Owning a house is more responsibility than you think.
By William Decker, CMI
As an Illinois State licensed home inspector, and a Certified Master Inspector, I see a lot of people’s houses. I see single family houses, from modest 2 bedroom Ranch style houses to 8,000 square foot (plus) mansions. I have inspected individual 1 or 2 bedroom condominium units and I have evaluated entire 5 story, 50 unit condominium and apartment buildings. The residential housing I have seen has been owned by young couples and single people, just starting into the work world and older, retired couples in the autumn of their lives. Some home owners and buyers had very modest incomes and some have been multi-millionaires.
If there is one trait that I see in pretty much every residence and with almost all the home owners, sellers and buyers, it would have to be the tendency to try to ignore the fact, to a greater or lesser extent, that they, alone, are responsible for their own property. This may sound harsh, but it is, none the less, true.
A home inspection is defined as a visual, non-invasive evaluation of a residential property as part of a real estate transaction. The object of the inspection is to provide the client with a written report that describes (and, hopefully, explains) the current condition of the property and, if needed, makes recommendations for repairs or more in-depth evaluation of the uncovered problems.
But, that is not what many people expect. They want a complete evaluation of the property, including a list of all the problems, whether they present themselves at the time of the inspection or they will become problems many years in the future. They want to know, exactly, how much it will cost to fix the problems and want the inspector to document his prophecy so that they can use the inspection report to negotiate a lower price. If there is the slightest bit of unanticipated expense or inconvenience to them, even after of years of living in the house, they want someone else to fix it without the slightest but of effort by them.
In other words, they want to avoid any responsibility for themselves.
I have been seeing this, more and more. Some examples are:
A young couple, buying their first house, a 3 bedroom, new construction property.
There was some question about whether the builder had installed the windows correctly and evidence that he had not done so in the garage (right). I recommended that the couple have the builder verify that the windows had been properly installed and have this documented by the field representative of the window manufacturer. Of course the builder refused (go figure) and the buyers really liked the house (it was, otherwise, a very nice house). The buyer’s (and their agent) kept pestering me to change my mind or to give them other options about what to do. In other words, they didn’t want to be the ones to actually make the decision to buy the house or not. They kept asking me about my insurance coverage, in case the windows started leaking in the next few years. They did this because their agent told them (wrongly) that an inspection was like a guarantee and that I would be responsible of the house ever had any problems. They did not want to have any responsibility.
Many times, we inspect houses for repair of maintenance issues, not as part of a house sale. I inspected a new (3 years old) very expensive town home in Chicago’s fashionable Lincoln Park neighborhood. We have seen, in recent years, many such houses and condominium buildings having water intrusion problems because of bad masonry work, inexperienced workers and the lack of professional General Contractor oversight. Even with the usual municipal building code inspections, most of these problems are not caught. This is because a building code inspection (if it is even done) checks for gross issues relating to structure and fire safety and not to the quality of the construction. This home owner complained of bad smells and noticed multiple signs of water stains on the walls and top floor ceiling. It turned out that the builder had cut many corners in the construction and there were multiple areas of water intrusion, as well as rotted roof trusses and roof decking (Picture 2), mold and even mushrooms growing (Picture 3) on the underside of the roof!
The home owner thought that the problem was a leaking roof, but the roof covering was fine. The problem was caused by improper masonry work and the lack of water flashing in the masonry. Often, it is very difficult to determine the exact cause of a construction problem and without knowing the cause how can the proper repair be done?
Using thermal imaging and other technical testing available to a home inspector, the real causes were determined and the report detailed the exact steps necessary to stop the water intrusion as well as how to repair the damage. We even provided a list of qualified contractors who had experience with repairing these conditions. Case closes, it would seem.
But the home owner had other ideas. He thought that he could save some money by doing things “on the cheap”. After all, this was Chicago, the land of “I know a guy”, where everyone knows that doing things simply and straight forward is only for the “suckers”. The owner decided that he would act as his own General Contractor, seeking out and hiring the various sub-contractors needed (roofer, carpenter, mason, insulation, drywall, etc). He thought that all he had to do was hire the least expensive subs he could find and turn them loose and the work would, magically, repair itself. That is not how it turned out.
What occurred was a real train wreck. The roofers started to replace the rotted roof deck plywood and didn’t understand what to do with the rotted roof trusses, so they did nothing. The mold was not professionally remediated and just grew back on the new roof decks. The masonry flashing was done poorly and there was still water entering the house’s masonry. There were new water stains and the original problems were back, only worse. The owner called me to re-evaluate the house and, to blame me for his problem. I inspected and explained to the home owner that the work was done badly and there had been no coordination of the work. Sure, he saved money by not having to pay a General Contractor to supervise the work, but he wasted much more because all the work would have to be re-done. He had failed to be responsible for his own house.
I did an inspection a young couple who were buying their first house. They didn’t have a lot of money and were told that they could buy a foreclosed house and save a lot of money. The house that we saw was bank owned. It had been “winterized” and the utilities (water, gas, electricity) were not turned on. I always recommend that the back have all the utilities turned on because it is impossible to completely evaluate the house without them. The couple were, already, “in love” with the house and were not easily dissuaded from their starry eyed vision.
The bank had not put much money into the house’s upkeep. Portions of the exterior siding had blown away during a recent storm. Because the house had not been cooled during the summer, the high humidity levels that the Chicago area experiences had taken their toll on the drywall. Many of the wooden headers above the windows and doors were rotted because the windows had not been properly installed. The previous owner had done a lot of “remodeling” and, hoping to save money, had done the work by himself. As a result,
there was a lot of non-professional electrical wiring, a non-code rated stairway (Picture 4), and rotted sub-flooring and joists in the utility room. When houses are winterized and left, most people think that the house will keep. This is not true. The house’s interior will change in temperature and humidity right along with the outside. The building materials in the house (drywall, wood, interior paint, floor tile, hardwood floors, etc) were designed to be kept in a heat and humidity controlled environment. When they are not in a conditioned area, they deteriorate.
I reported on these conditions and heavily recommended that the clients have the house re-inspected after the bank had arranged for all the utilities to be turned on. They asked me for a “rough estimate” of how much it would cost to have all these problems fixed. It gave them a figure, but emphasized that it was “very rough” and the full number could not be determined until after the water, electric and gas were turned on. They thought that since they were getting the house at such a “good” price, that they could afford to buy it and have the problems fixed. I recommended that they hire a professional general contractor to give them an accurate quote and not rely on my rough number.
Carried away by the prospect of having their own home and being encouraged by the bank that the repairs were “manageable”, they bought the house. When the utilities were turned on, after the sale, the plumbing leaked and the electrical wiring was so bad that it almost caused a fire. They soon found that fixing it up would cost much more than they originally figured. They called me back and were angry because my estimate was too low. I asked them if they had a General Contractor give them a quote, but they said that the didn’t because “it would have taken too much time”. I told them that I was sorry, but they had failed to do their own due dilligence. They didn’t take their own responsibility seriously.
Home inspectors can do a great deal, but we are no substitute for a home owners sense of responsibility for their own house.