A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Realtors are a Quarter of a Penny a Dozen?

I wish that I could fathom the human mind better. I do not understand an aspect of human behavior where others need to show disdain for those around them. Ego or a power trip? I feel that there are good and bad practitioners of every profession, including my own, but Realtors seem to take offense at this idea.

There is one Realtor in my area who writes posts on Active Rain. I wish that I could have provided you with a link, but he makes his posts members only. I guess this is a wise move, since he is always complaining about clients or those who work in other real estate professions. Yesterday was my profession’s turn to be the target for Mr. Nino’s little pout. An inspector that he was dealing with wrote estimates for repairs in his report, so the buyer asked for the price to be reduced to cover these costs. According to this esteemed Realtor, this practice is against the Standards of Practice in Texas. It is not. I have lost jobs because Realtors have wanted me to do this, but I prefer to provide a better estimate by making an informed decision than giving off the cuff prices, so I provide this estimate the next day. What the inspector did was his business decision to meet a need of his clients. Mr. Nino stomped around his playground like a boy who had his toy taken from him, since these deductions were asked for during negotiations. The seller could have accepted or declined at that point, which would have meant an end to the deal or re-negotiating.

I then looked over the comments to this fine post to find Realtors criticizing inspectors. There were all the typical complaints. Mainly that we inspectors kill deals by being to thorough. If we are hired by a buyer or a seller, should we not provide them with the most complete information? Apparently not according to these Realtors. Most Realtors that I know personally are very good at their jobs, and they appreciate me being good at mine; however, I run into Realtors every so often who have a complex that they are wiser than everyone else. They end up showing disrespect for their clients and others, and I wonder how they can manage to perform a good job for their clients with this attitude.

One comment stated that inspectors are a dime a dozen. Based upon the number of Realtors compared to the number of inspectors in Houston, this would mean that Realtors are only a quarter of a penny a dozen, so worth far less than an inspector. In fact, inspectors are required to go through many more hours of training than a Realtor to obtain our license (in Texas). However, I would not adhere to any statement that puts Realtors down. I respect the abilities of the people that I work alongside, and I understand that purchasing a home will be the greatest expense/investment that a person can make, so being condescending is no way to behave. Realtors are starting to leave the industry since it is a very difficult time for the market right now. I would hope that these bad apples would leave first.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Oh, For A Beautiful Exterior, Part 2: Looking at some design elements of exterior walls

How do I look today? She asks if her makeup is alright, before we enter the doctor’s office. First impressions are important. My wife has also been contemplating the image that our house presents. She has decided that we need a paint job of the wood elements to our home. Most of our exterior is brick though, but we could color that too. We talk this over while waiting for the doctor. I mention that I want the garage doors painted the same color as the trim, because they stand out now as a focal point, and I want the eye to be drawn away from them.

I did help to create more of a focal point by applying a stucco finish to some of my brick. I have a small courtyard created by a low wall in the front entryway of the home. I used a cement based stucco to highlight the window sills and the top of the half wall. It helps focus the eyes on this section (with some help from some flowering vines). I like my brick, so I have no intention to completely cover it up.

There are paints which can do a great job at making brick exteriors look better. In the past, painting bricks was not something that I would have recommended, but new epoxy paints are said to last. There are even paints that are said to help with energy efficiency. In the picture below, the homeowners bumped out a room from the house, using a light colored stucco wall. This is a fresh coat of paint on the exterior brick. The color contrast appeals to me. This is when painted brick can look at its best.Painted brick with stucco

Letting features standout is pleasing to see, but we do not always consider how we can create an effect. I remember looking at these gorgeous cedar window trim pieces in the stucco homes on Bermuda. The rich looking wood caught my attention. I do not see that consideration to detail on many homes. I am sure that the tradition on Bermuda developed due to practicality. Creating trim pieces from stucco is difficult, and cedar was available. Now, many stucco homes will have a cement stucco for the body of the home, but they will use a synthetic stucco called EIFS (pronounced ee-fus) for trim elements. Look at this photo.

Stucco with EIFS trim

You can see a line framing the window, ending with a keystone below it.
Keystones actually are meant for arches; they are the piece that keep arches in place. In this case, the trim is made from EIFS, and it was intended to add a little drama to the surface of this townhome. I found it close to a home that I was inspecting today, and thought it was good for illustrating my point. The trim helps the window pop out at you, but I think that this element should have been painted a different color. Your eye would have been immediately drawn to that feature of the home, but looking at the entire house, my eyes wandered a bit over the surface.

A brief view of some elements to be sure, but I hope that you will ponder on where you want the eye to focus when someone is looking at your home, and how you can use elements to make your house stand out. EIFS is not really a bad material. It can create some fascinating sculptural work for a stucco home. As for using it on the main body portion of your home, make sure that it is installed well. Most problems with stucco and EIFS have come about due to poor installation. If you are stuccoing over brick, make sure that moisture can escape by not covering the weepholes in the brick wall. These are the holes running along the base of the wall. Good luck with your home.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

A New Look Below: paving over a cement patio/walkway

My home was probably quite fashionable when it was built in the mid-sixties. Times change, and the need for a new appearance comes to light. Like many homes (even ones built today, as I see on the job), there is a cement walkway and patio. These surfaces are not as stable as a foundation, since they are not too deep. Cracks begin to show, and the cement is pitted. A good pressure cleaning would make it look nicer, but still something fresh is desired.

It would be feasible to resurface with cement, but I could go for another material. In fact, other surfaces are becoming quite fashionable. Paver designs really can jump out at you. If you remove the old concrete base, pavers provide a way to help reduce flooding, by allowing the water to sink into the ground of your yard. However, this removal can be quite a task. I am opting for covering the old with the new. Placing flagstones or tiles over existing walkways or patios is simple. Construction adhesive could be used for fixing the stones in place, and then grout could be used in the joints. Here is a home that used large flagstones for dramatic effect:

Flagstones over a cement patio

I was at the house for a home inspection. The owner noticed that moisture was on the carpet in several spots. Usually, the suspects will be the plumbing or air conditioning system, so that is where we would investigate. I noticed that the flagstones were two inches thick. On the front paths, this did not cause a problem, but on the patio it did. If you can see in the photo below, the stones cover part of the brick of the exterior wall. There are holes in the brick wall, which allow moisture out from behind the brick. In this case, the water can flow back into the home. Rain falls from the roof to seep back through these holes.

Weephole at the level of the paving

There are two solutions to this situation. For my project, a thinner tile will not come up the wall, so weepholes would not be covered. Exterior tile can be beautiful, and it is just as easy to install. The other solution applies to the flagstones above. The old holes should be covered/plugged, and new weepholes should be made by removing the mortar from between another set of bricks.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

A Pile of Tiles: What about that tile for my floors

I was packing my equipment away after an inspection, when my client approached me. She had a question about the home. Nothing to do with my report, but would I mind answering some questions. I think that my report is not always as important to new homeowners as is questions of decorating, and it turned out to be queries into tile.

She had seen tile at $1 a piece at the home center, and she wondered if it was any good. Most manufacturers produce a certain style for twenty years, and then they discontinue it as they move onto new versions of the product. To clear out the backlog of goods from their warehouses, they offer these items to home centers at bargain prices. Home centers will sell them at low prices to bring the customers into the store. There are two issues that you need to be aware of: they cannot order more of this tile for you, so big jobs cannot be done on most occasions; or years later when you break a
tile, and you need it replaced, you will not be able to find an exact match.

She wondered if one tile is better than another. Once installed, there really is not much difference in tile performance. You mainly want to pick a tile that fits your style. One problem that I have is with abuse from my children. Tile that has color only its glazing will have its base color show through when chipped. I did mention some facts to her. Larger pieces of tile will make your room feel larger, consequently smaller pieces make the room feel smaller. Darker colors for floors seem to be popular with designers; I think they make the room stand out. Setting the tile at a diagonal invites people into the room. Think of Japanese prints or Impressionist paintings, which use this effect to bring people into the art. Lastly, have the grout mixed in one big batch for color consistency. (A grout’s color can be changed with the amount of water added to it).

Tile floors have long been popular in Latin America, and more people in the United States are laying down tile for their homes. This mostly has been done for practicality. Tile is easy to clean. Another trend in tile is coming from Europe, and that is inlaying another trim tile piece into the floor to create a pattern. Sometimes a simple runner of tile one foot in from the wall can make a room stand out in appearance. Home centers will have good deals, but you can see more options, and obtain better advice, if you go to a store that specializes in tile.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Victory Not So Close: Organize and Control Your Credit Cards

That’s shocking, we need to watch that story. The story though has no shocking implications. Every evening the news forecast’s teaser indicates that some fantastic story is underfoot that will effect our lives, and I am always disappointed by the facts. Well, they succeeded in keeping me watching, which was the point. I actually do not watch the local news too much, but I do listen to it on the radio; however, I found that the quick snippet delivered on my favorite station was a bit misleading.

Maybe my memory is fading with age, but I remember loans be easier to obtain. Lenders seem not to want to give you a loan, which provides them with less money. Credit is easier to find. When I was doing research into how a home buyer could navigate the mortgage market, I signed up for some e-newsletters from various sites, so I could keep up to date on what people would be seeing. Every time the Fed lowers its prime lending late, I quickly receive a missive telling me to apply for more credit now, because it is the best moment for credit. The unfortunate aspect of credit is that the lenders control the situation, with no one looking out for us. With the subprime credit crisis still causing ripples in our economy, the government has decided to check the unfair practices of these lenders, but it may not happen as we might hope.

When I was teaching managers the financial concerns of their jobs, I incorporated examples of personal finance into the lesson. I began to notice that many believe that they could get away with small things, and it would be alright. Payment is due on Sunday, so Monday delivery would be fine. Their interest rates were increasing, but surely it would not affect them. Their credit reports would be damaged, which they never checked anyway. The offers kept coming for my credit, so life was good. I found that understanding the basic principles by which their card operated was not given a thought.

The other issue was organization. My wife throws most of her papers into a single box. If she remembers, she will hand me her credit card bill in time to make the deadline. For that reason, I take all of our invoices to store away. I have a file for them in my desk, which I go over once a week. I like to write down the date I dealt with the bill, and the date it will be paid, since I use e-banking, where I can have it delivered on a certain date. You could pick any place to store the bills, but place all of them in one spot, and make sure that you deal with them each week. Controlling these payments helps you stay in control of your financial life.

My hope is that the new regulations go into effect, and that they are not quietly rescinded later. With the election year at hand, our officials will want to come to us with rules that show they are concerned, but banks do give a good amount for campaign donations. Eventually they may just convince our leaders that these regulations are to binding on them, so without fanfare, they could go away, unless we pay attention to what our credit providers are doing, and we react to it (maybe by not using their card).

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Pickling the Harvest: Even when it is not your own

She says “thank you, papa” each time she hands me another onion toFry Bread and relish plant, reminding me that I should be saying thank you to her. Then she runs off to the other side of the bed to pick more kale. She likes to play with it, particularly in the sand. Why would a one year old find leaves of the kale plant so tempting a playmate? I have lamb’s ear in the bed just next to this one. Would she not prefer that soft leaf? Maybe it is the curly edges of the kale. I am not one to fathom it.

We pull some carrots for the dinner tonight. The greens will be mixed in with some rice on another day, but I need the tap roots for a stir fry. We had gone to the farmer’s market the other day for fruit, but I bought some pickling cucumbers too. I decided to make simple relish with these cucumbers, using a basic pickling technique called refrigerator pickles. I cleaned the cucumbers, then sliced them. I grated a few carrots. In a mason jar, I put about a tablespoon of sugar and the flowers from my spring onions. My daughter is always picking these flowers, and I have found them to give a dish a nice little kick. I placed the vegetables in the jar, followed by rice vinegar. I screw on the lid, and then I give it a good shake. You can put any vegetable, herb, or spice into the mix that you like. If you wanted the flavors to permeate the vinegars, you could warm them first in the vinegar, but I just set this in the refrigerator for a few days.

These are light, refreshing pickles that can be the base for other dishes. Place some of them in a blender with some of the vinegar and add plain yogurt to blend up a cool soup. If you have some roasted chicken, drizzle this soup over it as a tangy sauce. I made a fry bread this morning by combining flour, oil, and then ice water. I let the dough sit for a while. I fried it in some olive oil. I slit the bread open for a pouch. I mixed some of this relish with roast pork for the pouch. I nice little lunch.

Tonight I am going to roast some beets and turnips for the evening meal. I think the relish would go well with that too. Harvesting from the garden is a wonderful thing. I find that most people do not add herbs or spices to their meals, or should I qualify that to specify to their vegetables. I may not always grow vegetables, but herbs are so resilient, and most insects leave them alone. My grandmother sprinkled parsley over everything. Lately, I think that I have been adding rosemary and marjoram (an oregano cousin) to too many meals.

These refrigerator pickles are a nice way to add to your meal, and you can prepare it when you have time. You may find that your family will enjoy it too.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

A Sea of Plants: Choosing the Right One for Your Garden

Can you tell who is getting ready to sell their home? I have found that there are two common signs: a lot of trash from remodelling sitting on the curb and flowers in the garden. As I am driving to the hardware store for a tail pipe to fix my sink and new door hardware for my daughter’s room, I count four houses readying to go onto the market. I would prefer to have my home looking good for me, rather than the next owner, but we are creatures of habit. Make the old look new again to encourage the sale.

I inspected two houses which were both built in 2004 this past week. Neither had gardens to speak of, and certainly no trees. Both homes were foreclosures. I wonder if the former owners ever really enjoyed their lives there, but some people do not find pleasure in the garden as I do. My week was spent helping an owner prepare her home for sale, instead of in my own garden. At least, I was still playing in the dirt of a garden. In this couple’s case, their garden consisted of plants that were easily dealt with every week, but nothing stood out with a beautiful bloom.

She asked me to go to the garden center with her to pick out some plants. We drove over to the Houston Garden Center, and I was impressed to see such a sea of plants. I prefer Cornielius Nursery myself, but this place does have some good deals on the most common choices. My client asked about the plant with a spike with a blue ball for a flower. She meant agapanthus, which she wanted in a shady spot. This is the main problem with plant placement that I see. Plants come with tags that state if they should be in the sun or shade. The rule of thumb is you could safely go down on sunlight a bit from the stated guide line (sun to partial sun), but a plant marked for sun will not do well in shade.

How much shade do you have in any one spot though? There are days that I spend most of the day in my garden. I have chairs and benches in many different spots, so I can pick the best place to read at a given time. I watch how the sun plays across the ground during the course of the day. Most of us may not have the desire to spend a day in the garden, or we may not have the means. There is a device that can be set in a garden bed for a day, so you can see how much light you are actually getting. Some plots that you may think of as deep shade could actually be partial shade, or may even qualify for partial sun. These labels will also change from month to month, since the sun changes position.

Do not wait to create the home that you want for the next person. Let it be for you. I do a little bit in the garden each week, but if you did a little each month, you will find after some time that you will have your own little paradise.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck