Systems analysis, as it were: wiring, water, structural

HOME WORK

April 10, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

A home inspection, whether it's something you asked for as a prospective buyer or whether it is mandated by the mortgage lender, is more than another hoop to jump through on the way to settlement.

It may be your first chance to look under the house's hood, so to speak, to kick the tires and see how it runs.

The home inspector is examining two things: the structure and soundness of the house, and the wiring, plumbing and heating systems.

There's actually a third category, which is Anything Else You Want To Know.

But the important thing about the home inspection is that you be there.

Follow the inspector around; he or she will have a routine. Be prepared. Know your house parts.

Here are some of the questions that should be on your mind:

*Follow the inspector into the basement and the attic and, if possible, into the crawl spaces. (Carry a flashlight so you can help light up the space under examination.) This is where any old termite damage will show up. "No live termites" isn't good enough as a termite-inspection report; they may have done plenty of damage before they died. But don't be frightened by a bad beam or joist; repairs may not be expensive.

*Does the house have drain tile around the perimeter of the basement? A sump pump? That probably means you won't have water problems. The only way to tell for sure is to visit during or just after a rain storm. If you see signs of water problems, don't panic; some problems can be solved relatively inexpensively, by exterior grading, for instance, or by installing a sump pump.

As of this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is advising all home buyers to ask for radon test results, or to find out if the house has a radon-reduction system. Radon is a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas produced naturally by radioactive decay. It comes from rocks that are common in most parts of the country, and it is considered to be a leading cause of lung cancer.

Radon-reduction techniques could cost under $100 or just a few hundred dollars; an elaborate system that monitors and reduces radon gas can cost a couple of thousand.

The catch is that water-problem solutions, such as drain tiles and sump pumps, may aggravate radon problems. If you plan on installing such a system, test for radon again when it's in place.

* Make sure the roof is fully evaluated. Find out not just what type of roof it is (flat, shingle, tile or slate), but how old it is. A flat roof -- typical on rowhouses -- needs recoating every three years, but that's not expensive. A new flat roof can cost $1,000 and up.

Shingle roofs should last 20 years but may need flashing or other repairs. Slate and tile last considerably longer, but when they reach the end of their natural lifetimes, they are much more expensive to replace.

About the systems:

*Besides knowing what type of heat the house has -- hot water, steam, forced air -- you need to know what fuels the system -- gas, oil, electricity -- and how old the equipment is.

If you only got a report, it might say, "Heat: Steam. Condition: OK."

You need to know if the system has modern controls. In the case of a boiler, does it add water automatically or shut down when the water level is low?

How efficient is the system? If your furnace or boiler is not energy-efficient and has no controls, or needs other work (replacing rusty piping, for instance), it may be time to replace it. The new boiler or furnace may cost $2,000 or more.

If there's central air conditioning, where are the cold air returns? That's what will determine how efficiently the cooling works throughout the house. Hot air rises; there should be returns at the high points of the house to get the air back to the central unit for recooling. If there are not enough returns, the hot air will simply gather and upper floors will not cool.

If the house has a forced-air furnace but doesn't have central air, you'll need an expert's opinion on whether you can simply add air conditioning. If there are no returns, a central system may be less efficient than installing a number of window units.

*Find out the capacity of the electrical service in amps. You need at least "100-amp service" with some empty circuit locations in case you want to add independent circuits for microwaves, computers or air-conditioning units.

Find out how the circuits are distributed. If the whole first floor is on one circuit, you won't be able to plug in an electric iron, much less an air conditioner.

You also need to find out what kind of wiring is in the walls. The ancient "knob and tube" and "wood-track" systems should be replaced. But you may have to substantially rewire the house to get rid of the old stuff. Find out how extensive old wiring is and how much it might cost to replace it.

* Find out what kind of water pipes are in the walls. In municipal systems, you want copper inside and out. Galvanized water lines rust and eventually close. Check the water pressure at all outlets. If the water meter is in a vault, make sure it's not leaking.

If you have a well, it will need expert evaluation. Besides the gallons-per-minute flow, you need to have the water tested for purity. Some well water is not compatible with metal pipes; you need PVC piping instead.

If you have a well, you may also have a septic system. Make sure it's tested. And if you want to add capacity, you need to know if it will support that.

* Finally, poke around. Lift carpets and sheet flooring, if possible. (If not, you may be able to check floors from underneath.) Check above dropped ceilings, a traditional "fix" for bad plaster. Shine a light into all the dark corners. If you see anything that concerns you, ask the home inspector.

You're paying for the inspection: That means there are no stupid questions.

Next: Defining the job.

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