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.

How To Prevent Ceiling Stains Around Your Bathroom Exhaust Fan

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: July 17, 2014 - 5:26 AM

It’s common to find stained ceilings around bathroom exhaust fans in Minnesota, as well as stains in the attic around where the bathroom exhaust fan terminates at the roof.  Home inspectors find these things all the time.

Ceiling Stain bath fan

While the knee-jerk reaction that most homeowners have is to call a roofer when a stain shows up at the bath fan, this type of staining is rarely the result of a roof leak. This is typically the result of condensation.

The job of a bathroom exhaust fan is to remove moist air and foul odors from the bathroom. When moist air is carried through a duct that passes through a cold attic space, condensation will occur inside the duct. When enough condensate accumulates, it drains to the bottom, leaks through the fan, and stains the ceiling. It’s as simple as that. To help prevent these stains from occurring, take these steps to minimize condensation inside the duct.

Use an insulated duct inside the attic.  This is a no-brainer.  If you have an uninsulated duct in your attic, don’t try to wrap a bunch of fiberglass insulation around it in a feeble attempt to insulate.  That’s a time consuming chore that probably won’t work work out well.  Instead, just replace the uninsulated duct with an insulated one.  They’re not that expensive, and it’s a lot less work than trying to insulate an existing duct.  Click here for an example of a pre-insulated 4″ duct sold at Home Depot.  Don't use metal ductwork; you'll end up with way too much condensation.

Use the shortest run possible.  The longer the bath fan duct, the greater the potential for condensation inside the duct.  These ducts will sometimes run from one side of the attic to the other to create a more aesthetically appealing roof line, but this increases the potential for condensation and reduces the performance of the fan. Bath fans aimed at roof vent

Make sure the duct is tightly connected to a roof cap with a damper.  The damper will help prevent cold air from dumping back down into the house, which may lead to condensation right at the fan itself.  The duct should not be aimed at a roof vent or have any loose connections inside the attic.  Anything other than a tight connection to a dampered roof cap is an improper installation that can lead to problems.

If you recently had your roof covering replaced, have someone get up into the attic to verify the bath fan duct is still tightly connected.  It's common for roofing nails to knock the bath fan duct right off the roof, or at least knock it loose.  Click the photo below to see a large image showing exactly how this happens.

Loose bath fan duct in attic

Here's a photo of a loose duct at a new construction inspection.

Loose bath fan duct new construction attic

Side note: attics should be accessed for every home inspection.  Every time.  New, old, whatever.  If someone doesn't want your home inspector to "break the seal" at the attic, make a big stink about this.

When the fan connection is loose, moist air can escape into the attic, and cold air from the attic will dump down the duct when the fan isn't running, increasing the potential for condensation in the duct.

Check the damper at the roof cap periodically.  This should be a part of any home maintenance inspection, whether the inspection is done by the homeowner or a home inspector.

home inspector on roof

If the damper at the roof cap gets stuck shut, it’s pretty much a guarantee that moisture will condense inside the duct.  To check the operation of the damper, turn the fan on and make sure air is coming out at the terminal.  If there is no air movement, check to make sure the damper opens freely. Dampers made before 2006 had a serious flaw that caused the damper to get stuck closed all by itself.  For more information on that topic, click here: A Common Problem with Roof Caps for Bath Fans.  The other common reason for roof caps to get stuck shut is wasps.  They love to make nests inside of roof caps, and even the smallest nests are enough to prevent a roof cap from opening.  Just one more reason to love wasps, right?

Small wasp nest at roof cap

If it's not safe to walk the roof, try looking up at the roof cap from the ground with a pair of binoculars while someone inside the house turns the bath fan on and off; if it's working properly, you should be able to see the damper opening and closing. Click this link for more information on the causes of moisture stains on ceilings.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections


Zinc Strips on Mossy Roof, Four Years Later

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: July 10, 2014 - 5:05 AM

In November of 2011 I wrote a blog post about using zinc strips to prevent moss from growing on the roof, or possibly to kill moss.  I conducted a fairly long-term experiment by installing zinc strips on a moss-covered garage roof, and showed before and after photos after the zinc had sixteen months to work its magic.

The results were much better than I had expected.  The first photo, showing the untouched roof from July of 2010, showed a lot of moss growth.

Mossy roof before

The next photo, from November of 2011, showed far less moss.  I used a leaf blower to clean the roof off before taking that photo.

Mossy roof after

It's been about four years since I installed that zinc strip, and the shingles are going to be replaced soon, so I'm showing a final follow-up photo before that happens.

Mossy Roof four years later

As you can see, it looks like there has been some new moss growth.  Why?  I don't know.  Perhaps the zinc strips lose some of their effectiveness over time?  Maybe the record amount of rainfall we've received this year has made the moss growth worse.  I'm not sure.  The bottom line is that zinc strips certainly help, but it's tough to say whether they're worth the extra money.

To read the original post, click here:

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections


Maintenance Inspections for Homeowners

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: July 3, 2014 - 6:01 AM

Homeowner maintenance inspections are becoming more and more popular in Minnesota.  About a month ago I had a full week where all I did was homeowner maintenance inspections.  Not a single real-estate transaction all week.

That's not to say that the real estate market is slow; sales are certainly up.  It's just that most purchase agreements in Minnesota only give home buyers five business days to get their new home inspected.  Because of that, we typically don't schedule any real-estate transaction inspections out past five business days, but when it's a homeowner maintenance inspection, most folks don't mind waiting a week or two to get the inspection done.

What's a Maintenance Inspection?

A maintenance inspection is essentially the same as a standard home inspection, but the inspection is done for the current owner.  Most of these homeowners have been in their homes for over ten years, and they may or may not have had their home inspected at the time they purchased it.  One small difference between a buyers inspection and a home maintenance inspection is that we don't test the appliances during a maintenance inspection. Homeowners already know about every little funky issue with their appliances; they don't need me to test out the burners on their stove for them.  We do inspect the installation of the appliances though.

basement cabinetAnother difference between a buyers inspection and a homeowner maintenance inspection is that we sometimes go a little 'Mike Holmes' on the house by cutting into stuff or taking stuff apart that we wouldn't normally do for a traditional home inspection.  While a traditional buyers inspection is subject to a purchase agreement with standard language saying it's a non-invasive inspection, we don't have those kinds of limitations with a maintenance inspection.  Usually, the homeowner is right there with me for the maintenance inspection.  If I'm concerned about water intrusion below that basement cabinet in the corner, I'll ask the owner if I can drill a hole in the back of the cabinet and stick a borescope in there to check it out.

Just last week I inspected a home in Maple Grove for a homeowner who had water in his in-floor ducts, and we removed the supply plenum coming off the furnace to get a look in the ductwork right next to the furnace, which revealed where the water was most likely coming from.

I think most home inspectors enjoy getting to the bottom of stuff like this, and homeowners appreciate the extra work involved to get to the bottom of questions.  Win-win.  Everyone's happy and I sleep better at night.

Why get a Maintenance Inspection?

Think of a maintenance inspection as a checkup visit to the doctor or dentist that need only happen every five years or so.  A maintenance inspection will help to prioritize a home improvement list, and to hopefully find out about small problems before they turn into big ones.  In some cases, a maintenance inspection will reveal that what was thought to be a small problem has already turned into a big one.

A maintenance inspection also gives homeowners a chance to have a professional home inspector answer questions with a completely unbiased viewpoint.

Is it normal for the lights to dim like this when the AC turns on?  Is my deck still safe?  Can I leave that buried fuel oil tank in the yard when I sell?  My roofer said the roof should be replaced; does it really need replacement this year, or can it wait?  Should I invest in new windows or more insulation in the attic?

The home inspector isn't there to sell anything.  We're just there to give unbiased, accurate information.

What about a-la-carte / single item inspections?

When someone has a specific problem with their house that they want to get to the bottom of, or they just have a few particular issues that they want to have addressed, I call it an a-la-carte or single item inspection.  We do a lot of those, but the price of a troubleshooting inspection for a particular issue is typically about half the price of a full inspection.  In most cases, we end up doing full inspections because a  homeowner is dealing with a persistent problem that nobody can get to the bottom of.  The owner has been meaning to have several things looked at by various professionals, and this is the owner's chance to get it all done at once in a matter of hours.

At most single item inspections, I end up walking past a number of other major concerns that jump out at me... does the owner know their downspouts drain right against the house?  does the owner know they're missing kickout flashing and water is probably pouring into the wall behind the siding every time it rains?  does the owner know their dryer vent is clogged and creating a fire hazard? ...  but I usually try to keep my mouth shut unless it's a safety issue, and even then, it needs to be brought up tactfully.  A homeowner's home is not their castle; it's their baby.

If you have a persistent problem with your home that you want to get to the bottom of, you want help prioritizing repairs, you'd like to know the overall condition of your house, or you'd like to get an unbiased opinion on home improvements, contact a professional home inspector to conduct a maintenance inspection.

If you'd prefer to conduct your own inspection, check out these two blog posts from last year on how to conduct your own inspection:

These blog posts were focused on conducting cursory home inspections while looking at real estate in the Twin Cities, especially at older houses in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.  In the near future I'll have a follow-up post on how to conduct a maintenance inspection on your own home.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections


Don't Vent Your Clothes Dryer Through the Roof

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: June 26, 2014 - 5:17 AM

As soon as I'm in charge, there will be no more venting of clothes dryers through the roof.  I think the roof is a stupid spot to terminate clothes dryer vents because it's difficult to clean and it's a major contributor to ice dams.  Clothes dryers should be vented through the side of the house, preferably within reach from the ground.

Ice Dam Contributor

When bath fans and clothes dryers vent through the roof, they melt a bunch of snow.  After the snow melts below the vent, it'll probably freeze again farther down on the roof.  If this happens enough, an ice dam will form that's large enough to cause roof leaks.  These areas of the roof are especially susceptible to roof leaks because there is no ice and water shield installed in these locations.  I blogged about this earlier this year: Advanced Ice Dam Prevention.

Tough to Clean

As I mentioned in my blog post about keeping your clothes dryer safe, the terminals for clothes dryers need to be cleaned on a regular basis.  These terminals can get extremely dirty with lint over time, and eventually, the dampers get stuck open.

dryer terminal in need of cleaning

Eventually, the terminal will get so filled with lint that air flow is obstructed, which will reduce the performance of the clothes dryer and could actually cause a fire.  Cleaning the dryer terminal at old houses is usually a piece of cake; the lint can just be wiped off and pulled out by hand.  The dryer terminal is easy to access at these houses because laundry rooms used to be installed in basements or on the first floor... but not any more.  The standard for new two-story homes for nearly the last ten years has been to install the laundry room at the second floor.  When that happens, where does the dryer duct go?  Through the roof, of course.  Most of the time.
Dryer duct through roof
This arrangement will work fine at first, but just like dryer vents that go through the side of the house, the terminal will eventually get clogged with lint.  The photos below are from a recent inspection of a 2007 built home in Plymouth that had a badly clogged dryer vent terminal at the roof.
Dryer Terminal at roof
Clogged dryer terminal at roof
While I usually don't perform repairs or home maintenance chores at homes while I'm inspecting them, I couldn't help but pull some of the lint out.  There was enough to start several campfires.
Ball of lint pulled out
If you're having a home built, try to have your builder terminate the dryer duct at a location that makes sense.  In my humble opinion, dryer vent terminals should be accessible from the ground.
If you already have a home with a dryer that terminates at the roof, be sure to have the terminal cleaned on a regular basis, and consider having the terminal replaced with a  DryerJack terminal.  Get the extra clearance model 486.  I don't have any personal experience with these, but I'm a fan of the company that makes them: In-O-Vate Dryer Products.   They make a bunch of products designed to make clothes dryers perform better.  I tested out their DryerFlex product a couple of years ago and blogged about it here:  DryerFlex: A Superior Dryer Transition Duct.
Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections


Siding Replacement Wars: James Hardie vs. LP SmartSide in a Battle for Contractors, Builders, and You

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: June 19, 2014 - 6:06 AM

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

We've all seen some epic battles over competing products in which parts of the ad campaign relied on going after the competition. Pepsi vs. Coke, Chevy vs. Ford, or today's PC vs. Mac and I-Phone vs. Android are just a few. While those have played out on the national stage, home improvement product battles take place with the contractors, builders, or with you at your kitchen table. The current battle of paintable composite siding boards has given rise to quite the rivalry between LP SmartSide and James Hardie. These two really don't like each other; they make the Vikings/Packers rivalry look pretty tame in comparison. And like Vikings/Packers, the front line of this battle is taking place in the Twin Cities because this is one of the top remodeling and building markets in the nation.

Why Use Paintable Composite or Engineered Wood Boards?

Siding on new houseAfter thousands upon thousands of houses were done in "maintenance-free" siding like aluminum, steel, and vinyl, a demand for more traditional looking paintable products started to build in the 90's and into the 2000's. Most customers wanted the wider 6" or 7" exposure to differentiate from all the 4" vinyl out there. However, these new products needed to perform much better than earlier hardboard products, which had the problem of swelling and falling apart in high moisture areas. Some were basically sawdust and glue. Customers also wanted to stay away from the expense and regular refinishing needed with real cedar.

Modern composite boards were the answer for millions of homeowners. They got the traditional look they wanted with a vastly improved resistance to moisture. One advantage of these boards over maintenance-free products comes when it is time to sell the house. A fresh coat of paint can make the product look brand new again if it had experienced some fading over time. Also, these types of products stand up much better to hail and other impact than vinyl, aluminum, or steel.

Hardie Takes Over

James Hardie sidingAn Australian company, James Hardie, stepped in to the market with their "fiber cement" product and began killing it in the 90's. Many new neighborhoods were built with a Hardie covenant, meaning every house must be sided in Hardie. Building plans with more traditional looks were calling for Hardie every time. It could be purchased primed (to be painted on the house) or it could be ordered pre-finished with one of their "Colors Plus" colors. Despite some other fiber cement products on the market, like "Certainteed Weatherboards" or the Japanese "Nichiha," the term "Hardie Board" became known as the generic term for "Fiber Cement," much like "Kleenex." They were working with little competition, and the customers were loving the look of the product.

While contractors had complained about Hardie's service with certain warranty issues, they were in no position to switch to anything else. As a response to some of the delamination issues that came up in high moisture areas or as a result of it being installed incorrectly, Hardie re-formulated their product a few years back for the northern climate and named it HZ5. It has improved the overall performance of the product. Also, I have heard that the reps have been more receptive and helpful with warranty claims than they once were. Could the reason for this be that a certain competitor has been taking large bites out of its market share? Enter LP SmartSide.

Here Comes LP Smartside

LP SmartSideLP (Louisiana Pacific) SmartSide came into the marketplace in 1997 with barely a blip on the radar. LP had just gone through the fiasco of their earlier Oriented Strand Board (OSB) siding product, Inner Seal, which had major problems. It was plagued with rot and swelling, and once that process started the paint would no longer hold. LP had to settle a class action lawsuit and resolve homeowners' claims.  Obviously, the focus of their next siding panel would be resistance from moisture. They still use OSB product, but all of the wood flakes are coated in zinc borate beforebeing pressed into siding with MDI resins and marine waxes.   The result? More than 7 billion square feet of siding sold and over 17 years of dependable performance.  I've not had to deal with one warranty claim on this product.  

Aluminum flashing from roof line to Hardie shake

The confidence in moisture resistance also shows in their install specifications.  LP can be installed 1" up from where a roof line meets a wall; Hardie requires a 2" gap to maintain warranty.  The 2" gap requirement leaves installers with a challenge to put something in that gap that looks better than exposed shiny aluminum flashing.  Some paint the aluminum only to have it peel later.  Others use a small trim board made of a PVC-heavy composite. The image to the right shows aluminum flashing in the gap from the roof line to the Hardie shakes.

When I first saw LP SmartSide, I was pretty skeptical of an OSB siding product based on the history. It took seeing moisture tests and demonstrations for me to become a believer. If you pour water on the back side of each product, it will absorb into the Hardie while staying beaded up on the SmartSide.  There is a lumber desk employee who had a piece of SmartSide submerged in a pail of water by his chair- when people asked about how it handles moisture, he would pull it out of the pail and show them how it stayed intact.

LP Advantages

This is why LP SmartSide has resonated like it has with contractors and builders. Once the contractors believed in the product, the information was passed to the homeowners, including the following advantages: LP SmartSide has superior moisture protection and strength, longer lengths than Hardie (16' over 12'), less weight than Hardie, and is less expensive to install (no special cutting tools needed).  Most importantly, contractors weren't spending their time on warranty claims.  LP has quietly won over more contractors, builders, and homeowners every year. LP had its eye on showing advantages to James Hardie from day one. Hardie now fully realizes the threat that LP poses to them, and is aiming a lot of marketing material back at their foe.

Hardie has a video on their website showing an "OSB product" delaminating, rotting, and falling apart. That product on the house, of course, is the old Inner Seal that had the class-action lawsuit, but Hardie is trying to generate as much doubt into any OSB product as possible to slow down Smartside's rise.  They also have an 11-point siding check list based on Hardie vs. a "wood-based" product.  I love these checklists that include phantom products!  LP SmartSide would have actually scored really good on that check list. Of course the unnamed "wood-based" product (that must have all the worst attributes of anything ever made with wood) only got credit for 2 token positive marks on the list, I believe for "not melting" and "not causing childhood obesity."

LP has many marketing pieces on comparisons of SmartSide vs. "fiber cement," which you can also find on their website. They recently posted an impact test done by NASA, showing LP with much greater impact resistance than fiber cement. Which fiber cement? Not sure, since they never name each others' brands on these comparisons. I'm guessing the legal department has its concerns with that, but I would love to see them start to call each other out by name in a WWE-style tirade.

Hardie Advantages

James Hardie ShakesHardie is non-combustible, ASTM-rated for fire protection, which is a property of being a fiber cement product.  Also, Hardie has the huge advantage of more name-brand recognition. That is still a battle that LP is fighting, and they have been putting more money into it in the last few years. They have relied more on contractor word-of-mouth, but lots of LP radio ads have helped their branding lately. They are also the corporate sponsor of LP field, where the Tennessee Titans play. Their corporate headquarters are in Nashville, and they do have a Minnesota plant up in Two Harbors. Despite that, Hardie had a big jump on LP by being the name that gets mentioned in every composite board conversation. Customers have asked over the years, "Do you carry Hardie Board?" Only recently have customers started to ask for SmartSide by name.

For another Hardie advantage, I've always thought Hardie's shakes look better than the LP shakes. Putting shake siding in the peaks (or gables) of LP Smartside Shakeshouses has been a very popular way to dress up the front of the house for curb appeal. Hardie's shake has a laid back cape cod look on both their straight-edge and staggered edge version. LP makes more of a bold, hand-split rustic shake for an up-north look. The look of the shake is all about personal preference, but I have had others share my opinion on that. I've had customers of mine do LP on the house and combine it with Hardie shakes in the gables. I've also had customers do Hardie siding and combine it with LP corner posts, since LP corners have a cedar woodgrain and the Hardie corners only come in smooth (same with window trim boards). Products from bitter rivals on the same house? Happens quite a bit, actually. For the siding boards themselves, LP has a little deeper woodgrain than Hardie, but they are both designed to look like cedar and they both do a pretty darn good job.

Prefinishing Options

Hardie is the only one that comes prefinished from the manufacturer, with the Colors Plus process that has a 15-year warranty. Both Hardie and LP can also be prefinished through a number of different outlets that are arranged through the contractor. Any color under the sun can be put on your home. Prefinishing warranties have improved over time, and two of my favorite prefinishing options are from Prefinished Staining Products and Diamond Kote. Prefinished carries a Lifetime paint warranty for the lifetime of the existing homeowner that includes an excessive fade warranty. DiamondKote from Wausau Supply offers the only 30 yr no-fade warranty in the industry, and has a very impressive paint process. It must be noted, however, that these products have a bit of a shine to them so make sure you look at the samples before signing off.

And the winner is...

LPSmartSide houseLP SmartSide. I used to work at a large contractor that sold installed services for both products. All of the 10 sales reps that worked there recommended LP over Hardie to customers, despite the fact that the Hardie job would be a higher ticket sale. Again, this is what happens when contractors believe strongly in a product and have good experiences with the reps from that company. With My 3 Quotes, I can collect quotes for customers using any siding on the market. When asked for my opinion on LP vs. Hardie, I simply tell customers that I believe LP has more advantages and you'll pay less. That's not to say that I don't think they are both great products; I've had many happy customers with each one. Some like the look of one woodgrain over the other and that makes their decision. Some are more comfortable because they have heard of Hardie and they like the name brand recognition. Others may have been referred by a friend or neighbor and want whatever they have.

However, the SmartSide advantages easily tip the scales in their direction for me and for many others in the industry. That is why this battle is very intense at this stage. There are contractors talking about Hardie getting more competitive with pricing and even trying to "buy back" home builders they have lost to LP.  In other words, offering a big lump of cash up front for builders to switch back to Hardie. LP SmartSide is using its competitive advantages in an effort to de-throne King Hardie, and obviously the King doesn't plan on going down without a fight. It's been truly amazing to watch SmartSide go from a product that few ever mentioned in contractor circles 10 years ago to a royal pain for Hardie today. It will be interesting to see how the battle plays out from here, but a good competition like this is always great for the end customer. When two companies badly want to earn your business over the other, you typically see a renewed emphasis on better service and competitive pricing.

* * * * *

Ryan CareyRyan 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 for free home improvement estimates on window replacement, siding, roofing, and more.  

Related Post: Problems with James Hardie Siding Installations


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