Making a Big Deal of Nothing
by Jeffrey C. May, J. May Home Inspections, Inc.
Good home inspectors are often accused of exaggerating and of being “alarmist.” In defense of those home inspectors who have been so accused, I would like to present a few examples when this home inspector’s clanging was not a false alarm.
While inspecting a condominium in a three-unit building, I noted a closet electric light mounted on the ceiling close to a shelf and remarked to the buyer that the bulb was a potential fire hazard should combustible materials such as clothing come in contact with the bulb. The broker looked skeptical but the first floor unit owner who was attending the inspection observed that such a situation had just caused a fire in the same closet of the second floor unit.
Looking at the outside of a multi-unit condominium that had been gutted in the last ten years, I noted symmetrical step cracks in the brickwork at one end of the building in the support wall for all four stories. These bricks had moved a quarter of an inch in the ten years since the exterior had been repointed. I expressed concern to the buyer and suggested that he engage a structural engineer to evaluate the situation. I called the buyer up the next day to find out if he had made the appointment. “No,” he replied. “I was told by the real estate agent that the condo Association knows all about the cracks and that there is probably nothing to worry about.” I insisted that the buyer have the engineer inspect the building, and as it turned out , the wall was about to collapse. Rebuilding the entire wall cost the Association over $30,000.
Mushrooms are a fine delicacy but one need not grow fungi on the side of one’s house. I viewed one home with a single, small “mushroom” sprouting at the bottom of a trim-board at the side of a sliding door. I was alarmed enough to recommend that prior to purchase and sale, a carpenter remove a few shingles to determine the extent of the decay. Little did anyone know that my request at this twelve year-old house would lead to rebuilding l5 feet of outside wall due to severe, concealed decay.
I glimpsed a “mushroom” on the siding of a different home; further investigation led to the resolution of a severe interior mold odor problem along with the replacement of all the siding on the exterior of the house. (This particular type of “hardboard” siding manufactured by Louisiana-Pacific Corporation is now the subject of a class action suit; call L.P. at 1-800-648-6893 for information.)
At one home, the broker noted that the seller had just spent $3,000 repairing cracks in the foundation. Indeed, it was obvious that the cracks had just recently been filled with epoxy grout; however, I found new cracks which suggested that whatever process was causing the foundation to crack was in fact still going on. Once again, I recommended that the buyer engage the services of a structural engineer. The engineer found that there were no footings, and that it would cost many thousands of dollars to prevent further settlement.
In this case what appeared to be a repair was in fact only a cosmetic improvement. The cracks, which were considered of little consequence, in fact signaled a serious problem in the building’s structure. I had made “a big deal out of nothing,” but prevented someone from purchasing a money pit.
Costly disasters such as these are rare, but when you need a home inspector, hire the fussiest one you can find. In the end, his or her “alarmist” attitude will serve you best.