Commonly seen dangerous conditions in houses that are easy and inexpensive to fix.
By William Decker, CRI, CMI
The common reason to have a home inspection, whether you are having the inspection before you buy or doing a maintenance inspection, is to find big, expensive problems like a leaking roof or a failing foundation. People want to know if they will have to lay out a huge sum of money to fix a really big problem. What most people don’t realize is that most of the problems that we find are minor and usually inexpensive to fix. In my experience, many of my clients tend to ignore these “little” problems. They are more interested with decorating the new house, removing a wall here and adding one there, painting, picking new furniture, and just never get around to fixing the little stuff. This can be a dangerous, and even fatal, mistake.
When I write an inspection report, there is a portion that is called the General Summary. Most inspectors do a general inspection summary because most Real Estate Agents and Real Estate Lawyers don’t want to have to read the whole report (my reports average 35 – 40 pages, with pictures). Because of this summary, many clients don’t read the whole report and miss these little, but very important defects. To solve this dilemma, I have developed a 3 category system for “grading” the defects I find:
- Watch List – This category includes things like a properly functioning water heater which is way past its statistical service life. People should keep an eye out for problems with watch list items. I also include, in this category, helpful tips on how to maintain things (For example: Only wash hardwood floors with white vinegar and water).
- Repair or Replace – These are the broken items that should be fixed or replaced (broken or cracked windows, leaking pipes, un-powered electrical outlets, etc).
- Significantly Deficient – This term is actually defined in our State Home Inspector Licensing law. “A system, item or component that either, a) Does not work (like, the furnace doesn’t work), or, b) Poses a significant risk of personal injury or property damage because it is damaged, deteriorated, improperly installed or changes in national construction standards.” These are, usually, items that pose a great danger of someone getting hurt or killed. I take these defects very seriously. BUT… , most of these items are easy and inexpensive to fix. They include:
1. Bare Bulb Light Fixtures: We have all seen them. They have a plastic or porcelain base with a bare light bulb, a hanging light in an old closet or even a proper light fixture which lost its original protective enclosure and never had the cover replaced. They are found in basements, closets, garages and some utility closets. They were never really allowed for use, but are rarely called out by local municipal code inspectors. They get the “everybody does this” exemption. The original danger was one of fire. If such a fixture is in a closet and someone puts a lot of unused blankets or comforters on the top shelf, they can come into contact with the bulb and cause a fire. The newer danger is caused by the recent banning of incandescent light bulbs. The new CFL (Compact Florescent Light) bulbs contain mercury vapor and are easily broken. The EPA has strict clean-up requirements for when these bulbs break. All light fixtures should have some type of protection around the bulb. This is a serious safety hazard, but a new, compliant light fixture only costs $6 – 7 and can be easily installed by the homeowner or a local handyman. These fixtures have been prohibited by the National Fire Safety Code since 1966, by the National Electric Code since 2012 and are only just now being banned by local municipal codes. Remember, local municipal codes are not the only, or even the strictest, building requirement but more often just a bare minimum standard.
2. Dishwasher Drained To Disposer: Dishwashers have to be drained. When dishwashers are added to a house that does not have a dishwasher, originally, many timesthe drain connection is made to the food disposer. The disposer manufacturers even supply a spigot for this purpose (Gee, why would the disposer manufacturer put it there if it can’t be used?). However, this is not allowed in our state (Illinois) and in many others. The reason for this is because of the possibility of backflow. The plumbing drain for the disposer has to handle a great deal of debris (ground up food waste) as well as water. This causes this drain pipe to be more susceptible to clogging. If this pipe clogs and the dishwasher empties the water has no where and will spray up out of the disposer. The other danger is that water from the disposer will flow back into the dishwasher, contaminating it with “gray” water and food bacteria. Technically, each drainage source must be connected to the drain waste pipe system by its own pipe and have its own P trap. This means that a dishwasher should have its own drain pipe and P trap. Practically speaking, many plumbers will connect the dishwasher hose to a “tailpiece” pipe connected to a regular drain. The reason we see this so often is that appliances are usually installed by the appliance store delivery man, who really not qualified to install them properly and are not licensed plumbers.
3. Improperly Constructed Decks: Some years ago, wooden decks were all the rage. Everyone wanted a deck and there were plenty of non-professional “contractors” who were more than willing to take these people’s money. The resulting deck may look strong and sturdy, but can have many dangerous latent defects. As shown, below, everything looks fine, but the balusters (the vertical posts under the guardrails) were installed on the outside of the rail. If put under any pressure (someone sitting on the deck with their back to the handrail), they can pop off, allowing the person to fall through. This is especially problematic with small children. Another common deck defect is how the deck is attached to the house. The attachment point, called a ledger board, MUST be connected with through bolts and not just nails or screws. If the house is wooden framed with a brick exterior, the ledger board cannot be properly attached, structurally, to the house and must be free standing. Also commonly seen is the lack of proper structural footing. Decks must be supported by concrete piers that extend into the ground at least 4′. This is required to provide the proper structural support as well as to have the deck anchored below the thaw line. This is an especially sensitive point in our area, given the history of porch and deck collapses. A disturbing statistic shows that 50% of all deck collapses occurred on decks that were built by contractors who obtained all the required permits. Even local municipal codes cannot always guarantee safety.
4. Improper Dryer Vent Hoses: Most houses I see have the old “slinky” coil covered with aluminum foil dryer vent hose (below).
These hoses, along with the vinyl covered ones, while easy to install have been deemed as prohibited for this use by the Consumer Products Safety Commission ever since they first came out. The problem? They cause about 50% of all house fires. Not necessarily big fires that burn the house down, but fires that cause damage and ruin the dryer and the adjacent walls. The reason for the fires is that these hoses are rough on the inside and trap dryer lint. Dryer lint is very flammable, and when in close proximity to heat it will burst into flames. This applies to both gas and electric clothes dryers.
Another common defect is to have the dryer vent directly into the house. This can happen because there is no proper dryer vent to the exterior or because some people think that the humid dryer air will humidify the house in the winter (and then they wonder why the have mold problems). Dryer vents should ALWAYS be vented, directly, to the outside. This is especially true for gas fired dryers because the dryer air contains carbon monoxide.
You should also clean the vent hose and the pipe in the wall regularly. Lint tends to accumulate, even if you clean your lint filter after every load (you DO that, don’t you?). You should also check the dryer vent on the outside of your house. It should be at least 1 1/2′ above the ground (so it doesn’t get clogged during heavy snows) and make sure that it does not have an screen around it. It should have a flapper valve, that opens when the air is coming out, but closes when the dryer is not operating. This valve keeps cold air and animals (birds, mice) from entering the house. It is also a good idea to have your clothes washer installed in a drain pan. If it ever breaks (and it will, eventually) the drain pan will keep the water from flooding out and ruining your floors. Many people now have their washer / dryer combos on the 2nd floor of the house rather than in the basement and a 2ns floor flood can be very expensive.
5. Stove Anti-Tip Brackets: Like the unqualified appliance installers connecting the dishwasher to the disposer, they also don’t install the required anti-tip bracket on the stove. This is a small bracket, mounted on the wall or on the floor, depending upon the type, that keeps the stove from tipping over. To tip the stove, you have to slide it out about 2′ first, then you can tip it up. Without this bracket, if the oven door is open and there is the slightest pressure on it, the stove will tip over. Imagine what would happen to a small child if the stove had hot pans going when it tips. The brackets themselves come with the stove, but I regularly see the appliance install people throw them away. No one every trained them to install the bracket. And while you are back there, make sure that the gas connection tubing is the proper kind. It should be CSST (Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing) that is covered with a yellow plastic coating. It’s also a good idea to move the stove and clean up back there every year. Also, you would not believe the funky stuff I see behind stoves and refrigerators.
6. Improperly adjusted or installed garage doors and openers: In many houses, the garage door is the most dangerous component. If the garage door is one of the older, solid wood doors, it can weigh hundreds of pounds. Combine this with an overhead door configuration and it’s literally the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head (and your car’s hood). Overhead doors should be installed so that the are counterbalanced by a coiled spring. If the garage door is disconnected from the opener, they should stay open and not come crashing down. These springs should be adjusted every 5 years or so. Likewise, the downward pressure reverse setting on the garage door opener also should be adjusted every year. It is simple to test this setting: Place a 2 x 4 board, flat side down, on the floor under the door and close the garage door over it. The door should come down and reverse when it hits the 2 x 4. When the 2 x 4 is removed, the door should close normally. This setting will stop the garage door if it strikes an object (such as your car’s hood) or a person. Your garage door should also be equipped with a photocell safety stop system. These are two photocell sensors on each side of the door opening. If the door is moving down and something comes between these sensors, they will immediately reverse the door movement and the light on the opener will blink. This will stop the door from potentially crushing children or pets.
7. Attached garage doors: If your garage is attached to your house, the door connecting the house and the garage should be a) 1 hour (minimum) fire rated door and, b) that door should have some sort of automatic door closer. This will help to keep car exhaust gasses and fire from the garage out of the house. Also check and see that any walls that are common to the garage and the house are fire rated (brick, cement block, 2 layers of 5/8″ drywall). This includes a firewall in the attic area and a ceiling in the garage be covered with fire rated drywall. This is another long time requirement of the National Fire Safety Code, but is not enforced by many local municipality building codes.
8. Lack of proper handrails: All stairways, with 3 steps or more, should have a properly secured and graspable handrail. That may seem to be a very qualified statement, but there is a reason. Not long ago, I did an inspection where the stairway to the 2nd floor had no handrail. There was a half-wall (a partition wall on the side of the stairway) that was 4″ wide and had a wooden top and he seller said that this was good enough. But this was not “graspable”. Building codes define “graspable” as something that you can get your hand 3/4 of the way around. A graspable handrail will not only allow you to balance yourself, but also to stop yourself from sliding or falling down the stairway. In this particular house, I called out this safety hazard for my clients. Turns out that when the seller was moving out, the seller’s mother-in-law fell down this stairway and broke her hip. The seller called to complain to me, that I should have notified him of this safety hazard. All I could say was, “I did, and you argued with me.”
9. GFCI electrical protection: Electrical receptacles (which you probably know as “outlets”) in some areas have easy access to an electrical ground. Above kitchen countertops (not just within 4′ of sinks), in bathrooms, unfinished basements, on the exterior of the house, in garages and serving garage door openers must be GFCI protected. Many older houses were never remodeled or updated and do not have this protection. GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt) receptacles (the ones with the test buttons) are inexpensive ($15 – 20) but are very important for electrical safety. If any electrical appliance (like a blender in a kitchen) develops an electrical ground fault, the metal case can become electrified. If you are touching the case and also touching the sink faucet, the electricity will flow through you to get to the ground (oh, and by the way, also killing you). Many people think that they are needed in wet areas, and that is partially true because water can conduct electricity, but the problem is not just water, it is any electrical ground source. Recently added to this requirement is garage door openers. In 2008, there were many reported cases where children were playing in wading pools in their driveways who touched the metal garage doors (which were ground faulted) and were electrocuted. It’s a simple fix, inexpensive to do and will save your life.
10. Improper water heater installation: The house’s water heater is another potentially dangerous household appliance. On the side of the water heater is a brassfitting, called a TPR valve (Temperature Pressure Relief Valve). If the heating element of the water heater malfunctions, the temperature and pressure in the heater vessel can get dangerously high (the can even blow up). The TPR value is designed to open and allow the pressure to be relieved safely. This valve is supposed to have a metal pipe coming out of it and extending downwards so as to end within 6″ of the floor. Many times, we see that they have used a PVC pipe rather than a metal one. The temperature of the released steam (Yes, LIVE STEAM, NOT WATER) will melt this pipe in a few seconds. Because this pipe is connected to a water heater, many people (including some plumbers) believe that this pipe is for draining water. As you can see from the picture at left, they come up with some rather intricate drainage methods. But what comes out is high temperature steam (~250 degrees F) and this steam should be vented downwards where it cannot hurt anyone.
While you are checking your water heater, you might also check those small plastic grommets at the supply pipes. If they look melted or deformed, this is an indication of back drafting. When the water heater fires, the combustion gases (including carbon monoxide) travel up through the vent hood (where draft air is added) and continue up through the flue and chimney. If there is a negative pressure condition in the house (often seen houses with certain types of furnaces or if the water heater in installed in a small utility closet with the furnace and / or a clothes dryer), these gasses can flow back under the hood and enter the house. These gases backing up will melt these grommets. Such a condition should immediately be checked by a professional HVAC technician or a certified home inspector with the specific equipment and training needed to properly evaluate the problem.
BTW: Is your house equipped with working carbon monoxide detectors? Do you change your CO and smoke detectors every 5 years? They wear out, you know.
Those are only a few of the safety hazards I regularly see, every day, when I inspect houses. I will be adding to this article as I find more.
Please, keep your family safe and enjoy your house.
Large luxury house in the western suburbs. Granite countertops, hardwood floors, huge mater bathroom with a shower enclosure, two sinks and a separate water closet toilet. BUT… The beautiful, deep, claw foot bathtub had a crystal chandelier installed over the tub. The “designer” called for it, but didn’t take into account that non-waterproof electrical light fixtures CAN NOT be installed over wet areas like showers and bathtubs. Luckily, we found it before the client was electrocuted.
We regularly see design modifications and “trendy” styles that are very desirable, but are very unsafe. Horizontal stairway and guardrail balusters look good, but they provide easy climbing steps for small children. Extending the living room hardwood flooring into the 1st floor powder room is very elegant, but the hardwood flooring around the toilet will soon buckle and rot. Please think through all the consequences of any design work and look to the functionality of the house and not just the appearance.
Most people see their attics as additional storage space. I have found that people, pretty much always, tend to accumulate 120% of the stuff they actually have room for. When in doubt, put it in the attic. BUT… you have to make sure that the attic’s structure is strong enough to support all that weight. This homeowner had an elaborate storage system in the attic, but did not consider the structural weight requirements. Most houses have attic / ceiling joists that are too small to support much in the way of weight. In this case, not only were the ceiling joists undersized for the load, but the storage shelve units were also supported to the roof rafters. This caused cracking of the rafters and repairs had to be made. If you are considering using your attic for storage, please consult a licensed, insured and qualified carpentry contractor to make sure that the house’s structure can support the extra load.
Everyone seems to want a nice, warm garage, especially if the garage is attached to the house and there is a second story living space. BUT… any modifications to the heating system of a house MUST be done by qualified HVAC professionals. In this house, the family had the heating system modified but the work was done by the lowest bidder, a non-professional HVAC company. As a result, the house’s HVAC duct system was extended to the garage. This is wrong for two reasons.
1) Garages contain toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide and gasoline fumes. Extending the HVAC system to the garage will force these gases to be distributed throughout the entire house and will kill its occupants.
2) Because of these fumes, garages are prone to fires. Attached garages MUST be sealed off from the house, not only to prevent toxic gases but also as a fire stop (see point 7, above). Extending the HVAC system into the garage creates a clear path for fire to spread from the garage to the rest of the house.
When you have the nice, big attics described above, ready to contain all your stored possessions, you want an easy means to get up and down into the attic space, especially when carrying all those boxes. So, you have a pull-down attic stairway installed. Fine, BUT… remember to have the stairway properly installed.
Pull-down stairways MUST be installed according to the manufacturer’s installation instructions. This means that the stairway frame must be properly secured to properly sized ceiling joists (usually not sized for large loads) and must be secured utilizing nails, usually 16D size nails. These nails should be installed according to the manufacturer’s nailing schedule and some of the nails must be inserted through the metal brackets of the frame. What we commonly see is these stairways installed using drywall screws, as pictured.
Screws do not have the necessary shear force strength to support pull-down stair frames. This is especially true of drywall screws, which are designed only to secure relatively light drywall to a wall. One inspector that I know had one of these stairways fail while he was climbing up to the attic. The framed broke his neck as he is now a quadriplegic, unable to use or feel any part of his body from the neck down.
Seemly simple construction mistakes can have very tragic consequences.