Internachi certified professional inspector
If there is one thing that I dislike about being a homeowner is dealing with the seasonal nuisance of ants and wasps. Both these critters have attempted to take over our property but we have been fortunate enough to keep them at bay.
Ants are No Termites (but Annoying Nonetheless)
Fortunately, we do not have building destroying termites in Nova Scotia (yet), but ants, particularly Carpenter Ants can cause building damage, not to mention they are ugly and annoying. Like any pest, the best way to get rid of them is to prevent entry in the first place but as any home resident knows that is easier said than done! The biggest thing to remember is that ants are searching for food and water, particularly sugar. Remove empty pop cans and garbage frequently and be sure to keep the home’s humidity down in the summer as ants are attracted to moist environments.
If they do make a large-scale appearance, it is my experience that the best way to get rid of them is to use a liquid ant bait. Yes, this will attract a significantly larger number of ants for a day or so, but they will quickly take the poison back to the nest. What’s even better is that the ants will literally take away any of the corpses!
Wasps Can Buzz Off!
Wasps are aggressive, highly territorial and can deliver painful and, for someone with allergies, fatal stings. There are several ways to get rid of them and the following two methods I have found to keep them away from our home seem to be the most effective.
The first success I had was using a pop bottle with a special top (which can be purchased anywhere that sells pest control products) that allowed easy entry but challenging escape. I tried a few liquids and found orange juice to be the best solution. It typically takes a few days, but the number of wasps trapped will exponentially grow over time until the problem is eliminated. Still, the best way to stop wasps is to keep them away in the first place. In my experience, the best method for keeping wasps away is using a fake nest in the spring. While this is commonly thought of as a total myth, it was effective for our family and permanently kept the annual nest building away from the house.
Generally, an established nest can be destroyed after dark using an insecticide spray but if it is in a hard-to-reach area, such as a soffit or hidden under a woodpile it is best to call the professionals. Getting swarmed on a ladder or amongst a woodpile is a deeply unpleasant scenario.
I have made it clear that, like most home inspectors, I have an overall negative view of flipped homes, which are homes that are bought to be renovated and quickly re-sold. That’s not to say flippers are all greedy and/or incompetent people but the simple fact is, partly due to various TV shows, the real estate market currently incentivizes investing in the style of the home instead of structural or system updates. Oftentimes the expensive items are usually neglected in a home flip and some “improvements” can even shorten the life of a home. One of the biggest faux pas that I see in flipped homes is the painting of the home’s bricks, particularly its chimney.
Moisture is the #1 Enemy of Homes and Bricks
I sound like a broken record, but it bears repeating again and again. Two of the big myths I hear about home exteriors are that bricks are waterproof or the opposite, that bricks are porous (absorb water) and paint can help seal against water intrusion. Both are incorrect and painting the chimney, while aesthetically pleasing is a bad idea from a maintenance standpoint.
Bricks Need to Breathe!
Painting a chimney will seal up the pores of bricks. While the obvious rebuttal would be to say it prevents moisture from reaching the brick in the first place, this is simply not realistic, especially in our wet climate. No matter how skilled a painter, moisture WILL eventually find a way behind the paint and will be trapped in the brickwork. This can lead to deterioration of the bricks and mortar and will lead to an expensive repair bill (or worse, complete failure!) down the road, and further damage by the rapid freeze/thaw cycles experienced here in Nova Scotia can contribute to the deterioration.
It's Abandoned So Who Cares?
Thanks to advances in heating technology, such as heat pumps and high efficiency direct vent furnaces/boilers, many homes in the city no longer use their fireplace. Once again, painting bricks can lead to long term structural failure and a falling brick can be deadly, regardless of whether it's being used or not!
Paint Covers Problems
A freshly painted chimney is a giant red flag to a home inspector. Paint can be used to hide issues such as cracked/soft mortar, damaged bricks, and the presence of efflorescence (white spots caused by salt deposits that indicate moisture issues). This is yet another reason to have a home inspected regularly by a professional.
It’s Not THAT Simple
Despite what I just wrote, there ARE some situations where painting is perfectly fine. Indoor bricks can usually be painted without issue because it doesn’t rain indoors (I hope!). There are also certain types of very old chimneys that need a specific type of paint. Always check with a chimney or masonry contractor before engaging in any painting of brick as the potential for long term damage isn’t worth the improvement in appearance!
There is a common saying, especially to those who grew up in areas such as Southern Ontario and Nova Scotia that says “it’s not the heat, it’s the #%$@# humidity!”. We in the Halifax area feel the effects of our humid summers and even though we live in a cold climate, it certainly doesn’t feel that way in the dog days of summer!
In short, it’s not just about what the air temperature is that determines our comfort level. Having a background in building services, I have done extensive training in the complex nature of modern buildings and how measurables such as temperature, humidity and pressure are continuously monitored and fine tuned. This is known in the industry as psychrometrics. To give you a quick idea of how complex these calculations are, here is a simple psychrometric chart.
I would imagine that your eyes glaze over at this point. Of course, this blog is written for you, the everyday homeowner and not an HVAC specialist so let’s break it down in simple terms: the comfort level in your home is based on both temperature AND humidity, which are heavily influenced by air pressure.
Understanding Air Pressure in One Minute
Something few homeowners consider is the importance of balancing air pressure in a home. Put simply, air always flows from higher to lower pressure. Having a positive pressure relative to the outside will cause air to be pushed into walls and insulation and having negative pressure relative to the outside will cause outside air to rush in to balance out the pressure difference, neither of which is desirable, especially on a cold winter day. This can also lead to a common complaint I hear about woodstoves and fireplaces causing smoke to enter the home rather than go out the chimney. Like in most homes, in ours air vents were strategically placed to maximize air balancing and keep conditioned air where it belongs: inside the home while minimizing heating and cooling bills.
Humidity is Important Too!
It is important to consider not only temperature but relative humidity as well. A general rule of thumb is that it should be between 40-60% in the average home. Since cold air holds a lot less moisture, heated winter air can be very dry. This can lead to many issues such as bloody noses, dry skin, asthma, static shocks and cracked wood products.
We are in the time of year where the average home can start to have too much humidity. Not only can this lead to feeling hot and uncomfortable, but also mold growth and moisture damage to the home. As I have said countless times, moisture is the #1 enemy of homes. Therefore, it is imperative that homeowners operate a dehumidifier in the summer months. If this post doesn't make it clear, there are many very good reasons to have your HVAC system inspected annually by a qualified technician.
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:
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.