It's been a year since my last post on new construction home inspections, so it's time for another. My message is pretty simple: new homes should be inspected by private home inspectors. Home inspections aren't just for old houses or used houses.
One of the newest inspectors on our team is Patrick Brennan, who worked as a project manager for Charles Cudd building new homes for many years. Because of his background in home building, Patrick brings some excellent perspective to the table when it comes to inspecting new construction homes. For the majority of the new construction inspections that Patrick has done for us, the builders have actually been quite appreciative for the inspections that we provide. It gives the builders a chance to address defects before they turn into big problems, and there are no occupants that have to be disturbed while corrections are taking place.
Here are some of the most common arguments that we hear against new construction inspections:
Instead of arguing the rest of these points individually, I'll let the photos speak for themselves. These are all issues we've found during new construction inspections over the past year. Some of these photos are from pre-drywall inspections, and some are from one-year warranty inspections. The point of sharing these photos isn't to make home builders look bad; the point is that everyone is human, everyone can make mistakes, and the home inspector can help to make sure that many of these mistakes are addressed. We identify problems with houses long before they become expensive to fix.
Click any of the photos for a larger version.
A large portion of the exterior house wrap was improperly installed at this home. We identified these defects during a pre-drywall inspection. These are the types of defects that can lead to major water damage, sometimes after the builders 10-year warranty has expired. It's not a big deal to fix this stuff today.
Do you see what went wrong with the installation of the LP Smartside siding shown below?
The manufacturer requires a 3/8" gap between the bottom of the siding and the flashing below it, so that the cut edge of the siding can be properly painted. The diagram below comes right out of their installation manual.
Even when a proper 3/8" gap is left, the siding doesn't always get painted. The photo below shows a close-up view of a proper gap but no paint at the cut edge of the siding. If the siding isn't painted at the cut edges, it can experience premature failure.
While we're on the topic of LP Smartside, overdriven nails are another common defect with this siding on new installations.
Here's how the manufacturer says to fix this:
Most new-construction homes don't have decks, but when they do, we often find problems with them. The photo below shows a couple of missing nails at a joist hanger. Pretty minor stuff.
This next photo shows a missing metal bracket (joist hanger) at one of the joists. That's a little bigger.
And here we have a missing metal hanger at the tripled 2x10s, which was supporting the stairway. This really needs to be fixed.
Here's a stairway with improper attachment to the deck. Each stringer was attached to the header with two 1-1/2" nails going into the corner bracket. No joke.
The J-channel installed on vinyl siding is supposed to be continuous. This one wasn't.
On that same window, there was a poorly located seam in the siding, preventing the siding from being attached on this side of the window.
The damper for this bathroom exhaust fan didn't open because the plastic grill obstructed it. The grill obstructed it because the feature board wasn't cut out enough. This renders the bath fan useless.
Here's a roofing defect that we were suspicious of before we even went into the attic. The roofer missed one of the roof vents. As you can tell from the house wrap, this was a defect we caught during a pre-drywall inspection.
Here's what it looked like from inside the attic. Don't step there.
Why was the shingle lifted? Oh, that's why. Duh.
Lifted shingles can lead to shingles catching the wind and blowing off. That's probably what happened in the photos below.
Kickout flashings have been required by the Minnesota State Building Code since 2007, so they're nothing new... but we still see 'em bungled. This first photo shows the kickout bent at a 90 degree angle, which will create a lot of turbulence and splashing.
This next photo wasn't from a new construction inspection, but it was a relatively new home, and the installation surely happened at the time the house was built. Just think about where water is going to go.
Here's a home with adhered concrete masonry veneer siding, and missing kickout flashing. Every little detail on this type of siding is critical, so it really boggles my mind how something like kickout flashing can be omitted.
Oh, and the stone siding is supposed to be kept at least 2" above the surface of the shingles, not touching them.
Here's a peak with two pieces of makeshift flashing that will almost surely leak.
Even new stuff can leak. This first photo shows a leaking bath tub overflow drain.
Showers can leak too. We test tiled showers by using a shower dam. When tiled showers leak, it's a big deal. This first photo shows our shower dam sitting in the shower.
The next photo shows water that leaked through the shower base, down into the garage.
Plumbing vent caps are installed at the roof so the system can be pressure tested to make sure the drains don't leak. After that, the caps are supposed to be removed. We find a lot of caps that still haven't been removed. When the caps aren't easily seen from the ground, they're easily forgotten about. The photo below comes from a new-construction home in Plymouth that I inspected during the winter. I couldn't safely walk the roof because it was partially frost covered, but it looked like there was a test cap still in place at the plumbing vent. I put this in my inspection report, the buyer brought it up to the builder, and the builder said it would be taken care of.
The client was suspicious that it had never been done, so I stopped by the house during the summer when I felt safe to walk on the roof to check it out. Nope. Never was done.
Dishwasher drains are supposed to be looped to the underside of the countertop. This is done wrong on a lot of new homes. I mentioned this condition during my recent blog post on cross connections, but it's worth bringing up again.
This next photo doesn't exactly show a defect, just some scary hot water. A safe temperature is 120°. Turn the temperature down at the water heater.
Frost free faucets are great, but they can still freeze when they're not installed properly. The faucets need to be pitched slightly down, so water can drain out of the stem when the faucet is shut off. The faucet below was pitched up instead. I've seen this same defect a few times this year on new construction homes.
Here's another comically small access hole for the bath tub drain.
Unless one is proficient at building ships inside of bottles, that hole is pretty useless.
Most circuit breakers are only designed for one wire to be connected to the breaker, including the breakers shown below. One of these breakers had two wires connected. This is an unusual defect for new construction, but hey, that's why we open panels. For more info on this topic, click here: Double Tapped Circuit Breakers.
All unused openings in electric panels are supposed to be covered up to help contain any fires, and to prevent pests from getting into the panel. This doesn't always happen.
That ground clamp needs to be slid up about an inch so it makes full contact with the copper water supply tubing.
This weatherproof cover won't keep water out when it's installed upside down.
We had to check this one a couple of times to make sure we weren't losing our minds. It was an outlet with reversed polarity. This is a very unusual defect for a new house, but again, that's why we test the outlets.
Here's an especially nasty defect; this outlet was located behind the kitchen drawers under a range top in the kitchen. The outlet is missing a cover plate, the outlet isn't attached to the box, and the box isn't flush with the surface of the cabinet like it should be.
Here's a missing cover plate at a junction box in an attic.
Check out the location of this outlet. It's over ten feet away from the radon vent. The outlet is there so a fan can be installed if radon levels are high... but what good does it do if it's ten feet away?
While we're on the topic of radon fans, here's a home where the builder agreed to install a radon fan, but installed the fan on its side. Radon fans should be installed vertically to help prevent water from accumulating, which can cause the motor to burn out prematurely.
Here's a GFCI outlet in the attic. GFCI outlets are supposed to be tested every month... not that anyone really does this, but just for the sake of argument, let's say someone wanted to. Are they really supposed to go into their attic to do this?
By the way, it's very important for attics to be inspected. Even on new construction homes.
Same old, same old. We find a ton of new construction homes with way less insulation than they're supposed to have.
How does this happen? There is no such thing as an "attic insulation inspection" for new construction homes. No joke. See my blog post dedicated to attic inspections on new construction houses: Who Inspected Your Attic?
When we perform pre-drywall inspections, we frequently find gaps in the attic "lid" that will be attic air leaks once everything is finished. The gap between the two top plates (2x4s) shown below shows an example of a future attic air leak. It's still very easy to fix these air leaks today, but it'll be a P.I.T.A. to find them once there's
14-3/4 inches 8+ inches of insulation throughout the attic.
Here's an infrared image of a disconnected bath fan duct below the insulation in an attic on a cool day. There were no visible signs of this defect, but a quick scan with an infrared camera made it quite obvious. The infrared camera also helped us to know exactly where to dig through the insulation to get a photo documenting the condition.
Lots of air leaks in ductwork.
When HRVs aren't balanced, they may either put the house under negative or positive pressure, neither of which is usually good. Check out my recent blog post about siding stains; putting a house under positive pressure would contribute to stains like that. If the balancing damper (circled below) isn't screwed into place on the HRV, it hasn't been balanced.
Someone installed a damper on this HRV intake, which prevents the HRV from pulling any fresh air into the home. Easy fix, bad mistake.
Here's a furnace intake and exhaust flipped around. This will cause the corrosive exhaust gases from the furnace to get sucked back into the furnace. Again, easy fix, bad mistake.
Would you accept this crooked hood fan installation? This is purely cosmetic, but still...
Toekick heat registers in kitchens and bathrooms are almost always done poorly in new construction homes. So poorly, in fact, that I put together a countdown of the top five worst toekick registers I've seen at new construction houses this year.
#2 - look carefully. I drew a thin black rectangle on this image to highlight the effective opening.
It's called a "toekick", not a "footstomp".
Spray foam insulation is great stuff and I'm a big fan of it, but it won't work right if it's not installed right. Check out this article on Spray Foam Insulation Problems at the Journal of Light Construction web site. I'm not exactly sure what went wrong with the installation of the spray foam at these rim spaces shown below, but I know wrong when I see it. There were obvious voids in the insulation at these houses that need to be addressed.
What happens during the summer when you build a home with an exhaust-only ventilation system and the poly on the wood framed portion of the basement wall isn't perfectly sealed? Humid outdoor air will leak into the basement wall cavity and then condense on the relatively cold poly. There was so much condensation on the poly at this home that water was pooling at the base of the wall. The builder had already attempted to fix a supposed leak at the window twice, but this was simply condensation.
Side note: This is the opposite of what I blogged about last week. Siding stains show up during cold weather at the upper levels of the home, and 'supply-only' ventilation will exacerbate this condition. Good stuff, huh?
The fix is to make the poly 100% airtight, or to insulate the wood-framed portion of the wall with closed-cell spray foam insulation. For the record, I'm no hypocrite; I had that done at my own house three years ago: Spray foam insulation at Reuben's house. Here's a joist cut all the way through.
That's obviously the wrong joist hanger.
These metal brackets aren't right either.
Here's a wall that completely missed the anchor bolts, or more likely, the anchor bolts weren't properly located.
Here's a sump basket cover that isn't sealed. An unsealed lid will allow humid air into the basement, as well as radon gases.
Not only was this sump lid not sealed, but someone used that hole in the sump basket to dispose of their coffee cup. That coffee cup could float into the wrong spot and prevent the float from operating the sump pump... which could lead to a flooded basement. Get the trash out.
Whew. That's enough for this year. These blog posts on new construction inspections keep getting longer and longer. Again, this isn't a knock against builders. The point here is that a new house doesn't mean a perfect house. Even new houses should be inspected by private home inspectors. If you already own a new home and never had it inspected, consider having your home inspected before your one-year warranty is up. We do a lot of those inspections.
While the majority of our moisture testing is done on stucco homes, moisture testing isn't just for homes with stucco siding. Moisture intrusion can happen with any type of siding, and it's always an expensive repair when left unchecked. Just recently, some friends of mine expressed concern about some dirt that started showing up below the corner of their living room window, so they asked me to take a look. The photo below shows the "dirt" they were talking about; click on the image to see a larger version.
Can you guess what caused it?
The title of this blog post probably gives it away, but before I show photos of the rotted wall, let me first explain all of the stuff that went wrong. To start, here's a photo of the front of the house. It's a little tough to see through the tree, but there are no gutters at the upper section of the roof, and the valley at the upper roof dumps water onto the lower roof. From there, the lower roof is supposed to direct water into the gutter.
If there had been gutters installed at the upper portion of the roof, all of that water would have been dealt with, but instead the lower roof gets pounded.
At the lower portion of the roof, there should have been a piece of kick-out flashing installed where the roof ends above the window, but there was none present. This allowed water that ran down the roof/wall intersection to leak in behind the vinyl siding.
Finally, there was no water-resistive barrier installed behind the vinyl siding. As I mentioned in my blog post about how to inspect your own siding, vinyl siding isn't designed to be watertight. It's only supposed to keep most of the water out. It works because there is supposed to be a weather-resistive barrier installed behind the siding, such as Tyvek®, which is a brand name that is somewhat synonymous with house wrap. Unfortunately, water-resistive barriers weren't specifically required by the MN State Building Code until 2003, so it was pretty much hit and miss up until then. In this particular case, it was "miss". Without a water-resistive barrier, all of that water that leaked in behind the siding ended up saturating the wall sheathing and leaking into the wall cavity, where it caused major damage.
I did some moisture testing around the window to confirm my suspicions, then we took the siding off to get a good look at the damage.
Nasty, huh? Thankfully it was just vinyl siding, which does a pretty good job of allowing the wall to dry out. If this had been stucco siding, the damage likely would have been much more extensive and the repairs much more expensive.
Remember, the only visible evidence of this water damage was the little black flecks that had made their way through the window and landed on the carpet. I suspect those were little pieces of rotted wall sheathing blowing into the home during periods of heavy wind, but I'm not 100% sure.
This is the type of damage that home buyers try to avoid when buying any home, and this is why some home buyers choose to have moisture testing performed on homes with vinyl siding. Vinyl does a great job of hiding this kind of damage. While moisture testing on stucco homes is considered an invasive inspection and requires special permission from the homeowner, moisture testing of vinyl sided homes is done by using a non-invasive surface scanner to quickly scan large areas of the siding for moisture intrusion, and then followed up with pin-probe testing behind the siding to verify the results of the surface scanner. The siding is then popped back into place, leaving the siding in it's original condition. This is a non-invasive inspection that requires no special permission from the homeowner.
Included below is a short video clip showing Antonio and I performing moisture testing on a 2007 built townhome that had moisture intrusion below the deck.
If you're buying a home with vinyl siding or you already own a home with vinyl siding and there is concern about water intrusion, have moisture testing performed. Vinyl sided homes with no moisture barrier should always raise concerns, but as seen in the video clip above, moisture intrusion can still occur when a moisture barrier is present. For information about how moisture testing is done on other types of siding, click here: http://www.structuretech1.com/moisture-testing/other-types-of-siding/
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.
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