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 Home Improvement

The Real Story About Residential Fire Sprinklers in Minnesota

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: April 2, 2014 - 5:40 AM

Yesterday's April Fools Day blog post got a lot of folks whipped up about residential sprinkler systems.  

It contained several "tells", such as a quote from local firehouse Captain Charles “Chuck” DeFries saying "I'm lovin' it", as well as a section at the end that said we may need to start installing ball bits on the edges of decks over 30" high for fall protection.  I gotta assume most folks who got upset about this never read the whole thing, because I got a call from someone at the state shortly after 7:30 am, saying they were already receiving phone calls about this issue, so I promptly updated the post saying it was a joke.

Nevertheless, there was a little touch of truth with that post.

Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems Will Likely Be Required in New Minnesota Homes Very Soon.

The truth of the matter is that Minnesota will be adopting the 2012 IRC, which really does have a section that requires sprinkler systems for all new construction homes.  The plan is not to adopt the IRC "as-is", however.  When Minnesota adopts the IRC, Chapter 1309 of the Minnesota Rules will largely consist of a bunch of amendments to the IRC.  To see a draft of the amendments, click here: https://www.dli.mn.gov/PDF/ccac/1309_draft100312.pdf .

At the bottom of page 20 of that document, there's a section on "AUTOMATIC FIRE SPRINKLER SYSTEMS".  The amendments carry on to the top of page 22.  The short version is that fire sprinkler systems will likely be required for new single family homes that are 4,500 sf and over.  This includes the unfinished areas of the home.

None of this is "new" news; I shared this information on the Structure Tech Facebook page nearly three months ago, and KSTP reported on this over five months ago: http://kstp.com/article/stories/s3204951.shtml .

A web site with a petition to fight the sprinkler mandate was created by several builders associations as well as the Minnesota Association of Realtors® in response:  http://nosprinklermandatemn.com/ .  Click that link for more information about the upcoming sprinkler mandate.  According to David Siegel, Executive Director of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities, we're actually just weeks away from the sprinkler proposal becoming a reality.

No joke.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

Four Important Smoke Alarm Safety Tips

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: March 28, 2014 - 5:37 AM

#1: Get Photoelectric Smoke Alarms

There has already been two deadly fires in Minneapolis this year, both occurring within a month of each other.  One left five children dead on February 14th, and another left two adults dead on March 11th.  In both cases, smoke alarms were present.

The vast majority of residential smoke alarms are ionization alarms, which take a long time to respond to smoldering fires.  In many cases, they respond too late.

There is a different type of smoke alarm, available everywhere that smoke alarms are sold, which does not have this problem.  It's called a photoelectric smoke alarm.  If you don't have photoelectric smoke alarms installed in your home, get them.  They're less prone to nuisance alarms and they respond to smoldering fires an average of 30 minutes faster.

Photoelectric smoke alarms are also not much more expensive than ionization smoke alarms.  The photo below shows a price tag at Costco, selling a two-pack for $15.99.

Photoelectric smoke alarms

I blogged about these smoke alarms last year (Photoelectric Smoke Alarms Are All You Need), where I included a couple of compelling news videos that should be enough to convince anyone who watches them to install photoelectric smoke alarms.  Photoelectric smoke alarms are currently required in Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont.  All new smoke alarms in Iowa must be dual-sensor smoke alarms, which must have a photoelectric sensor.

  • Boston Deputy Fire Chief Jay Fleming is a huge proponent of photoelectric smoke alarms.  When news stories come out about people dying in fires, Jay reaches out to that community urging them to make changes.
  • San Bruno home inspector Skip Walker is leading the charge in the home inspection community.  He spends his days inspecting houses and his evenings campaigning for photoelectric smoke alarms.
  • The World Fire Safety Foundation calls ionization smoke alarms "deadly".
  • The International Association of Fire Fighters advocates the use of photoelectric smoke alarms.
  • The American Society of Home Inspectors advocates the use of photoelectric smoke alarms.

Again, if you don't have photoelectric smoke alarms in your home, get them.

#2: Locate Smoke Alarms Properly

At a minimum, smoke alarms should be installed inside of each bedroom, and in at least one common area on every level.

Smoke Alarm Placement Diagram

The manufacturers installation instructions should be followed when installing smoke alarms.  The best place for a smoke alarm is typically on the ceiling, in the middle of the room.  If the smoke alarm is going to be installed on a wall or on the ceiling near a wall, don't place it too close to the corner.  Most manufacturers recommend locating smoke alarms at least 4" away from corners.

Smoke Alarm Placement

When installing smoke alarms on a sloped or peaked ceiling, use the diagram below for guidance.

Smoke Alarm Placement with Sloped Ceiling

#3: Replace Old Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms should be replaced every ten years.  Many smoke alarms have the date on the back of the alarm.  For example, the smoke alarm shown below was manufactured in 2001.

Smoke Alarm Date Code

If you can't find a date on the back, assume it's over ten years old and replace it.  Because CO alarms are only good for five or seven years, I don't recommend buying smoke alarm / CO alarm combo units.  Buy individual alarms.

#4: Get Wireless Smoke Alarms For Older Homes

While homes built within the last twenty years have interconnected, hardwired smoke alarms with battery backups, older homes typically just have independent battery operated smoke alarms.  If a smoke alarm sounds in a basement and the occupants are sleeping on the second floor, will it wake them up?  That's where wireless smoke alarms come in.  These smoke alarms communicate with each other just like interconnected hardwired smoke alarms; if one goes off, they all go off.   Amazon currently sells a two-pack of photoelectric, battery operated, wireless smoke alarms for about $75.  Up to eighteen alarms can be interconnected this way.

Photoelectric Wireless Smoke Alarms

To know if your existing smoke alarms are interconnected, hold down the test button and listen for all of the smoke alarms to sound at the same time.  Sometimes there will be a slight delay between when the first alarm sounds and the rest of the alarms sound, other times they all sound at the same time, like they do in the short video clip below.

I'm assuming everyone already knows to test their smoke alarms and replace the batteries regularly, so I'm not including those in this list.

p.s. - Usually when someone says smoke "detector", they really mean smoke "alarm".  They're not the same thing.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

Knock, Knock! How to Navigate Through Storm Damage Contractors

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: March 21, 2014 - 6:23 AM

This is a guest blog post by Ryan Carey, of My 3 Quotes.

I don't know what's worse, the storm damage itself or what follows after. Many of you have been through it- hunkered in the basement storm damagehoping a tornado doesn't drop, when all of a sudden you hear something that sounds like Tiger Woods hitting rapid fire 2-iron shots at your house. But you don't live near a golf course. Is your car outside? How is the roof holding up? Did a tree just snap? Was that breaking glass?

When the last wave of awful weather finally passes and you're out inspecting the damage, the first wave of storm-chasers starts to hit. In some cases, they are knocking on your door before the last rain drops have stopped. They have been driving around, listening to the radio and getting hail reports sent to their phone. They have been cheering for the largest hail possible and this storm looks like a winner! In this post, we will be talking about what to look for and what to avoid in the multi-billion dollar game that is storm damage restoration.

Knock, Knock!

First of all, just because a company knocks on your door does not mean that they are a bad company. Local companies that got fed up with losing business to out-of-towners have jumped into door-knocking as well, even if it isn't part of their normal M.O. The important thing to remember is to NOT sign anything until you've done your homework. Many companies that do primarily storm damage follow storms around the country, so you want to make sure that someone will be around to service your roof if starts to leak or if any other problem pops up.door knockers

The process is this: you will get a knock on your door by someone offering to do a free inspection on your roof. This sounds pretty good to you, since you don't know exactly what hail damage on a roof looks like. When he comes back down, he'll tell you that there is damage up there and he happens to be an expert when it comes to working with insurance adjusters. He then takes out an insurance commit form and explains what it means. He says that this form gives him permission to work on your behalf with your insurance adjuster. By signing it, you agree that if the damage gets covered, this is the company you will use. If it doesn't get approved, then you aren't committed to anything. This seems like a reasonable request to you, since he was nice enough to go up and do a thorough examination of your roof. And after all, no money out of your pocket besides the deductible so why not?

Hire Local

I'll tell you why not. The company is headquartered out of state, and when this storm is tapped out they are moving on to the next one.  I can't stress this enough.  Choosing a storm damage contractor should be no different than choosing a contractor for anything else. My advice is to use a local company with longevity who will be around to help if anything needs fixing. Examine the contractor's labor or "workmanship" warranty. Read reviews and check out the BBB. Go look at jobs they have done. This is too important a decision to just sign with the first person that knocks on your door, but you would be surprised at how many people do.

Over the years, more and more homeowners have started to ask if the company is local, so the storm-chasers have adjusted. Some out-of-state companies will come in and set up shop with a local and do business under that company's name. The local company gets a cut and will be here to do the service if needed. When the person who knocks on your door has a southern accent but is "working" for a company that has been in Minnesota for 20 years, that just might be the case.  There is also the possibility that it's a Minnesota company that does work nationally, and they bring in all the resources from around the country when the big one hits here.  The way to find out is to ask more questions and do your research.

Get A Quote

You will get a ton of funny responses if you ask the contractor a certain question. "Can you please give me a quote on what the job will cost?" Most will refuse, because they know the final price tag will be much higher through working the insurance process than they would normally bid if they were in a competitive estimate situation. In the My 3 Quotes process, almost every time I've had the contractors I work with bid on an insurance job that includes asphalt roofing, the bids come in thousands less than what the insurance companies pay out. Normally, the chosen contractor would be working to raise the initial pay-out another 20%; most of them have a specific person in the office who's job it is to work the insurance software program (called Xactimate) for more money. And people wonder why the premiums go up. Insurance companies don't require competitive bids, so every contractor is free to work the system for as much extra money as they can get once they get selected as your contractor.

You can hardly blame the storm chasing contractors for this, as the insurance companies have left doors open for knowledgeable contractors to raise the price to very high profit margins. This is why so many companies ONLY do storm damage. Competing against others on price and quality? Way too much work! This is so much easier. Get the customer to sign the commit form and watch the dollars come rolling in!

With all this extra money available, many contractors offer to "pay" the customer's deductible to cement the deal. If the insurance company asks for an invoice, they will actually send them one for the full amount including deductible but charge the customer for less. If you do this, both you and the contractor are engaging in insurance fraud, plain and simple.

Getting Out of a Contract

So what do you do if you signed the commit form and find out later that it is NOT a company you want to do business with? If you are beyond the 3-day right to cancel, many customers feel they are stuck. The fact is, if you only signed the commit form but did not sign an actual contract for scope of work with a down payment, very few companies will ever fight you on it if you tell them you want to cancel. They may try to scare you and say they will, but most won't. Many of these commit forms say they are entitled to 25% of the job total if you cancel after the 3 days.

The question for them is, 25% of what? If you no longer communicate with them on whether the job got approved or not by insurance (and if it did, they won't know for how much), how will they arrive at a 25% fee? Again, unless companies have down payments from you (or have ordered material on your behalf), they are in an uphill battle trying to do business with a homeowner that wants nothing to do with them. Most will give up pretty quickly.

Are You Signing a Permission Slip or a Contract?

Some salespeople are deceptive when it comes to getting that original signature. They will tell you it is just for permission to talk to your insurance company, but they will gloss over the part where it says you must to do the work with them. My best advice would be to ask them to leave behind their form so you can look it over. If they are not willing to do this, send them on their way. The second option is to avoid all door-knockers and simply call the company you would like to inspect your roof so YOU are in control of making this important decision.

What About Windows?

Another important question to ask any contractor is if they will handle damaged windows in your insurance claim. Many are up for the quick score of roofing or siding, so they ignore damage to the windows. Windows are more work to identify, take more time to order for custom-sizing (thus delaying the final payment), and for many contractors it is not their expertise. If you have aluminum clad windows, make sure to have them inspected. In some storms, the hail and wind are so severe that the seals of the double pane window fail. This results in a cloudy look to your windows that you can't get clean, sometimes with visible condensation between the two panes. Make sure everything is looked at during the inspection.

Contractor vs. Adjuster

One last thing to remember is that many of these storm-chasing contractors will tell you that you have damage even if you don't. They are simply playing the odds that maybe one of the adjusters who comes out might be new and could be bullied into approving the job. The Lifted Shinglesinsurance adjusters usually know who these companies are and shake their head when they see who you signed with. If the adjuster does not approve the job, the contractor may ask you to threaten the insurance company with losing your business if they don't approve it, and things can get ugly from there.

There are many battles between adjusters and contractors, and many times they play out right in front of the customer. If you see this happening, have the contractor show you what damage he is seeing. Have him take pictures of it if you don't feel like getting up on your roof. There are certainly times when the contractor is right and the insurance company is not being fair about obvious damage. Just be aware that some contractors practice the "every house has damage" angle.

Insurance Company Shenanigans

Now that you know some of the things contractors may try to pull, be aware that the insurance companies have their moments as well.  Sometimes they low-ball the estimate and the contractors have to work hard for supplements that are needed just to make the job turn a profit (getting multiple quotes would let you know pretty quick if your insurance company is over-paying or under-paying).  Sometimes their first adjuster doesn't cover obvious damage, and it takes the contractor to schedule a re-adjustment to get the repair to go through.  Sometimes they change the terms of your coverage without you knowing it.

Minnesota has been a state that required full house replacement for siding or roofing if some product is damaged and the product is no longer made by the manufacturer.  However, some companies will hide a change in the 20+ page document they send each year which states that is no longer valid unless you add a low-cost rider to your coverage.  Most people would pay the small extra charge to cover this, but they don't even know that it has changed.  When you receive that booklet, call your agent and ask if anything is changing that you should know about (or take the time to read the whole boring thing).  Otherwise, you may be in a situation where you have to find the "closest match available" for only the siding or roofing that is damaged.  This could mean a checker-board look to your house as your insurance company only covers individual shingles or siding panels.

Also, good luck finding a contractor who will put a warranty on a roof that they are only doing part of.  No contractor wants to be held responsible for a leak in part of the roof they didn't do.  Now is a great time to call your agent to go through these questions, before the storms hit.

Wood Roof Shortcomings

While insurance companies can end up over-paying for jobs that include asphalt roofing, there are other items some insurance companies are notorious for underbidding.  The Xactimate software has no idea when it comes to cedar shake roofing or windows.  I guess I'm really saying that whoever programmed it had no idea.  In many cases, the numbers it spits out for those two items are not enough for contractors to complete the work.  Most companies will allow contractors to send in their window bid and adjust to it because they know the system is flawed.  That gives the contractor another opportunity to inflate a bid with no competition.

Some companies dig in their heels more with cedar shake roofing, and local contractors have had a tough time getting enough money for that unless they can get supplements elsewhere.  If there are more than three trades in the job, some insurance companies will give an extra 20% (called 10% profit, 10% overhead) for contracting  out all trades and that will usually get the contractors where they need to be, even if the original pay-out was underbid.  In other cases, that ends up being some heavy icing on an already bulging cake.

We all know there will be storms every summer. If the big one hits your area, take some time before making any decisions and try to resist the multiple door-knocks. Or you can do what a former neighbor of mine did...he put a sign by his door that said, "Please leave your fliers here!" Underneath was an arrow pointing to his garbage can.

Ryan Carey has 15 years of experience in exterior remodeling for Twin Cities Homeowners and Property Management Companies.  He is the owner of “My 3 Quotes,” a company that provides the free service of collecting 3 competitive home improvement bids for customers.  For more information, visit www.getmy3quotes.com for free home improvement estimates.  

Whole House Fans

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: March 13, 2014 - 5:43 AM

What's that big ugly metal thing at the ceiling in the hallway?

Whole House Fan

Those are the louvers for a whole house fan.  While they're not common in Minnesota, I see a few of them every year while doing home inspections.  A traditional whole house fan basically consists of a huge, noisy, scary looking fan installed at the ceiling in the hallway of the uppermost level of a home.  When a whole-house fan runs, it pulls air out of the house and directs it into the attic space, and from there, the air gets exhausted through the attic vents.  The opening at the ceiling is covered with metal louvers that get sucked open when the fan turns on; that's what you're seeing in the photos above and below. Whole House Fan

The ideal time to use a whole house fan is in the evening after a hot day, when the outdoor temperature is lower than the indoor temperature.  As long as all of the windows are opened, the whole house fan will pull cool air into the house, and flush out hotter air in the attic.  Not only does this cool the house down quite quickly, but it provides a ton a fresh air into the home, and costs much less to operate than an air conditioner.  It's no wonder people love these.

The video clip below shows an old super-powerful window fan, which was essentially a whole-house fan installed at a window.  As I pushed the office door shut, the air rushing into the room kept pushing the door back open.  That's some serious air movement.

Whole house fans are great, but there are a few important things to know if you own one.

The windows need to be opened before using a whole-house fan.  If you've read some of my blog posts about makeup air, combustion airbackdrafting water heaters, or you intuitively understand that all of that air leaving turns the house into a big vacuum, you're probably wondering what will happen when the atmospherically vented water heater fires up... or maybe you already know.  It's going to backdraft like crazy, of course.   Instead of the exhaust gases rises up the vent through gravity, the whole house fan is going to pull the exhaust gases back into the home, which is a hazard.

To help prevent this from happening, it's important to open most or all of the windows in the house, as well as the interior doors between hallways and rooms.  Not only will this help prevent the water heater from backdrafting, but it also gives the fan all of the air it needs, providing better fresh air circulation throughout the house.

Whole-house fans can be a major source of energy loss during the winter.  

Attic bypass around whole-house fan

Without a doubt, one of the worst sources of air leakage into the attic space is an opening for a whole-house fan.  This leads to heat loss, cold air dumping into the hallway, ice dams, and frost in the attic.  To help prevent air leakage at this location, it's a good idea to seal off the opening at the ceiling with a window insulating kit every fall.

The two ways to insulate around this opening are from the attic or the ceiling.  If this opening is insulated from the ceiling, there will be a big ugly chunk of insulation boxed in at the ceiling in the hallway.  If the opening is insulated from the attic side, it will need to consist of a custom insulated box that covers the fan without any gaps.  I remember inspecting a home in Saint Paul that had a perfect insulated box for the whole-house fan, which the owner had spent many weekends perfecting.

Don't bother throwing a few fiberglass batts over the fan; that will be just about useless, and if someone accidentally turns the fan on while the insulation is blocking the blades, you'll have a mess.  To lower the potential for someone accidentally operating the fan during the winter, it's a good idea to shut off power to the fan at the circuit breaker.

If you love the idea of a whole house fan and you'd like to install one in your own home, take a look at some of the newer ones available and read more about them at www.wholehousefan.com .  Newer ones are smaller, quieter, non-threatening, and come with self-closing dampers to help reduce air leakage and energy loss.  They look pretty sweet, and every homeowner I've ever talked to that had a whole-house fan absolutely loved it.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

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
          

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