In last week's blog post, which I did not post here on the Star Tribune, I mentioned that there is an upcoming seminar for Minnesota home inspectors, being taught by building code guru Douglas Hansen of Code Check. Minnesota currently uses the 2006 International Building Code (IRC), but we'll soon be adopting the 2012 IRC, and with that will come a lot of changes. The upcoming seminar will cover the most important parts of these changes.
Side note: Why are we flying in a national code guru from California to teach this 8-hour seminar when the class has already been put together and is being taught by some extremely knowledgeable and capable building officials right here in Minnesota?
@#$!%* beaurocracy, plain and simple. The folks that I've reached out to at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry have told me they're not allowed to do any teaching outside of the state curriculum because there's a conflict of interest. I have no idea what the conflict could possibly be, and I'm not at all satisfied with that answer, but in the interest of getting this class put together and notifications sent out to MN home inspectors in a timely manner, I didn't fight the issue. I'm not done with it though.
I sent out an email notification to all of the Minnesota ASHI members letting them know about this seminar, and I've been making phone calls as well to make sure that everyone got the word.
I had one conversation with another Minnesota home inspector, who I'll call Inspector X, that prompted me to write this post. When I told Inspector X about the upcoming seminar that would be covering the code changes to the IRC, I said I considered this seminar to be 'must-have' training for any home inspector in Minnesota.
Inspector X said he disagreed that this is must-have training, because he doesn't conduct code enforcement inspections in any capacity. I didn't have time to engage at the moment, so I just told him he was right, home inspections are not the same as code enforcement inspections, but it's still important for us to be familiar with current building codes. I couldn't get him to agree with that either, so I basically just wished him well... but if I had had the time, I would have explained it this way:
ASHI Home Inspection Standards of Practice require home inspectors to provide clients with a written report that states those systems and components inspected that, in the professional judgement of the inspector, are not functioning properly, significantly deficient, unsafe, or are near the end of their service lives.
Unsafe is defined as "A condition in a readily accessible, installed system or component that is judged by the inspector to be a significant risk of serious bodily injury during normal, day-to-day use; the risk may be due to damage, deterioration, improper installation, or a change in accepted residential construction practices."
Current building codes are what define accepted residential building practices. If a home inspector is not familiar with current building codes, they're not familiar with accepted residential building practices.
Even though home inspectors should be familiar with current building codes, this doesn't mean that home inspectors should report code violations. Our standards of practice clearly state that home inspectors are NOT required to determine "compliance of systems and components with past and present requirements and guidelines (codes, regulations, laws, ordinances, specifications, installation and maintenance instructions, use and care guides, etc.).
If you want to know the difference between a code compliance inspection and a home inspection, look at the reasoning behind the recommendations for change / repair. ASHI Standards of Practice require home inspectors to report the reasoning or explanation as to the nature of deficiencies reported that are not self-evident. If the home inspector bases their reasoning on code, they're heading into 'code compliance inspection' territory.
As an example, take a look at the sump basket cover at this new-construction home; the cover isn't airtight, which will allow for moist air to enter the home. This air may also bring radon gas into the home.
Here's a bad way for a home inspector to report on this: "The sump basket cover was not airtight, which is required by Minnesota Administrative Rule 1322.2103, Section AF103.4.4. Have this corrected."
The problem with this type of reporting is that it tells the client that this is a problem because the installation does not meet code... and that's about all. It doesn't give the reasoning or explanation as to the nature of this deficiency.
The proper way for a home inspector to report this type of defect would be "The sump basket cover was not airtight, which will allow for air to leak into the building. This air will have relatively high levels of moisture, and will contribute to radon gases coming into the home. Have the sump basket cover made airtight."
See the difference?
If the home buyer addresses this issue with the builder and asks them to correct this, the builder might say it already passed inspection and meets code. At that point, a home inspector who is familiar with building codes would be happy to give their client the above code reference, backing up their recommendation. That's a good thing, and it doesn't mean the home inspector is doing a code compliance inspection.
We routinely get requests from past home inspection clients of ours asking us to re-send the radon gas test results from testing that we conducted many years ago. We get these requests because our past clients are now selling their home, and they’re performing their due diligence attempting to gather whatever information they can about their home to give to potential home buyers. In most cases, we still have the results and are happy to send them out. We recently received an email asking about this:
"Two months ago the seller had another buyer inspect the home. The radon test came back at 1.8. Does this need to be done again? Thanks!"
That's a great question. Here's my generic advice on relying on the seller's test results.
How much value is there in old radon test results? If the test results are more than two years old, the EPA recommends conducting a new test. If the test results are less than two years old, there might be some value in those results.
If the test results are less than two years old, find out who conducted the radon test before relying on the results. For obvious reasons, I don’t recommend relying on any type of DIY radon tests unless you Did It Yourself. If the radon test was professionally conducted, make sure the person / company conducting the test was qualified to do so. You’d hope that any home inspector charging money to conduct a radon test would be qualified to perform the test and would do it properly, but I’ve personally seen enough egregious testing errors to know that there are plenty of unqualified folks conducting radon tests in Minnesota. While there are no licensing requirements for radon testing companies in Minnesota, there are two large certifying bodies for radon measurement providers: the National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP) and the National Radon Safety Board (NRSB). I’d feel fairly confident in relying on the radon gas test results from an NRPP or NRSB certified company. That’s not to say that you shouldn't rely on the results from someone who isn't certified, but you’d be right to at least ask a few questions about the qualifications and experience of the person / company doing the testing.
If there have been any major structural changes, HVAC changes, or there have been any significant projects that involved air sealing, which is most commonly done in the attic, don’t go with the old test results. Too much has changed that may have affected the radon levels. Have your own test conducted.
When a homeowner conducts a radon test on their own home, they’re supposed to test the lowest level of the home that is regularly used. If the home has an unfinished basement and nobody spends any time down there, the test should be placed on the first floor. When a radon test is conducted as part of a real estate transaction, the radon test should be placed in the lowest livable part of the home, whether it’s finished or not. If a home buyer is going to rely on the seller’s radon test results, they should make sure the test was placed in the lowest livable area, not the lowest level that is regularly used.
If a home buyer is going to rely on someone else's radon test results instead of hiring their own company to conduct a radon test, they should make sure that the previous test was done within the last two years, the testing was done by a qualified person / company, no major changes happened at the home that could affect radon levels, and that the radon test was placed in the proper location.
This is a guest blog post by Barry Eliason, of Structure Tech Home Inspections and Private Eye Moisture Testing.
I received a call a few weeks ago that was typical of calls I get several times a year. It was the real estate agent for a client of mine that had recently hired me to do a moisture test on a stucco home they were buying. The moisture testing had found several areas of high moisture and even some soft or missing sheathing, indicating some structural damage. The sellers of the home questioned the accuracy of my report and hired another company to re-test the house. This other company did their testing from the interior rather than from the exterior as I had done. Their report to the home owners? “Every place we tested was dry”.
The agent on the phone was politely asking me if I thought I had gotten it wrong. First I summed up the situation. “Well, you now have two different opinions and we need to know which one of them is correct.” He agreed and wondered how to resolve the situation. My answer was to do what I had recommended in my initial report: remove some small pieces of stucco in the areas that tested high and see what's going on.
The pin probe testing that we do involves drilling two small holes, using a 3/16” drill bit, about one inch apart through the stucco at each test site. We then insert the probes of a moisture meter into these holes and pound them into the sheathing material that is just behind the stucco. The sides of these probes are insulated to protect them from contacting the stucco or the metal lath fastened to the exterior of the sheathing. The moisture meter passes a small electrical charge between the probes and calculates the percentage of moisture, by weight, of the material being tested based on the level of conductivity. If a material is wet, it's a better conductor and results in a higher reading.
Any reading of 15% or less is considered normal in an exterior wall. A reading of 20% or more indicates excessive moisture and the possibility of structural damage; if not now, certainly over time. A reading of 15-20% is higher than normal and indicates some amount of leakage. Wood materials won’t start to rot until their moisture level reaches about 28%, but the decay process will continue until the material dries back down to 20% or less. If it never goes above 28% there may never be any damage. Wood and wood materials are considered to be saturated at about 40%.
Sometimes, as the drill bit passes through the back side of the stucco and encounters the wall sheathing there is little or no resistance and the drill bit pops right into the wall cavity or wooden framing member. This indicates structural damage- usually caused by a moisture problem. This is indicated in the report as "Soft" or "No sheathing detected". In some cases, when the sheathing is completely rotted away, there is nothing left to hold moisture anymore. In that situation it is possible that the moisture meter will not detect any high readings, but the lack of any sheathing indicates a problem and possible structural damage.
I’ll be the first to admit that this testing method is not perfect and there is always the possibility that in spite of my best efforts the probe touches something unexpected that produces a false high reading. Usually these “false positives” are isolated high readings surrounded by one or more normal readings. Two or more high readings in an area reinforce their accuracy. I always try to take multiple readings when I encounter areas of high moisture. Contractors that have removed stucco for repairs based on my testing tell me that I usually “nail” it. Most reliable contractors insist that a comprehensive moisture test be done before they start ripping stucco off of the house. When the stucco is finally removed the extent of the damage is often much more than the home owner ever imagined.
Because there are seldom any visual clues as to the extent of the damage, or what is causing it, I recommend that a small area of stucco be removed - about a 6" x 6” area - to verify the accuracy of the test. If this small square is done at the bottom corner of a window it can also give us a clue as to what is causing the failure and what it will require to correct it. Once the stucco is removed (we call this a stucco cut) the sheathing can be re-tested with a moisture meter to verify the accuracy of the original reading. Remember, if the sheathing has never gone over 28% it will not appear to be damaged. In fact, it may appear to be just fine, but the sheathing is in a part of the assembly that by design should always be dry. Even after a driving rain, or during days of high humidity, this part of the wall should be dry. If it is above 20% there is uncontrolled moisture entering the system. This is a problem and steps need to be taken to stop it.
It's extremely rare to have a stucco cut reveal that our initial probe test got it wrong. This is usually the result of the probes touching something like a metal flashing, aluminum tape, a cluster of staples or the wire stucco lath. This is what is referred to as a “false reading”. Yet, this is what those with a vested interest in the testing being wrong hang their hat on. Our testing has about a 95% accuracy rate but the party that stands to lose big bucks if we're right will sometimes try to get the entire test thrown out based on a small percentage of false positives. This can be real estate agents, home builders and their insurance companies, and sometimes homeowners. Everyone is entitled to their opinion as the the accuracy of a moisture test, but they are not entitled to their own facts. The results of a probe test are a fact. The accuracy of that test is an opinion. The only way to prove or disprove the accuracy is to start peeling back the layers and see what is going on with our own eyes.
The real estate agent took my advice and had a stucco contractor come out to make some exploratory holes in the stucco to get a look at the sheathing. Can you guess what was found?
The sheathing was wet and damaged enough so that the exterior surface could be scraped off with your fingers! It’s entirely possible that the interior side tested by the other company was still dry and undamaged; for now. This house was a ticking time bomb and was going to cost somebody a lot of money to fix. By spending under $500 for a moisture test, my client saved themselves tens of thousands of dollars and a lot of heartache.
The sellers, on the other hand, wasted whatever they paid for the second test rather than go straight to the stucco cut. Once again, the exterior probe testing method proved to be the most accurate, minimally invasive and low in cost. After doing thousands of exterior probe moisture tests I am convinced that it is the only way to go.
Barry has been a home inspector for nearly the past 30 years, and has been the "go-to" guy for moisture testing inspections in the Twin Cities since 1998.
If you're buying an old house, beware of old water pipes; specifically, galvanized steel. These pipes build up with sediment on the inside, making the inside diameter of the pipe smaller and smaller over time, eventually to the point where water flow is unusable. These pipes also corrode at the joints, which can lead to leaks.
The mere presence of galvanized pipes doesn't constitute an immediate action item, but it does mean that the water distribution pipes in the house should be looked at and tested more thoroughly during the home inspection, especially if there is any evidence of past leaks.
The water supply piping is what brings water from the street to the house. To identify the type of material, take a look at the water piping where it comes into the basement before the first shutoff valve, which should be located right before the water meter. If this water piping has a threaded fitting, it's probably a galvanized supply pipe. This is always bad news. The other types of water supply pipes are copper, plastic, and lead. Copper and plastic are good news, lead is not.
If you see a thicker pipe coming up out of the basement floor with threads on the end, it's probably a galvanized supply pipe. Galvanized or lead water pipes were installed in Minneapolis homes exclusively up until 1928, and in Saint Paul homes up until 1925. Minneapolis' transition to copper water supply pipes was complete by 1932, and Saint Paul's transition was complete by 1926.
Most Minnesota homes with galvanized supply pipes have such poor water flow that doing laundry and taking a shower at the same time is not possible. If the home is in Minneapolis, take a look at item #19 on the Truth-In-Sale of Housing evaluation report; this item asks if the water supply piping is copper. If the piping is copper, this item should be marked as "M". If the piping is something else, such as galvanized steel, lead, or plastic, this item should be rated "C" for comment, and there should be a comment stating the water supply piping was not copper.
A better description for item #19 would probably be "Copper or Plastic Water Line Visible on the Street Side of Water Meter", but these reports have a lot of old language in them that takes a lot of effort to change.
If the water piping coming into the home can't be found, access is blocked, or the main valve is located too close to the floor to determine the type of water supply piping, one option is to call the municipal water works department to find out what type of water supply piping the house has. This is easy to do in Minneapolis, as they keep detailed records of exactly what type of water supply pipe was installed, and when it was installed. The two photos below show a home with a galvanized water supply; all that can be seen is copper, but the piping below the earth is actually galvanized.
I've had a couple of inspections in Minneapolis where the water flow throughout the house was quite minimal, yet all of the water piping looked great, and there was a copper water supply entering the house. In those cases, my curiosity got the best of me and I called the water works department to get the history on the water supply. Apparently, the water supply piping didn't always get replaced entirely. In some cases, there would only be a partial replacement out to the street. The fix is to have the yard / street dug up again and have the rest of the water supply replaced.
An easy way to determine a problem with the water supply pipe is to quickly turn on an exterior faucet. If water comes out with a burst but the flow drops noticeably after a fraction of a second, it's almost certainly a problem with the water supply for the house. In most cases, this indicates an old galvanized supply pipe, but could also indicate a problem with an old lead supply pipe. The video clip below shows an example of this, but it's not very easy to see. There is only a slight change in flow, but it was enough for me to know there was a problem.
For a more obvious example, check out the clip below. When the water is turned on at the garden hose it bursts out, then the flow drops down dramatically. This is because there is plenty of pressure, but insufficient flow. A common concern that home buyers express is for the home inspector to make sure the home has "good water pressure", but what they really mean is "good water flow."
The clip shown above was also the first clip in a compilation of 47 home inspection video clips in under 3 minutes that I put together, which I have featured at the top of our home page. I've received a number of requests to explain some of the problems in that video, and I'll be attempting to do that through blog posts over the next year or two.
If the water supply pipe to a house needs replacement, plan to spend several thousand dollars. The yard will need to be dug up and the water supply pipe replaced out to the street. The homeowner pays for this. If the city water line is on the opposite side of the street, it's more expensive. To determine which side of the street the water supply is on, look for fire hydrants.
If the home has a lead supply pipe, water flow may be restricted because of a damaged pipe, but I've inspected plenty of homes with lead water supply pipes that still had acceptable water flow. The other obvious concern with a lead water supply is with lead leaching into the drinking water for the home. In these cases, the water can be tested for lead. Visit the EPA for more info on lead in water.
Galvanized steel water distribution pipes were used almost exclusively in Minnesota homes up until about 1950, when copper tubing began to replace galvanized pipes. Copper gradually replaced galvanized piping during the 1950's, and was about the only thing used for water pipes in homes by 1960. CPVC and PB tubing gained some popularity during the 90's and early 2000's, but today PEX is pretty much the only thing used for water distribution piping in new Minnesota homes.
To identify the presence of galvanized pipes, start by looking in the basement. As soon as the water supply pipe enters the house, there will be a shutoff valve, a water meter, then another valve. After that, the water distribution pipes will branch off to the rest of the house. If the home has been re-piped or partially re-piped, it will probably have been done with copper or PEX tubing. It's easy to tell the difference between copper tubing and galvanized pipes because galvanized pipes have threaded fittings, while copper tubing has soldered joints.
If the home has been partially re-piped, there will typically be newer copper tubing in the basement, and the water lines will transition to galvanized piping at the basement ceiling just before disappearing into the walls. The photo below shows an example of a partial replacement by some complete hack.
Sometimes, houses can have galvanized pipes that are still in acceptable condition, and water flow is still acceptable. To help determine if water flow is acceptable, try this test that I've adopted from the Minneapolis Truth-In-Sale of Housing Evaluator Guidelines. Start by running hot and cold water at the laundry sink faucet, then run upstairs to the highest plumbing fixture, preferably a shower, and verify there's still water flow. If there is no water flow or insufficient flow to take a shower, it's a major concern.
In most cases, no flow at the upper fixtures under these conditions indicates a problem with the water supply pipe, or old galvanized water distribution pipes in need of replacement. A couple of other possibilities would be a main shutoff valve that's partially closed, or a problem with a water softener that restricts water flow throughout the house.
There are too many variables for me to cover every possible scenario, but hopefully these tips give enough info to conduct a basic test for water flow on old houses.
Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections
This blog post is a compilation of three blog posts written by Reuben, which originally appeared at the moisture testing web site www.PrivateEyeMN.com.
Moisture testing on relatively newer stucco houses (mid 1980s - late 2000s) has become standard practice when buying a home in Minnesota, and a lot of those tests reveal problems with moisture intrusion. Water intrusion is never good news, but there are several options to consider when exploring a repair strategy for a home with water damage.
Remediation protocols range from retrofit, which consists of partial repair and maintenance, to full tear off and replacement, which consists of removing all of the stucco and replacing with an alternate cladding material, such as James Hardie HardiePlank® or LP Smartside®.
Today we'll be taking a closer look at all three repair strategies, all of which were performed by Sunset Construction Group (SunsetCG), a Minnesota company that specializes in repairing stucco houses with moisture intrusion problems.
When SunsetCG is contacted to perform stucco repairs on an existing home, there are four basic steps that take place; a review of the moisture testing report, removal of the stucco at the affected areas, repair of the affected areas, and maintenance on the rest of the stucco.
The first thing SunsetCG wants to see is the moisture testing report, which is what we provide. This report will contain photos of the home along with moisture readings, which helps to determine the scope of the work and offers professional guidance to the buyer and sellers of a property. From there, a bid is put together on stucco repairs and various repair strategies are explored.
Reviewing this retrofit-level case study, we first performed moisture testing at this home in 2006, and found several areas with high moisture levels, but no repairs were conducted at that time. We performed moisture testing again in 2013, and many of those same areas showed high levels of moisture, so SunsetCG was contacted to perform repairs.
Here's an excerpt from our moisture testing report, showing exactly which areas of the wall sheathing had elevated moisture levels; our results from 2006 and 2013 are documented right next to each other on the report for comparison.
To keep this short, I'm only focusing on a small portion of the house.
As you can see from the moisture testing report above, the big area of concern was directly below the first floor window. The next step was to have a minimal amount of stucco removed around the window, to expose and give access to the water damaged areas. Click the photo for a larger version.
After the stucco was removed, the source and severity of the moisture intrusion were confirmed. The sheathing, framing, and insulation of the impacted areas were repaired or replaced as needed. The impacted areas were then redesigned using improved materials and installation methods, to highly reduce the potential for future moisture problems.
Examples of new materials and methods would be new head flashing above the window and new pan flashing below the window.
The stucco color and texture were then patched and matched as closed as possible, and then the front of the house was painted with a high quality, breathable stucco paint to give the front of the house a uniform look.
While existing stucco homes may not have been constructed with the same details that a new stucco house would be built with today, the areas that have proven to perform over the years are maintained in their current condition with a quality caulk/seal effort. Some areas of particular attention will be the window miters, mullions and perimeter of windows, and vertical transitions between stucco and other surfaces, such as windows and doors.
The theory/risk proposition with a retrofit repair is that the areas that have performed over the past ten to fifteen years will probably continue to perform, even though it may not be an ideal installation. The main benefit with this type of repair is cost; these types of repairs will typically cost 30% - 40% of what a full tear off and redo would be.
When a retrofit repair is performed, a follow-up moisture testing inspection should take place three to five years after the repairs have taken place.
Along with the lower cost of repairs comes a limited warranty on the work. A ten year warranty (per MN State Statute) is not likely to apply under most (if not all) retrofit repair strategies, as the contractor is only touching part of a wall. If a ten year warranty is a must, the next two repair strategies would be good options.
The photos below show a house that had missing kickout flashing at a roof end, which led to extensive moisture damage at the front wall, including sheathing and minor framing repair.
After the stucco was removed and the damaged sheathing replaced, new plywood sheathing was installed, the window was properly flashed, and the first of two layers of building paper were applied to the exterior wall.
Proper kickout flashing gets installed at the roof end, and a quality drainage plane was installed to create an air gap.
The repaired areas are covered by a 10-year warranty, and the cost of the job was approximately $20k. Follow-up moisture testing can be conducted between three and five years after the repair work as a health check-up, as well as to provide documentation to any future home buyers that the repairs are performing as they should.
As is standard practice when buying a newer stucco home in Minnesota, the folks buying a stucco-clad home in Plymouth had invasive moisture testing performed as part of their purchase agreement. Despite the fact that there was no visible evidence of moisture damage inside or outside the home, the moisture testing report showed high levels of moisture in many locations throughout the home.
The home seller contacted SunsetCG to verify the results of the moisture testing, and the results were confirmed by cutting exploratory holes into the stucco; this helped to confirm the problem and determine the extent of the water damage.
Side note: If you ever happen to see a stucco home with caulked squares of stucco, you're probably looking at a home that has had exploratory holes cut. The photo below shows what these exploratory holes look like after they're patched.
After the home sellers were shown the extent of the moisture damage inside the walls, they decided to have the stucco completely torn off and the home resided with a different product. They decided to go with James Hardie® fiber cement siding, which has become a very popular product on new homes throughout Minnesota.
The photos below show the home before the stucco was torn off, while it was being repaired, as well as the finished product.
While a full tear-off and redo is the most expensive option when it comes to stucco repairs, there are plenty of benefits to this method. Instead of having only the areas with damage / water intrusion repaired, everything is opened up and redone. For example, pan flashing gets installed at all of the windows, proper kickout flashing gets installed at all of the roof ends, and the deck is completely re-flashed at the ledgerboard. At-grade or low wall plate lines that are too close to grade can be exposed and re-designed at the same time. All of the siding is now covered under a full 10-year warranty per MN Statute 327A, which can be a very attractive feature for potential home buyers. Finally, the stigma associated with newer stucco homes is removed.
For a full stucco tear-off and re-do, the cost can go into the six-figure realm, but of course this price involves all of the stuff that happens under the siding; it's not just about replacing existing siding. It's also about figuring out and repairing all of the items that caused water damage in the first place.
Special thanks to Matt Roach of SunsetCG for providing the photos and information about the repair process for these three case studies.
Author: Reuben Saltzman, Private Eye Moisture Testing