Q58: Are the walls free from evidence of moisture: stains, cracks, flaking or efflorescence?

Whether the home you’re looking at has a full basement or only a crawl space, if there is a lot of moisture within the concrete blocks of the walls, you might be faced with figuring out how to get that water to drain properly so that it does not cause structural damage or present a health hazard.

The common reason for each of the issues we noted above is moisture. The ground water is consistently penetrating into the concrete blocks. The most efficient way of correcting the named water problems is to ensure that there is good soil drainage around the foundation walls.

First, there a couple types of stains that you should be aware of.

 Efflorescence – a white, powdery substance that usually appears on the wall surface. It is a loose mineral salt that is wicked or carried through the concrete and deposited on the inside wall. It is harmless and poses no health concern however is a sign of higher humidity which can be controlled with a dehumidifier.

 Rust stains in on orange-ish or iron color that comes with water that seeps into the basement. This issue can lead to drainage system problems as the build-up in pipes may cause clogs.

 Dark gray or black stains are a sign of mold. Because mold is a living organism, the basement usually has the right factors for it to thrive: humidity, warmth and household dust. Not only do you need to control the humidity in your basement with a good dehumidifier, but you may need to contact a mold removal specialist to alleviate the issue in total.

 Crumbling, flaking and spalling are conditions that are either the result of sealants applied to a basement wall wherein the water pressure builds behind it and eventually creates a mess or the concrete itself and not just the paint begins to crumble or flake.

Again, these conditions are due to moisture and mineral salts and the best way to prevent damage is to ensure a dry basement.

When it comes to cracks in your basement walls, it is best to note if they are small or large, vertical, horizontal or “stair step” type cracks. Smaller (under 6”) vertical or horizontal cracks can be attributed to house settling and are usually something to watch over time but may never turn out to be much of an issue. Lengthy cracks or cracks that stair-step over several concrete blocks are usually far more serious and could point to more serious soil or water issues that should be addressed and in some cases if there is bowing of the wall itself, a structural issue.

You need to discuss these observations with a Home Inspector and possibly a structural engineer to determine the extent of the concern. These issues be reason enough to carefully consider if you want to purchase this property.

Q59: Is all structural wood sturdy and straight? Is it free from signs of decay or termite damage?

As you took at the structural wood of the basement you’re going to be looking to see if there is any obvious bowing of the ceiling joists. Make sure the posts or supports are straight and firmly planted under the beams they are supporting. Because concrete walls wick water (as you discovered in Q58, look where the wood floor joists meet the foundation walls. Does there appear to be any wood rot – for example, does the wood appear moist and dark? Are there piles of coarse looking sand or sawdust? Does it appear that pieces of the wood have broken off? Were any of the floorboards above “spongy” or sagging? Or do you notice mud “tubes” along walls, baseboards or the basement ceiling joists? While it may be difficult for you to see termites or carpenter ants, the points of entry and infestation are what you are looking for.

Whether the posts, beams and supports need to be reinforced to bear the weight of upper floors or you do see signs of insect infestation, you will need to have a deeper conversation with your professional Home Inspector and a structural engineer or
pest control specialist.

These types of issues can be very costly, so you may want to consider the costs of repair or remediation are before putting placing a purchase offer on this property.

Q60: Are visible pipes in good condition; free from signs of leakage, rust or stains; and properly sloped toward a septic or sewage system?

When you’re walking in the basement look at the floor—are there any areas where there may have been puddles that air dried and left a ring of evidence? You may not see anymore water on the floor, but you may be able to notice rust or condensation on the pipe itself. If a water pipe appears to have a wrapping rather than a professional repair, it is something that will need to be addressed before more serious damage occurs.

Also look for an interior shut-off valve that stops the flow of water to exterior water faucets. This is especially important on homes where the weather gets to the freezing line as water left in those pipes could freeze and burst causing a very big mess and very costly repair bill.

Q61: Is the water tank free from signs of rust or corrosion and properly vented?

If the home has a water heater, your visual inspection should include checking for signs of leaks on the floor under the unit, seeing if the relief valve is wet or dripping and assessing if the piping to and from the water heater is dry. Make sure you ask the Realtor or seller how old the water tank is because under normal use, it can last from 8 – 12 years.

If you can’t find a water tank, ask if the home has a tankless water heating system.This type of system supplies hot water when the hot water tap is turned on –cold water runs through a pipe into the tankless unit where either a gas burner or electric element heats the water supply. Again, you should determine the age of the tankless water heater because these units should last 12-15 years but are a bit more expensive to replace.

Q62: Is the water tank properly sized for the number of bedrooms in the house?

There are many different ways to estimate how “big” of a tank water system or tankless water heating system are needed for the home. Generally speaking, if you are looking at a tank water heating system, the size of the tank is suggested by many experts to be:

For 1-2 people in the household, a 30-gallon water heater;
For 2-3 people, a 40-gallon water heater;
For 3-4 people, a 40-50 gallon water heater;
For 5 + people, a 50-80 gallon water heater.

Tankless systems are not measured by the number of gallons stored in the tank, but by the flow rate; in other words, how much hot water might be required if both a sink faucet and shower were drawing hot water at the same time. For these types of water heating situations, many tankless water systems have a maximum flow rate of 3.5 gallons.

Q63: Is the electrical service panel adequate – do fuses or breakers appear to be in good working condition?

The electrical service panel (aka breaker box) is like a switchboard for all of the electricity that comes into and is used by the home. It receives the incoming power from the exterior utility unit and distributes it to the circuits that supply the various outlets, and appliances in the house. The breaker box is a steel box with a hinged door behind which all circuit breakers are housed. If a breaker falls into an overload state, it “trips” the lever for that circuit to off and cuts the power to that circuit.

Your Professional Home Inspector will be concerned with the safety of the breaker box—specifically that it is not rusted or that the wiring in and out of the box meets local code requirements. You will be able to tell what doesn’t look right as well, but don’t be afraid to ask if you have concerns.

You may also want to notice if the homeowner labeled the circuits for the areas of the house that are supplied by that breaker. While this is a “nice to have,” most homeowners don’t even know where the breaker box is until they have to find it when the hairdryer decides to stop working.

Q64: Are dryer vents exhausting to the outside?

The dryer vent should always be exhausting to the outside of the house. Think of it this way—as clothes are drying, moisture is being removed from them so you have nice dry, clean clothes to wear. If that air is vented into the house, you will be forcing hot, moist air into the home or basement creating the perfect atmosphere for mold, pushing lint particles into the air which can be highly dangerous to breathe, and possibly even causing structural damage. Again, make sure the vent pipe goes directly to the outside… not to a crawl space, not into standing water and certainly not to any alternative contraption.

Q65: Is there good airflow from heating and air conditioning units throughout the structure?

Nobody really wants to do this because they feel embarrassed, but when you are looking at a home that really interests you and if it has a forced air heating unit in the basement, make sure that you have the opportunity to hear the furnace turn on from the basement and experience the air flow in the living space. Take your coat off and walk around the house … do you feel comfortable? Usually rooms furthest from the heating and A/C units are a little warmer or cooler depending on the season you’re doing your house hunting. Regardless, you should at least be able to hear the furnace start up and feel warm air from vents in the living space. Put your hand on a vent as you are walking around the house as well to feel how well the air is coming out of the vents.

From the basement, you will want to hear the furnace click on, draw air into the unit, then push it back up into the heating space. If for any reason as you listen you hear it struggling, then ask your professional Home Inspector when they come with you as a condition of any purchase offer you make.

If the heat is baseboard heating where heated water is forced through pipes from heating unit to heating unit, you will still want to listen to the start-up of the unit —you know what sounds like a “good” engine in a car and can probably make a similar assessment in this arena as well. If you feel that the unit may not be working to its optimum level, ask the Realtor or homeowner how old it is and when it was last serviced so you can make some guesses about what you may need to consider after a professional home inspection.

Q66: When the heating unit turns on, is the indoor air free from a noticeable gas combustion odor?

As you have probably already found out, there are several different types of heating systems:

 Forced Air – in this heating system, air is drawn into a furnace unit where it is heated and then forced through duct work to each room in the house.

 Baseboard heating – there are two different types of baseboard heating; electric baseboard heaters are individual units in each room of a house that are intended to heat only that room.

 Hydronic heating is a radiant heat system wherein the heating pipes run under your floor and the heat rises up to heat the room.

 Radiators – this is actually the old fashion boiler type system where water is heated in a boiler unit and using principals of conduction, heat is transferred from the hot water to the metal radiators which heat the individual rooms

 Natural air flow – this heating basically relies on the natural air flow within a home to be heated from a wood burning stove or fireplace.

 Radiant floor heat – in this system water flows through flexible plastic tubing that is located underneath or within the floors themselves.

While you may have different types of heat distribution systems, the heat sources themselves are typically natural gas, electricity, oil or wood. If the heating distribution system is a forced air distribution system, baseboard heat or radiator heat and you smell dust and the unit has not been used all summer, then it is probably a natural occurrence the requires minimal cleaning around ducts or vent covers.

If you’re in the basement and notice the dust smell, it may be a filter on the forced air unit that has not be replaced frequently enough. One of the first things you would have to do is purchase a new filter for under about $20 and replace the one that’s in the furnace.

However, if you smell gas in the basement or anywhere in the house, this could be pointing to a leak that requires immediate attention. Ensuring the leak is addressed by a professional Heat Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) company would be a cautionary measure that would affirm the safety of your loved ones if that is the home you decide you would like to own. Talk with your professional Home Inspector and Realtor to decide what your best course of action for this issue might be.

Q67: Are the air filters clean or recently replaced?

Air filters are used in the forced air heating distribution unit. Usually, it is recommended that the furnace filter is replaced at least twice a year—once at the beginning of winter, and secondarily in the spring. You would not believe the amount of “dirt” that is filtered out of the air in your home before it is pushed back into the room nicely heated and ready for you to breathe!

Yes, it may seem embarrassing to pull the air filter out of the unit an inch or two to see it’s condition – and of course, you’re going to buy new filters when the house is yours, BUT do it anyways so you can get another idea of how well the house was maintained. If the filter is extraordinarily dirty, you may need to ask the professional Home Inspector to check out the furnace unit a little more closely to determine if it may possibly be working a little “harder” to pull fresh air in and push it out. You don’t want the life span of that furnace to be cut short for any reason because it is a bit of an expense just when you won’t be expecting it!

Q68: Is there any asbestos on heating pipes, water pipes or air ducts?

Quite a few years ago, it was determined that there is a high risk of serious illnesses when there is exposure to asbestos that is fraying, crumbling or being released into the air. Removal of this type of insulation material can be very costly, but not as costly to you or your loved ones as illness that may have asbestos as the root cause.

If you or your professional Home Inspector notice that asbestos was used as an insulation in the walls, around furnace or water pipes or as air duct insulation, it is time to have a very serious conversation about what your next steps are. This particular issue just might be one of those deal-breakers because as it has been noted before, the safety of your loved ones should always be the most important concern as you make one of the biggest investments of your lifetime.