Internachi certified professional inspector
I am now entering my third year running an independent home inspection company and what a fun ride it has been! I can now confidently say that every home is different, no two homes are alike and one of the most exciting parts of being a home inspector is discovering something new. It is always fun to see a unique feature of a home and to see things that we previously have only seen during training.
However, there are some things that are the same on every inspection and while no two inspector’s skill or background is the same there are some things every inspector should know. It always comes off as a shock when I tell clients that there are zero home inspection regulations in Nova Scotia, and anyone can legally call themselves a home inspector in a week or two. Here is a sample of some questions a home inspector should be able to confidently answer after every inspection.
Does This Home Have Concerning Electrical Issues?
While we are not electricians, home inspectors should be able to detect most major electrical issues. They include:
What Are the Major Plumbing Materials?
Most homes I inspect use copper pipe to bring service in from the street, cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) for distribution and plastic, and either ABS (black) or PVC (white) for wastewater. An inspector should be aware of materials that may or may not be a concern such as:
Does The Home Have Potential Water Infiltration Issues?
There is a common phrase I use which is “water is the #1 enemy of homes” and biggest concern I get called about is moisture and the damage it has caused. A home inspector should know that water has many ways to enter a home and some of the many signs of water damage. Like many home inspectors, I use a number of tools as well as all my senses to look for signs of either active or potential water infiltration into the home. While we don't have X-ray vision and leaks can be very difficult to detect, a home inspector should be aware of the various ways unwelcome ways water can enter a home.
These are just some baseline areas that all home inspectors should be able to confidently speak of. While we are generalists, not specialists we should have a strong enough knowledge to identify the majority of home defects. Your inspector should answer these three questions either verbally or in a report.
Understanding Ice Dams
One of the negatives about having relatively mild winters is that we frequently have temperatures around 0 degrees Celsius (or 32 degrees Fahrenheit) and these temperatures can fluctuate between both sides of that number. This can help to form icicles and while as a child it was always fun to break them off, this is a major red flag for home inspectors as no properly constructed home should have them. Icicles are an indicator for one of the main cold weather concerns for home inspector: ice dams.
What is an Ice Dam?
An ice dam is a problem caused by heat, not cold. It is a ridge of ice that forms at the edge of a roof and prevents melting snow (water) from draining off the roof. Heat escaping from the attic space tends to melt snow, which re-freezes before it is shed from the roof. Contrary to popular belief, sloped residential roofs are generally NOT designed to be waterproof but rather to rapidly and quickly remove water, preferably into a eavestrough and downspout system to be moved away from the home. Snow is a relatively good insulator, so snow will melt close to the roof and remain visible from the outside. Take a look at the picture below for a clearer understanding of how ice dams form.
Why is it Such a Concern?
You might think: the attic gets a little damp: a well ventilated attic will quickly dry out so what's the problem? The answer is this is simple: water, like nearly everything flows downhill. This means that water will compress and permanently damage attic insulation at first. This will lead to further heat loss through the attic and the formation of even more ice dams and corresponding leaks will increase in frequency. Eventually it will slowly enter the ceiling on the top level (an active leak is rarely obvious at first and before too long can cause major damage to a home). See below an example from a recent inspection where our client was concerned about moisture in the home.
The thermal imager shows a very clear anomaly. For my fellow inspectors reading this, you cannot automatically assume this is moisture without further proof: it could just be an area where insulation is missing and this was done on a cold winter's day. My own bathroom shows a similar cold spot but it's from poor insulation in that area not a roof leak. In this case it was obvious from just looking the ceiling was saturated with water and a quick use of a moisture meter confirmed what I already knew. This ceiling will have to be replaced and new drywall installed but the first priority is stopping the leak from happening.
Further investigation shows this particular example was not directly from an ice dam but is the perfect representation of what can easily happen. Remember, moisture is the #1 enemy of homes and an active water leak can seriously damage and even destroy a house! If you are seeing icicles, the first thing you should to is pop that attic hatch, take a look for water infiltration and take appropriate action before water gets into the home.
Home vs Building Inspector
When I originally set up my online business profile, there was no option for “home inspector” and I was redirected back to the option “building inspector”. This has since been corrected and for good reason: while they sound like similar career paths, they are in reality very different. I personally would like to see home inspectors referred to as “Professional Home Consultants” as this term better reflects the more broader services we provide.
What is a Building Inspector?
Building inspectors or code inspectors are usually employed by the municipal government. While they do inspect homes as well as commercial properties, their focus is more on building code violations and enforcement. They generally are involved in both new construction and renovation activities and their main focus is that builds are done according to the various building codes. Building inspectors often have a heavy caseload and often cannot dedicate a significant amount of time to each site they visit.
What Exactly is a Home Inspector?
Home inspectors (such as yours truly) are usually either self-employed or work for a small company. We usually deal with individuals, often during home buying although I have been contracted by companies (such as property management companies) and have done inspections that are not part of any real estate transactions. Our focus is to check all significant aspects of the home and its various systems based on knowledge of home construction and operation. While we can have a working knowledge of codes, we do not bring codebooks with us and do not engage in any form of law or code enforcement. We also tend to work in many different municipal areas, such as Kentville or Bridgewater and each area has specific building requirements whereas home inspectors standards are generally uniform across North America. Our main concerns are twofold: identifying safety concerns and items that need repairs with a special focus on big ticket items.
The Biggest Difference Between the Two
To sum it up briefly, a building inspector often uses an objective, pass or fail evaluation similar to a school teacher’s test while a home inspector is usually far more subjective in their evaluations. There is no such thing as failing a home inspection although it goes without saying that some issues are far more serious than others and are highlighted accordingly.
Welcome to Nova Scotia
Welcome to Nova Scotia! There has been a recent spike in people who have chosen to make our city home from both across Canada and around the world and it is wonderful to see the vast and growing cultural diversity when walking around town. My son will get to grow up in a community that is much more welcoming of diversity and valuing of inclusion and I am happy to see our city change for the better.
However, as a professional home inspector based in Halifax and having grown up on the Dartmouth side of Halifax Harbour, I see a lot of misconceptions about homes in our community. The overwhelming majority of professional home inspectors in the world are in either Canada or the United States and this is not a coincidence. North America is certainly an economically strong region but there is a common misconception that homes are virtually maintenance free. This is FAR from the truth, and I have never inspected a home that did not have at least one issue (yes, even brand-new homes).
Homes in North America are NOT Built Like Tanks
There is a commonly held belief that houses in Canada are well built using strict building codes. This is only partial correct: while major structural issues (such as catastrophic collapse due to high winds) are extremely rare, modern homes are often built as cheaply as legally possible. This means that engineered components that while affordable, need to be properly installed to be effective and have limited lifespan that can be greatly reduced under certain conditions (like moisture penetration), such as roof and wall components. Unfortunately, on many building sites these can be installed by subcontractors not as familiar with proper installation techniques.
We Have Mild Winters (and That’s a Bad Thing)
While compared to the world at large we have brutally cold winters, looking at just Nova Scotia we typically have warmer winters than the rest of Canada. This means we usually get 8-10 mini winters with rain and warmer temperatures in the middle. As a homeowner I appreciate the snow being cleared but as a home inspector this is a challenge to work around. One consequence of our weather is that the frequent freeze/thaw cycles can cause significant destruction to homes through the expansion of water as it cools. Once water gets into building cracks, it can quickly cause further damage. This is one reason with Stucco-cladded homes are so rare in our province.
Homes are Usually Built as Single-Family (3-4 people) Homes
Until recently, it was considered unusual in North America to share a home with another generation or family. Once children reached their 20s, it was commonly expected that they would move out on their own. Today, it is very common to see 6 or more adults living under a single roof. While this is a great way of sharing resources, this is a concern to home inspectors.
Put simply, modern homes need to be carefully balanced: HVAC, plumbing and electrical systems that work great in a 2-person household can experience significant issues in an 8+ person household and can experience major problems that never existed before.
Beware the Flipped House
I have seen many newcomers buying flipped (homes bought, renovated, and quickly resold) houses that I can see have major structural issues. While not all flipped houses are bad, I have seen far too many recent new arrivals pay a premium for homes that still have major and very expensive issues, such as electrical and plumbing problems. Home inspectors as a rule have an overall negative view of flipped homes as many are renovated as cheaply and quickly as possible. Remember, a home inspector is trained and experienced in telling the difference between a cheap cosmetic flip and a high-quality renovation.
There is no question that houses are not nearly as plentiful as they should be, but you should still get all the information about your new home before making that financial commitment as it could cost you a lot more in the long run.
I am always looking for ways to further advance my goal of providing the best value in town and accordingly recently added another service to our repertoire. After months of training and testing I launched our sewer scope services in October of this year.
What motivated me to finally launch this service? I was driving down a street just off the Halifax Peninsula and saw a home’s front yard being torn up, after noticing how the street nearby had more patches than actual pavement from recent sewer work. I have also seen the results of sewage backup in a commercial building and thank my lucky stars I have never experienced it at home. I also remember that, as a high school student in the 90s, I lived in a neighbourhood that had constant issues with what I now know were Orangeburg sewer pipes, it was a running joke about trying to predict how long until the next lawn was going to get dug up as it seemed literally every week (often during the winter) the excavators would be out in full force. Of course, sewer backups don’t wait until a convenient time to appear, and you won’t have time to carefully vet contractors or price shop for the best deals.
There is a common misconception that a sewer failure will be paid for by insurance or by the local utility (in our case Halifax Water). Unfortunately, standard home insurance usually does NOT cover sewage system failures. Of course, contact a licensed broker since we are home inspectors not insurance representatives for information specific to your home.
It has also been claimed that only older homes need a sewer inspection. While it is certainly less likely to see problems in more recent homes, I have known from other home inspectors that even brand-new homes can have sewer problems such as poor installation (in one case the sewer line just randomly ended before reaching the street!) and tree root infiltration. While I always suggest a sewer scope just for peace of mind alone, if you have any of the following:
It is HIGHLY recommended by professional home inspectors that a sewer scope be performed both at the time of inspection AND at regular intervals. While sewer failures seem sudden, they almost always develop slowly over a long period of time and can usually be detected with a quick sewer scan. Here are a few samples of what a sewer line looks like: don't worry about being grossed out: the lump is just a hairball, and the yellow streak is simply ABS cement that holds two pieces of waste pipe together: the installer likely used a little too much and it dripped down, but this is not a defect or an issue whatsoever.
(Former) Meth Labs
I once wrote a blog post which is currently my third most popular about signs of a Marijuana grow house. I mentioned briefly about so called “meth houses” that while very rare are very dangerous, so this week is a great opportunity to look at them. Like most home inspectors I have never seen one in person and hope I never will but I am always on the lookout for the signs. Given the highly illegal nature of this drug it goes without saying that there is no public database of current and former meth houses!
Methamphetamine is known as meth, ice, chalk, and other street names and is a highly addictive stimulant. It is illegal in most of the world and as a result, this is not an item that can be bought at the local corner store, hence the presence of houses where meth and other similar drugs are illegally manufactured. There are numerous negative health effects and our focus as home inspectors is not law enforcement but on identifying dangers located on properties that were formerly used as meth labs.
Is it REALLY That Dangerous?
I have heard stories of homes that were so contaminated they had to be demolished and I found that hard to believe at first. Can’t you just spend a few hours using some bleach and call it a day? Unfortunately, is usually not enough. Methamphetamine production uses a lot of dangerous chemicals that, unlike in a hospital or medical lab environment, does not use sterile environments and expensive fume hoods to keep occupants and the community safe. I won’t bore you with the list of common ingredients and how dangerous they are but let’s just say you do not want to touch or breathe in most of them! These toxic substances can leech into walls, floors, toys and furniture and can contaminate the entire property, leading to too many potential health problems to list.
Meth Causes a LOT of Waste
It is estimated that 1 pound of meth creates 5-7 pounds of waste by-products. Rarely is a meth cook careful to follow all waste disposal laws and they can be dumped throughout a property, including behind the walls and down the plumbing. Some of this waste is toxic to human health.
Signs of a Former Meth Lab
While doing environmental testing is beyond the scope of a home inspection, there are a few signs that home inspectors are trained to look for when suspecting a former drug lab. They include:
While I hope nobody ever has to deal with buying a former drug lab, with many buyers waiving home inspections or buying sight unseen over the past couple of years this remains a concern. The biggest symptom is unusual, unexplained and recurring health problems, and an environment air quality company should be contacted for further testing. Remember nobody will ever hang a sign saying “METH LAB!” and various levels of effort are made to hide homes with nefarious pasts.
Ohm's Law for Homeowners
I am definitely not an electrician, nor do I play one on TV (at least not yet....) but if there is one area where I can confidently say I have a strong knowledge it is electrical systems. Electricity is a very complex subject, and while my knowledge is nowhere near that of an electrician or an electrical engineer, I certainly know enough to advise my clients whether or not they need the services of a professional. Today I thought I would share with you Ohm's Law, one of the backbones of electrical theory and the importance of understanding it as home inspectors.
In its basic form, Ohm's law states that power (Watts), current (Amperes), resistance (Ohms) and voltage (Volts) are interrelated. If you treat the vertical lines as multiplication and the horizontal lines as division, you can solve for lots of variables just like in Junior High and/or Middle School! Here are some examples:
What's the Relevance to Homes?
This likely seems like good information, but not information you will ever need. The truth is this is important information to note and to help you understand more about your home. The first thing we will look at is power, which is measured in Watts just like on lightbulb labels. Looking at the pyramid above you can see power is a measure of current multiplied by voltage. From a home inspector's point of view, a house with a higher amperage means more power is available. We can generally ignore voltage because as much as we complain about Nova Scotia Power, we have a very stable electrical system that is almost always around 120-125 volts, with 99.9% of homes having two of these feeds (120x2=240 volts). Three phase systems work a little differently, usually at 208 volts, but we'll focus on single phase residential homes for this blog post.
Understanding Power Bills
Simply put, the power bill is measured in Kilowatt hours used (kw/H). One kilowatt hour is equivalent to 1000 watts used over a one-hour period and while the rates fluctuate, it usually runs around 16 cents. Our home is pretty typical and usually consumes around 30,000 watts a day in summer and 70,000 watts in the coldest weeks of the year. Doing simple math, we spend roughly (30,000/1000) x 0.16= $4.80/day on electricity in the summer and (70,000/1000) x 0.16= $11.20/day in the coldest days of winter.
Since we have a 125-amp system at home, looking at Ohm's law this means we have 125A x 240V = 30,000 watts available. With an upgrade to 200-amp service, we would have 200A x 240V = 48,000 watts. This means we don't have enough capacity, right? Of course not! The 70,000 watts we use in the winter for example is spread over an average of 24 hours while the 30,000 is our capacity at a specific point in time. In simple terms, unless we ran the dryer, oven, air conditioner and heaters all at once we should have more than enough capacity to handle the electrical load.
Any electrician would point out I am ignoring the fact that electrical systems are designed to run at approximately 80% capacity, but this further proves my point: electrical systems are both very basic AND very complicated at the same time and should be left to the experts.
Reality is a Wee Bit More Complicated
My example above is only an approximation because real life power systems use Alternating Current (AC) rather than Direct Current (DC). Any electrical engineer could give us a long lecture about how the Power Factor (basically an efficiency rating from 0 to 1, ideally 0.95 or higher) needs to be accounted for. Although it is far more important in industrial settings it does mean that some of the Apparent Power received is known as Reactive Power (useless) rather than Real Power (useful). This is yet another reason why, although it seems very simple to just attach a few wires to a box, electricity is complicated, dangerous and needs to be left to the pros.
Shipping Container Homes?
At this time of this writing in the fall of 2022, housing prices are beginning to fall in Halifax. That is of course good news but the simple fact is that, when factoring in higher interest rates, housing remains unaffordable for far too many people in Nova Scotia. Rightfully, some people are looking for alternatives to the sky-high cost of housing and one such up-and-coming trend is that of shipping container homes. Sounds like a great way to build a home at a great price, right? Not so fast!
It certainly sounds appealing: a disused shipping container can be purchased for only a few thousand dollars and is constructed mainly of solid steel. They have literally been around the world multiple times in all weather conditions and are built to last. This however does not mean they necessarily translate to a solution to the housing crisis.
What’s Wrong with Shipping Container Homes?
The biggest issue is that they are small. They are a decent height for those not over 6’6” (like almost everyone but me) at 8.5 feet and are plenty long (usually 40 feet) but are a mere 8 feet in length. That doesn’t sound terrible until you consider that….
Homes Need Utilities!
A home is a complex system of interdependent components: electrical, plumbing (both supply AND waste) and heating, ventilation & air conditioning (HVAC) pipes that run behind the walls in all homes (and are required by all building codes)! This means that a significant portion of the interior space needs to be dedicated to these items, further reducing the living space. Speaking of HVAC…..
Metal is a Conductor of Heat AND Cold
When I was a teenager, I occasionally helped load shipping containers that were bound for various projects in Northern Africa. On one hot day, we measured 51 degrees Celsius inside the container! It was like being in an oven and while I wasn’t loading anything that day, I tried to see how long I could last. It was less than a minute before I started sweating uncontrollably and I had to leave.
Metal is a conductor both of heat and cold and we certainly get both extremes in Nova Scotia. Neither air conditioning nor high R insulation are required in our province, but I don’t see how one can survive without them in a shipping container That’s not even getting into….
Shipping Containers are (Not) Really Strong
Shipping containers are strong and heavy, right? Think about it: they are stacked 9 high on ships and face countless treacherous weather conditions in the open sea. However, unlike goods, people need windows and doors. You might think that it’s as simple as cutting a few holes in the steel, but the fact is that these containers are designed to transfer all the weight to the ends, so cutting a hole for a window requires structural reinforcement. Furthermore, many Engineers, Architects and Contractors refuse to work with shipping containers as they are not familiar with them (and that goes for home inspectors too!) and consider them too high a liability to work on.
An Important Disclaimer
I am NOT an expert on construction and shipping container homes and there are some advantages that I did not touch on. As well, you may be reading this in the future and this type of construction might go mainstream with improvements in construction techniques. I am just pointing out that in 2022, the cost savings can be quickly wiped out with all the expensive modifications required to make containers habitable.
I am in favor of anything that can make housing affordable to everyone on the planet but while on the surface this seems like the ideal solution there are too many disadvantages to this type of construction to consider it a viable option at this time.
There are few things I prioritize over quality home inspections and my family is at the top of that list. Like all parents I always try to keep my child safe and healthy but, like being a great home inspector, there are always lessons to be learned and improvements to be made.
A few years ago my son was born, and I officially became a parent. I remember on the drive home from the hospital thinking about how it was crazy that possibly the two biggest life changers most people face (moving into a new house and bringing home a newborn) both have no technical manuals and while I knew I would be a great parent, I had the all-too-common feeling of not even knowing where to start. But enough about my personal ramblings: this article is about providing a safe and healthy environment for our little ones. I have learned a lot, both through my home inspector training and general life experience about having a safe and healthy home. New parents already know about baby gates, outlet covers, etc. so I’m going to look at less obvious ways to keep kids healthy and happy.
Houses (and Children) Need to Breathe!
I just finished writing a post about mechanical ventilation before this. The obvious retort that I didn’t address in that post was “is ventilation REALLY that important? I grew up in an airtight home and did fine!” Most of the kids in my neighbourhood in my early 80s constructed subdivision were fine in terms of surviving but health problems such as asthma and ear infections were rampant. While I am no medical professional, I now realize the most likely reason for this was simple: the air was stale and contaminants floated in the air, especially cigarette smoke. Yes, for you younger readers, back in the 80s people smoked EVERYWHERE except in schools and the concern for homebuilders was keeping heat in, not getting pollutants out.
Lead is Still an Issue Today
I remember as an 80s kid pulling up to the gas station and hearing my parents ask for “regular unleaded”. Lead was slowly removed in the 1980 and by the time the 90s arrived the gas station no longer had leaded gasoline. So, it’s great that lead is no longer used, and we don't need to worry, right? WRONG!
Fact is, lead is still used to this day although usually either in very small quantities or safely sealed, such as in lead-acid batteries. Lead poisoning has been linked to a number of significant neurological issues and it affects children much more than adults. What's worse is that lead has a sweet texture, which can be attractive to exploring babies and toddlers. There is certainly no need to panic about lead, just to be aware. Some common areas that lead is found are:
In the Halifax area, they are ONLY found in Peninsular Halifax, Dartmouth inside Highway 111 and near Chocolate Lake and even within these areas, only a small fraction of homes use lead rather than copper supply lines. Any home inspector or plumber can usually quickly tell you if you have lead pipes and point you to the next steps to safely remove them. Keep in mind that lead solder was used until 1986 and lead was permitted in plumbing fixtures (in small quantities) until 2014!
This varies: before 1950 paint had a large amount of lead, by 1980 lead levels were greatly reduced, by 1992 paint is virtually lead free. While on the wall it isn’t too hazardous (almost all pre-90s houses have had leaded paint covered over by another lead-free layer), stripping or disturbing lead paint can spread toxic lead dust throughout a home.
While they were voluntary recalled in 1996, some of these window coverings may still be around. Even if kept out of reach of children, the Sun’s UV rays slowly degrade the blinds and releases lead dust into the air. These should be removed and replaced immediately if discovered.
Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a Silent Killer
Any home that uses a heat source other than electricity and/or has an attached garage has carbon monoxide as a result of the combustion process. Usually, it is safely vented outside but no system is perfect. I have heard some people claim it’s not big deal since you can smell it and this is wrong. CO, like Propane and Natural Gas is 100% odourless, colourless and flavourless. The difference is that companies add Methanethiol, commonly known as Rotten Egg smell that is easily detected by humans, while CO obviously has no additives and cannot be detected by any human senses. Children are especially vulnerable to CO poisoning, especially after bedtime and sadly far too many adults and children pass away in their sleep due to CO. Therefore, it is imperative to not only have working CO detectors but to regularly inspect and replace if necessary.
These are just a few of many examples that new parents, often already overwhelmed, simply don’t consider when childproofing their home for the first time.
A Look at HRV's and ERV's
I owe a lot of my skill as a home inspector to the time I spent working at NSCC (Nova Scotia Community College), where I was not only able to access high quality training but was able to see firsthand how complex modern technology helps to create safe, healthy, efficient buildings. NSCC is a leader in sustainable building practices, and I have taken plenty of courses on topics such as Heating, Air Conditioning, Pipe and Air System Design to name a few. I also learned to apply many of these principles to my own home and one project I will be working on soon is to look at replacing our HRV, possibly with a modern ERV. Modern building codes require the installation of mechanical ventilation (i.e. just exhaust fans are no longer acceptable) as modern homes are built very tight for energy saving purposes.
What is an HRV? ERV?
HRV stands for Heat Recovery Ventilator while ERV stands for Energy Recovery Ventilator. These two systems are very similar with the difference being that an ERV recovers both heat AND moisture. Personally, I think they should be called HMRVs (Heat & Moisture Recovery Ventilators) as this would be a better descriptor. Here is a basic diagram about how these systems work. While it appears the air mixes based on this picture, they remain completely separate with only heat (and possibly moisture) being exchanged.
So, Does This Mean a ERV is Better?
Not necessarily. While ERVs are considered a step above HRVs (and more expensive!) opinions vary on which is the right choice in Nova Scotia. While we do have humid summers, having too much humidity is not an issue for the rest of the year and heating is prioritized over cooling in our province. When considering installing a new unit, remember mechanical ventilation is a job that should be left for a qualified HVAC contractor and they can offer the best advice on what will be effective for your situation.
How Are These Units Different from an Air Exchanger?
An air exchanger does exactly what it says: exchanges air from inside to outside and replaces it with outside to inside air. This works great in theory but in reality it is rare that outside conditions are as comfortable as the ideal indoor conditions. The air outside is typically colder and bringing in constant fresh air without capturing heat from the air vented outside will lead to unnecessarily high energy bills. In short, a HRV is a step above an air exchanger with an ERV being another step above that.
HRVs and ERVs Need Maintenance Too!
While they are generally very reliable and are designed (and supposed) to run 24 hours a day for 20+ years, they still require regular maintenance just like any piece of HVAC equipment. The biggest faux pas (other than a home missing an HRV/ERV entirely) I see is units that have not been cleaned (often times it is clear they have NEVER been cleaned!). It is important to inspect for proper operation and clean the unit according to manufacturer's instructions, typically once a season. Are these units pricey? Absolutely, but it is a small price to pay for a clean and healthy home!