There is no flawless house. Each home, even a new one, has some issues. The trick is in spotting the really big ones before you sign on the dotted line.
“People get emotionally attached to a house before they understand what the issues are with it,” says Kirk Juneau, a home inspector in the Bellingham, Wash., area.
Subtle signs such as tiny insect holes or water behind walls will be next to impossible to detect amidst freshly painted walls, new siding and snazzy appliances. But you can look for several big, flashing cues to some of the worst problems.
When you go shopping for a home, wear old clothes and sturdy shoes. Bring along:
- A flashlight
- A carpenter’s level and a child’s marble
Here’s what to look for:
1. Foundation cracks
Foundations can crack because they’re poorly built or made of insufficient materials, or because the house is poorly engineered. You’re most likely to find foundation cracks in older homes. In Seattle, home inspector Darrell Hay says, “New homes have so much (foundation) rebar and structural reinforcing because of building codes that structural cracking is usually unheard of.” That’s not the case everywhere, though, so check foundations on new homes, as well.
Types of foundations include a basement, partial basement and concrete-enclosed crawl space under the house. Not every house has a foundation. Some homes are built on a concrete slab (called slab on grade) or are set on posts that are sunk into concrete footings (called post and pier).
- Walk around the outside of the house if you can, looking for cracks in the concrete, stone or brick foundation. (With some homes, shrubbery or a cement board skirting around the foundation make this impossible.)
- If there’s a basement, check the inner walls for evidence of leaks or seeping water, especially where walls meet the floor.
A few hairline vertical or stair-step cracks in concrete are not significant, Juneau says. Likewise, stair-step cracks in a brick or block foundation aren’t cause for alarm if they’re only in the mortar.
Signs of trouble:
- A stair-step crack that breaks a brick, block or solid concrete can indicate powerful forces at odds beneath the house.
- Horizontal cracks, wide cracks (the thickness of your fingernail or greater) or a pattern of cracks starting on one side of a corner and picking up on the other side show the foundation is unable to bear the home’s weight.
- A crack that is wider at the top is a clue that one part of the house is staying still while another is pulling away, Juneau says.
- A crack whose surface is uneven can be a sign that the house is shifting. Rub your hand over it to tell if one edge is higher.
- Be alert with hillside homes where earth movement can cause a foundation to slide. Conscientious builders perform a soil test before they start to learn how solid the earth is beneath the building. A few skip this step.
- Pay special attention to homes in a flood plain. Saturation and drying or freezing and thawing can stress the foundation.
There are many possible causes, so costs can vary widely. Fixing a leak may require only a new $50 gutter downspout or $100,000 to lift the house and build a new foundation. A crack might signal weakness throughout the foundation or only in certain spots. Costs also vary with the size and severity of the problem, the size of the home and the materials used. For example:
- A section of failing foundation might require an underpinning of steel posts sunk into concrete pads. Cost: $20,000 on up. Jacking up the house adds $10,000 or more.
- Sometimes a slipping foundation can be lifted and moved back into place. Costs begin at several thousands of dollars.
- If water has penetrated the concrete, turning it soft and powdery, a new foundation — for $10,000 or more — may be required.
- Repairing a crack from soil instability could entail installing a new drainage system on the lot at a cost of $2,000 or more, or a retaining wall, which can run from $1,000 to $10,000.
2. A sagging roof
A home’s roof sags when it’s bearing too much weight, often from too many layers of shingles piled one on top of the other. “I’ve had houses that have had a layer of wood shingles on the bottom and two or three layers of asphalt composite shingles on top of that. That will make the roof sag,” Juneau says.
Damage from a crushing weight of snow also causes roofs to sag. The damage is compounded when it snows repeatedly. Sagging changes the roof’s pitch. Then new snow stays on longer, weighing the roof down more.
Signs of trouble
- When you drive up, look carefully at the house from the street: Are the chimney and roof line straight? If you can’t tell, compare the roof line with the house next door, suggests Jay Balin, owner of Habitat Home Inspection in Thiensville, Wis.
- Using binoculars, scan the roof’s surface. Flat shingles are good. Problem shingles are crinkled or curled. Old shingles may turn up at the ends. Moss will need to be cleaned off or treated.
- A sagging roof will need to be replaced. New roofs run $6,000 to $8,000 or more, depending on the roof size, the materials used and whether repairs must be made to the underlying roof supports.
- You can remove moss from a roof by scraping or applying chemicals that kill it. Cost: Your labor. But do not pressure-wash a roof; you might dislodge the shingles. Or hire someone to clean off the moss for less than $100.
3. Sloping floors
Sloping floors are not uncommon in older homes, especially turn-of-the-century houses. “I’ve seen houses with as much as five inches difference from one side of the house to the other,” Balin says. Don’t let a seller pass the problem on to you, because it’ll cost you when it’s your turn to sell. “You think it’s not going to make a difference in the price of the house?” Balin says. “Of course it will.”
A sloping floor may signal weakness in the home’s supporting structures. But that’s not always the case, Juneau says. Sometimes it’s just the result of an imperfect repair. In replacing floor joists, for example, the floor may not have been correctly re-leveled.
Signs of trouble
- Look at the house from the street. Is everything — the front entrance, the windows, outside doors, foundation and walls — straight and square?
- Place your marble or level on the floor. Does it roll to one wall? Does your carpenter’s level indicate a subtle tilt?
- Notice how the floor feels beneath your feet: Humps beneath doorways and bounce can indicate failing supports.
- Be alert to ridges under a carpet. In a house with a slab-on-grade foundation, irregularities in the floor may be your clue to a crack or break in the slab.
As with leaks, different causes will require different types of repairs. For example:
- A rotten or damaged floor joist can cause the floor to slant. Repairs may run as little as $300 or as much as tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the scope.
- A cracked concrete slab is repaired by drilling holes and injecting concrete. It’s called “slab jacking” and it typically costs several thousand dollars.
- Re-leveling a floor over a crawl space involves slowly lifting the house and making the support beams level. Costs start at about $3,000.
4. Doors or windows that don’t work right
All houses settle a little. In a house that has twisted in its frame, however, doors won’t close properly and windows won’t operate well. The cause might be a cracked foundation or missing structural members.
Signs of trouble
- Open and close all the windows and doors, noting if they stick or move sloppily. Test on all sides of the house.
- Observe whether doors fit squarely in the jambs. Do they resist closing or opening? Are big gaps visible between the floor and the door? Has a door been sawn off at the bottom or top? When you open a door, does it stay where it is or swing back and forth?
- It costs little to nothing to trim the top of a door so it swings nicely in the frame. But that just fixes the symptom, Juneau points out. Likewise, you can remove the trim from the door opening and refashion the opening to fit the door. The cost? About $200 per door. But you still haven’t fixed the underlying problem in the home’s supporting structure.
- If the house is skewed, you may need to jack it up and replace supporting posts or beams, a project that can run $3,000 at the extreme low end.
5. Failed siding
Siding provides protection from the elements, moisture and damage. Time-tested siding materials are wood, aluminum, vinyl, stone, brick and stucco. Also, newer fiber cement products such as Hardie Board (by JamesHardie) are proving resilient, Juneau says.
Be alert for wood composite siding installed before 1996. Later products do better though still need examination. Several types have failed in wet or humid climates because of faulty products, installation or maintenance. Some were the subject of class-action lawsuits though much of the settlement money has been exhausted. (Learn about siding failure and product claims at this siteby Pacific Crest Inspections in Anacortes, Wash., and this site by A Cut Above Exteriors in Portland, Ore.)
Watch also for EIFS (Exterior Insulation and Finish System), a synthetic stucco backed with foam insulation that’s been used since the 1990s, Juneau says. (Read a Consumer Reports article on EIFS-related lawsuits here.) Water penetrating through a break, puncture or even poorly caulked joints can rot underlying plywood sheathing or framing.
Don’t get stuck with the cost of replacing bad siding. Spot it before buying a home and get the seller to lower the price.
Signs of trouble
- Wood composite siding usually has a wood-grain pattern imprinted on the surface. The most famous is LP siding, made by Louisiana Pacific. Ask the owner or sales agent what a home’s siding is made of. If you suspect composite, make sure a professional home inspector closely examines it.
- Examine the bottom edges of overlapping siding. Failing siding will swell or have humps, ridges or even fungi growing from it.
- Check stucco siding for cracks, breaks and dents and for wet areas and soft spots around windows. Push gently on it. Sometimes “all that’s holding it together is the paint,” Juneau says.
- Test stucco siding by knocking lightly. Real stucco is hard and gives a solid sound. EIFS sounds hollow, says an article [http://www.safeco.com/insurance-101/consumer-tips/your-home/eifs-tips-for-synthetic-stucco] on Safeco Insurance’s Web site. Be alert for the smell of mildew. Caulking — not found on stucco — is another EIFS tip-off. “If you can place your hand under and behind the bottom edge it’s probably EIFS,” Safeco’s tips say.
- Replacing siding runs $6,000 to $15,000 and up, depending on house size and materials used. In some cases, you may be able to buy some time with a temporary repair, but if water has penetrated EIFS or wood composite siding, it will all eventually need to be replaced, Juneau says.
- If you suspect EIFS, get a licensed EIFS inspector (search the Yellow Pages under “siding” or search the American Society of Home Inspectors’ Web site herefor a specialist (use “search by additional services offered”). Inspections are costly — $1,100 or more — involving special equipment to detect hidden moisture and infrared camera probes.
6. Mold and water stains on ceilings and walls
The cause of mold and rot is simple: Water got in where it shouldn’t have. The pros call it “moisture penetration.” The longer it’s there, the more damage it creates.
Signs of trouble
- When touring a home, use your nose. If you encounter moldy or dank smells, politely ask the agent or owner about its origin.
- Check walls and ceilings — particularly under bathrooms and kitchens — for water stains, mold and mushy drywall.
- Check for signs of repairs or remodeling by holding your flashlight parallel to the wall or ceiling. The light casts shadows on every irregularity, repair, patches and a telltale difference in surface sheen. Start at the highest point and work your way down all interior walls. Do the same with the ceiling.
- Inquire about repairs. They are fine if done well. Ask what went wrong, what exactly was done to fix it and when. Satisfy yourself and the experts helping you that the problem was fixed adequately. Ask to see any documentation available.
- Fixing a leak may involve only replacing a missing piece of flashing. Cost: $10 to $20.
- The same leak, left undetected, can result in a nightmare of rot and mold. “I’ve seen homes where you have to take off the siding all the way around and strip the house down to its bones,” Balin says. Cost: As much as $100,000.
If you decide to buy a house with potentially expensive problems, use your inspector’s report to negotiate with the seller to lower the price. Then start a savings account dedicated to funding the repairs.
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