Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

How To Inspect Your Own House, Part 4: The Rest of the Exterior

August 12th, 2014 | No comments

In last weeks blog post, I gave advice about homeowner siding inspections, based on the most popular types of siding in the Twin Cities.  For this week’s post, I’m going to go over what a homeowner can do to inspect the rest of the exterior of their home.  This will cover such items as foundation walls, vegetation, windows and doors, and vent terminals.

Vent Terminals

Before inspecting the rest of the exterior of your home, start by turning on any fans or devices that blow air out of the house.  This includes the clothes dryer, any bathroom exhaust fans, the kitchen fan if it exhausts to the exterior, and the HRV if applicable.  Now go outside and locate the terminal for each one of these devices, and make sure there’s air coming out of every device.

It’s common for these devices to terminate at the roof; if that’s the case, you’ll probably need to get on the roof to make sure everything is working properly.  This is important.  When fans exhaust into the attic, they can cause major problems in cold climates like Minnesota. Be careful when looking underneath vents; wasps love to make nests at vent terminals, both at the roof and on the ground.  If you can’t account for every device that’s supposed to be removing air from your house, or there’s no air coming out of a terminal but there should be air coming out, it’s something that should be looked into further. As I’ve mentioned many times in previous blog posts, the clothes dryer terminal needs to be cleaned regularly.  Ideally, clothes dryers should not be vented through the roof.

Dirty clothes dryer exhaust

For more information about inspecting your bath fan exhaust, click here: http://www.structuretech1.com/2014/07/bath-fan-terminal-inspections/

If there’s a screen present at the clothes dryer exhaust, remove it.  Screens get clogged and should not be installed at dryer terminals. Check any intake grills to make sure they’re clean; the most common one is the combustion air intake.  Take a second to read through my blog post on combustion air duct problems and solutions to help know what you’re supposed to be looking for.  If your home has an HRV, the combustion air intake and the HRV intake will probably be located right next to each other, and they look identical.

HRV Intake and Combustion Air Intake

The way to tell them apart is that the HRV intake usually gets dirty much faster than the combustion air intake… not that it really matters though.  You just need to make sure they’re both clean, and clean them on a regular basis. If your home has an HRV but you can’t find the intake, you have a problem.  Maybe it was covered up when the house was resided, or maybe it’s located underneath the deck where nobody can ever get at it to clean it.  Those are both problems.

Windows and Doors

If you have old wood windows, check to make sure the paint and glazing putty are in good condition.  A good layer of paint will help to protect the windows, and the glazing putty is what holds the glass in place.Window on gable end wall

To check for rot, you don’t need to go around poking at every single window and door.  As I mentioned in my blog post about exterior water management and last weeks post about siding inspections,  just figure out which areas will rot first.  Windows that are covered by big overhangs will probably never rot, while windows that see a lot of water will rot relatively quickly.  If you’ve already had a chance to walk around your house during a heavy rainstorm, this should be very easy to do.  Just think about which windows get the most water exposure.  For windows located on large gable end walls, like the one shown to the right, check the lowest windows.  They’ll see the most water.

If you have wood windows, take an awl or a screwdriver and give the bottom corners of the windows a poke to check for rotted wood.  If you have wood windows with aluminum cladding, give your window sashes a push and a squeeze.  I made a video last year showing how to do this.  See below.

The same advice applies to wood doors and aluminum-clad sliding glass doors.

If you have an older home with windows and doors that have been wrapped with aluminum, make sure all of the joints and seams in the aluminum are properly caulked to prevent water intrusion, and re-caulk any areas with dried out or split caulking.

Gap in caulk

Caulk

Every homeowner should own a caulking gun and caulk.  Go around the outside of your house and look for dried out / split caulking that needs to be serviced.  This is a topic that I could blog about for weeks, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here.  Just be aware that not everything on the exterior should be caulked; some areas are supposed to be left open to allow water to drain out.  I have a couple of examples of places that shouldn’t be caulked in some older blog posts: Don’t Caulk Here.  This might be one of those topics where there are just too many variables to cover every potential situation.

Vegetation

This one is easy.  Keep vegetation away from your house.  For trees and tree branches, keep stuff trimmed at least six feet away.  No trees too close to the house.  One foot of clearance for bushes and smaller stuff.  No ivy, period.

Tree in Window Well

Oh, and if you have trees growing right out of the shingles on your roof… don’t forget to water them.

trees growing in roof

Foundation Walls

Small cracks in foundation walls are normal, and usually not worth getting excited about.  What’s small?  For a concrete block wall, cracks that are less than 1/4″ wide.  For poured concrete, cracks that are less than 1/8″. That’s certainly not a hard and fast rule, but it’s a good general guideline to go by.

The trick is to figure out whether cracks in the walls are caused by active movement or not.  To help determine this, cracks can be patched with cement or mortar.  If the cracks open up again, there’s probably active movement, which is structural concern that should be further inspected by a foundation specialist.

The other concern with cracks in foundation walls is that water can leak right through the cracks; the photo below shows a small crack in the foundation wall of a new-construction home.  This crack resulted in water leaking right through the wall and into the basement.

Crack in foundation wall

Soffits and Fascia

Inspect the soffits and fascia for rotted wood and any holes that could admit pests.  Also, check your soffit vents to make sure they’re clean; a clogged soffit vent will hamper air flow to the attic space.  As mentioned in my previous blog post about roof vents, proper ventilation in the attic may help to extend the life of the roof, reduce the potential for ice dams, and reduce the potential for frost in the attic.  The photos below show a couple of different types of soffit vent grills that need cleaning.

Dirty Soffit Vent 2 Dirty Soffit Vent

Driveways / Walkways

Raised edges in sidewalks and driveways create trip hazards.  While this is one of those ‘no-duh’ defects, it’s also something to take seriously and have fixed.  Falls are the leading cause of unintentional home injury deaths.

Decks

Decks are deserving of their very own post.  Check out my blog post on how to inspect your own deck.

That concludes this four-part series on inspecting the exterior of your own home.  Included below are links to the previous posts in this series:

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

How to Inspect Your Own House, Part 3: Siding

August 5th, 2014 | 4 comments

This is part three in a multi-part series of How to Inspect Your Own House.  In part one, I covered how to inspect your own roof and chimney.  In part two, I covered the inspection of the exterior water management, which is one of the most critical parts of preventing major water damage to a building.  Today the focus will be on inspecting your own siding, broken down by the most popular types of siding in the Twin Cities.  Oh, and a note to any word sticklers: a more technical / accurate term for siding would be “exterior wall covering”, but that term is a little geeky and pretentious.  I’m happy to call the stuff that covers the exterior walls “siding”, whether it be vinyl, stucco, wood, etc.

Wood Siding and Trim

The two most common problems you’ll find with wood siding and trim are peeling paint and rotted wood.

Peeling paint is an obvious defect that can be spotted from a block away.  Paint is meant to protect wood surfaces from decay and rot, but it’s not common to find rotted wood siding because of lack of paint.  The main issues with peeling paint at siding are that it looks horrible, it’s an environmental hazard if the paint contains lead, and it may violate a maintenance code for the city.  For example, section 244.500 (d) of the Minneapolis Housing Maintenance Code says “No exterior wall of any dwelling or building accessory thereto shall have paint which is blistered, cracked, flaked, scaled, or chalked away.”  I don’t have any inside tips to share on peeling paint; if you need more info on that topic, check out what Dr. Lstiburek has to say about it.

Rotted wood siding isn’t much of an issue at old houses in Minneapolis and Saint Paul that have been sided with old-growth wood; it’s more of a ‘new wood siding’ type of issue.  To inspect your own home for rotted wood siding, start by figuring out which areas will be prone to rotting first.  If you’ve already taken the advice that I gave in last weeks blog post about exterior water management, you’ll probably have a good idea of which areas you need to pay the most attention to.  Areas of the house that are covered by big soffits / overhangs will probably be fine.

home with overhangs

The areas that turn into problems are the areas where water gets concentrated.

home with minimal overhangs

Other areas to pay special attention to are the siding below roof ends with missing kickout flashing, below bay windows,  and at wood chimney chases.  Also, any areas that have water splashing against them will be prone to rotting.  To check for rotting at wood siding, start by looking for obvious things like holes in the siding.  Be sure to look at everything.  As shown in the photo below, this might require walking the roof.

Rotted wood siding

The next step is to go around and poke at the areas that will be most susceptible to water intrusion and rotting.  You can sometimes just push on the siding with your fingers to find rotted / soft areas.

Finger poking rotted wood

If you want to look and feel a little bit more official, you could go poking around with a rot detection device (aka “awl”).

Rotted siding below missing kickout flashing

Look for areas with missing or dried out caulking that need attention.  If rotted siding is found in several areas, there’s a good chance that there’s rotted wall sheathing behind the siding.  There are two ways to check for rotted wall sheathing; remove the siding and check it out, or have moisture testing performed on the home by a company that specializes in this.  When we conduct moisture testing on wood siding, we start by scanning the siding with a non-invasive moisture meter.  Areas with elevated moisture levels are tested the same way that stucco siding is tested; two small 3/16″ holes are drilled, and a moisture probe is pushed into the wall to determine the moisture content and condition of the wall sheathing.

Vinyl Siding

First, a quick primer on vinyl siding.  Love Tolerate it or hate it, vinyl siding is very good at what it does.  Vinyl siding is an exterior cladding that reduces the amount of rain that reaches the stuff underneath it, which is referred to properly as a water-resistive barrier, but more commonly as Tyvek®, which is a brand name.  Vinyl siding is not watertight and isn’t designed to be watertight.  Vinyl siding should always be installed over a water-resistive barrier, but this wasn’t required by code in Minnesota until 2003.  If you have a home built before 2003, you may or may not have a water-resistive barrier behind the siding.  After 2003, it should definitely be there.

The most common visible problem with vinyl siding is physical damage from hail, basketballs, baseballs, weed trimmers, or rocks thrown from lawnmowers or snowblowers.  Small chips and nicks aren’t big performance  issues; remember, vinyl siding is not watertight.  The main issue with physical damage to vinyl siding is that it makes the house look bruised up.  The photo below shows an extreme example of a house with some nasty hail damage, as well as some makeshift repairs by someone with a short ladder and a long roll of tape.  This siding is clearly in need of replacement.

Damaged vinyl siding

Vinyl siding can also melt / deform when someone has a grill too close to the siding, or from reflected sunlight on low-e windows.  The photo below shows an example of deformed siding caused by reflected sunlight.  This is a cosmetic issue; the vinyl will still do its job even though it looks terrible.

Melted vinyl siding

Unfortunately, homes with vinyl siding can experience water intrusion just like homes with other types of siding.  There is typically no visible evidence of moisture intrusion with vinyl siding… at least not until it’s too late.  The nice thing about vinyl siding is that it’s fairly easy to pull apart and put back together without any tools.  The video below shows me pulling apart vinyl siding on a bank-owned property that had experienced major water intrusion.  As you can see, it’s pretty easy to open vinyl siding up.

If there are areas where moisture intrusion is suspected, pull the siding apart and check it out.  There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing how to open up vinyl siding and put it back together.

Stucco Siding

Old stucco houses typically don’t have big problems, while newer stucco homes (late 80’s +) often do.  There’s not much that can be seen to identify major problems with stucco houses.  Stains below windows and other similar penetrations in the walls are cause for concern, but they’re not necessarily a problem.

Stains below windows

As I’ve said for many years, long before we ever began doing moisture testing on stucco houses ourselves, the only way to know for sure is to have invasive moisture testing performed.

Stone Siding

Stone siding is typically installed only on the front of houses, but it’s subject to the same problems as stucco, and problems with moisture intrusion are just as difficult to identify.  It requires invasive moisture testing.  For info on stone siding installation defects, click here: http://www.structuretech1.com/2012/09/stone-siding-installation-defects/

Hardboard Siding

Hardboard siding, often called masonite, is a pressed wood siding product that lasts about 20 – 30 years.  When hardboard siding rots, it’s usually quite easy to spot, as it really starts to look nasty.

Rotted hardboard siding

Hardboard siding typically fails at the lowest courses first, usually from water splashing up against siding that has been installed too close to the ground.   When it’s just a few pieces of hardboard siding that are rotted, the appropriate repair is to replace the rotted pieces of siding.  Once there is rotted siding in many areas throughout the exterior, it’s time to reside.  I have more examples of rotted hardboard siding at the end of this post: http://www.structuretech1.com/2013/04/home-inspection-checklist-exterior/

LP Smartside / James Hardie

I’m lumping these two types of siding together because they’re nearly indistinguishable to the untrained eye, nearly 100% of ‘new construction’ home buyers that I work with don’t know which type of siding their new home has, and the installations instructions for these two types of siding are very similar.

For the record, they really are quite different products though; check out this post for more info: James Hardie vs. LP Smartside

The most common problems I find with these types of siding are improper nailing and improper clearances to grade, hard surfaces, and roof coverings.

Overdriven Nail on LP Smartside

My best advice for inspecting these types of siding would be to read the installation instructions from the manufacturer, then walk around your home and make sure the installation details match up with the diagrams the manufacturer provided.  I have installation instructions for James Hardie siding going back to 1998 on one of my older blog posts about that product:  http://www.structuretech1.com/2009/08/problems-with-james-hardie-siding-installations/ .

While this is obviously not a full list of siding products used in the Twin Cities, these are definitely the most common.  Same goes for the list of problems.  Next week I’ll have a blog post on inspecting the rest of the exterior of your home.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

How to Inspect Your Own House, Part 2: Exterior Water Management

July 29th, 2014 | No comments

In last weeks blog post, I gave advice on how homeowners can inspect their own roof and chimney.  For this week’s post I was planning to cover the rest of the exterior, but I was crazy to think I could do that in a single blog post.  I think the exterior will need to be split up into at least three separate posts: water management, siding, and everything else.

Roof Water Management

Roof water management is HUGE.  Experienced home inspectors can drive up to a house and instantly know where there will be water problems, just by paying attention to where water gets directed from the roof when it rains.  The best way to inspect the roof water management at the exterior of your home is to walk around your house during the middle of a big rainstorm.  You’ll notice problems that you never would have noticed otherwise. The video below shows a home with an undersized drain system for the downspouts.  The small corrugated drain couldn’t handle all of the water coming off the roof, so water was shooting all over the place in very unnatural ways.

This next video shows a new construction home in Chaska that had water shooting off the roof right against the window and the stone veneer siding.  This wall will almost certainly experience major water intrusion problems if this isn’t corrected very soon.

The simple fix for the water being directed against the window above is to have gutters installed at the house.  I can’t stress the importance of gutters enough.  I’ve seen hundreds of water problems at decks, windows, doors, and siding that could have been prevented if gutters had been installed.  Gutters prevent water problems, and should be installed on almost every home; new or not.  I blogged about water management at new construction houses last year: http://www.structuretech1.com/2013/08/new-construction-tip-plan-for-water-management/

If gutters are already installed, pay attention to where water from the downspouts is directed.  The downspouts should extend well away from the house, and the water should flow away from the house at the downspout terminals.  If downspouts end short of walkways or landscape edging, they’re basically draining into a moat around the house, and possibly doing more harm than good when it comes to preventing basement water intrusion.  Get that water draining away from the house.

Downspout-next-to-house

Also, make sure the gutters and downspouts aren’t leaking.  It’s easiest to figure that out in the rain.

Ground Water Management

Ground water management is all about preventing basement water intrusion, and preventing foundation problems.  Water needs to drain away from the building.  That’s the long and short of it.  The best time to inspect this on your own home is during the middle of a rain storm.  Look for ponding water next to the house, and look for any water that doesn’t drain away.

For more information about ground water management and preventing basement water intrusion, click here:  http://www.structuretech1.com/2014/04/wet-basements/

That’s all for this week.   Next week the topic will be siding inspections.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

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