Reuben Saltzman

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.

Posts about Real Estate

Online Building Permit History and more for Twin Cities Homes

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: March 7, 2014 - 6:33 AM

While real estate web sites give the most important information about homes to potential buyers, there are many other free web sites that give public information about homes in Minnesota.  I use these sites on a regular basis, especially when I'm inspecting a flipped house.  Not only is it interesting to see if permits have been pulled for work being done, but it's also interesting to see if the work has ever been inspected and approved.

Online Permits

I think it's wise to check the permit history when buying a home.  The standard Seller's Property Disclosure Statement asks the seller if appropriate permits were pulled for any work performed at the property, but I think this is a fairly worthless question, and I often find the check boxes on this form just left blank.

 

If permits were pulled, it means the seller was given permission to perform work.  It doesn't mean the work was completed, inspected, or approved.  If you were buying a home, wouldn't you want to know if there were a bunch of open permits?  Or that the basement was completely finished without permits?  Or that no permits were pulled for a bunch of hack wiring that was done as part of a kitchen remodel?

The old timey way to check permit history was to call the building inspections department, but today there are at least eighteen cities in the Twin Cities metro area that give building permit history online.  If I missed any, please let me know and I'll add them.  I also have these cities listed under the "External Links" page on our web site.

*Minneapolis and several other communities use state electrical inspectors, so electrical permits must be looked up here: https://secure.doli.state.mn.us/etrakit2/AdvPermitSearch.aspx

Truth In Sale of Housing Evaluations

Currently, only Minneapolis and Saint Paul have TISH evaluations publicly available online.  Here's how to look them up.

Minneapolis: Go to the Minneapolis Development Review site to look up information about properties within the city.  Just type in the house number and street name; don't bother with things like "Avenue" or "East."  If there are multiple listings for your search terms, you'll be given a choice.  Once you've found the property, click "View this Property".

The next page will have a bunch of links at the top left, including one that says "Truth in Sale of Housing".  Click this link to look up any current TISH evaluations.  If there are open repair orders, those will also be listed here.

Saint Paul: Go to the Saint Paul One Stop page to look up property information about Saint Paul homes.  For TISH evaluations, start by clicking the link that says "Property info and Permits by Address."  Type in the house number and street name, hit submit, and you'll be taken to the property info page.  To know if there is a TISH evaluation on file for the property, look for an entry that says "Truth In Sale of Housing Inspection".

Saint Paul Truth in Housing Screen Shot

At the bottom of such an entry should be one or two hyperlinks; one linking to the TISH cover sheet, and another linking to the 'guts' of the report... or in same cases, both the cover page and the guts may be combined into a single report.  I've heard some guys have figured out a way to combine the two reports into a single document, but I haven't.

Owner Info, Sales History

The Hennepin County web site gives information about who the current owner is, what the property last sold for, aerial photos, and rough diagrams showing the sizes and shapes of lots.  The image below gives a shrunk-down example of what this looks like.  Click the photo to see a large version.

Hennepin County Map View

Hennepin County's property information site is the only one I use with any regularity, but other counties give similar information on their sites.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections
          

Minnesota Radon Awareness Act

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: January 30, 2014 - 4:50 AM

As of January 1st of 2014, there are new requirements for home sellers in Minnesota regarding radon disclosure.  The old disclosure form that home sellers would fill out just asked if there were any environmental concerns with radon, and the sellers would check yes or no.  It couldn't get any more basic.

Old radon question

If the home hadn't been tested for radon, the answer would of  course be "no".  End of story.

The new Minnesota Radon Awareness Act requires sellers to give home buyers a lot more information about radon, including whether or not tests have been performed, the most recent test results, any details pertaining to radon reduction or mitigation systems, a warning about radon, and a copy of the Minnesota Department of Health publication titled "Radon in Real Estate Transactions".

Whew.  That's a lot of stuff.  Here's what the radon section in the new disclosure form looks like:

New Radon Disclosure

With the new Radon Awareness Act, radon testing in Minnesota is going to become much more common in real estate transactions.  In 2013, my company conducted radon tests at approximately one out of every three buyers inspections that we did; the number will probably increase to at least one in two for 2014.

If you're buying a home, hire a professional to test it for radon.  Don't go with the sellers results.  I had an almost comical situation occur this fall when a buyer hired us to conduct a radon test along with our home inspection.  The seller acted very insulated because she had already conducted a radon test on her own, "proving" that radon levels in her home were low.  After some conversation with the seller, it seemed quite obvious that she had placed the do-it-yourself test on the second floor of her home and the windows were probably open when she conducted the test, making the test results worthless.  It was no surprise to us when the radon results came back high.

To test your own home for radon, simply purchase a do-it-yourself test kit and follow the instructions.  Short-term tests can be purchased online for $7.95 at http://www.radon.com/sub/mn/.  Don't bother calling a home inspection company like us; our tests are geared for real estate transactions, where the testing needs to be done quickly by a third party professional.

Click these links for more information:

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

Home Inspectors Shouldn't be Nail Biters

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: December 6, 2013 - 4:46 AM

While having lunch during a recent all-day continuing ed seminar for home inspectors, we home inspectors all did what home inspectors do when they get together; we talked about home inspections.  We're out inspecting houses with new clients every day, our wives are tired of hearing about home inspection 'stuff', and we get very little peer interaction unless we participate in online discussion forums. Moisture Meter

So anyways, we're talking about home inspection tools.  Oh boy, can we talk about tools.  I asked one of the guys at my table, a relatively new inspector, about what type of moisture meter he uses.  His answer drove me nuts.

"I don't use a moisture meter, because I've heard other home inspectors say that this only increases your liability."

I've heard this repeated by nail-biting home inspectors countless times over the years.  I knew exactly what he had heard, but I encouraged him to elaborate.

"If you use a moisture meter to investigate one area but don't use a moisture meter on every wall surface and you end up missing something, you could be held liable for negligence.  A prosecutor would say that because you used a moisture meter in one place, you should have used it everywhere."

Sorry, but I don't buy into that.  He was given weak advice from a home inspector who spends more time worrying about getting sued than they spend trying to identify problems with a house.

If a home inspector wants to provide a great service to their clients, get referrals, stay busy, and be proud of their work, here's some stuff they ought to do:

  • Ask questions
  • Embrace new technology
  • Buy the latest and greatest tools
  • Learn how to use their tools
  • Seek out excellent continuing education
  • Work on writing a better inspection report
  • Make recommendations for further inspections sparingly
  • Take more photos during inspections and put them in reports

If a home inspector advertises that they're going to use a moisture meter on every square inch of the house and then they don't... well, they didn't deliver on their promise and I suppose they might get sued.  On the other hand, if a home inspector uses a moisture meter to scan specific areas that they're concerned about and they happen to miss an area that was wet (and I'm sure I've missed hundreds), have they done anything wrong?  Lets use a little common sense.

Back to the seminar.  I went on a small tirade about all of the above during the seminar lunch, and I convinced my colleague to go get a good moisture meter.  He actually sounded relieved and eager to do so.  That made my day.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

Top 10 Home Inspection Myths

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: October 17, 2013 - 3:40 PM

I hear a lot of the same home inspection myths repeated over and over.  I've blogged about most of these, but there are a few topics here that I haven't blogged about yet.

10. The seller needs to fix this.

The seller doesn't need to fix squat. Home buyers can ask sellers to fix things or pay for things to be fixed, but I can't think of a single defect that a seller would be required to fix.

Many cities in Twin Cities metro area have Truth-In-Sale of Housing evaluations (TISHs) that might identify required repairs, but those are separate from the home inspection. Even if the home inspector identifies a defect that was missed by the TISH evaluator, the seller has no obligation to fix anything.

9. Windows less than 18" from the ground need tempered glass.

There is no such code requirement.  This misunderstanding comes from section R308.4 of the International Residential Code (IRC). The IRC requires special glass in hazardous locations, and goes on to give a list of hazardous locations.  One such example is glass in a location that meets ALL of the following conditions:

  • Exposed area of an individual pane larger than 9 square feet.
  • Bottom edge less than 18 inches above the floor.
  • Top edge more than 36 inches above the floor.
  • One of more walking surfaces within 36 inches horizontally of the glazing.

When only one, two, or three of these conditions are met, it's not considered a hazardous location and tempered glass is not required.  My oldest code book is the 1988 UBC, which basically had the same requirement.

For more detailed information about safety glazing, check out Douglas Hansen's article: Safety Glazing.

8. Buyers should only attend the end of the inspection.

Buyers will probably get the most out of the inspection if they do what the home inspector prefers. If the home inspector prefers to have the buyer show up at the end, the buyer would do best to show up at the end. If the home inspector prefers to have clients attend the whole thing (like we do), the buyer should try to be there the whole time.

7. New construction homes don't need inspections.

We inspect a ton of new construction homes, and we find a ton of defects. Click here for some examples: new construction inspections.

6. CO alarms are required by law in Minnesota to sell a home.

Minnesota's requirement for CO alarms has nothing to do with real estate.

5. A small air conditioner might not cool the house properly.

Small AC

The physical size of that thing at the outside of the house won't tell you anything about the cooling capacity.  It has a lot more to do with the efficiency of the unit; larger units = more surface area = higher efficiency.  The cooling capacity is measured in tons.  To figure out how many tons your unit is, look at the model number and find a number usually between 18 and 60 that's a multiple of 6.  Divide that number by 12, and you have the number of tons your unit is.

For example, the unit pictured below is a 2-½ ton unit.

AC Sizing

For more info on sizing air conditioners and a nice explanation of why air conditioners are rarely undersized, check out this article on Air Conditioner Capacity that was published in the ASHI Reporter.

There are several blog posts about AC sizing at the Vanguard Energy Blog.  Here are a few:

4. A backdrafting water heater should be replaced.

Replacing a water heater won't correct backdrafting unless a new powervent water heater is installed.  If a water heater backdrafts, there's a problem outside the water heater.  Sometimes it's a problem with the vent, sometimes the vent connector, and sometimes it's a more complicated problem that requires evaluation of the entire house.

For more detailed information on this topic, click this link: backdrafting water heaters.

3. Old stucco is a concern.

Old stucco is fine.  It's just the newer stuff from the early 90's on that should be a concern.  What went wrong with this stucco?  Joseph Lstiburek calls it the "perfect stucco storm."  We recommend invasive moisture testing when buying a newer stucco home.

2. Bedrooms need closets.

There is nothing in the building code that requires a closet. An appraiser might want to see a closet... so what's a closet?

1. Double tapped circuit breakers are a big deal.

This is one of the most common electrical defects that home inspectors report on, but the repair for a double tapped circuit breaker is usually quick and easy.  When compared to most of the other electrical defects that home inspectors find, the safety risk posed by a double tapped circuit breaker is quite low.  So what's the big deal?  Probably fear of the unknown.

This is one of the topics I'll be covering in an upcoming continuing ed seminar for real estate agents on October 23rd.  It's free and breakfast is included.  Click here for more info:  https://cecreditbreakfast.eventbrite.com/

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

            

Patent Lawsuit Threatens the use of Infrared Cameras for Home Inspectors

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: September 19, 2013 - 5:36 AM

I recently read a blog post by building science guru Allison Bailes that discussed patent trolls, infrared cameras, and home inspectors. The quick version of that post is that there's a company in Mississippi that has patented the use of infrared cameras for home inspections.  Basically, they claim that if a home inspector uses an infrared camera as part of their home inspection, the home inspector is infringing on their patent rights.  Absurd, right?  Let me explain why I care about this topic.

My infrared camera is definitely the coolest home inspection toy tool that I own. I can bust my dog for sitting on the couch, prove to my kids that they're not really "freezing", and confirm that my wife is hot. In addition to that stuff, I've discovered lots of useful ways to use this camera for home inspections.

When we first started offering infrared inspections, we had one camera that we juggled between everyone. Today, I'm proud to say that all of the inspectors at Structure Tech have infrared cameras. We don't always use infrared cameras during home inspections, and we charge extra for a full infrared inspection, but these cameras frequently come in handy for identifying and documenting defects. The most obvious use of an infrared camera is to identify insulation defects in walls or air leaks in attics, but the images below show several other examples of ways that infrared cameras can be useful to home inspectors.

Leaking Showers

We use infrared cameras to help identify leaking tiled showers. As I mentioned in my blog post about shower leaks, we test tiled showers by flooding the shower base with about 2" of water, and then letting the water sit in the shower for about 45 minutes to an hour.  If the tiled shower base leaks, water will show up on the ceiling below.

Through the diligent use of an infrared camera, we can almost always identify these leaks before they stain the ceiling below.  The images below show a few examples of tiled shower leaks identified with infrared cameras during home inspections.  Of course, we always verify these leaks with a moisture meter before reporting them as leaks. Cold spots in ceilings aren't always leaks.

Tiled shower leak 1 Tiled shower leak 2 Tiled shower leak 3

Wet Basements

I recently shared this photo in my blog post about not connecting downspouts directly to yard drains, but here it is again. The blue area is wet.

Wet basement from downspout blockage

It's one thing to say there's moisture intrusion in a basement, but having an infrared image that shows the area that's wet really helps to tell the story.

Electrical Problems

Scanning electric panels with an infrared camera can easily identify overheated conductors or circuit breakers.  The panel shown below had an overheated neutral wire, which I suspect was the result of a loose connection; there were two neutrals connected to a single lug.

Overheated Neutral

For the record, only one neutral wire is allowed at each lug.

Inspecting In-Floor Heat

Inspecting in-floor heat with an IR camera quickly shows which areas are heated.   The image below shows a heated garage floor.

Heated Garage floor

Quickly Inspecting Radiators

It's much easier to make sure a radiator is heating properly by just pointing an infrared camera at it.  The radiator shown below wasn't heating properly.

IR Image - Radiator not heating properly

Suspected Exterior Leaks

We rarely use infrared cameras outdoors because the sun really messes with our results, but we'll occasionally get a nice image at the exterior that illustrates suspected water intrusion. The image below shows a suspected leak at the wall of a stucco home with missing kickout flashing.

Stucco leak

Again, we don't report leaks without verifying them with a moisture meter. The only way of confirming a leak at a stucco home is to perform invasive moisture testing, which is a service we don't offer. We leave that up to the folks that specialize in that service. Infrared inspections are not an acceptable substitute for invasive moisture testing on stucco homes.

Random Surprises

We may have never found this hidden floor register without the use of an IR camera. This was a new construction home where the carpet installers apparently went a little too fast.

Hidden floor register

We have several more examples of things that can be identified with an infrared camera at our web page on infrared inspections, but they're mostly focused on energy loss.

Can you believe that someone got a patent to do this stuff?  Hmm... maybe I'll patent the use of a flashlight for home inspections.  I'll just need to find a technical writer who can make it sound very complicated.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

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