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Home Inspection in the Spot Light
Newspaper and Media Articles on Home Inspection

HOMEWRECKERS: The signs can be subtle, the damage huge - How to protect your greatest asset

By Mark Myers
Reader's Digest
April 2003

"This is private property, you varmint!" may have evolved into "Hey, honey, what's that brown stuff under the eaves?" But the fact remains: Your home is y our castle. And since IRAs, 401(k)s and other Wall Street investments have suffered steep declines recently while the medium single-family home price has soared nearly 53 percent in the last ten years, your house may also be the best investment you ever made.

It's spring-perfect time to give your place a once-over. On the following pages, we'll show you how to find and fix the five most commonly overlooked structural threats to your home - and investment.

"While most homeowners see the evidence of a problem, they overlook it because they're not aware of what's happening behind the scenes or how bad the problem can get," says Michael Casey, a home inspector in Haymarket, Virginia. "Of the 500 homes I inspect each year, a third turn up problems that were noticeable and could've been addressed sooner, at great savings to the owner." Watch for these early signs then act fast:

When water seeps under shingles or tarpaper on your roof, it pools in the eaves or in your ceiling. If you notice a brown stain in either place, don't go on the roof. It's easy to slip and fall, and some roof warranties are invalidated if you walk on the shingles.

Instead, call a roofing contractor or home inspector, who will probe surfaces for moisture and search for curled shingles, protruding nails, flaws in the flashing and dislodged roofing.

"Ask the expert to take Polaroids so you can see any problem," advises Casey. To prevent roof leaks, clean gutters, clear branches that touch the roof, and have a roof inspection -between $100 and $300-every three to five years. Caught early, a leak can be fixed, and affected areas dried out and repaired. Left untreated, roof rot will set in and require costly replacement.

Basement floods occur when a home's underground drainage system or dry well can't handle the runoff from rain and thawing.

If you find a heavy coating of white powder on your basement's concrete walls, the soil outside is likely saturated and moisture is entering your house. Other warning signs include dark watermarks or blistering paint on cellar walls, and lingering puddles along exterior walls days after a rain.

A home inspector or masonry restoration and waterproofing contractor will probe walls with a moisture meter and examine the crawlspace to see if water is above the plastic "vapor barrier" that covers the ground and separates the soil from the structure.

"Slip a garden hose into the pipe that sticks out of the ground under a downspout," says Richard Matzen, a home inspector in Seattle. "Turn on the hose. If water backs up, the belowground drainage system is likely plugged." Unclogging a drainage pipe or fixing a tear in the vapor barrier can cost a few hundred dollars, he says, depending on the problem's extent.

But a more complicated problem, such as a clogged dry well or damaged drainage pipe, can cost much more. About two years a go, Melinda Catalano of suburban Seattle noticed a strong musty smell in her downstairs bedroom. She crawled around the room and saw that her hands were wet and her furniture legs were cracking.

"I realized we had a leak and that the water had been there for some time, " she says. "O couldn't see the problem because my carpet was dark green. She also noticed the ground just outside was extremely wet.

Catalano called Steve Bovine, a drainage-repair specialist, who suggested the least expensive solution first-running a fiber optic camera into the "below grade" downspout nearest her bedroom. This pipe starts at the surface, below a home's aluminum exterior downspout, and runs underground to a foundation drainpipe, which sends water to a discharge pipe that moves it off your property.

Bovine's tiny camera showed a tennis-ball-sized hole in the foundation pipe. In heavy rain, water pooled next to the foundation and seeped inside.

Bovine dug up the earth above the problem and replaced the broken pipe for about $1200. Had excavation been needed to search for the problem or restore the bitumen coating on the foundation wall that acts as a barrier, the job might have cost up to $7000.

A Darien, Conn., Woman, who chose to remain anonymous to protect the value of her home, was recently playing basketball on her driveway with her two children. "The ball bounced off the asphalt onto the soil," she says. "When I went to get the ball, I saw it had crushed these giant ants. They were awful, coming down from the tree in long lines. I didn't know what they were, but I knew from their size they were trouble."

Carpenter ants, which grow up to three-quarters of an inch long, use plant and tree branches to reach your house, and then chew into wood to create nests and leave behind small piles of sawdust.

Subterranean termites are tiny-about half the size of a staple and actually eat wood. The most common termite in the United States, they avoid light by building pencil-thick shelter tubes, sometimes freestanding, sometimes along outdoor masonry or pipes-anything that will take them from their nests in damp soil to the underside or other entry points of houses.

Termite tubes typically pop up around the sides of homes and emerge from the soil in dark, damp crawlspaces, says Stephen Gladstone, a licensed pest control operator in Stamford, Conn., and president-elect of the American Society of Home Inspectors.

Both insects are highly destructive and relentless about reaching the wood of your home. A licensed exterminator will search for tubes and sawdust, rap on surfaces for hollow sounds and probe wet wood with an ice pick. To kill carpenter ants, pesticide is sprayed above the ground or on colonies in the soil. If they're living in wood or walls, holes are drilled and pesticide injected. The treatment costs $400 to $600 a year, typically under a contract that calls for several applications of pesticides per year.

It can cost as much as $2000 for termites, a much more extensive process that requires at least 200 gallons of termiticide for an average-size home, but should last several years. A more environmentally friendly but costlier approach for both species is baits. Insects go inside, feed on poison and carry it back tot the colony. If there's significant damage, especially if structures such as a deck need bracing, you may need to hire a carpenter.

The Darien homeowner called Dave Curtis, a pest control specialist in Stamford. He put baits in the trees to kill the ants before they could get to the house. In addition, the woman bought an annual prevention plan for about $60 a month.

Curtis also found termites in the old barn on the property. They had eaten away large parts of tree stumps that supported the structure. They'd also built shelter tubes on the sides of the stumps to reach the underside of the barn.

Curtis urged the owner to replace the sumps with cinder blocks. "We then coated the wood surfaces inside with liquid borate," he ways "which is absorbed by the wood after a few months and is toxic to the insect." He treated the soil under and around the barn with a termiticide that lasts around ten years. Cost: about $1000.

Carpenter ant destruction isn't usually as serious as that of termites, but if the ants had gotten into her house and gone unnoticed for some time, they could have caused costly damage.

Mold is a microscopic organism that enters your house through open windows and ventilation systems, and on shoes. Once inside, mold spores hibernate until they find a water and food source, such as damp wood and carpeting or shower grout.

Mold may be growing on a wide scale in your home if you smell a strong, musty odor or experienced water damage that wasn't fixed quickly.

Call a qualified mold specialist, preferably a member of the International Association of Mold Management (IAMM), the Indoor Air Quality Association or the Indoor Air Quality Council. The expert will take air and sample tests inside and outside your home to determine the mold type and intensity. Expect to pay between $800 and $1200 for the investigation.
If enough spores of nontoxic mold are airborne, they can affect the health of people with allergies, low immune systems or respiratory ailments.

Bleach is not strong enough to clean some nontoxic molds, says Dana Carter, executive director of the IAMM. Trisodium phosphate (TSP), a strong detergent sold at hardware stores, should be used. Then a dehumidifier must be installed to dry out the area.

While a legitimate health concern, cases of toxic mold-a specific type that produces airborne toxins that attack respiratory systems of even healthy people-are uncommon. But if yours is one of the rare cases of significant levels of toxic mold, you will need to hire a "remediation contractor," potentially costing thousands.

All types of mold can be hazardous to your health if left to grow on a large scale. According to the Insurance Information Institute, more than 10,000 mold-related lawsuits are pending in state courts. Most are in Florida, California and Texas, where climate makes it easier for mold to take hold.

When blisters form on outside painted surfaces, there's either too much moisture in the wood or the paint was poorly applied. "Blistering paint was poorly applied. "Blistering due to moisture usually appears first high up on the house because it enters there first. Or it appears first along horizontal surfaces such as windowsills and garage-door trim," says Jim Virtue, a paint contractor in Quincy, Massachusetts. He suggests using binoculars to monitor higher surfaces. Blistering due to a bad paint job often appears along a house's entire side.

Caught early, the area affected by a bad paint job may be prepped and repainted for a few hundred dollars. If moisture is the problem, you'll need to find out how it's getting into the wood.

Joe and Angela McCarthy's two-story, 70-year-old house faces Quincy Bay in Quincy. Wind, ice and rain whip off the water, so homes like the McCarthy's are typically covered in hardy cedar shingles.

About three years ago, Joe McCarthy noticed the shingles were starting to mildew, curl under and pull away from the side of his house. In addition, the McCarthys' trim was not only peeling but also bubbling.

McCarthy hired Jim Virtue, who recommended staining the shingles to better protect them. Virtue pressure-washed to remove mildew. When the wood was dry, he sanded and scraped the house and repaired damaged shingles. Next, he sprayed on one coat of gray stain, and then brushed on another. He caulked, scraped and painted the trim. The job cost $2500.

But McCarthy discovered it wasn't just the weather doing in his home's exterior. "When we fixed the trim, we noticed water getting into the roof," he says. "The damage on the house's sides and trim was caused in part by moisture getting behind them. So the contractor replaced the roof shingles. First we put an asphalt coating on the entire surface to cover all of the nail heads. Then we used heavy asphalt shingles designed to withstand high winds." Roof replacement cost $6500, but left undiscovered, the leak could have rotted internal wood and caused much more substantial damage.

"Now we're always on the lookout for bubbling and blistering on the painted surfaces," says Angela McCarthy, "because we know it means water is trapped underneath."


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