Internachi certified professional inspector
I had an incident recently where our kitchen sink was suddenly not draining. Before this event, we had no issues whatsoever when using the faucet. I tried the usual methods: snaking both sides of the sink, using drain cleaner, and pouring hot, soapy water down the drain. Nothing seemed to work, and the slow drain continued.
Eventually it became clear that the entire drain system visible under the sink would have to be completely removed and replaced, as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (aka ABS) is not generally feasible to repair. Upon dismantling the plumbing I quickly found out what the problem was. I was going to post detailed pictures of the issue, but I want you to hold onto your lunch today.
Essentially, the top of this p trap (where the black pipe meets the part with white paint) was nearly completely clogged with a disgusting brown sludge. This should not happen under normal operation, so I went to investigate further. I quickly discovered that the previous owners of our home had washed what appeared to be 2 long bamboo sticks down the sink. Over time, these sticks grabbed onto food and other particles and led to a reduction in water velocity going to the main drain line. As a direct result, the sludge was not forced down to the main line and slowly built up over time.
Much like Radon and Asbestos, being careless about putting items that don’t belong down the sink, such as grease or sticks, aren’t likely to cause any short-term issues. However, the cumulative effects can come years down the road, often with little to no warning. If you were to tell me the week before I took the drain apart that it was full of sludge, I would not believe you, but the evidence was clear as it was obvious why our sink was not draining properly.
The plus side is that we now have a clean slate, where we can be careful not to have this incident repeat. While it wasn’t an expensive fix (about $100 total), it was not fun having to spend a Monday evening (and into Tuesday morning) making this emergency repair, all while having a counter full of dirty dishes.
Many homeowners believe that small, careless decisions or neglect of their home won’t make much difference to them in the long run. This may be true during their time of ownership of the home, however it will eventually result in issues. Our clogged sink started slowly building up years ago and although we could not have seen this when we moved in, many other preventable surprises can be detected with a home inspection.
In my experience, Nova Scotia homes are divided almost equally between electric heat, boilers, and furnaces. There are many advantages and disadvantages for each type and a licensed HVAC contractor can provide advice on the best solution for your situation. For those who use home heating oil, you will require the use of a fuel storage tank. There are a few regulations regarding placement on property, acceptable types of piping and materials for the construction of oil tanks. The tanks are usually composed of two materials: steel or fibreglass and can be stored inside or outside.
Lifespan of Oil Tanks
Steel tanks are generally safe to use for 15 years and fibreglass for 30+, however, you should expect to replace a steel oil tank after 10 years and a fibreglass oil tank after 15 years. Why the difference? Insurance! While rare, an oil spill can cost 5 and even 6 figures to remediate, so insurance companies generally err on the side of caution and require replacement at these intervals.
Steel Oil Tanks
At one point, this was the only choice in Nova Scotia. While they are no longer permitted in some areas, such as Prince Edward Island, they are still in regular use in our province. These tanks tend to corrode from the inside out and can leak without warning. They are also extremely heavy and moving them inside can be difficult and expensive. The big advantage is cost: they are cheaper than fiberglass.
Fiberglass Oil Tanks
These tanks are lighter, last a long time (unfortunately many insurers still require replacement after 15 years) but come with a higher price tag. If insurers extend the time before replacement, or the price of metal increases sharply, this will likely make this type of oil tank the undisputed choice. There is presently a shortage of fiberglass tanks in Canada but that should improve in the coming years.
A Note About Underground Oil Tanks
While beyond the scope of a home inspection, I am always on guard for the potentially serious issue of an abandoned, buried oil tank. Compared to other provinces I hear few stories about homeowners discovering them on their property as according to my research it was not common practice in our region. As a home inspector, we are always looking for anomalies and seeing a vent and/or fill pipe in a strange place (such as the middle of a backyard) is one sign that would alert us that there may be a buried oil tank that needs to be investigated and remediated. Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure is to have a qualified contractor perform an expensive search.
It’s no secret that 2021 was a tough year in the Home Inspection industry, especially in the Halifax area. With the sharp increase in competition for home buyers, many have chosen to waive the inspection contingency when purchasing a home. Needless to say skipping the inspection is a bad idea and while not the ideal solution, I do offer walkthrough consultations and strongly encourage post-sale inspections. If you are a first-time homebuyer, it is especially important to know what to expect in the coming years and plan accordingly.
When I was in the planning stages of starting my company and before the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to know the reasons why the services of a professional home inspector were not being considered. I found that many people have had bad experiences in the past with inspectors that were lacking in either technical or communication skills. There is also much misunderstanding amongst new homeowners as to the value of having a home inspection and what exactly a home inspection entails. Here are a few of the more common criticisms I hear and my thoughts on them.
Home Inspectors are More Interested in Staying on the Good Side of Agents
Ask any inspector and they will deny this conflict of interest, but my experience has shown that this, unfortunately can happen. I have heard other inspectors openly worry about being labelled a “deal killer” or “alarmist” or otherwise getting on the bad side of an agent or brokerage firm. While I personally am always happy to get positive referrals from agents, the bottom line is that I value and protect my reputation as a trusted, unbiased and independent inspector above all else. Simply put, any real estate agent or organization who expects me to compromise our integrity to push through a deal is looking at the wrong company.
Just Hire an Electrician, Plumber, Roofer, and Structural Engineer
While some inspectors do occasionally come from these various backgrounds, it is safe to say as a general rule, home inspectors are not electricians, plumbers, roofers or engineers. It is true that collectively hiring from 1 of each of these 4 specialties will indeed yield a more in-depth inspection into arguably the four most important parts of a home. Realistically, it is extremely unlikely to coordinate these four separate trades all at the same time, often with short notice, often on the weekend and at a price that is affordable to the average homeowner. A home inspection is the best value for your money as a good overall introduction or assessment of your home. Home inspectors are both generalists and big picture thinkers and see a home as a system of interdependent components that no specialist can match.
I Can’t Trust Nova Scotia Home Inspectors: There Are No Regulations!
Stating that Nova Scotia has zero home inspection regulations is 100% true and has been a topic I have written about previously. There has been no shortage of people who have tried their hand unsuccessfully at home inspections both in our province and across North America. Sadly, some of these inspectors have no recognizable qualifications and are masquerading as experts, hurting the overall reputation of our industry. Home Inspectors have one of the highest failure rates of any profession because it quickly becomes apparent, while a fun and rewarding career, that home inspectors do a job that is mentally and physically challenging, requires wearing a wide variety of metaphorical hats and is NOT, in any way, a path to easy money.
So how do you know you can trust your inspector to do a great job and provide maximum value? While there is no shortage of trustworthy, thorough, and knowledgeable home inspection companies in our area, I can only speak for my own organization. Inside Edge Home Inspections Ltd. was not an idea I thought up overnight but was the result of over 3 years of careful and meticulous planning. I knew nobody should be expected to pay for someone who still has significant gaps in their knowledge so that is why I made sure I had an extensive knowledge base BEFORE launching: as the saying goes you only get one chance to make a first impression and I wanted to make sure our company’s reputation was excellent right from the start. Our website details my extensive background and why I am suited to be considered a highly skilled home inspector, with no need to worry about whether calling Inside Edge is the right decision for you.
This picture shows a sample of the common types of wires seen in residential homes. Let’s summarize the data in an easier to understand format and take a look line by line looking at the wires pictured above from top to bottom:
This stands for American Wire Gauge and is a standard designation in North America. It is important to note that the smaller the number, the LARGER the wire and its carrying capacity.
There are two types visible in the photo: NM and BX. NM stands for Non-Metallic and is frequently referred to by a brand name called Romex. BX (or B experimental. Long story…..) is otherwise known as Armour Coated wire and while more expensive is great at providing protection against mechanical damage.
You might see wires referred to as “14/2” or “12/3”. This is a measure of the gauge and the total number of wires (ignoring the ground wire). At least one conductor is always a hot wire, but the second wire is not necessarily a neutral, even though a circuit needs a neutral to complete the circuit. Yes, on the surface that makes no sense, but we’ll get to that!
Hey, That is Way Too Abstract!
You are probably thinking that you are just an everyday homeowner and not looking to become a master electrician. Fair enough, so let’s spell out in plain English what these various wires are used for.
1)This is a low-capacity wire that is usually for electronics or extension cords. It can be used to power small loads, such as lighting.
2)This is a #14 (very common) wire that has 3 conductors. Two common uses are for 3-way lighting switches and split receptacles, where for example a light switch can turn off just one half of a wall outlet.
3)This is an armour coated BX wire that, in our home is used to power our electric water heater. Since it runs on 240V using both hot lines entering a home, it needs two hot wires (red and black) but since it does not need 120V power the two hots can alternate acting as a neutral. This is why I keep repeating to LEAVE ELECTRICAL WORK TO ELECTRICIANS!
4)Used for 20amp circuits, seen in modern kitchens, which thanks to changes in electrical codes are far more common than in the past.
5)Similar to #3 except it has a plastic rather than a metal cover. Our home uses this type of wire for baseboard heaters.
6)This 10/3 is usually used for dryers and air conditioners. Since a dryer has 120V components, it requires a separate neutral.
My purpose was not to confuse or overwhelm but rather to show you why it is so important to always hire an electrician to modify an electrical system, no matter how minor. Too small a wire can easily lead to a fire (the circuit breaker or fuse provides no protection against this) and while too large is generally okay, it is a waste of money and can be difficult to connect.
A Final Note
I occasionally see extension cords being used as a substitute for permanent wiring in homes that do not have enough receptacles. I cannot emphasize enough that this is a dangerous practice that can lead to a fire, especially if it is buried under a carpet or rug. These type of cords are not designed for more than a month's use and the buildup of heat can easily start a fire. The same principle applies to Christmas lights and why I use them exclusively in the month of December.
In my quest to become Halifax’s top home inspector I have strived to learn so much about my profession that I have been called a walking encyclopedia of home knowledge and I wear that label with pride. I continually update my knowledge base to give you the Inside Edge (shameless plug) in my home inspections.
So far, out of the very long list of courses I have taken there is only one in which I struggled to complete and that was the Advanced Stucco and EIFS course. The reason for this is very simple: while this type of wall covering is common throughout the world and used frequently in commercial and industrial settings, it is almost never seen in Nova Scotian homes. The few Stucco/EIFS houses I have seen in and around Halifax & Dartmouth have usually been replaced with standard vinyl siding, presumably due to moisture intrusion issues. Obviously, I had to find out why and if these systems are really that bad.
First, it is important to note Stucco and EIFS (and even systems I looked at previously like ICF) look identical on the surface but are quite different, so let us look at Stucco first.
There are a few ways of creating Stucco, but the basic formula is a mix of Portland Cement, Sand, Lime and Water. It is a heavy system that is generally affordable, relatively easy to install and easy to repair. It has been used all over the world for a good reason, just not here in Nova Scotia.
Why is Stucco Not Popular in our Province?
The reason is simple: it has two main disadvantages:
1) stucco is prone to cracking over time
2) stucco is susceptible to buckling in climates that have rapidly changing seasons, such as those with rapid freeze/thaw cycles.
Sound familiar? It bears repeating that water is the #1 enemy of homes, so this makes Stucco a poor choice in most circumstances in our region.
External Insulation and Finishing Systems (EIFS) are also known as Synthetic Stucco. This method of construction is relatively modern (introduced to North America in 1969). It is a system that is both lighter and more energy efficient, since it usually contains rigid insulation. It is also much more resistant to cracking and other weather-related damage. There are several different EIFS systems that can be broken down into two basic categories:
There are plenty of subcategories (i.e. PB, MD, PM, PI) and a home can theoretically use multiple types, even on the same wall.
What’s Wrong With EIFS?
There are plenty of horror stories about EIFS, with some inspectors even going so far as to recommend immediate and complete removal of the EIFS. Yikes!
EIFS, like many modern building products (such as roof trusses) are engineered proprietary systems. What this means is that the manufacturer’s instructions must be carefully followed during installation to prevent moisture intrusion and consequently significant damage to a home. While there are certainly plenty of skilled contractors in our area, the recent building boom has seen residential build quality decline significantly in recent years. Once moisture gets behind an EIFS, it can cause significant wood decay and mold growth and can lead to serious and costly damage to the home that can go undetected for years. Given we live in one of North America’s wettest regions, a poorly installed EIFS system can have devastating long-term consequences and is one reason why most homeowners and builders steer clear of this system.
Different areas of North America tend to favor one specific type of house siding and Nova Scotia is no exception. In this week’s blog post, we look at some of the most common types of siding seen in our province.
This is the most popular choice in North America (about 1/3 of all installations) and is the overwhelming choice for homes in Nova Scotia. It has largely replaced wood and metal siding due to its combination of value, durability and lack of required maintenance. Not only does vinyl siding not need to be painted, but the colour goes all the way through the material and doesn't just cover the surface, meaning a scratch or other minor damage will not affect its appearance. Home inspectors look at several concerns such as signs of waviness, joints not staggered properly (a clear sign of poor or amateur installation) and proper detailing around windows, doors, and other penetrations.
While relatively easy to install, it still takes skill to do properly. It has recently come to my attention that in my subdivision, the installation techniques were far from high quality, a fact I can personally attest to that when in 2018 we lost a significant amount of siding. These deficiencies can be hard to detect during a standard home inspection.
Masonry (Brick, Stone & Concrete)
I have previously covered this type of siding in a previous blog post. Inspectors look for signs of spalling, mortar deterioration and bowing walls (more common in older installations). In my experience these are usually quality installations by skilled masons and are generally well maintained.
Wood Shingles and Shakes
Most wood siding is composed of cedar due to its rot resistance. Other species of wood can be used (such as pine) but it requires additional preservatives to protect against rot. Wood siding also requires regular maintenance (such as painting or staining) and has little in the way of fire resistance. There are many different types of wood siding installation:
Asbestos is a scary word and as a result asbestos cement siding has received an unfair bad reputation. As can be seen on my previous posts on asbestos, it is only dangerous in a friable state. Translation: there is no danger if the siding is not disturbed by heavy mechanical damage. Overall, it is a good siding material but since it was discontinued many years ago properly repairing it may be difficult, if not impossible.
Modern versions of fiber-cement are commonly known by its main trade name Hardie board. It has many of the advantages of asbestos siding without the…. you know…. asbestos. It can be very hard to tell apart from wood and possibly my single biggest goof up as a home inspector was mistaking Hardie board for wood siding. It was located only in a specific area of the home on the second level and it taught me to always verify my visual observations by touch as much as humanly possible.
Even though these two systems look identical, they are quite different. They are also common…. in commercial settings. Despite being very common on homes in other areas of North America, they are very rarely seen on houses in Nova Scotia. I actually had to do some research on these two types of siding and why they aren't more common, to which I will share my findings in next week’s blog.
It seems like every single home renovation show has a segment where the client expresses their love for having an open concept home. A few scenes later, out come the sledgehammers and within a few minutes we see a wonderfully clear, open room. If only it was that easy! I am a home inspector and not a building contractor, but I certainly can tell you without any hesitation that tearing out a wall is far messier and more expensive and disruptive than any TV show implies. As a general rule, I personally am not a fan of open concept design and here are some reasons why I believe you should think twice before taking part in this type of renovation.
Load Bearing Walls
Contrary to some horror stories you may read of load bearing walls being cut down, in most modern homes the roof is constructed using engineered trusses, which generally do not require support (for the top level of the house only) aside from the exterior walls. However, In Nova Scotia only a structural engineer can certify a wall is not load bearing. There are lots of articles online about how to identify a load bearing wall, but it is not always that simple as an internet search.
Plumbing & Electrical
When plumbing and electrical systems were originally installed, no thought was given to what the home would look like 30, 40, or 50 years into the future. A lot of these shows make it look like a simple 2-hour job to move some wires and pipes when in reality, it can be a very difficult and expensive task. These two systems have to be engineered carefully and relocating these features is not as simple as simply adding new pipes and wires.
Houses are Designed to Have Zones
Modifying the structure can affect the home’s HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning), as these systems were designed with walls and separation in mind. Not only can energy flow be disrupted and possibly require remediation but there is no longer a way to “seal off” specific rooms. For example, in our home the kitchen heat can be turned low after supper to save energy, but this is not generally possible in an open concept house.
There is also the issue I see in some flipped houses where the stove is moved from an exterior wall towards a more central location. Rarely is the ventilation factored in and while it isn’t required by any building codes, it won’t take long for the lack of a kitchen fan to become unpleasant.
We always have a child and sometimes more than one in our house. As great as kids are, there can be no doubt they are noisy. With an open concept house, the sounds of children (or their favourite shows) can travel throughout the home.
Any home built before the 80s almost always has asbestos in it. While generally harmless if left alone, it becomes very dangerous when disturbed. Always assume any home built before the 80s has asbestos in the walls until proven otherwise.
For these reasons and many more, it is important to think twice before knocking down walls. TV shows are designed to provide a wow factor but as a homeowner, unforeseen issues can develop after the sledgehammers are brought in.
There is a common stereotype of a home inspector being an older male, often times a retired construction worker and I wanted to see for myself if this belief had any basis in reality. While the number of women in our industry has been steadily rising, it is still estimated that between 90-96%(!!) of established home inspectors are men (average age over 50) and my interaction with fellow inspectors makes me believe this is a reasonable estimation.
Why Are There So Few Female Inspectors?
That is a question that I have asked myself: what is the barrier that keeps women from joining our industry? I can say from firsthand experience speaking with some of the biggest names in our industry that there it is no systematic effort to exclude women. I then began looking at reasons why women cannot be home inspectors, or why it might be an extra challenge for them to be successful. Here are the results of both my own research and knowledge of the industry:
Reasons Why Women Should Not Be Home Inspectors
What Can We Do to Change This?
While it’s easy to say that there is little any of us individually can do to change the world, we can take our own positive and constructive steps to move our industry in the right direction. The biggest thing is to change the misconceptions of our industry: you do not need a construction or trades background to be a successful inspector; a customer service background is a huge benefit, and being the most intelligent and skilled home inspector on the planet is useless if you cannot properly communicate your findings.
There is a far too common misconception that being a home inspector is "easy money" since there are exactly zero requirements to become one in most of Canada (including Nova Scotia) and it is easy to set up an inspection company. Let me make it clear from starting a company from scratch that this could not be further from the truth. Our industry has a very high failure rate: about 50% don't make it through the training and while estimates vary, it is believed between 70%-80% will fail sometime in their third year. If anyone, male or female is looking to get rich quick doing an easy job they are looking at the wrong profession.
Women May Have The Inside Edge (no pun intended!)
Not only are there no reasons women should feel excluded, female inspectors in general have a lot of advantages in this industry and the biggest one right now is that they stand out. A veteran inspector once said (to an all male audience) in a way he was glad he didn’t have any women in his service area because if they went head to head with his company they would probably crush him in the marketplace, and I can’t disagree. One of the reasons Inside Edge Home Inspections Ltd. is not a household name yet (at least in early 2022 when I wrote this!) is that, despite the fact I know we are one of if not the best inspection company in Halifax, we can get lost in the crowd of the revolving door of local home inspectors. Let there be no ambiguity on my feelings: I am in complete support of every initiative that helps to bring our industry in line with the diverse demographics we serve and helping to fix this gender imbalance is a logical first step.
In short, can women be home inspectors? YES! Are there any reasons why women cannot or should not become home inspectors? NO! There is no reason for this gender imbalance to exist. I never want to hear my young niece say to me that doing home inspections is a “job for boys”. I know there are presently a large number of women looking to join our industry in the coming years and all I can say is that I welcome them with open arms as it's long overdue.
Guest Blog Post by Jeff Weickert
Trees are a part of nature and in most cases, part of the landscape around homes. Although there are many positive reasons to have trees in your yard, they unfortunately can have negative effects on the building. Here are a few examples of what to watch out for when buying or building a home.
Tree roots are always growing, expanding in the search for nutrients and moisture. Some trees put out a root system three times the height of the tree. When the roots hit a solid barrier such as a foundation, they begin to grow laterally against the solid object. Although the fine roots may find their way into small cracks, the real damage is caused if you have loose soil against your foundation. Tree roots will expand and contract during times of moisture and drought which compromises the integrity of the soil which can cause foundation settling especially in older homes. When concrete settles it is more likely to shift and crack. If you have mature trees you may want to consult a professional to determine if any are of a species that has aggressive root growth such as silver maple, willow or elm. Rather than remove a tree, a root barrier can be installed to alleviate concerns of root interference.
Septic System Damage
Tree roots are a common cause of septic system damage such as line clogs and backups. In order to gauge the potential for root interference in the septic field, you will have to know where all parts of the system are as well as identify any trees or bushes in the area that could be causing damage. Tree roots are designed to seek out water and leaky pipes are vulnerable to root penetration. The depth of the septic system is also a factor, the deeper the system is buried the less likely you have to worry. Once again, a root barrier can be installed to prevent damage.
Leaves and branches pose their own threat to the building from the above ground portion of the tree. Low hanging branches can strip shingles in bad weather leaving your roofing exposed to further damage as well as potential leakage. Heavy branches can break off in a storm and do damage to gutters or the roof itself. Shade provides the ideal condition for moss growth. Moss causes shingles to loosen and break, again compromising the roofs waterproof status. Leaves will accumulate in gutters which eventually overflow. Water flowing down the building’s surfaces will cause damage to wood surfaces (i.e. fascia board) and can potentially find access into the exterior walls. Large, old trees can be a direct hazard to the roof by means of large limb drop and a complete fall of an unhealthy tree which can do enormous damage to a home. The best way to avoid these and other issues is to have your home and grounds inspected by professionals who know exactly what to look for. It will save you time and money in the long run.
While preparing for a potential power outage recently due to freezing rain, I couldn’t help but notice this radio as inspiration for writing my next blog post. You would likely think I am going to talk about emergency preparedness, but I am looking at the model number, particularly the first three letters, which as you can see are ICF.
In the world of home construction, ICF is an initialism for Insulated Concrete Forms. While it has only become common in the past 15 years it actually dates back to its invention right here in Canada in 1966. An ICF is composed of two main components: insulation, almost always in the form of expanded polystyrene (EPS) and concrete with steel reinforcement (rebar). They can be used in both foundations and walls, although the latter is less common. The insulated blocks are used to hold the concrete while it cures (just like the removable plywood used in regular concrete construction) and are permanently left in place to provide valuable wall insulation.
I recently did an inspection where the buyer wanted to know what an ICF was and how far it went up the walls. While I typically see them just used as the home’s foundation, this particular home inspection showed that the entire wall structure right up to the rafters was constructed of ICF. So, is that a good thing? The cliché answer is that it depends. My professional answer is an absolute yes, but it definitely has drawbacks.
First, the Bad News
There are a number of disadvantages to ICF construction. Some of these include:
Advantages of ICF
There are many benefits to an ICF home. While I only report and never make advice on buying decisions, I definitely get excited when I see ICF construction. Some upsides include:
Overall, I draw parallels to my post on heat pumps. While there is a significant initial upfront cost, the savings in both money and energy over the long run make it all the more worthwhile. Unfortunately, the higher price tag can scare many developers and new homeowners off.