Our company does a lot of structural condition assessments of residences, oftentimes for Architects when there is a planned major renovation of an old house. The City of Atlanta requires an engineer to evaluate the foundations of old homes if a second story is proposed, because there are often problems with the existing foundations. This house was at first unremarkable, it was an old home in the west side of Atlanta, and was a fairly standard small home built in the 1920’s for working class people that had employment in the cotton mills and factories that once dotted the City. However, this one had a surprise. Let’s look at it:
House view from side.
View of house from front
It was just what we call a “shotgun shack”, it was an old duplex that had been subdivided into apartments as the neighborhood got poorer. I was surprised though when I looked around the side
Notice the subwall is stone – that was not typical of these type of houses. Usually they didn’t have subwalls, they had brick piers and were open underneath. You usually see concrete block that was placed around the brick piers at a later date to close in under the house and add some space for storage and usually a washing machine. Also, what was the deal with the blocked up window? Around back the subwall changed to block, which was odd:
Block placed at the back of the house.
I thought the whole thing was rather unusual, but the answer came when I went into the basement. I found this:
Doorway to old house.
The house had been built on top of an older stone house! The stone house underneath has to date back to the mid 1800’s. It’s rare to find such things around here, most of the older homes were built of timber, which is long gone. Apparently when they built the shotgun house, there was an old house already on site, and the builder just built on top. Here’s some more photos:
Interior of older house – note the old window that was blocked in. Very impressive stone masonry around the windows.
The front corner – note the newer stone work – it is under a fireplace. Also, we see a window blocked in.
Old timber used to support first floor – this was also salvaged from even older buildings, it is rough -sawn.
Another view of the recycled timber. The workmanship here is very poor, unlike the workmanship on the original stone house. The builder simply stacked stone and set the timbers that he salvaged on top.
I have seen the older homes containing salvaged timber, that is rather common. Reusing timber from old houses or barns that were torn down would have made sense to the builder. The cost of materials vs. labor probably was more in favor of using the labor and trying to save on materials. Hopefully the investor that bought the house and the Architect will make use of the old house in the basement and make this a more distinctive house. This is one of the most interesting homes I’ve ever visited.
We at Runkle Consulting don’t do home inspections, but we very often follow up after home inspectors to check out things that they have found and have noted to the home buyer. It may be cracks in the foundations, deflection of floors, or anything that looks suspicious that an engineer’s opinion is needed. As such, we’ve gotten quite familiar with home inspectors, and I think I can provide some guidance in choosing the right one.
One problem with home inspectors is in many jurisdictions there is no licensing requirement. If you see an advertisement for a home inspector here in Georgia and it says “Licensed/Insured” that only means the inspector has a business license. That says nothing about his or her qualifications. The Insurance may be just General Liability and Workman’s Comp, which is a good thing if he falls through a ceiling while doing an inspection, but doesn’t cover you for Errors and Omissions. The second problem is there is no clear pathway to becoming a home inspector. Many I know have been practicing engineers, others were home builders. However, more than a few that I’ve known had no background related to anything remotely related to residential construction. They just decided one day “I think I’ll become a home inspector”, got a business license, and there you are.
In my business, I mentally categorize the bad home inspectors into three categories:
1. The Blind Mice: These inspectors are totally dependent on referrals from real estate agents, and don’t want to derail that gravy train. They will find minor items, but never the big stuff. They don’t want to make the real estate agent mad. So, your real estate agent refers you to a home inspector, you get charged about $400 or so, and the inspector comes out, finds some inconsequential stuff, and you buy the house. Later you find the foundation is settling and you are out $10,000 or so in repairs.
2. The Idiots: I’ll give an example of one in particular. I got hired by a builder to evaluate a bunch of stuff a home inspector wrote up about a house he built. One of the items was that the nails in the deck were countersunk into the treated lumber, “breaking the protection”. The stupidity of this is astounding. Pressure treated lumber is treated in a pressure vessel that forces the preservative through the depth of the lumber. Sample cores are taken from the batch to assure the treatment has gotten all the way through the lumber. Of course if it is so important to protect the surface, what did the inspector think about the cut ends?
OK, that was bad. The same inspector pointed out the ground floor was built out of level. It wasn’t. There was a load bearing wall setting on the floor that was not supported by anything underneath. If he had gone in the crawl space, he would have seen this. The reason the floor was out of level was it was deflecting (bending from the weight above). It needed foundations and a beam installed below it. The house was twisting completely out of shape and the inspector didn’t catch this.
I wrote my response to the report, and pointed out the major issue in the basement. The builder never paid me of course, which is why I generally don’t work for builders anymore to answer home inspector’s reports (there is only one I work for to do this now).
The Deal Breaker: The deal breaker may be a form of #2 above. He or she finds minor items wrong and blows them out of proportions. They will scare you to death. I’ve seen reports that pretty much accused everyone in the chain from the real estate agent, the bank, the builder, the engineer, and anyone else remotely involved to be in collusion to cheat you, the poor buyer. My favorite one was where the inspector insisted that brick had been removed and replaced in the veneer of the house by the bank after its foreclosure. Seriously, banks never do that kind of repair, they replace carpets and repaint and that’s it. Replacing brick veneer with exact same color and type of brick in small sections is pretty difficult to do if it can be done at all. Certainly no bank I’ve ever seen in possession of a house would spend that type of money.
The deal with the Deal Breaker is you go along to multiple houses, the deal gets broken on each one, and you pay this fellow yet another fee to break the next deal. This inspector is not a great deal either.
OK, so should you get a home inspector given what I said above? The short and only answer is yes. A good home inspector will be able to tell you if there are problems or potential problems with your roof, the heating system, the AC system, the electrical system, and the structure. A home inspector has to have good attention to detail and have a working knowledge of all the areas of construction of a house. If I was buying a house tomorrow, I would hire a home inspector and I’ve been in residential construction for 18 years now, I’ve been in the construction business for 40 years, and I’ve been an engineer for 36 years. There is a lot of general stuff a good home inspector knows that most of us just don’t know.
How do you pick a good home inspector? Well, your real estate agent can refer you to one, but I recommend going against that way. You don’t want an inspector that even has it in the back of his or her head that your real estate agent (who will get a commission from you if you buy the house) has passed on this work to him or her. I recommend using the Internet.
Next, check out the inspector’s website. If there is no website, go to the next inspector. What kind of qualifications does the inspector have? Other than the qualification from the association, there should be certifications from the International Code Council (ICC). You want Residential Combination Inspector certification. That certification means the inspector has passed a series of exams in the Building Codes in framing, electical, plumbing, and mechanical (heating and air conditioning). It can give you a level of confidence that he or she knows their job. Also, check out their bio. Do they have a relevant background? Were they in construction or design? Or did they just hate their job one day and decide home inspection would be great (if you got this far, they probably do have a good background).
Now, there are those that feel you should get a licensed engineer (Professional Engineer or PE) or licensed architect (Registered Architect or RA) to do the inspection. While I am a PE, and I have seen some very good home inspectors that were PE’s, I don’t feel it is necessarily a requirement. I believe a person with a solid background can do an inspection as good or better than a PE or RA.
Finally, you need to check references. Fortunately, you don’t have to get the inspector to give you a list of names and phone numbers to call and hope you get truthful answers like you would have had to do a few years ago. You can now check the reviews online, like from Kudzu. Of course reviews can be misleading. Often less ethical people will “salt the claim” buy having bogus reviews posted about them. Also, you can get the occasional crazy and angry dissatisfied customer posting a negative review. The fake reviews are pretty easy to spot, they will all be written in the same language. Often the language in fake reviews lacks specificity, but is very flowery. The crazy angry customer is pretty easy to spot too, and usually there will be a rebuttal to a negative review if the inspector is any good.
Now, you found your inspector. What should you expect?
1. The inspector cannot possibly find everything, and an inspection is not a warranty on the house you buy. While the home inspector may carry Errors and Omissions insurance, if something is missed forget about suing. Typically the contract you sign only allows for a refund of your inspection fee. Also, taking someone to court costs about $50,000 to $100,000 which is a lot of money to spend on an item that costs $10,000 to repair. True, the jury may award you attorney’s fees and punitive damages, but I would rather go to Vegas and hit the slots. That way you at least get free drinks while you blow your money.
2. The inspector is bound by ethics to point out everything that he or she finds wrong. You have to decide whether you can live with it. For example, I went to a foreclosure years ago. The home inspector was worried about the slope on the rear of the house. I examined it and agreed. I told the buyer that it could cost about $40,000 to fix. The buyer said “OK, I’m still buying the house.” The house was being sold by the bank at such a steep discount that $40,000 to repair the rear slope wasn’t a big deal. That’s the most extreme example I could think of, but it points out that some things that the inspector finds can be lived with.
3. The inspector should not be designing repairs. I’ve followed up after a couple that did this, and their designs were just plain bad. Leave the repair design to the contractor, and architect, or an engineer.
4. Codes are not retroactive. I followed up behind an inspector once that pointed out all the code violations from the 2009 Residential Code on a house built in the 1970’s. First, the 2009 Code was not in effect in Georgia, the 2006 Code was. Second, the Code doesn’t require you to retrofit existing structures. Doing this confuses the issue, the inspector needs to look for signs of failure, or items at the end of their service life.
5. In my opinion there are a number of areas that need extreme attention:
– The Decks. Decks fail catastrophically (in other words, complete failure with no warning). As a deck gets older, it gets weaker. They have about a 20 year service life, and are often not safely erected.
– The Roof. Home inspectors often carry binoculars so they can examine a roof up close. A poor roof has to be replaced, because water leakage can cause major structural damage. Replacement can cost you a lot of money, which you don’t want to be hit with when you get in the house.
– Foundations. Look at this post – do NOT allow this to happen to you. Please click that link, it will scare you. Foundation repair can be exceedingly expensive.
– Mechanical: Does the house you are looking at have a 15 year old air conditioner or furnace? Guess what? You will be buying a new one soon.
– Electrical: Look out for “jack leg” (substandard) electrical work. Homeowners will often engage in really bad DIY projects, and electrical is not one to do bad. Some homeowners will hire “handymen” to come around and do work, and in my experience what they do is often just as bad or work. The worst thing about bad electrical repairs is they can make your house burn down, or electrocute you. In other words, kill you, which is not what you want.
How long should a home inspection last? Depends on the size of the house. A large house can take all day. It takes me one hour to look at one item on a house. If you call me to look at a settling foundation, I will be at your house for at least that long. A home inspector has to look at everything, so I would say at least 4 hours.
How much should your inspection cost? Depends again on the house. Don’t go cheap. Around here in Atlanta, I would say around $400 to $600 for a standard size house. Larger houses (5000 + Square Feet) could cost $1000 or more. An “expensive” home inspection could save you thousands in repairs later, so don’t practice false economy.
I was going through my photos this morning, and I found this one:
Basement Subwall Failure
This was the subwall in an apartment building. The building was built back in the 70’s, and was built as part of a development of low income apartments. If there is ever a case for proper building permitting procedures, these types of apartments in the Atlanta area make it. In every one of these buildings it appears to me that there was almost no structural engineering, the foundations are often minimal or non-existent, the structure is all wood and all of the members are overspanned, there is no consideration for wind bracing, and as you see here, the subwalls are never strong enough. I suspect all that was done for the design was a floor layout, some elevations, and that was it.
It also appears that there was no inspection in most of these because the errors in construction are often so extreme that even the most inexperienced building inspector should have caught them. I always wonder how this worked. I assume the that at the time the builder submitted the floor plans and elevations, fees were paid, and the permit was issued and that was that. I suspect there was no inspection at all, or maybe just plumbing and electric.
In this one the subwall was not reinforced properly, the site wasn’t drained properly, and there was not a working underdrain system. As it rained, water pressure built up against the outside wall and we had a catastrophic collapse. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Sad thing is, I have been in one building where a tenant was seriously injured in a failure – while he was in bed the ceiling collapsed on him. The ceiling was not nailed to the joists above, it was glued. In time the glue deteriorated and the ceiling fell loose and seriously injured the person below.
View of Outside – Note the bracing.
The brick wall in in danger of collapse. By this time the building was condemned and apartments cleared out. It could have been much worse. The repairs were done (by replacing the subwall with an engineered one) and the building put back in service.
Every time I go to the old low income apartment buildings I come back away irritated. The shoddy construction is downright criminal, and shows a total lack of concern for the people that live in the buildings. The structural problems are many, and in addition the bathrooms are never adequately designed to contain the moisture. In every building of this type you will find rotted wood all around the bathrooms. This is not only a danger for the structure, but presents a great place for mold to grow. Also, the windows are usually improperly flashed, so you will see moisture in the structure around the windows – again, causing structural issues and mold.
How was this allowed to happen? Were the building officials corrupt? Were they incompetent? Were they racist (figuring it was primarily minorities that would live in these buildings and thus they didn’t care)? Was the system itself too lax? Most likely it was a combination of all. The sad thing is it hurts people that have no other options in life.
By the way, every time I go to these buildings I talk to a lot of the people that live there. They don’t seem like the stereo type “welfare recipient/drug dealer/thug” to me. All of the ones I’ve talked to just seemed like regular people, the kind you’d be happy to have as a neighbor. They have jobs, families, hopes and dreams. They just are poor. That makes it even more irritating to me.
Above all else, it shows how when people don’t do their jobs, it can seriously hurt other people.
A lot of houses I look at have issues with settlement in the foundations and floor slabs. A lot of times I only recommend cosmetic repairs. Why is this? If the house has settled, should you put in piers under your foundations to stabilize it? Not always, and here’s my rationale:
In many cases I am looking at houses that have been in existence for 20 years or more. The settlement is often rather minor, and can easily be hidden with simple cosmetic repairs like spackling cracks in the drywall, and filling cracks in exterior mortar. Let’s say the repairs cost $200. Usually settlement occurs at its maximum in the first five years or so of the life of the house, from there the settlement never really stops, but proceeds at a much slower rate. So you would have to do cosmetic repairs on a fairly regular basis – maybe every two years or so.
Generally, it takes at least two foundation piers to repair settlement. With a budget of about $1,100 a pier, the cost of the repair will be at least $2,200. How many years will it take for your regular cosmetic repairs to be greater than this cost? It will take 22 years! Now with more severe cracking, recent settlement, or if windows and doors are affected, the piers are the best option. However, in many cases it doesn’t really make economic sense to put out that kind of money.
The other issue is floor slabs. Often garage slabs are built on soft soil, and they settle over time. It costs about $6,000 to $8,000 in Atlanta to replace a two car garage floor slab. If your garage slab has settled about 1/2″ towards the center, and only has minor cracking, do you really want to spend $6,000 to $8,000 for a room that you park your car in and store all your junk? I wouldn’t.
So, oftentimes I give people the option in my reports – you can do a permanent repair for X amount of dollars and this will happen, or you can cosmetically repair the issue for Y amount of dollars and this other thing will happen. It often times boils down to economics and personal preferences.
In this case, the cracking is probably due to minor settlement. It would require at least three piers to repair ($3,300), or you could reparge the block every couple of years for the cost of a bag of pre-mixed mortar..
I just got back from checking out a foreclosed house, and I am always surprised at what stuff people do to houses. Look at this:
Do you know what it is? It’s a WINDOW through the basement subwall. The only thing holding the dirt back is the geo fabric that you see. Obviously, it’s not working so well, the floor of the basement is covered in mud. When I was in college, a couple of friends of mine and I were discussing the idea of underground houses, and one of my friends said they weren’t a good idea. If you opened the windows, dirt would come in. Well, here they opened the window to the dirt.
This house looked like it was OK, but a closer examination and some experience shows a severe problem – very severe floor slab settlement. The floor slab was poured on uncompacted fill – soil that was not tamped down properly when it was placed. Over time the soil under the house settled, and there is now some very severe floor slab settlement. It is so bad that the house probably will have to be demolished. Look at the video and see whether you think you would have seen this. This a good reason a inspection by a qualified home inspector before purchase is critical.
Every now and then you come across construction that is so bad it takes your breath away. This house is the most extreme example that I’ve seen. It’s not uncommon to see shacks out in the woods put up in a haphazard manor, usually that’s because the people that are putting them up have very little money, so they get stuff to build with as they can. They also have little in construction skills and can’t afford to pay contractors to do the work. This house was in a very nice suburban neighborhood, and actually looked somewhat OK from the street with the exception that it was on temporary power. It hadn’t gone to permanent power because it hadn’t passed any inspections and there was no certificate of occupancy.
The homeowner called me because the county had shown up with an order for them to vacate the property. Apparently they had bought the property “as is”, and they wanted to sue the seller. I was asked to do a report on the property, and I knew immediately after I entered the house that I’d never get paid for my work. However, curiosity took over and I did the evaluation, wrote a lengthy report, and of course got stiffed for the fee. I never did find out what the final disposition of the house was. I talked to one of the senior county inspectors about it, and he said the house had changed hands numerous times and the ownership wasn’t too clear. That should be expected, because it’s hard to believe any financial institution would lend for something like this.
While this is an extreme example, there are a fair number of houses out there that have similar defects. Towards the end of the housing boom a lot of people jumped in to build houses that shouldn’t have, and many of the foreclosures on the market have very significant construction defects. What looks like a bargain price may be in the end an expensive transfer of misery.
Let’s start from the outside:
This is in the rear of the house – where do you start? The stucco is totally jacked up, look at how it’s peeling from the house. There are no joints in the stucco. The deck is made from untreated lumber and is not supported correctly from the post. There should be a concrete landing outside the door, and there is no drip edge under the stucco. The paint is peeling off the windows, there is excess erosion, and it’s not a good idea to leave trash around your foundation, it attracts insects and vermin.
No gutters, the roofing is sloppy, look at the garage door opening, it’s a mess too. The difference in color of the stucco is due to lighting, it doesn’t actually have multiple tones. Here’s a close up of the electric meter:
The holes are supposed to be sealed to keep the weather, insects, and rodents out. I don’t think that meter was hooked up by the way. Let’s go inside, it gets much worse:
Ok, the wallpaper is peeling off. It also is two clashing styles. The house was moderately messy, I’ve seen worse. It was the rotting garbage in the sink that made it uncomfortable, but we’ve only just begun.
Let’s go up into the upstairs:
Yes, those wires are hot. In the upstairs they didn’t finish the wiring, and it was hanging out of the junction boxes and fixtures. By the way, the wires aren’t supposed to be all the same color. Typically black is hot, white is neutral, red is hot, green is ground. That’s so the electrician can wire things right and you don’t get electrocuted in your shower because the wrong wire was grounded. Now we better go up and see what awaits us in the attic:
No junction boxes, the condensate piping is all wrong (note the tees are in for some unknown reason). The framing is chopped up, and water damage is apparent in the right side. How do you like the way the wiring is wrapped around stuff?
I couldn’t for the life of me figure why the vent pipe had the tee in it and branched out through two different outlets on the roof. Note the wire that was used as a support. The framing is completely wrong, and space doesn’t permit me to outline everything. Note how the rafters aren’t properly supported at the bottoms, and the purlins are wrong too.
Look in the rear of the photo wher the braces for the roof come down onto the beams. There is nothing to keep those beams from twisting, which they will ultimately. The framing is more or less randomly done. Note the orbs in the center lower right – some believe those are spirits caught on film. I think they’re dust particles, but maybe being confined to this attic is some poor soul’s punishment for misdeeds in a previous life…
More random framing in the attic. Note the ceiling joists seem to be placed with no rhyme or reason. Also, look at the lower right and see the water damage.
We can’t stay in the attic forever, so we’re going downstairs. But first, look at this wiring – it is sandwiched between the floor sheathing and ceiling joists. That will wear the insulation off the wire and start a fire ultimately. Although it will be a race between that and all the other wiring misdeeds to see which one will ultimately burn the house down, if it doesn’t fall down first.
Now, before we go in the basement, I want you to look at this shower:
This is the shower. I’ve seen worse, but usually in places where the people are really poor, or in third world countries. I wouldn’t step in here barefoot though. However, look at the underside:
The shower doesn’t connect to the house sewer. It just drains into the basement. That sewer line slopes upward by the way. They kept a plunger by the toilet to help things on their way. Now, even though the shower didn’t drain into the sewer, the people here in this house were very clean. Look:
They showered and bathed anyway! Look at the water in the basement, AND the black mold. The sheet rock was put up to cover worse mold behind it. I am highly allergic to black mold, and I should have left. However, like watching a train wreck, I couldn’t turn away. I ignored my sinus pain and kept on…
While bathing may be healthful, it probably is risky in this house. The rotten floor joists are under the tub and you might make a very quick trip to the basement.
Ok, they were roughing in a bathroom in the basement. Look how close the sink drain is to the toilet. That way you can sit on the throne and do your business while you brush your teeth. The pipes were above the floor slab, so they never finished.
Part of the basement was bare ground, and that’s where the water heater was set. The installation wasn’t quite completed. Note the there is no pipe attached to the temperature and pressure valve, and the panels were left off.
Well, we’ve been here long enough, and just looking at this makes me have an allergic reaction, so let’s go, but…
Be careful going up the stairs. These look like something you tried to climb in college after a night of heavy drinking, don’t they?
I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit in the House of Pain. Please don’t buy anything like this. If I find out what happened to the house, I will update this page.
I have done structural evaluations on a lot of homes where there was extensive termite damage, but this one I had a some time to do some extra exploration. I was working on a separate problem in the house, and while there some blistering of paint on a window sill was discovered. The contractor was asked to pull it up, and SURPRISE! There was extensive termite damage.
On this one, we had time to do some poking around, and we did a bit of experimentation to see just how well termites can hide from site. Watch this video:
Notice how well they have concealed themselves? If you had banged on that piece of timber with a hammer, it would have felt solid. Also, if you probed it with a sharp object, you probably would have felt anything. Note, we had to pry in there with a wrecking bar to find the damage, which was extreme.
The termites left a nice shell of preserved wood to protect themselves and hide their presence. They had no visible mud tunnels, they got in to the wood through the wall, which was backfilled with soil (which is against Code btw, but this was done a long time ago). In the end, I checked the crawl space by taking a drill and drill holes all around the perimeter. We found other damaged areas, but fortunately for the homeowner, nothing that needed serious repairs like are being done here.
The worst house I’ve seen is this one (it’s a foreclosure):
The joists holding up the floor above are completely destroyed by termites, the floor is sagging under its own weight. The timber is so thoroughly destroyed that it is the vinyl floor covering holding up the floor. I discovered this when I walked on it. Fortunately I was able to run off of the floor before making it collapse.
This house was built in the seventies, and it appears that the roof may have leaked for a long time, which fed the termites moisture. Here’s a picture underneath:
Floor Joists Damaged By Termites
The photo above is rather confusing to look at because of all the hanging insulation, white mold and rotted wood, but it gives a good indication of the damage to the structure underneath. Note how grey the subfloor is – it was heavily rotted.
For a house to get to this kind of condition, extreme neglect is required. I’m not sure how the occupants lived in it. It was pretty nasty, and I was told it looked worse before the cleanup. Foreclosures don’t always look this bad, but if you buy one at an auction you don’t get a chance to do a thorough investigation. I would consider the risk, you wouldn’t have wanted to buy this house at any price.