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.

Posts about Real Estate

Testing Water Flow at Old Houses, Problems with Galvanized Water Pipes

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: May 15, 2014 - 2:09 PM

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. 

Leaking galvanized pipe 

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. 

Duct tape repair on galvanized pipe

Galvanized Water Supply

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. 

Galvanized Supply Pipe 

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.

Item 19 on Minneapolis TISH 

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. 

Copper tubing  Galvanized supply pipe buried 

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.

Drop in water flow

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."

Major drop in 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 Water Distribution Pipes

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. 

Hack repairs to galvanized pipes

Testing Water Flow

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.

Minimal water flow 

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 

          

Stucco repairs: Three case studies

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: April 24, 2014 - 4:39 AM

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.  

Case Study #1: Retrofit Repair

Review the Moisture Testing Report

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. Moisture Testing Report  

To keep this short, I'm only focusing on a small portion of the house.

Partial Stucco Removal

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.

Water damage below window

Stucco Repair

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.

Stucco Repairs below 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.

Stucco Maintenance

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.

Case Study #2: Wall-to-Wall Repair

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.

Stucco repairs 1 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.

Stucco repairs 3 Proper kickout flashing gets installed at the roof end, and a quality drainage plane was installed to create an air gap.

Stucco repairs 3 Finally, new stucco is installed, the old stucco is caulked and sealed, and everything is painted with a high-quality, breathable stucco paint to give the entire front of the house a uniform look.

Completed Stucco Repairs 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.

Case Study #3: Full Stucco Tear-off and Replacement

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.

Exploratory Hole in Stucco

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.

Stucco Patch

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.

Photos

The photos below show the home before the stucco was torn off, while it was being repaired, as well as the finished product.

Stucco home with concealed moisture damage stucco water damage stucco water damage repairs window flashing Re-sided home

Benefits of a Full Tear-off and Redo

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

          

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

          

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