A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Archive for Home Inspections Houston

Phase Inspections

If you are building a house, you may want to consider having a real estate inspector perform a phase or phase one inspection. Phase and phase one are just two ways of referring to the same thing. These inspections can take place at different stages of the process of putting up your home, or it could be a single inspection at a significant point of construction. The reason to have such an inspection performed is to ensure that you will not have problems with your home in the future due to a hidden mistakes or damage. After a home has been built, I will not be able to see the framing or elements of the foundation, so I cannot say for certain if you should be worried.

Let us take a tour of how homes are built today, so you can see why checking up on the construction is a good thing. Many builders create a step-by-step book detailing how a home should be built. These are large binders which explain everything to the project manager. The project manager is hired by the builder for his management skills, not necessarily for his construction knowledge. The project manager then hires contractors who hire their own crews. Quite a few of these contractors started off on a crew, and then developed into being the head of their own crew. The contractor’s employees may not have had previous building experience. A project manager may have several homes going up at once, so he will need to watch that the steps are being completed per the binder for all of these homes. Do you see a problem here? No one building your home could be an expert in its construction. To be fair, builders will have quality control measures in place to ensure that everything is done properly. I do not do phase inspections, but I have been at enough job sites that I leave scratching my head in the wonderment of it all. You can have several homes that are built well by the same crew, and then there will be that one home that you would never want to live in built by that very crew. There are ways for them to deal with the issues that arise, but many do not know what the next step should be, since it is not outlined in the binder.

There are too many things that could go wrong for me to present them here, so I will give you some general things to look for if you are going to the site of your new home. A clean job site is one. Clean is relative here; mud abounds at these sites. If trash is piled around the building, then the work may be sloppy, so this is a good indicator of the quality of work. The building materials should not looked weathered. Materials can arrive early on the job, and the project manager should see to their being secured and that they are out of the elements. Minor cracks occur in cement; it is the nature of the product, but these cracks do not effect its performance. When you see cracks running all through the slab of your foundation, then you should be questioning the builder. These cracks may have started due to the weight of the framing. What would happen if the weight of the roof and sheetrock were to be added? Plumbing seems to be an area were I have seen contractors become creative. If you have an upstairs, look at where your bathrooms will be, and then go down below to see how the waste will leave your house. Remember that all of this is done by gravity, so pipes cannot be horizontal, and the waste drain has to be relatively close by to the plumbing in the bathroom.

If you are not hiring an inspector, I would first go to the builder or his immediate supervisor with my concerns. If you come away from this talk feeling like they have not answered you satisfactorily, ask them to provide a report by a structural engineer on the quality of the foundation or framing materials, or hire your own plumber to look at his system. Demanding that they hire an engineer is reasonable, but the plumber that they bring in could be one of their own guys. If you have true worries, they have to address these before you move in, or you should not move into the home. A builder who is not helpfully now will not change once your house is coming apart. Most builders will not be so callous, but I have met a few who are.

From what I have seen on construction sites, I would highly recommend at least one phase inspection before the bones of the building are covered. If you cannot afford such an inspection, take some ideas from this post, and drive over to where your new home is being built. Check it out. Maybe meet with the project manager to have him explain to you what you are seeing. View the site with an open mind, since your home may very well be fine, but be sure to take the look.

Types of Home Inspection Reports Around the Country

Some of you are coming to my blog from outside of Texas, so I wanted to mention different types of reports that exist in this industry.

Well to start off, inspectors in Texas are required to use a report created by the state for any client who is directly involved in the buying or selling of the house. The report has a series of boxes for each section that are marked when something has been inspected, not inspected, not present, and in need of repair. Under these boxes and the item mentioned is a space for describing the inspection of that item. Certain items inspected require us to detail how we inspected it, how it is doing, or its condition, but I have described this report in detail on my own site, so I just want to stick to generalities. This document fits into a style of report referred to as a checklist report. Each component of the home is noted, and checked off when inspected with a notation added for clarification. Sometimes there will be boxes for every single component, or just general areas (which is what Texas requires).

A Rating System Report reminds me of the evaluation form some companies now use for employees. The components are listed beside a 1 to 5 scale. What the scale means will be at the header of the page. The inspector either writes the number given in, or he checks a box representing that number by the component. There should be a space for comments.

A Narrative Report is where the inspector just writes his findings down. It is in paragraph form, and it is written in the order of how the inspector examined the building. You can think of it as an essay about your house. Some narrative reports may follow a more organized path by having the components listed with a checklist or rating system with the narrative. Some reports in Texas do take on this quality.

Texas allows inspectors to follow their own format,once the official report has been completed, so these would be addendums. Some inspectors here use it as a means of communicating greater detail about their inspection, and some use it to describe how they inspect. Other attachments may be laboratory reports.

Which report is best? The one that gives you the information you need. All inspections should address the basics, and areas of concern need to be marked down in some fashion in each. I like the idea of the narrative, because I think it forces the details from the inspector, but the checklist or rating system styles give you the information that you need quickly.

Further Thoughts on Becoming an Inspector

Since I posted a look into becoming an inspector, I noticed that there was more interest in the topic, so I thought I would follow it up with a bit more.

I know many inspectors who will paint a rosy picture of our lives, and others who will do their best to dissuade you from pursuing them into competition. The amount of effort you put into marketing yourself will drive business your way, so I cannot provide any new insights into your earnings. I did want to mention the fact that most inspectors that I know earn incomes from other sources. I think it would not be unreasonable to say that between 66% to 75% have some means of earning income to help support them. Those who do not have other jobs or enterprises have found work by associating with other firms as contractors. Working for another inspector is frequently not profitable to you, but there are other firms that want inspectors. Engineers who work with residential buildings will have inspectors on hand to provide this service to their clients. Since the main work brings clients in, suggestive selling to use their inspectors is easy. The engineers obtain a percentage of the fee from the inspectors, and the inspectors obtain steady work. Insurance companies also hire inspectors to examine homes for applications. This is usually just examining the roof. Lenders hire inspectors to examine foreclosures, but this work is not often regular. This work has to be sought out, since large firms go to other firms to locate inspectors for them. Independent operators have to be diligent in their pursuit of this work.

Another group of inspectors who do not often have other income producing ventures are those working as franchise owners of a nationwide inspection company. The firm will be specific as to where you can perform inspections, so you are not invading another affiliates turf. This can be good or bad. If your area does not have a great many homes being sold, you will not earn much income, so you want a popular section to earn enough money to cover the costs of the franchise. The tactics that you learn and assistance of being part of a franchise can be truly beneficial.

Some inspectors earn extra income by working on the homes that they inspect, but Texas is making this harder to do, since it presents a conflict of interest. Did you tell your client the framing was wrong, just so you can fix it? Some states have similar policies to Texas in this regard, and more inspectors have moved away from this income, because of concerns over their objectivity. Pest Control has been one field that has seen inspectors joining. Fields that offer other services outside of repair to homeowners have seen an increase in inspector representation. Several inspectors have Realtor licenses. The idea is to have multiple streams of income, that popular phrase of our day. I do some home staging, business consulting, and investing. I actually started out as a business consultant when I left a senior management position. Some of my clients, who were small retail store owners, asked me to look at their homes, which were undergoing renovations, which led me to inspecting. With the current market, I am looking into property management and real estate investing. Even when the housing market is doing well, you will have slow periods, where you will need to find other income sources, when you go this route.

You may hear about inspecting for the VA or FHA, but these agencies require you to have some experience under your belt, before they will use you, but this can be lucrative work, once it is available to you. There may be inspectors in your area, who could give you a better idea of what to expect in your locale, but I would speak to a few to get a reasonable picture.

Water Meter Test

Foundations can make or break a home. Most of Houston and the surrounding area sits on expansive clay soil. Our local term for this soil is gumbo soil. It is the bane of gardeners, and of foundations. This soil type will expand when saturated with water; it shrinks when there is no moisture. With our cycles of drought and flooding, our city may not be the best place for a foundation. Barring natural rain or drought cycles, homeowners have to be worried about burst pipes under their home. The official way for checking if you have a leaking pipe is called a hydrostatic test. I have heard of some plumbers doing this job, but mainly such a test is conducted by foundation companies. I was taught a sort of trick to see if you might need to look for a leaking pipe by an inspector, who has been in the business for some years. I feel like a magician letting you look behind the curtains. The method is called a water meter test. Turn off all of the running water in the house. Go to your water meter from the municipality and mark where the dial hand is located. Go back inside to check for any running water or leaks. Wait for at least fifteen minutes. Longer would be better. Go back and check the meter. If the hand has moved past your mark, water is flowing out somewhere, and that may be under your house. The important part is to make sure that you do not have water going out from a toilet that is running or some water being used for an appliance. A simple test like this one can be done by most homeowners.

Terminology: Winterizing

Some of my clients were puzzled by signs on homes which proclaimed this house has been winterized. The idea of winter and Houston causes doubt. In Houston, we have eight months of summer and four months of indecision. Many clients seem to think a scam is afoot, but this is just a term that people use in the inspection industry.

Winterizing would seem to refer to preparing your house for winter, and indeed the term is used for that meaning. However, inspectors around the country have appropriated the term to mean that the home is unoccupied and therefore it should be made ready to be vacant. Water, gas, and (sometimes) electricity are shut off. Exterior windows and doors are secured, and the security system is disabled. Then an inspector will check to see that non of the drains have a stopper in place to prevent overflow if the water is turned back on. The inspector at this point is walking through the house to see that everything is in good shape, and that there are no immediate issues.

This process of winterizing is done to homes that have been foreclosed, since the lender will not want anything to happen to the house. For a buyer, you should not worry about a home having been winterized, but you should be concerned that your own inspector will not be able to fully investigate a home if the utilities are off. One home that I inspected last month was in this state, and there was a good reason for the water not to be in use. The pipe for a hose bib (exterior faucet) was busted. If you are buying a winterized home, ask your inspector as to how he will handle this. I do a visual inspection of the components, and then I come back out once the utilities are working to finish my inspection, and this is done at my usual fee. Another inspector may charge a re-inspection fee, or he may give a discount for the original inspection. There is no set practice as to what will be done, so you need to ask.

Foreclosure Inspectors

There is a growing field at the moment in the real estate industry, and it is the foreclosure inspector. Growing not because of the amount of business has dramatically increased, but because of the number of people signing up to enter this profession.

Professional real estate inspectors, like myself, are regulated in many states, and we are required to follow standards when inspecting a home for sale or purchase. These standards do not apply when inspecting a home that has been foreclosed for a lender. Lenders want to know about the condition of the surfaces and the yard, which is not exactly what I do. A lender will ask if the walls need a new paint job, where I would be looking at the structure of those walls. For this reason, there are some firms selling the idea to people that they can become foreclosure inspectors. They do not need the training that I have acquired; in a sense, it is put forward as a simple job, and it is when only considering this basic description.

Lenders like the idea of dealing with one company that can cover their entire area of operations. They also like companies that they know. These facts lead me to believe that companies offering to bring you into this filed quickly may be earning money from you paying them fees, than from having lenders pay for their service. It is true that a lender will want to know the simple condition of the coverings, and you will not be regulated by the state, but lenders will want to sell these homes. To sell the home quickly they would have to be prepared for an investigation from a real estate inspector. Someone who has not trained in my profession would not be able to go into all of the details that I do. The companies that have a traditional relationship with banks hire contractors who have been in my business. These firms take on individuals like me, because they know that the lender will desire my type of evaluation on top of the details of the visual state of the home. I would be leary of any firm that makes promises of getting you quick work in this field. Check the details of what will be asked of you to see if you accept them.

I imagine that the idea of big money will crop up in a few schemes in the coming months as news of foreclosures stay in the public’s view. The only way for you not to be caught in such a flim-flam is to use your judgement. As a last word, if it is suggested that you should become a property inspector, realize that trade involves evicting people from their homes. Not a pleasant thought in my mind.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

The Popcorn of Energy Code

It seems at times that we are more focused on energy efficiency than ever before. We currently taking alternative energy sources seriously, although we are still heavily reliant on traditional fuels. The mayor of Houston has revealed a new plan to improve recycling and energy efficiency initiatives to begin next month. With all of this attention, more people are putting forth their ideas and beliefs on the subject.

In a way it reminds me of a similar array of articles about our health ten years ago. Talk of the different kinds of fats seemed to be everywhere. My clearest memory was of movie theater popcorn butter flavoring. This artery clogging oil has been a staple on popcorn. Movie theaters stopped having their own staff put it on, and they started allowing their customers to serve themselves. The staff did not put too much flavoring on the product, so hence not too much of this problematic oil. One day when standing in a lobby of a theater, I watched as this man poured maybe as much as ten times the amount of oil that the staff would have. He proceeded to the manager to complain about the oil, and how unhealthy it was. He wanted to know what the manger was going to do about it. After his confrontation, he went back to put more oil on his popcorn. Movie theaters switched to a healthier oil. Customers then complained about the awful taste. After some experiments, theaters went quietly back to the original oil. No more stories dealt with how awful the oil was. In a way, I can see this happening with energy efficiency.

Energystar products are great, but they are not necessarily energy efficient. You see it depends on how you use them. I could wash my dishes by hand in an extremely energy conservative way, but if I buy an Energystar dishwasher, and I use it all the time, my net energy usage has increased. Some products may be even more energy efficient than those rated by Energystar, so you have to be on the look out for how many kilowatts an appliance uses, before making the purchase. Many new technologies like solar may be fickle in your area, so ask an expert in installing the system what would work for you. My point is that you should not rush out to change your life, without taking the time to evaluate all of your options.

One way to check on what you can do is by having an energy audit. Many utilities will provide you with a free audit, and there may be some incentives given to you if you take some steps to being more efficient. Everyone is hopefully aware of the tax break on federal taxes for insulating your home. There is a new type of inspection taking hold in some markets, and that is the energy inspection. I have toyed with the idea of becoming an energy code inspector, but there is no market for it yet in Houston, and I do not want the marketing expense to teach people of this style of inspection right now. A related inspection is the thermographic inspection, which can be a big benefit to homeowners concerned with energy efficiency.(I wrote a post on this inspection type on HoustonTexasRealEstate.com) As for energy code inspections, you can look at what is involved for yourself by going to energycode.gov. You can review the material for the courses there.

Before being sold on or scared by the idea of energy efficiency take some time to learn about easy steps that you can take, and then look at the appliances and equipment that you want to install in your home. Maybe there is an energy code inspector in your community, and this may be a great option for you. If money is tight because of the holiday season, check into an energy audit from your utility. Any step towards efficiency could save you money in the long run.