A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Archive for Home Inspections Houston

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


Springing Upon Us

With these last cold fronts passing through, my thoughts are not on spring, but it is just around the corner. I have been preparing my garden for that coming season, and I just spent a bit of money buying some plants and supplies for my projects.

Looking over my charges, I realized that I could quickly go overboard in buying items to make my yard look good; fortunately, I did not. About a month ago, I was talking to a friend about her garden. She was tearing out quite a few plants, since everything was so overgrown. My wife had wanted me to fill out our garden more, when we first bought our current home. The yard had been neglected for many years. My wife had fallen in love with this house, and she wanted it to be stunning in appearance for our visitors. Although she appreciated my efforts, my beds did not look lush. To save money, I had bought smaller containers, and I nurtured the plants. This year will be the fifth year of my efforts, and that is a magic number for gardens. You see, it takes five years for a yard to come into its own. During those years, the small plants started to fill up the spaces around them, so now my beds are looking full.

For new homeowners, the yard becomes a major project when they first move into their new house. I see two mistakes being made. First, they want the full plants right away. When the plants continue to grow, they find themselves with a crowding problem, which harms the plants. Secondly, they work on the garden for the first year, and then they discontinue their efforts. Plan out the type of garden that works for you. Perennials and shrubs require less work, while annuals last only a year, but they provide more dramatic colors. Some shrubs and small trees, like azaleas and crepe myrtles, produce lovely flowers, as does the vine bougainvillea. If you like to work in the garden at times, seek out annuals, but otherwise leave them alone. Buy smaller plants, and give them the space to grow. The tags on the containers will tell you the full size, so you can give it the space that it needs. Be satisfied with a sparser look for the first few years, and you will save money.

I would also suggest that the first year should be geared towards preparing your garden beds. Maybe transplant some plants to other locations. My backyard was full of trees that had started as weeds, so I spent the first year clearing them out. By the second year, I was beginning my beds in the front yard. The third year found me working on the yards on either side of the home. I was also evaluating the plants in the front yard. Some plants just were not doing well, so I had to take them out. I created my herb/rock garden by the entrance at this time. The fourth year saw my backyard taking shape. This year will see the completion of the garden space.

If you are not planning to stay in the house long, then large garden projects will not give you your money back. If you are staying in the home, go at your own pace. Your garden will look better in the end, and it will require less work, while costing less. If you want the fuller effect to please the one you love, buy some annuals to fill in those spaces till the perennials grow to their proper size. This tactic made my wife happy. I bought the flats that were the least expensive blooms.

The most important thing is to make a space for yourself to sit back and enjoy your surroundings. Why else would you go through the effort of producing a garden?

Changeable Weather

When I first came to Houston (many, many years ago), one of the first things that was mentioned to me was a fact about the weather. It was said that if you did not like it wait five minutes, and it will change. Our weather is not that changeable, but during the day yesterday, we had a thirty degree temperature drop. I think it is those drops which make us feel the cold all the more in Houston, even when it is not that cold.

I went outside to check on my plants this morning to see how they are handling this climate. Quite well really. My pepper plants are still going strong, and their biggest worry is that my daughter will come to attack them. Basil does not like the cold, but I have two plants that are struggling on. My main plantings this week have been more swiss chards and nasturtiums. I also planted onion sets, which will probably be more for next year’s harvest. I knew that we were in for more cold temperatures, but when I saw that the tomato plants have come in, I decided to give them a try. These plants do not do well in Houston. If you wish to spend the time nurturing them, you can get a crop, but I do not want to lavish that much attention on them. I like being in the garden, but I do not always want to work in it. I am just going to let them wander, to see if they fruit.

I was finalizing some pruning before spring, which will be upon us soon. If you have shrubs which flower in the spring, like azaleas, do not prune them now. You will destroy the bud growth, so you will have no flowers. The best time to prune such shrubs is after the flowers are spent. The plant can grow through the year, and then you will have another nice showing of flowers in the spring next year. Azaleas are quite common in Houston, and I guess that is why I never desired them in my yard. However, I had some bushes in the garden of this house when I bought it, and I have to say that I have enjoyed these spring blooms.

If you are looking for spring color, you will find many options at your garden center right now. It seems that they are already prepared for the coming season, but they now have in stock an item for summer color: caladiums. These bulbs are heat tolerant, and they can give you some vibrant foliage, which will last longer than a flower’s bloom. Check out the different types, and you may find one for your beds.

Finding Ways to Save When Prices Rise

I was looking at the individual prices of items on my grocery bill, and I was bemoaning the fact that certain items have seen dramatic price increases. I guess that I should also bemoan the fact that the money coming into my home has not increased much. I am an avid price comparison shopper. I know where to find the best deals on any number of items in my part of the town, but it appears that this is not enough. Last year, I read an article that posited the idea that if you buy in bulk that you will save money on the price and by gong to the store less often, so I wanted to take a look at this thought.

I like Costco. Every time I read reports about their CEO and the firm, I am impressed with how they conduct themselves (for the most part). I purchased their stock because of these articles, so I decided to pay for membership at that store. The price was reasonable, but I include it in my calculations to see if I am actually saving money. It turns out that if I am a regular shopper at the store, I do save a good deal of money on basic items, like milk, eggs, bread, and such. However, I have a problem. My storage spaces for meats or other refrigerated items is small, and I do not want to be a freezer just for these goods. I also discovered that on meats, I am not always getting a better price than at some grocery stores. I end up having to buy more of it for the same cost as if I stopped in at a store on the way home. I have found that warehouse stores like this one do not always offer the best price, even though we are lead to believe that you will always save money by shopping at their locations. The problem of storage also bothers me, because I find that I use some items faster than I would normally, just so I can create space.

Using goods faster seems to be an issue with buying in bulk. My wife and son have developed the habit of opening jars and cans when they find them in the pantry, without realizing that the other has already opened a jar or can of the same good. People are habitual; they look for their want in the location that they are used to finding it, and they forget to check to see if it might be available already. I have not had much success in stopping this development. I think having more of some product is just like having more money on your paycheck. You see that it is there, so you use it, instead of conserving it. Maybe this is a psychological issue from periods when food was scarce. You ate what you could, because there was no more available, but now that more is there in the refrigerator or pantry, we can take it at will. I advise you to find ways of preventing the bulk items from disappearing, if you really want it to be a way to save money.

I think that be a thoughtful shopper is the best way to save on your grocery bill. Compare prices at different stores; think how this product will be used in your home; how long will it last; and have some type of plan as to what you need. Writing a shopping list, and sticking with it is a great way to stop unnecessary expenses. We go into a store to find a special, so we have to buy it. I always go in with a basic plan. I do not plan a specific meal though. I make loose plans of how much I am willing to spend on a particular food item. For example, I will say that I want $5 of fruit, so then I look how I can get the most fruit for that amount of money. I find that this works better than putting down apples, oranges, and bananas on my list. It also allows me to bring a variety of fruits into the home.

As I was thinking about what I would include in this post, another post that I wrote this morning for another blog struck me as fitting into this idea of saving money. You can read the post here: http://activerain.com/blogsview/397558/Do-you-Graze-in . The basic idea is that by including vegetables and fruits all over your garden, instead of in one vegetable bed, you could have a good variety of vegetables that you are growing yourself, which should save you money. I saw Jerusalem Artichokes for around three dollars a pound in a store this weekend. This plant grows like a weed in Texas along the streets and empty lots. I could pick it for free there. I grow it in my garden, and since it is a native, I do not have to water it heavily. I know that I will be saving money with those plants.

Bulk shopping can be a great way to save, but do not couple it with increased consumption. I think that there are many vegetable varieties that make good accent plants in our garden beds.

A Mysterious Leak

I was writing on a different subject this week, when I was reminded of an inspection that I performed in the summer. Late one evening a past client of mine turns up with a friend in tow, asking if I would please come look at her house. There was a roof leak that was driving her nuts, but no one could find it. I pulled out my tools, and went over to her house.

She explained that she already had called out an HVAC contractor, a roofing company, a plumber, and a general contractor. They found nothing, but they all agreed with her that it had to be a leak from the roof. She had a closet where the rug was soaked, and in another part of the house a carpet was wet. The contractors had checked the various pipes, pans, and shingles, but they found no leak. To truly find a roof leak is difficult. You may find evidence of a trail of water stains on the framing down to the insulation, and then on to the walls in the interior, but I saw none of this. I did find a problem with the framing, and with a vent pipe that was improperly installed, but no moisture. These issues were not mentioned to her by the other contractors.

After crawling through the attic, I looked at the house, specifically the bathrooms. One of the leaks could have been from a lavatory in one bathroom, but the other moist spot could not have been explained by that means. I told the homeowner that I was going to walk around the house. She looked puzzled. If it is a roof leak, why was I going to look at the exterior walls?

Directly outside of the closet wall, I saw that the grading was high. In fact, it was up to the weephole in the brick. The weephole is there to allow moisture to escape from behind the brick. A palm was directing rain water from its leaves to this spot. The wall here was soaked. I walked to the other side of the house to see a brand new patio with beautiful stone pavers. Instead of taking out the old patio, the contractor cemented these stones onto the old patio slab. The new patio was slanted to bring water back towards the house. The new stones happened to also bring the patio up to the weepholes. For two different reasons, the rain from the roof was getting into the house, but not through the roof, rather through the walls. When I pulled back the carpet where the weepholes were, I found moisture stains emanating from the walls. Score one for the inspectors; other contractors zero.

Sometimes a client becomes so fixed on an idea that the contractor who comes out to look at the problem will go along with it. If you are a homeowner, try not to influence the opinion of the worker who is coming out for the repair. State the simple fact without your conjectures. Let them explore the possibilities. In this case, the first guy out might have discovered the source.

Down in the Gutter

I was inspecting a home yesterday where the owners had done a nice job taking care of it, and they added a nice porch to the backyard. The house had very little in the way of problems, but it had one fault that could have been so easily avoided: water damage due to a bad gutter install.

I think that the homeowner had installed the gutters themselves. The front yard gutters were great. Everything that I want to see. Water was collected from the roof and diverted away from the house through extensions on the downspouts. Perfect. I believe that the owner must have been worn out after the front, because there were two major mistakes on the back yard gutter system. There were no extensions or anything at the base of the gutter downspout tube. Water just splashed down onto the ground. This caused the base of a door to start rotting, but it could lead to more issues with the structure of the porch and with the foundation. This was not the end though. There were no caps on the end of the gutter runs, so water flowed out of the ends to whatever was below. On one end, it was a seat built into the porch. The framing for the porch was rotting away, so the seat was a swing. I could just see my kid playing on that seat, then having it collapse.

Gutters are not essential on a house. Proper grading can divert water away from the building, so damage from moisture penetration can be avoided. I recommend gutter installations to my clients, because I know that a good gutter system can get the water from the house quickly. Foundation companies make this suggestion too. Water is the biggest enemy of your building, so handling its path around your home should be of concern to all homeowners.

Gutters seem to be the last item that we want to take care of. I realize that cleaning them is a chore, but there are products to help you with this. I know that they can be easily banged up when doing yard work, but they are also easy to fix, with parts being reasonable in cost. Some complain that they are unsightly, but they could be the same color as your trim, so that you will not notice them. Give your gutters some tender loving care, and your home will thank you.

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.