get into the chimney and cause deterioration to the chimney, as well as water leaking into the house.  The photo below shows a chimney crown in need of repair or replacement.

Chimney Crown

Chimney Flue CapIf the chimney flues have missing rain caps, have them added.  Rain caps can make a big difference when it comes to preventing moisture intrusion and moisture damage.  Here’s a nice pdf from Kuhl’s Contracting with more information on this detail: http://www.kuhlscontracting.com/wp-content/uploads/case42-Chimney-Caps-Frost-Wedging.pdf . When installing a rain cap, it’s a good idea to use one with a built-in spark arrestor (screen), which will help to keep out pests.

Look for damaged or missing bricks, cracks, and missing mortar at the walls of your chimney.  When it comes to recommending repair to masonry chimney walls, I typically use my awl as a gauge.  I’ve never made this a “policy”, and I’ve never even thought about it before, but as I’m sitting here writing this blog post I realize that I use my awl as a guide to calling out repairs.  If I can stick my awl through a hole in the side of the chimney, I call it out for repair.

awl in chimney

Chimney flashing is very important as well, but proper and improper chimney flashing could take up a blog post all on its own.   The photo below shows a nearly comical example of bad chimney flashing.

Bad Chimney Flashing

If your chimney has a bunch of black goop at the intersection between the chimney walls and the roof, it’s an unprofessional installation or a hack repair that will probably leak soon.  Get someone out to have the flashing redone before it leaks.

Tar patching at chimney flashing

Other Chimneys

Wood chimneys, or wood chimney chases, are especially vulnerable to moisture intrusion and rotting at the walls because they’re completely exposed to the elements on all four sides; no soffits, no gutters.  Get up on the roof or use a ladder to get a good look at any wood chimney chase, especially if the chimney is clad with some type of siding that needs to be caulked at the ends, such as lap siding.  Wood and older wood composite siding is especially prone to rotting.

If there is rotted siding, replace it.  If the siding needs caulk at the ends, get out your caulking gun and go to town. For more info on wood chimney chases, click here: Inspecting Wood Chimneys.

For chimney chases with a metal top, make sure that the top slopes away from the center of the chimney to prevent water from ponding on the top of the chimney.  If water ponds, it will only be a matter of time before water starts to leak down through the center of the chimney.  I’ve inspected a number of wood chimney chases for gas fireplaces where water was leaking in right at the vent because the metal cap wasn’t properly sloped away from the center, which allowed water to pond and leak.  The photos below show a metal chimney cap that was leaking.

Flat metal chimney cap

To verify the cause of the leaking, I simply dumped a couple gallons of water on top of the chimney; water began to drip into the fireplace shortly after that.  For the record, this was at a troubleshooting inspection, where the owner was trying to get to the bottom of the leaking.  This wasn’t a traditional home inspection.

Water on metal chimney cap

That’s all for today.   Next week I’ll be posting about how to inspect the rest of the exterior of your own house.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Bath Fan Terminal Inspections

July 15th, 2014 | 4 comments

It’s common to find stained ceilings around bathroom exhaust fans in Minnesota, as well as stains in the attic around where the bathroom exhaust fan terminates at the roof.  Home inspectors find these things all the time.

Ceiling Stain bath fan

While the knee-jerk reaction that most homeowners have is to call a roofer when a stain shows up at the bath fan, this type of staining is rarely the result of a roof leak. This is typically the result of condensation.

The job of a bathroom exhaust fan is to remove moist air and foul odors from the bathroom. When moist air is carried through a duct that passes through a cold attic space, condensation will occur inside the duct. When enough condensate accumulates, it drains to the bottom, leaks through the fan, and stains the ceiling. It’s as simple as that. To help prevent these stains from occurring, take these steps to minimize condensation inside the duct.

Use an insulated duct inside the attic.  This is a no-brainer.  If you have an uninsulated duct in your attic, don’t try to wrap a bunch of fiberglass insulation around it in a feeble attempt to insulate.  That’s a time consuming chore that probably won’t work work out well.  Instead, just replace the uninsulated duct with an insulated one.  They’re not that expensive, and it’s a lot less work than trying to insulate an existing duct.  Click here for an example of a pre-insulated 4″ duct sold at Home Depot.  Don’t use metal ductwork; you’ll end up with way too much condensation.

Use the shortest run possible.  The longer the bath fan duct, the greater the potential for condensation inside the duct.  These ducts will sometimes run from one side of the attic to the other to create a more aesthetically appealing roof line, but this increases the potential for condensation and reduces the performance of the fan.

Bath fans aimed at roof ventMake sure the duct is tightly connected to a roof cap with a damper.  The damper will help prevent cold air from dumping back down into the house, which may lead to condensation right at the fan itself.  The duct should not be aimed at a roof vent or have any loose connections inside the attic.  Anything other than a tight connection to a dampered roof cap is an improper installation that can lead to problems.

If you recently had your roof covering replaced, have someone get up into the attic to verify the bath fan duct is still tightly connected.  It’s common for roofing nails to knock the bath fan duct right off the roof, or at least knock it loose.  Click the photo below to see a large image showing exactly how this happens.

Loose bath fan duct in attic

Here’s a photo of a loose duct at a new construction inspection.

Loose bath fan duct new construction attic

When the fan connection is loose, moist air can escape into the attic, and cold air from the attic will dump down the duct when the fan isn’t running, increasing the potential for condensation in the duct.

Check the damper at the roof cap periodically.  This should be a part of any home maintenance inspection, whether the inspection is done by the homeowner or a home inspector.

home inspector on roof

If the damper at the roof cap gets stuck shut, it’s pretty much a guarantee that moisture will condense inside the duct.  To check the operation of the damper, turn the fan on and make sure air is coming out at the terminal.  If there is no air movement, check to make sure the damper opens freely. Dampers made before 2006 had a serious flaw that caused the damper to get stuck closed all by itself.  For more information on that topic, click here: A Common Problem with Roof Caps for Bath Fans.  The other common reason for roof caps to get stuck shut is wasps.  They love to make nests inside of roof caps, and even the smallest nests are enough to prevent a roof cap from opening.  Just one more reason to hate wasps, right?

Small wasp nest at roof cap

If it’s not safe to walk the roof, try looking up at the roof cap from the ground with a pair of binoculars while someone inside the house turns the bath fan on and off; if it’s working properly, you should be able to see the damper opening and closing.

Click this link for more information on the causes of moisture stains on ceilings.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Zinc Strips on Mossy Roof, Four Years Later

July 8th, 2014 | 2 comments

In November of 2011 I wrote a blog post about using zinc strips to prevent moss from growing on the roof, or possibly to kill moss.  I conducted a fairly long-term experiment by installing zinc strips on a moss-covered garage roof, and showed before and after photos after the zinc had sixteen months to work its magic.

The results were much better than I had expected.  The first photo, showing the untouched roof from July of 2010, showed a lot of moss growth.

Mossy roof before

The next photo, from November of 2011, showed far less moss.  I used a leaf blower to clean the roof off before taking that photo.

Mossy roof after

It’s been about four years since I installed that zinc strip, and the shingles are going to be replaced soon, so I’m showing a final follow-up photo before that happens.

Mossy Roof four years later

As you can see, it looks like there has been some new moss growth.  Why?  I don’t know.  Perhaps the zinc strips lose some of their effectiveness over time?  Maybe the record amount of rainfall we’ve received this year has made the moss growth worse.  I’m not sure.  The bottom line is that zinc strips certainly help, but it’s tough to say whether they’re worth the extra money.

To read the original post, click here: http://www.structuretech1.com/2011/11/zinc-strips-prevent-moss-growth-on-roofs/

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Maintenance Inspections for Homeowners

July 1st, 2014 | 1 comment

Homeowner maintenance inspections are becoming more and more popular in Minnesota.  About a month ago I had a full week where all I did was homeowner maintenance inspections.  Not a single real-estate transaction all week.

That’s not to say that the real estate market is slow; sales are certainly up.  It’s just that most purchase agreements in Minnesota only give home buyers five business days to get their new home inspected.  Because of that, we typically don’t schedule any real-estate transaction inspections out past five business days, but when it’s a homeowner maintenance inspection, most folks don’t mind waiting a week or two to get the inspection done.

What’s a Maintenance Inspection?

A maintenance inspection is essentially the same as a standard home inspection, but the inspection is done for the current owner.  Most of these homeowners have been in their homes for over five years, and they may or may not have had their home inspected at the time they purchased it.  One small difference between a buyers inspection and a home maintenance inspection is that we don’t test the appliances during a maintenance inspection. Homeowners already know about every little funky issue with their appliances; they don’t need me to test out the burners on their stove for them.  We do inspect the installation of the appliances though.

basement cabinetAnother difference between a buyers inspection and a homeowner maintenance inspection is that we sometimes go a little ‘Mike Holmes on the house by cutting into stuff or taking stuff apart that we wouldn’t normally do for a traditional home inspection.  While a traditional buyers inspection is subject to a purchase agreement with standard language saying it’s a non-invasive inspection, we don’t have those kinds of limitations with a maintenance inspection.  Usually, the homeowner is right there with me for the maintenance inspection.  If I’m concerned about water intrusion below that basement cabinet in the corner, I’ll ask the owner if I can drill a hole in the back of the cabinet and stick a borescope in there to check it out.

Just last week I inspected a home in Maple Grove for a homeowner who had water in his in-floor ducts, and we removed the supply plenum coming off the furnace to get a look in the ductwork right next to the furnace, which revealed where the water was most likely coming from.

I think most home inspectors enjoy getting to the bottom of stuff like this, and homeowners appreciate the extra work involved to get to the bottom of questions.  Win-win.  Everyone’s happy and I sleep better at night.

Why get a Maintenance Inspection?

Think of a maintenance inspection as a checkup visit to the doctor or dentist that need only happen every five years or so.  A maintenance inspection will help to prioritize a home improvement list, and to hopefully find out about small problems before they turn into big ones.  In some cases, a maintenance inspection will reveal that what was thought to be a small problem has already turned into a big one.

A maintenance inspection also gives homeowners a chance to have a professional home inspector answer questions with a completely unbiased viewpoint.

Is it normal for the lights to dim like this when the AC turns on?  Is my deck still safe?  Can I leave that buried fuel oil tank in the yard when I sell?  My roofer said the roof should be replaced; does it really need replacement this year, or can it wait?  Should I invest in new windows or more insulation in the attic?

The home inspector isn’t there to sell anything.  We’re just there to give unbiased, accurate information.

What about a-la-carte / single item inspections?

When someone has a specific problem with their house that they want to get to the bottom of, or they just have a few particular issues that they want to have addressed, I call it an a-la-carte or single item inspection.  We do a lot of those, but the price of a troubleshooting inspection for a particular issue is typically about half the price of a full inspection.  In most cases, we end up doing full inspections because a  homeowner is dealing with a persistent problem that nobody can get to the bottom of.  The owner has been meaning to have several things looked at by various professionals, and this is the owner’s chance to get it all done at once in a matter of hours.

At most single item inspections, I end up walking past a number of other major concerns that jump out at me… does the owner know their downspouts drain right against the house?  does the owner know they’re missing kickout flashing and water is probably pouring into the wall behind the siding every time it rains?  does the owner know their dryer vent is clogged and creating a fire hazard? …  but I usually try to keep my mouth shut unless it’s a safety issue, and even then, it needs to be brought up tactfully.  A homeowner’s home is not their castle; it’s their baby.

If you have a persistent problem with your home that you want to get to the bottom of, you want help prioritizing repairs, you’d like to know the overall condition of your house, or you’d like to get an unbiased opinion on home improvements, contact a professional home inspector to conduct a maintenance inspection.

If you’d prefer to conduct your own inspection, check out these two blog posts from last year on how to conduct your own inspection:

These blog posts were focused on conducting cursory home inspections while looking at real estate in the Twin Cities, especially at older houses in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.  In the near future I’ll have a follow-up post on how to conduct a maintenance inspection on your own home.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Don’t Vent Your Clothes Dryer Through the Roof

June 24th, 2014 | 3 comments

As soon as I’m in charge, there will be no more venting of clothes dryers through the roof.  I think the roof is a stupid spot to terminate clothes dryer vents because it’s difficult to clean and it’s a major contributor to ice dams.  Clothes dryers should be vented through the side of the house, preferably within reach from the ground.

Ice Dam Contributor

When bath fans and clothes dryers vent through the roof, they melt a bunch of snow.  After the snow melts below the vent, it’ll probably freeze again farther down on the roof.  If this happens enough, an ice dam will form that’s large enough to cause roof leaks.  These areas of the roof are especially susceptible to roof leaks because there is no ice and water shield installed in these locations.  I blogged about this earlier this year: Advanced Ice Dam Prevention.

Tough to Clean

As I mentioned in my blog post about keeping your clothes dryer safe, the terminals for clothes dryers need to be cleaned on a regular basis.  These terminals can get extremely dirty with lint over time, and eventually, the dampers get stuck open.

dryer terminal in need of cleaning

Eventually, the terminal will get so filled with lint that air flow is obstructed, which will reduce the performance of the clothes dryer and could actually cause a fire.  Cleaning the dryer terminal at old houses is usually a piece of cake; the lint can just be wiped off and pulled out by hand.  The dryer terminal is easy to access at these houses because laundry rooms used to be installed in basements or on the first floor… but not any more.  The standard for new two-story homes for nearly the last ten years has been to install the laundry room at the second floor.  When that happens, where does the dryer duct go?  Through the roof, of course.  Most of the time.
Dryer duct through roof
This arrangement will work fine at first, but just like dryer vents that go through the side of the house, the terminal will eventually get clogged with lint.  The photos below are from a recent inspection of a 2007 built home in Plymouth that had a badly clogged dryer vent terminal at the roof.
Dryer Terminal at roof
Clogged dryer terminal at roof
While I usually don’t perform repairs or home maintenance chores at homes while I’m inspecting them, I couldn’t help but pull some of the lint out.  There was enough to start several campfires.
Ball of lint pulled out
If you’re having a home built, try to have your builder terminate the dryer duct at a location that makes sense.  In my humble opinion, dryer vent terminals should be accessible from the ground.
If you already have a home with a dryer that terminates at the roof, be sure to have the terminal cleaned on a regular basis, and consider having the terminal replaced with a  DryerJack terminal.  Get the extra clearance model 486.  I don’t have any personal experience with these, but I’m a fan of the company that makes them: In-O-Vate Dryer Products.   They make a bunch of products designed to make clothes dryers perform better.  I tested out their DryerFlex product a couple of years ago and blogged about it here:  DryerFlex: A Superior Dryer Transition Duct.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections