The Home Inspector

Reuben Saltzman is a second-generation home inspector with a passion for his work. Naturally, this blog is all about home inspections and home-related topics in the Twin Cities metro area. In addition to working at Structure Tech, he is also a licensed Truth-In-Sale of Housing Evaluator in Minneapolis, Saint Paul and several other cities.

Troubleshooting Furnaces: A Short Video Primer

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: January 27, 2015 - 2:30 PM

My furnace is 17 years old and it's starting to give me problems.  I've had my furnace stop working about once a year for the past few years, but thankfully every issue I've had has been quite simple to fix, mostly because I know a few basic troubleshooting steps.

I was going to write a blog post describing some of these troubleshooting steps for furnaces, but I decided that a video might be a little easier to follow along with.  This video is by no means a complete troubleshooting guide to furnaces, but it's a nice introduction to furnace troubleshooting.  I cover the most basic things to check, and I discuss some common error codes that furnaces may give.  For detailed troubleshooting and repair steps for furnaces, check out http://www.grayfurnaceman.com/ .  This is the best web site I've found that deals with furnace troubleshooting and repairs.

I'm no heating contractor so I don't know the exact numbers, but I'd guess that a large percentage of "no heat" service calls could be addressed by homeowners if they just knew where to start.  That's what this video is all about.  Oh, and while watching the video, please ignore the part where the camera goes out of focus. I don't know why that happened, but you're not missing anything. Without further ado, here's the video:

I still recommend annual furnace inspections though.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Upcoming Changes to the Minnesota State Building Code

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home, Construction, Home Improvement Updated: January 21, 2015 - 7:23 AM

Minnesota will be adopting the 2012 International Residential Code (IRC) on January 24th, 2015.  With this adoption will come a lot of changes to the existing building code, which was last updated in 2007 when we adopted the 2006 IRC.  I've put together a list of the things that I feel are the most notable changes.

Minnesota Residential Code 2015One Code Book

This change is extremely helpful.  Instead of having to use a copy of the 2012 IRC and then look through the Minnesota Amendments to figure out what's what, there is now a single book available that combines the 2012 IRC with the Minnesota Amendments.  This makes it far easier to look up building codes.  This book can be purchased directly from ICC or from Minnesota's Bookstore.

Less Ceiling Height Needed on Alterations to Existing Homes (R305.2)

The old building code said that habitable rooms, hallways, corridors, bathrooms, toilet rooms, laundry rooms, and basements had to have a ceiling height of not less that 7 feet.  This made it impossible to add code-compliant bedrooms in old homes with low basement ceilings.  If you had a basement with a ceiling height of 6 feet 10 inches and you wanted to add a bedroom, your options were to either not add a bedroom or just add a bedroom and not pull permits for it.

Bedroom Ceiling Height

The new code allows for a basement ceiling height of 6 feet 4 inches on alterations to existing homes.  The purpose of this change is to legally allow for habitable use of these basements. Here's the exact text:

R305.2 Alterations to existing building basements. Alterations to portions of existing basements shall comply with the provisions of this section.

R305.2.1 Minimum ceiling height, existing buildings. Alterations to existing basements or portions thereof shall have a ceiling height of not less than 6 feet 4 inches (1931 mm), including beams, girders, ducts, or other obstructions.

R305.2.1.1 Bathroom plumbing fixture clearance. Bathrooms shall have a minimum ceiling height of 6 feet 4 inches (1931 mm) at the center of the front clearance area for water closets, bidets, or sink.  A shower or tub equipped with a showerhead shall have a minimum ceiling height of 6 feet 4 inches above a minimum area 30 inches (762 mm) by 30 inches (762 mm) at the wall where the showerhead is placed.  The ceiling may have slopes or soffits that do not infringe on the height required for the plumbing fixture.

R305.2.2 Minimum stairway headroom, existing buildings. Alterations to existing basement stairways shall have a minimum headroom in all parts of the stairway no less than 6 feet 4 inches (1931 mm) measured vertically from the sloped line adjoining the tread nosing or from the floor surface of the landing or platform on that portion of the stairway.

Exceptions: Where the nosings of treads at the side of a flight extend under the edge of a floor opening through which the stair passes, the floor opening shall be allowed to project horizontally into the required headroom a maximum of 4¾" inches (121 mm).

The really interesting part is going to be how this affects TISH evaluation reports.  One of the most common comments I put on TISH evaluation reports is about stairways lacking the required headroom of 6 feet 8 inches.  Now that the headroom requirement for existing stairways is going to be 6 feet 4 inches, does this mean we won't have to put down this comment on future TISH reports?  I don't know yet.

SprinklerSprinkler Systems (R313)

Automatic fire sprinkler systems are now required in all new townhouses and all new one- and two-family dwellings with 4,500 sf  of floor area or more.  This new requirement actually made the news last year:  http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2014/07/28/in-home-sprinkler-systems-now-required-in-new-homes/ . I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of homes being built just under 4,500 sf.  For more info on this new requirement, click here: Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems FAQs

Carbon Monoxide Alarms (R315)

Carbon monoxide alarms have been required by statute in Minnesota for many years now, but it's finally going to become a rule.  This means that CO alarms are going to be required by the building code, which means building officials will be enforcing this rule.  Most building officials have already been telling folks they need CO alarms, but they haven't had any legal right to enforce the installation of CO alarms.  Now they do. One interesting part of this requirement is that carbon monoxide alarms are "required outside and not more than 10 feet from each separate sleeping area or bedroom."

Fire Protection of Floors (501.3)

For new homes built without automatic fire sprinkler systems, it will no longer be acceptable to leave the unfinished basement floor framing exposed when using an engineered flooring system, which is pretty much the only thing ever used in new construction.  This requirement went into effect because floor structures can burn out very quickly on new homes, making it unsafe for fire fighters to enter the building.  Here's the exact code text:

R501.3 Fire protection of floors. Floor assemblies, not required elsewhere in this code to be fire-resistance rated, shall be provided with a 1/2-inch (12.7 mm) gypsum wallboard membrane, 5/8-inch (16 mm) wood structural panel membrane, or equivalent on the underside of the floor framing member. Exceptions: 1. Floor assemblies located directly over a space protected by an automatic sprinkler system in accordance with Section P2904, NFPA13D, or other approved equivalent sprinkler system. 2. Floor assemblies located directly over a crawl space not intended for storage or fuel-fired appliances. 3. Portions of floor assemblies can be unprotected when complying with the following: 3.1. The aggregate area of the unprotected portions shall not exceed 80 square feet per story 3.2. Fire blocking in accordance with Section R302.11.1 shall be installed along the perimeter of the unprotected portion to separate the unprotected portion from the remainder of the floor assembly. 4. Wood floor assemblies using dimension lumber or structural composite lumber equal to or greater than 2-inch by 10-inch (50.8 mm by 254 mm) nominal dimension, or other approved floor assemblies demonstrating equivalent fire performance.

So what does this mean?  At a glance, it would seem that it's going to be a pain in the butt to finish off unfinished basements, but I'm sure there will be plenty of work-arounds.  Under exception #4, there's some leeway given for "other approved floor assemblies demonstrating equivalent fire performance."  One such product that I suspect building officials will accept is the TJI® Joists with Flak Jacket® protection, shown below.

TJI Flak Jacket

That's just one that I've heard of.  I'm sure there are several more similar products and methods available.  I don't really expect to see a bunch of unfinished basements with drywall covered ceilings, but I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Kick-out flashing not required when only re-roofing (R903.2.1.1)

In 2007, Minnesota added a requirement for kick-out flashing to be installed "Where the lower portion of a sloped roof stops within the plane of an intersecting wall cladding".  My impression has always been that this is something that should be done as part of any re-roofing or re-siding job, but the building code now specifically says that kick-out flashings don't need to be installed when only re-roofing.  Here's the exact text:

R903.2.1.1 Existing buildings and structures. Kick-out flashings shall be required in accordance with Section R903.2.1 when simultaneously re-siding and re-roofing existing buildings and structures.

Exception: Kick-out flashings are not required when only re-roofing existing buildings and structures.

Boooooo!  I haven't opined on any of these building code changes, and I'm not going to give my opinion on the wisdom of this one, other than to say I think it's a completely stupid change.  The logic behind this change was that roofers could end up doing more harm than good if they install kick-out flashing on existing siding.  I say BS.  I've seen plenty of botched installations of kick-out flashing, but I haven't seen a single case where the kick-out flashing even had the potential to do more harm than good. Oh well.  This doesn't really affect my job; I'm a home inspector, not a building official.  I'll still be recommending the installation of kick-out flashing when it's not present at houses that I inspect.

Where to find these codes online

The 2012 IRC is available for free online at http://publicecodes.cyberregs.com/icod/irc/2012/ .  Keep in mind, however, that this does not incorporate any of the changes that Minnesota has made to the code.

Minnesota's code is going to be available online, in one place, here  http://www.dli.mn.gov/ccld/codes15.asp.  This is a very nice feature, but the link to view the code online is not live as of 1/20/15.  The folks at the state tell me it'll be live before January 24th.  I'll update this blog post as soon as that happens.

Post Update 1/21/15: The 2015 Minnesota State Building Code is now available online, here: http://codes.iccsafe.org/app/book/toc/2015/Minnesota/Residential/index.html

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Radon Testing Clowns

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Real Estate, Home Improvement, Real Estate Updated: January 13, 2015 - 5:42 AM

The Minnesota Radon Awareness Act went into effect on January 1st of 2014. This required home sellers to provide a lot of information about radon and radon testing to potential home buyers, making it basically impossible to buy a home in Minnesota without being told that it’s important to test for radon.  And it is.

As intended by this act, the amount of radon tests conducted in Minnesota as part of real estate transactions increased dramatically. I don’t have any official numbers, but I can say that the number of tests that my company conducted in 2014 was about twice as many as we conducted in 2013. I've heard other home inspectors express similar sentiments, and I've had several home inspectors in Minnesota ask me about what it takes to start doing radon testing. There’s a larger demand for radon testing today.

The Bad News

As one might imagine, the number of unqualified folks conducting radon tests has also increased. Just like home inspections, there are no licensing requirements and no training requirements for radon testing in Minnesota. The EPA has developed standards for radon testing, but there seems to be a lot of clowns out there doing radon tests however they want to. As far as I’m concerned, these tests are worthless or misleading. Allow me to share a few examples.

Radon Monitor in a Crawl Space

access to crawl space Radalink in crawl space

I've shared this photo before, but here it is again. This radon test was placed in an uninhabitable crawl space.  Who cares what the radon level in the crawl space is?  The radon test is supposed to be placed in the lowest level in the home that could be lived in; not the crawl space.

Radon Monitor on a Bucket

Radon Monitor on a bucket

This isn't an egregious error, but it’s a very basic mistake that any qualified radon tester should not commit. Radon monitors need to be placed at least 20” off the floor. Most 5-gallon buckets are only 13” high. If you happen to see a radon test sitting on top of a 5-gallon bucket, EPA protocol for radon testing isn't being followed.

Side note: we use 5-gallon buckets to carry our radon monitors around in, and we use little wood boxes placed on top of the upside-down buckets to get the required 20" height above the floor.  Our radon monitors fit inside the boxes, which fit inside the buckets.  We also keep a 25' extension cord in the bottom of the bucket.  This works quite nicely.  If you're a home inspector reading this who's looking for a nice solution, here it is.
 Structure Tech Radon Test Contents of radon bucket

Radon Siren “Testing”

Radon Siren

There’s a radon siren available online for $129, which collects data while it’s plugged in and will give a display of the average concentration, much like a profession radon monitor.  There’s apparently at least one home inspector here in the Twin Cities who’s using this device to conduct radon tests. Apparently, he or she plugs this device in at the time of the inspection, comes back out to the home some time later, takes a picture of the display on the unit, then sends out this photo as the official radon test results. I’m not making this up. That’s where the photo above came from.

While this device might be well and good for homeowners to use in their own home, just the fact that it doesn't produce any type of report should be enough to tell you that no professional should be using this device and charging a fee for it.  If that's not enough, take a look at the list of approved devices for radon testing professionals: http://www.nrpp.info/radon_testing_devices.shtml .  You won't find the radon siren on that list.

Radon Monitor on a Sump Basket

Radon Clown

This is the most recent one I've heard about. One of our clients contacted us with concerns about how a radon test was being conducted in her home. The folks buying her house hired a home inspector to inspect the building and conduct a radon test at the same time. The home inspector placed his or her radon monitor right on top of the sump basket lid, and then put a box of the top of that! As you might imagine, the radon test came up very high, at over 18 pCi/L.

First, the radon monitor needs to be at least 20” off the floor, as I mentioned earlier. Second, the radon test shouldn't be placed anywhere near the sump basket; as I've mentioned in past blog posts, sump baskets are actually required to be sealed shut in new construction because this can be a major contributor to radon in the home. Placing a monitor right on top of the sump basket seems like a great way to guarantee high radon levels. Finally, placing a box over the top of this mess is either the result of ignorance or dishonesty.

My Advice

If you’re going to hire someone to do a radon test for you, hire a professional who’s certified by the National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP) or the National Radon Safety Board (NRSB). The Minnesota Department of Health also maintains a list of qualified radon measurements professionals, which can be found here: http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/indoorair/radon/measurement.html. To be added to that list, the individual first needs to be certified by one of the two agencies that I listed above.

If your home is going to be tested for radon as part of a real estate transaction, make sure that the person doing the test will be following EPA protocol for radon testing. Even better yet, insist that the person doing the test is certified by one of the two agencies listed above. This is consistent with what the Minnesota Department of Health already advises for radon testing; it’s solid advice.

If you haven't tested for radon in your own home, buy a DIY test kit.  Short term test kits are $9.95 and long term test kits are $21.95 here: http://www.radon.com/sub/mn/ .

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Toilet in a kitchen? The best of the worst home inspection photos of 2014

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: January 6, 2015 - 5:17 AM

We share our favorite home inspection photos on our Facebook page and our Google+ Page with a feature we started back in 2009, called the Photo of the Day. Sometimes we make a game out of the photos, asking what's wrong in the photo. Other times, the defects are quite obvious. I've pored over all of our photos from the past year, and I've put together the Top 20 home inspection photos from the past year. Enjoy!

Don't tuck your raincoat into your rain pants 

Valley under ridge shingles

Upside-Down Snorkel - that metal thing in the middle of the photo is always installed with the opening facing down.  How does water not get in there?  Snorkel is an unofficial term, but we like it.

Upside-Down Snorkel

Tree in Attic, Holding Stuff Up

Tree in attic

Toilet in Kitchen - yes, it's functional.  Yes, it blocks access to the drawers and the sink base.  No, we didn't "test" it.

Toilet in kitchen

Stacked Box

Stacked Box

C-clamp pipe repair - we're not crazy about saddle valves to start with.

Saddle valve crimped line

Re-purposed radon fan

Repurposed radon fan

Not a Loop Vent - island vents are used at island sinks, and they're perfectly legal.  Because the vent makes a loop to the underside of the countertop, sometimes people call them loop vents.  Someone must have heard that term and then took a stab at it, but this doesn't come close.  The Family Handyman web site has an excellent cutaway photo showing how an island vent is supposed to be installed: Island Vent Photo

Not a loop vent

Missing drain, smart water

Missing Drain at laundry sink

;-o

Melted Outlet Face

Hot Flush

Hot Toilet

"And... that's how you like to support your deck?"

Bad deck support (loose beam)

All hail the electric panel

Holy Electric Panel

Nobody's gonna see it behind the fridge

Hardwood floor repairs

Safety First

Handrail on roof

If one filter is good, four is... gooder?

Four Filters

Smells like cooked mice.

Cooked mice in furnace

"...Folgers in your duct"

Coffee Can Ductwork

Bowed Deck

Bowed Deck  

Pinhole Leak - this has been leaking for a long, long, long time.

Copper joint calcified

"Call us if the mountains turn blue" - from our recent caption contest.  This winning caption was submitted by Eric Aune.

Coors roll-out shield

If you like these photos, please check out our Facebook or Google Plus pages.  These photos go on and on.  https://www.facebook.com/MinnesotaHomeInspections and https://plus.google.com/+Structuretech1/

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

Top "Feel-Good" Home Inspection Pics from 2014

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: December 30, 2014 - 5:05 AM

At the end of each year, I post our Top 20 Home Inspection Photos.  These photos are usually of some of the most egregious, hilariously wrong conditions that we've found during home inspections, and they all come from photos that we've shared throughout the year on our Facebook page.   That post will be coming next week.  This year, however, I've started sharing some of our favorite photos of cool or unusual finds during home inspections.  We don't find nearly as much good or interesting stuff as we do bad stuff, but we like to share it when we come across it.

Huge shower, old house, recent remodel

Huge Shower

Drain under walkway - I've complained blogged about home builders not providing any method for water to drain away from the home, but this builder got it right!  They installed a $5 section of corrugated drain in the yard before the walkway was poured.  Nice detail.

Drain under sidewalk

Welded steel newel post - The owner's explanation: "I don't like $#!% moving."  It sure didn't move.  Well done, buddy.

Steel Newel Post

Stairway no nowhere - while at first this seems a little bit silly, and it's arguably an attractive nuisance for kids, just think about what happens over most stairways to the basement on single story houses.  Either there's a closet behind the stairway or the whole area is open.  This is a pretty neat alternative.

Stairway to nowhere

Permanent Improvement - while super old insulation isn't necessarily a good thing, it was cool to see this old certificate from 1956, which bragged about the permanent improvement to the property from three inches of insulation.  Click on the photo to see a large version.

SilvaWool

Bonafide Asbestos - how can you tell if floor tiles contain asbestos?  1. They're 9" x 9" tiles.  2. There's a box nearby saying they're bonafide vinyl asbestos tiles.  While asbestos isn't considered a good thing, the actual risk created by these tiles is essentially zero, unless someone decides to take a belt sander to them.  At any rate, what makes this so cool is that they still had the box!

Vinyl Asbestos Tile

That's not a subpanel.  Click on the photo to see what someone used this box for.

Panel closed

Strong Stairway - it's quite unusual to find a big chunk of concrete used as the stairway stringer for residential construction.

overbuilt steps

Original Appliances from 1956 - they still worked too.  The second photo below shows the wall mounted refrigerator.

Old Kitchen  Appliances Mystery Item

27 Year-Old Virgin - original oven, home built in 1987.  The racks were still wrapped in plastic.

27 year old virgin

Nice solution - here's what to install if you have an old two-handle bathroom sink faucet with separate spouts for hot and cold.  Click here for an example of what this fixes.

Nice faucet solution

Nice garage lights - these beat the heck out of any work light.

Medical Lights in Garage

Linters Insulation - ever seen or heard of it?  We hadn't either, but here it is.  It's apparently a cotton based product.

Linters Insulation

This stuff was featured in an issue of Popular Mechanics from 1940:

Torch testing cotton insulation

Curtain rods are expensive.  EMT goes for 33¢ / ft at Home Depot.

EMT Curtain Rod

Coolest playhouse ever

Best Playhouse Ever

If you like these images, please "like" our Facebook page or "plus one" our Google+ Page.  We post these types of photos on Saturdays when we have them.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

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