A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Archive for September, 2007

Heading Towards the Light- Part 1

As a young man, I was fascinated by Bertolt Brecht’s plays. They were a wonder to me, and I was always a fan of his writing. Visually, the stage sets were great to see. I have been to several plays, and although good, the photographs of Brecht’s performances were different. This was due to Casper Naher, a stage set designer. He gave a great deal of thought to how the audience would view his sets. A chief concern was lighting. He could create intimacy and expanse with a flip of the switch.

I recently read that psychologists say that we are biologically inclined to move towards the light. This fact explains many images which recur throughout human history, and it gives us an insight to our own home’s lights. Lights should be strategically placed to give our mind a focus point, as much as providing us with the need for light for a certain task. This series of posts will deal with different types of lighting, home staging with lights, a home inspector’s concerns with light fixtures, and ideas on how to set up various lights.

In our energy conscious times, I wanted to start with sunlight. I walk into so many homes where the curtains are drawn. I love natural light, so I only close a curtain for privacy. This is not really in style, but some people still use sheer fabric curtains to allow light in, while maintaining a screen from public view. I enjoy creating scenes outside my windows, so I have a reason for them to be open. Outside my office window, I have bougainvilleas above with a bird bath set to the height of the bottom sill, so I can look out for avian visitors. My daughter’s window is high, so I grow cannas there to have flowers fill her view. My parents used glass blocks to provide light in part of their home, instead of a window. The windows were looking onto a driveway, where the sight could not be improved. Take the time to consider how you can use your windows effectively for light.

I have seen people add windows to help increase light in certain parts of a house; however, I came across two creative ways to bring light in, and prying eyes out. Light wells go back to ancient times. On Crete, you will find them used in the sprawling ruins, but the idea is still useful. Light wells are more common in town homes, where they service as private patios in the interior of the home. I have seen a builder use this idea in a new home though. The home’s design had one truly dark area, and the builder placed a light well in that location. It was designed as a garden space for a truly glorious effect. When building a home (or if undergoing major renovations), this method is a good choice. The second means which is similar to a light well is the cupola with windows. I was walking by a house this weekend which had a grand cupola installed to provide light to the middle of a large house. I have seen this idea used in non-living area buildings, such as churches, but not in a home. This cupola was added by the homeowners to bring light into their den area. It was a large structure, but this idea could work on a smaller scale. I like this idea better than a skylight, since they frequently leak when retrofitted into an existing roof.

A less expensive alternative to these solutions is a new product on the market, which I have seen called suntubes. (Note: I saw the suntubes name in an article about a year ago, but I saw a program with this device being called a Sola Tube or solatube.) They are like miniature skylights. The flange end for the interior looks similar to the flange for a recessed light. On the other end of the extendable tube is a bubble for the exterior. I have not seen one installed, but it appears to be less prone to leaks than a sky light. I want to install a couple of these tubes on my interior hallway, where I think they would work well. I am waiting till I install a new roof, just because I want to do everything possible to prevent a leak. These tubes seem to be a good idea for any location where you want sunlight, but do not have the option for a window or other means for bringing light into your home.

This is not my choice, but I have seen people use a wall of mirrors in a dark area of a home to reflect light coming from the windows on the other side of the room. I think a wall of mirrors is a trend item, which comes and goes in and out of fashion. It does work, so if it is your style, you may want to consider this. One interesting way to create a wall of mirrors without using large pieces are mirror tiles for walls. I helped to install this in my parents’ hall bathroom. It is a simple procedure with glue. I think you could create a better effect with these tiles than a large mirror, and there is an additional benefit to using these tiles. If one breaks, you do not have to replace the entire wall. More pleasing to my eye was the use of a framed mirror in a dark location to reflect light. This technique helped me in a back bedroom, and I have seen it done in a hall.

Lastly, you may use the sun’s power to light your home. It may not be natural light, but it does make use of it. I have seen people install smaller solar panel systems for this purpose. A solar panel system for all of your energy needs can be expensive. Using it to power your lights is a good stepping stone to solar power. The drawback to solar energy is not just cost: there has been a shortage of solar panels in recent years, and battery technology has not always been efficient enough to store the electricity needed during times when you are not obtaining all the energy you need from the sun. By using a combination of energy efficient lighting techniques and solar, this may not be a problem.

Open your blinds to see the light. Sunlight can possibly be your best means to light your home during the day, and maybe even at night too.

Heading Towards the Light- Part 5

In my final post for this series, I want to examine lighting from the perspective of an inspector. Here is where reality and dreams collide. To achieve our goals in having just the right fixture, location, or effect, we sometimes bypass safety without knowing that we went a step to far.

An inspector will look for lighting in all habitable areas and bathrooms of your home. Hallways and stairs need proper light with switches at both ends, and an attached garage is to be lighted. If you have a detached garage, it only requires a light when the building has power provided to it. All exterior doors which provides a grade level access need a light, but not a garage door for your car. Some builders have outlets controlled by a wall switch, but they cannot use this arrangement in a kitchen or bathroom. When they do have a switch for an outlet, many builders will turn the receptacle upside down to inform you that this outlet is the controlled unit. These outlets cannot use a dimmer.

Some safety concerns for the physical fixture are involving the unit’s placement. Bathrooms are fun to light considering the restrictions on where the light can go. You will want a pendant light to be more than eight feet above and three feet away from your shower or tub. For this reason, I like to see fixtures that hug the ceiling instead of dangling down. Closets should not have open incandescent bulbs. A recessed light (or a fluorescent) can be within six inches of a shelf. Fixtures that are ceiling mounted should be twelve inches away from the shelf. This is due to the fact that incandescents heat to a higher temperature than fluorescents. The only location in a closet where mounting a fixture on the wall is allowed would be above the door, as long as there is no shelf there.

This may seem strange, but an inspector has to ensure that track lighting is a minimum of five feet above the floor. Can that fixture hit your head then? Yes. The idea applies to a track light over your seating areas and tables. Pendant (chandelier) fixtures can move by swinging when hit, but track lighting cannot.

Recessed lighting will be attached above your ceiling. There is a rating for the housing saying the unit is IC rated. This rating is for situations where insulation can come into contact with the unit, like in an attic. A non-IC rated unit is meant for drop down ceilings where there is no insulation. Obviously, non-IC rated is cheaper, so people like to save money by using them. They can be placed in the attic when you adhere to the following: 1) the housing is a ½ inch away from an object that can burn; 2) the housing is three inches away from insulation. The problem that I find is that insulation eventually finds its way to the housing. A solution could be to create a barrier to prevent insulation from moving closer to the unit.

As with all electrical fixtures, the lighting units need to be firmly attached to the wall. If they shake or move, stress is placed on the wiring, which could cause the wiring’s protective sheathing to fail.

Most inspectors will not check for this last one, but I was once a certified food service manager, so I like to see if the fixtures in the kitchen have one extra safety feature. Health codes require that for commercial kitchens lights in a food preparation area should be covered, so if the bulb bursts, the pieces will not fall in to your food. Fluorescents are coated with a poisonous material on their interior, and glass shards are never good in food. Lights over your cooktop in the range hood may have a cover missing. I see this a lot. Think about your family’s well being, and consider what would happen if the bulb in different kitchen fixtures breaks.

I hope these posts have been helpful to you. Hopefully, you have come away with some ideas and some knowledge about lighting.

Heading Towards the Light-Part 4

You have entered the world of marketing. Welcome to my personal version of hell. Alright, marketing is not that bad, but trying to guess what your customer wants and what he needs, while finding a way to let him know that you have just that item can be difficult. By selling your home, you are offering a product, and home staging is the key to presenting that product in the best light (yes, I used this word intentionally).

I have discussed home staging in other articles, posts, or on my website, but while writing these posts, I knew that I could apply some ideas for lighting to home staging. I have walked through houses where people have either turned on all the lights or none of the lights when presenting their home to potential buyers. Your home has become a product competing with many other models, and you have become the salesperson and marketer for your home. Your Realtor will have taken on this role too, but a quick successful sale will not occur without your participation. Keeping to my theme from the first post, you are setting the stage with lights to assist you in the sale.

Home buying is emotional. The buyer wants to feel that this house can be his home. Your job is to create an inviting, intimate space for them. If you have moved out of the house, lighting will not play the part that it does when the house is furnished. You want the house to feel expansive, and without furniture, general lighting helps with this effect. Clear items or prune shrubs away from windows to allow a flood of natural light in when blinds and curtains are drawn. However, if you are still living in the house, use accent and spot lights to draw the buyer’s eyes to the ares that you want to highlight. A reading spot, an office desk, a night stand, an artwork are locations of your home that show the spots of concern for a buyer to feel as if they could live there. People want a personal spot to do their work, read, set their glasses down on. Maybe a task light on a coffee maker in the kitchen with a cup ready for the beverage. You do not need to have coffee made, but the impression that it is ready to go. Kitchens always have some mess associated with breakfast or dinner, so using a task light to emphasize one spot will detract from the stain in the sink or cabinet. Look at each room, and find a way to highlight an image of you can move right into this home. Buyers will be looking in the most unusual places, so take charge of what they see by using the idea that they will head towards a light.

A bit more about windows, I would look to see if you could set a scene outside of the window to create a picture effect. Maybe a potted plant or some tableau can be placed there for their eye to focus on. If you have moved out of the house, raise the chandeliers up to allow the customer the freedom to walk around in the room without having his head hit.

Home staging can make the difference between a quick sale for your home, or your house staying on the market for some time. This is the art of presentation of a product, and lighting can be a great tool in your arsenal.

Politics and the Subprime

Today, Congress will be questioning people from the stock analyst community, believing that they helped dealing with (or could have prevented) the subprime mortgage fallout. This is a great opportunity for news items, but useless in dealing with our current situation.

Although, there has been legislation, which passed the House that will help new homeowners, we are not dealing with how to prevent this situation from occurring again. Here is what we are missing:

1. Mortgage providers who are targeting the subprime market for great profits, but with no care in helping such people in not taking on to much debt. In fact, some lenders happily mistreated such borrowers to produce ever increasing profits.

2. Investors wanting larger returns bought these loans in packages, knowing that their was a risk, but not wanting to deal with the consequences. To be fair, some investors did not realize what they were getting into because of brokers, who told them that these vehicles were safe. But not to fear, these investors will have to go to arbitration for their complaints. These panels have been notorious of late for always siding or aiding the brokers.

3. The Wall Street analyst being questioned today did play their part, but they have consistently promoted firms which they should not have. For better profits, they have not been forthcoming with information for some time, so why should they start now? Congress will slap them on the wrist, and they will go back to their normal lives.

4. Consumer protection laws, like the current bankruptcy laws, were written with heavy involvement from the industries the consumers need protection from. Our leaders seem interested in sound bites, rather than true action. Lets take President Bush’s statement of help to homeowners facing foreclosure because of the subprime crisis: we will deal with these consumers by having them obtain FHA loans. FHA will not deal with subprime market, so they cannot offer assistance to those consumers. (Bush just wanted something to say, which seems to be happening on both sides of the aisle in Congress).

Our society is failing if we stay on this course. Government should take measures which offer protections to both business and the consumer. Businesses should stop seeking the short term profit, and look to the long term. A stable subprime or prime borrower could offer better returns over a lifetime than the could at this moment in time. Finally Wall Street analysts should just be used for entertainment, I have never found their advice useful for my long term goals.

Heading Towards the Light- Part 3

I thought to give you an idea on how you can use lighting to set a scene, I would go through how I am working with lights in one room of my house. Most Americans do not use their formal dining rooms on a regular basis for meals, but they will use this room for paying bills, homework, or projects. My house’s layout made the informal dining area an impractical choice for us. Traffic flow to the kitchen and utility room would have become a problem with a table in that space, so we opted to use our formal dining room for our daily meals, along with special occasion dinners. Projects and homework are done there on a regular basis, so different lighting schemes were needed to address these uses.

For general lighting, we use the chandelier. It provides a nice overall light, which is good for the family meal. Even though I decided upon fluorescent bulbs in every other room in the house, I went with an incandescent bulb in the shape of a flame for this fixture. We are not in the room that long, and having the proper look to the chandelier was important to me. This lighting scheme is great for extended family and friend gatherings. The bulbs are not of a high wattage, but there are quite a few of them, so in a way I am saving energy by not having five 100 W bulbs, which is overkill. My total wattage is 150W.

To create a more intimate mood for a formal dining, I use three wall sconces with a similar incandescent bulb. This really falls under the accent category. To further accent the room, I have a frame light on the print on the far wall, so your eye is drawn to it. The sconce lights also highlight art work. Next I use a halogen which plugs into a receptacle, and the fixture has a bracket for wall mounting. I have mounted it about a foot and a half from the floor. The lights shines up to a wall scroll. Lights do not have to shine down, and upward shining lights provide truly dramatic effects. Lastly, my wife sets out candles to light the table. In this way we have pools of light focusing the eye on what is special. I remember a psychologist saying that we are at our least appealing moment when we eat, but we choose that act for our dates. For formal dining, having the light away from our mouths could be a good thing, I guess.

Much of the time, the dining room is dark, but if I am not using this space, and I want to highlight it, I use a spot focused on the far end of the room from the entrance. This draws the eye to the room, and gives a hint of the interior. A spot light lets the viewer know something is there besides a dark cavern. I use a floor lamp for this lighting. Small floor lamps for spots work well, but they can easily tip over, so check for stability. In this fixture, I use a fluorescent.

The project that I have not completed yet is the better task light. My plan is to go with recessed lights which have halogen bulbs. The reason for my choice is based upon the fact that I do not want the ceiling to look to busy when dining. Track lighting is great in certain areas, and lights not placed in a housing, particularly in the ceiling, give off more light. However, I have to consider how the room will appear. By using a halogen I can obtain a good deal of light on a specific area even when it is in a recessed fixture. By placing these to shine along the common work area, I have my task light.

Some other considerations with lights that would not apply to this room would be table lamps for accent lighting, and lighting for reading. I am guilty of buying table lamps because I like their look, but then I do not have the right place for them. A table lamp which is meant for an accent light should not be set at a height where a seated person will see under the shade. Your eye follows the light, and this will be the brightest spot. Either have a longer shade or a smaller lamp, so the main light point will be on the table, drawing the eye there. For reading, you want the light up above the seated person, with the light coming from behind and over the shoulder. This provides the best light on the page.

I hope this gives you an idea of how to think about lighting in a room. I should mention if you have a dark hallway, you could have a light at the end to help pull people down this path. The next post will be home staging with lights, which will be in the category of real estate issues.

Heading Towards the Light- Part 2

Oh, give me a simple light bulb, but wait, there are so many choices. Not so long ago, we would install an incandescent bulb for all of our needs. With current concerns (environment, cost of energy, or some other), many of us have switched to compact fluorescent, but LEDs and halogens are on the scene as well.

About fifteen years ago, I was exposed to the myriad world of lights by being placed in charge of a facilities department of a store. The experience was a good exposure to various lighting systems, since this location used lights in various ways. I remember a former engineer from GE selling me on the idea of using compact fluorescents,which really were not too compact at that time. I discovered low voltage systems, and uses for halogens and LEDs. The residential market is making more use of these types of bulbs, so let me give you a brief overview.

Incandescents are still around, and they still have a place in the home. They are not energy efficient, but my favorite application for them is when I need a special shape or color to accent a fixture. They work well for general lighting. If you read the first post, you will see that I have a reason for having mentioned Casper Neher. Technology has not lead to the creation of more energy efficient bulbs in interesting shapes, so an incandescent will fill your needs here. If the fixture makes the outline of the bulb’s shape visible (or if you can plainly see the bulb), consider finding a bulb with a nice shape to fit. For example, in my dining room, I have some wall sconces that I do not use often, but during a party I want them to look nice, so I use a bulb in the shape of a flame. I have seen people use colored bulbs when making a fun statement with lighting. There are even frosted glass bulbs to help you create a look. You may not be looking at the fixture when it is on all the time, but heed Neher’s attention to detail to set the scene when you want when you want your guests to appreciate your home’s design.

Compact fluorescents have come a long way in the past few years, but I still have not seen their designs take on creative shapes (and coloring seems limited). Fluorescents come in warm white (WW on the bulb) and cool white (CW on the bulb). Most stores that sell fixtures will have a display with both lights. Hold a piece of fabric or color sample under the light to see how it effects your homes decoration. I have always preferred cool white, with the thought that I get a cleaner, crisper look under this light. Warm white produces what I think of as a cozy, intimate feel. Check it out to see what you think. Compact fluorescents need a ballast, which is built into the unit, but the fluorescent tubes have a ballast built into the fixture. When the ballast goes out in the fixture, you can replace it, but this is not the case for a compact unit. If no new bulb will work in the fixture for a tube fluorescent, it will be the ballast. I use these compact units wherever no one will see them, or the look is not so important.

Halogens are great for creating a spot of light. If you are using them in a general lighting scheme, you will find the need for many of them. Each bulb may use less wattage than an incandescent, but the number needed for a general lighting task may cause them to use more watts. I see these bulbs as great for task lighting, where you need a good pool of light in one area. These bulbs become very hot very fast. Any bulb will generate heat, but I am always cautious around halogens. Halogen light always seems to provide a slight rainbow effect to me. The center of the beam will be a pure white, with the edges showing other colors in the spectrum.

LEDs are just coming into residential use more often. They can provide a great deal of light with little energy. In fact, there are many battery operated fixtures. I used these lights to give me a clean, bright, focused light in dark work areas, so I still think of it as a task light, but it can be used as an accent light. I mainly seem them used under the top kitchen cabinets or as a sort of night light in a guest bath.

I think an explanation of some terms is in order. I see lights as divided into four groups: general, task, accent, and spot. General lighting is what you need on a day to day basis for living in your home. It is a light that shines on all corners. A task light is used for helping you illuminate an area for a certain task. For example, the light over a cooktop is a task light, but you could have a specific light for your food prep area or work desk. An accent light is used only to highlight a specific location in your home. An example would be a table lamp in a private nook. A spot light hits one specific point, like a painting. If you want to create an impression or make the best use of a light, you need to consider how the light will be used or if you need a better light for your needs. In my kitchen, I have a general light. Most people only use this fixture when working in their kitchen, but I block this light when I am at the counter chopping vegetables. I use a task light under a cabinet to help me for this job. However, I also switch this task light on when having a party, instead of the general lighting. I want a certain look to make people think what a pretty home, while also hiding in shadows parts of the kitchen which show that I have been working there to prepare the meal. I do not mean to confuse, but you should realize that maybe your lighting schemes could do double duty.

Low voltage systems first came into residential use for outdoors accent lights. Solar lights are becoming fashionable for this purpose, but I find that you have to be careful with the placement of the solar units, so they get enough sun to recharge. Now I see low voltage systems mainly used as accent lights in homes. The bulbs are usually LEDs or halogens. I have never seen them give off enough light for general lighting, but that could change soon.

When considering your lighting design, think about the fixture and you need for that light. Then go to a shop which has a variety of bulbs to see your choices. Maybe take some notes before you buy, to discover if the bulbs are the right ones for you. One fact that an engineer mentioned to me was that manufacturers of light bulbs expect a ten percent failure rate in their units within the first month. This means that a bulb may not work when installed or it will fail after installation during the first month. This statement might not be true, but when I replaced all of my bulbs to fluorescents in my new home, I had about a ten percent failure rate. Hopefully you will consider a new type of bulb for your home the next time that you shop. The next post will discuss how to set up lights for different uses.

A Compliment to an Inspector or Should I Have A Monster Mask On

I was amazed when a Realtor complimented me on not scaring the clients. She was very generous with her praise, which a Realtor does not always give to an inspector, since we can ruin their sale. I began to wonder though, should I take a more grave air when presenting my report?

I should not claim to be amazed, that was just dramatic effect. Realtors and inspectors do share a love/hate type of relationship, since we have different duties in the sale. A Realtor is dealing with your emotional part of the sale, while an inspector is dealing with your rational side during a sale. This statement might not be entirely true, but the basis is correct. When buying a home, you look for your dream home, or a reasonable stand in given finances and the reality of how builders constructed a home. It is funny, but the major purchases of our life, home and car, will be dictated by our heart. A good Realtor attempts to bridge the gap between your dream or desire with what is plausible, and they deal well with that emotional side. My hat is off to them in this regard, since I cannot do that.

Then I come in to ruin the fantasy. An inspector is there to find the problems. I do not know of a house (even newly built) that does not have an area that I will mark as in need of repair. Bummer, if it really was your dream home. Here is the thing though, I need to mark in need of repair according to Texas code for some things that are minor repairs. Do not misunderstand me. Each item that I am required to mark as in need of repair is or can be a serious issue. However, a $2 part might fix it in some cases.

I am rather strict when inspecting a house. I have had homeowners become angered over my comments. I know that they could be clients though, so I try to be diplomatic. I am strict because I feel that you should know everything that I find. I do not feel that I should scare you with this information. For one client, no drainstops in a tub will be no big deal, whereas another client might find that to be the last straw. If I did not mark the missing items down, how would you take a bath after moving into the house? This is a minor item, but according to the rules for a report, I need to mark this down. There are inspectors who are in awe of their own expertise, so they want you to be impressed with their findings. Hence they like to scare. I take the term “professional” seriously, and my license states that I am a professional real estate inspector. The code admonishes me to behave in a professional manner. Scaring someone over a home is not a professional means of presenting a report.

I guess that I received the compliment, since many inspectors feel that there work needs to be given its due respect, but do not behave as they should. I want my work to be given its due attention instead. Buying a home is emotional, and it should be. You want some place where you want to be. I want you to realize that there may be some items to take into consideration, and to realize how you will deal with them, before you move into your home. By explaining why an issue is important, and giving a solution to the finding, I hope to have your attention. This should not be a scary process.

In the end, I am glad for receiving this compliment. I know that I am doing well. There is a problem though, if your inspector is only trying to scare you. Ask them why something matters, and how it can be repaired to force them to stay out of the fear me I am knowledgeable mode. Most inspector after all are trying to find a way to communicate to you the importance of their investigation. They might not know what they have done, when they did scare you. I am leaving the mask at home for my next report presentation.