We sat down with Chris Nowling, a Certified, Master Home Inspector and Owner of CNI Services - Texas Home Inspection. Chris has completed over 12,000 home inspections within his 30+ years of professional home inspection. In this blog, we'll be breaking down to you the common Top 5 Red Flags in a Home Inspection.
1. Foundation Stress Cracks
According to Chris, there are a lot of causes for cracks in sheetrock inside a home. They can be from foundation movement and activity, which is problematic. Others can be from simple shrinkage, or they could be from a moisture condition that developed in the house at some point in time that may have gone away. This can also be found on a normal settlement too. That’s always a term that the engineers steer far away from because there’s not a real definition for “normal” to call that.
What people need to understand when they’re looking at cracks and drywall in homes – completely vertical or horizontal cracks that are straight lines, those are more likely to be from shrinkage of the materials, minor activity, not much to speak of. It’s the diagonal cracks that you’re looking for. When you see the diagonal cracks, then you’re breaking sheetrock.
Coming off the doors, coming off the windows, either above or below. Then you know you’re breaking sheetrock. That’s more of a significant activity because it took some force to crack and damage the sheetrock. A home's typical age varies dramatically. People are quite confused about how long it takes for a home to not be active or inactive. We have a lot of expansive soils here in Austin, so it’s something that you’ve got to focus on.
You may see activity as early as a year in. Those are going to be some of the worst. But some of the ones that we’re really starting to see show up now are in some of the areas with the expansive soils, where over time, maintenance has not been maintained. One of the most critical things in these high movement soils is drainage.
If you were to purchase a home that was 10 years old; whether it’s a flowerbed or anything like that on the side of the house, to try to keep the drainage flow as natural as possible and not cause the foundation to crack or have issues ahead of time, here's what you should NOT do: If you’re in one of the expansive solid areas, you want to pay attention to that drainage period. You want to know that the water has an opportunity to move reasonably rapidly away from the house in all directions, not just in one side.
One of the problems we have with homeowners is periodically they’ll do things like build raised flowerbeds up against a house, not understanding that what they just created was a pond next to the house when the rains come. The rest of the house doesn’t have that. After a long dry period, the soil is dried out over weeks and months.
Now they have an area where when the rains come, the soil gets re-saturated rapidly. In this particular case, I have a pond in the front, so in that area, the soil is swelling at a faster rate than other areas around the house – what we call uneven watering. That’s what provides opportunity for stress on the foundation that can actually turn into damage.
2. Air Conditioner and Furnace Age
These are big ticket items that can cost money and they're going to be replaced. From the day they go in service, deterioration starts. The day will come. So yes, it is important to know the age. A lot of manufacturers have gotten pretty friendly, where you can look at the equipment and look at the plate and actually get a year date.
However, that’s not true for everybody. A lot of them conceal it within their serial number – which, good news, with technology as such that it is, you can usually go online and look it up.
The anticipated lifespan of furnaces are going to vary on type. What that means is in your homes where we have natural gas, you’re typically going to have a gas furnace and a standard air conditioning system. In that scenario, the air conditioner, the industry average life is 15 years, whereas the gas furnace is going to be 20-25.
But one of the more common ones we see in this region, because they’re more energy efficient, are heat pumps, which is all electric. We have no gas available. The heat pumps have a bit of a shorter life expectancy because the equipment runs year-round.
With your other system, in the winter your air conditioner is doing nothing, but with a heat pump that equipment runs year-round, so the likelihood of failure or breakdown is higher. Their average life expectancy is about 10-12 years in our region.
3. Electrical Panel
Federal Pacific Electric. That happens to be a manufacturer that was around for many decades. They changed over time. Specifically we’re talking about the Federal Pacific Electrical Panel, the Stab-Lok version. That’s not all of their panels. Previous to the Stab-Lok version they had older units. Generally you’re going to see them from the ’60s all the way up to the end of the 1980s.
The issue they’ve had with them is that the breakers weren’t tripping when they were supposed to. Of course, the purpose of a breaker in an electrical system is to protect the system from a fire. To keep the wire from overheating, it’s going to shut down before it can overheat. If you’ve got breakers that aren’t tripping, that’s a huge problem.
The downside was that while they have flagged Federal Pacific with this issue, it’s not exclusive to them. There are also other that actually been in litigation over their products since the early 1980s, and the last I heard, they still are. they’ve tried to remanufacture their breakers to put them in and they keep failing. The downside is that when you talk to the engineers and say “how do I know when I have a bad breaker?”, they say “well, if the house burns, you’ll know.”
Otherwise you have to take them to be tested. Once they’ve been tested you can’t put them back in, which means then you have to put a new one back in that hasn’t been tested. It’s just a circle that never ends. The simple solution is replace the panel. Move on.
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4. Roof Repairs
From the ground, what you see of the roof shingles – especially if you’re talking about a composition shingle roof – it’s very deceptive. You really can’t tell from the ground what’s going on. You need to be on top of it, looking down at it, to see it.
I frequently will go around houses and do my perimeter, and as I’m looking up I’m like, oh, the roof looks pretty good. You get on the roof and you’re like, not so good.
It’s the granules, the granule laws. Keeping in mind when we’re talking about composition shingles, which is the majority of our region, we’re talking about a product on a home that’s like the tires on your car. From the day you install them, deterioration begins. Replacement is imminent. We need to know where we are in there. How much tread do I have left? And then identify where there are leaks.
Of course, you have the other flip issue of that. We as inspectors are out there to inspect for function. You have to deal with the other side of that, and that’s the insurance carriers. Insurability and functionality do not carry the same definition.
For a roof's composite lifespan, it depends on the product. Your typical three tab, which is the most common one, the manufacturers call it a 20-year shingle. In our region, generally if we see 15 to 17 years out of it, we’re thrilled. Keep in mind when they give you a 20-year life expectancy, they’re basing that off the center of the country, not down here. While metal roof is a very fine product, and the market has really expanded in metal roofing in the last decade. You have so many options out there, from lower end, not terribly expensive – always more expensive, if done properly, than a composition shingle roof – to extremely high-end that are lifetime roofs. Once they’re on, we’re done here. We’re not coming back. Let the hail hit it, it got a few dings, it didn’t affect the product.
5. Cast-Iron Plumbing
The new beast that’s rearing its head. Cast-iron drains, that was the premiere product for drains up until 1965. ’65 is when the PVC pipes for drains really started coming into the market.
As a result, what you have is that the majority of the middle class and lower-end homes are going to have PVC typically from ’65 forward. It’s going to be the upper-end ones where you’re going to see them continuing to use it up until about ’70 to ’72 because they “weren’t going to use that cheap plastic stuff.” Good, conscientious home builders who wanted to do the right thing – which is understandable – they aren’t going to use the cheap product.
What they hadn’t yet realized was what was happening with the slab foundations that we were all starting to use now. Cast-iron drains came into being when we were building primarily all pier and beam homes.
When the slab home came in, that was a whole new phenomenon. Now you’ve got these cast-irons drains under a concrete slab. This is a product that is going to fail. It’s not a matter of if it’ll fail. It’s going to fail. The average life of it is 50 years, in the horizontal sections under the slabs.
Fast forward, from 1960 forward is when most everything built in Austin is a slab. Those homes are at risk. Those drains are failing, they’re having to be replaced, and they’re very expensive and difficult to replace.
You’ve got two different types of plumbers you’re going to deal with, expensive and “oh my goodness, I didn’t know it could be that expensive.” The expensive guy is going to come in here and jack up your floors, he’s going to replace the drains, he’s going to walk out and say “there you go, good luck.” You need to fix the floors and take care of all that. He’ll charge you less.
The other guy is going to come in and tunnel under the foundation. He’s going to have to hire an engineer to approve the tunnels before the guys can even work in the tunnels. Then they’re going to have to replace them from underneath the slab. That’s very laborious. Takes a lot of work and a lot of time. You can easily take a 1500 to 2000 sq. ft. house and spend $25,000 to $30,000 replacing the drains.
Watch the Full Interview with Chris Nowlings below.
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