Internachi certified professional inspector
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.
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.
It’s a common horror movie cliché that a fuse blows and needs to be replaced in a dark, cold basement. In reality, however, most of what I and other local inspectors see during inspections are circuit breakers, an example of which is pictured below and looks like a series of light switches. There are two basic types of overcurrent protection: fuses and circuit breakers.
If I see fuses in a service panel, I will always advise getting an electrician to evaluate the system and recommend it should be replaced with circuit breakers. What’s wrong with fuses? There are several concerns:
Fuses Have to Be Replaced
While a tripped circuit breaker can simply be switched back on, a fuse must be replaced. This can not only be expensive, but often requires a trip to the hardware store at the most inconvenient time.
Fuses Are Usually Interchangeable
This means that different fuses (such as 15 vs 20 amp) are the same size. The problem with this is that homeowners frequently replace a repeatedly melting fuse with a larger size. While on the surface this is a very dangerous practice, and it allows a circuit to carry more current than can be safely handled which can lead to an electrical fire.
Fuse Panels are (Generally) Obsolete
If you read my previous blog post on Knob & Tube wire, you would know that K&T is dangerous mainly because of how old it is. Fuses have not been used in homes (except in rare conditions) since the 1970s and nearly all are past their expected lifespan.
Many insurance companies look negatively on a fuse box, mainly for the last two reasons I just stated. While beyond the scope of a home inspection, I have heard plenty of stories of insurers demanding electrical systems be upgraded to a modern circuit breaker as a condition of writing a policy on a home.
It’s not as simple as saying fuses = bad and circuit breakers = good. In fact, fuses are better at preventing over currents and, while very reliable, circuit breakers still are not 100% foolproof. Our heat pump (installed in 2020) also uses a fuse for one simple reason: they react much faster to a power surge and can protect the unit from catastrophic damage far better. This is why a home inspector will recommend an electrician: I’ve said it before, and I will say again that electrical systems can be very dangerous and more complicated than they appear.
There are two main types of safety devices that inspectors look for: Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) and Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs). Both provide different types of protection: the AFCI generally protects against fire and the GFCI against electrocution.
Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters
AFCIs work by continuously monitoring the electrical waveform and promptly interrupting the circuit if a wave pattern that is characteristic of a dangerous arc that can cause a fire. The best way to think about them is like they are small lightning bolts. Much like lightning, arcs create a large amount of heat that can ignite a fire behind the walls of a home.
AFCIs can be found in both the receptacles on the wall and inside the electrical panel. They can usually be identified with either the term “AFCI” written on them or by a white curly wire in the panel. Starting in 2002, bedrooms were required to have AFCI protection, and it has been expanded multiple times to include most electrical circuits. There are several exceptions that any licensed electrical contractor is aware of (such as bathrooms), and I won’t bore you with quoting the long and confusing Canadian Electric Code. Bottom line is that AFCIs are expensive but serve a valuable role in preventing electrical fires.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters
GFCIs can look very similar to AFCIs (and to make it more confusing it is possible to have GFCI AND AFCI protection in the same area) but serve a different purpose. A GFCI looks for differences in current between the hot and neutral conductors. What exactly does that mean? If the current in the neutral is lower than the hot, it means electricity is travelling where it should not be going. Often this means it is passing through a human body. A GFCI detects this almost instantly and stops the circuit, potentially saving a life.
The language surrounding where GFCIs are required is confusing but the simplest way to look at it is that any electrical outlets within 5-6 feet of a water source need GFCI protection. Water and electricity do not mix, and the combination can be fatal without the safety of a GFCI.
An Important Note
Home inspectors are not electricians or code compliance officers. While I have a working knowledge of electrical codes, I do not cite current codes in my reports. There are two reasons for this:
In other words, if the home predated AFCI and GFCI requirements you do not have to add them to be code compliant unless you perform major renovations. Having said all that, my focus is on safety, and regardless of what the codebooks say dangerous electrical currents do not care when your home was built. Therefore, I always recommend upgrading your electrical system to the latest safety requirements for you and your family’s protection. These two devices serve different purposes, but both are valuable safety features that should not be ignored.
WARNING: Do NOT, under any circumstances attempt to remove or disassemble an electric service panel (even if switched off) as just one small mistake can be fatal! I am a trained and experienced professional and know my safe limits.
Shortly after we moved into our house, we hired an electrician to do some upgrades and improvements. Like any curious home inspector, I couldn’t resist peeking at my panel before calling to see what exactly I was dealing with. As expected, I found no major issues that I typically look for such as double taps, aluminum branch wires or mixed neutral/ground bus bars. I couldn’t help but notice, however, the burn mark located on the bottom right of the panel.
Simply put, this was almost certainly caused by an electrical arc. You might think that an arc is just a few sparks and a quick sizzle and is no big deal. This is incorrect: while a bigger risk lies in large industrial systems, residential electrical arcs can be very dangerous in many ways:
An arc fault creates high temperatures and have been known to reach 19,000°C (or 35,000°F). That’s four times the temperature of the sun’s surface! This can not only melt steel (and damage the panel) but can easily cause a fire.
Arc faults can create a pressure blast of about 2000 pascals per square inch (PSI). Translation: the corresponding arc blast can not only knock an adult to the ground but can shoot debris and cause trauma to anyone nearby.
Sound and Light
I know from firsthand experience an electrical arc is LOUD! How loud? The sound can go as high as 140 decibels, which is as loud as a gunshot. It also can create a flash of up to 13,000,000 lux (130 times brighter than direct sunlight) that can cause temporary or permanent vision loss.
Luckily these extremes are generally only seen in larger, more industrial electrical setups but that doesn’t change the fact that residential electrical systems are dangerous and not to be messed with. The biggest concern with an arc fault as a homeowner is that it can cause a fire, not only in the main panel but behind the walls. This is one reason why in 1999 the United States followed by Canada in 2002 started requiring Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs).
If I haven’t made clear enough, electrical systems look very simple but can hold numerous dangers you may not be aware of, so always refer any electric work to a licensed electrical contractor.
There is no such thing as a perfect home, and yes that includes my own house. Here are 3 subtle defects I found after moving in (and before I became a home inspector). Can you spot the issues?
This is what appears to be plain, ordinary insulation in the basement. The problem doesn’t lie with the installation or the R (insulating) value, nor is there a problem with mold or cold air infiltration and there is nothing wrong with using the red tape. The problem lies in the fact that this type of insulation is known as extruded polystyrene, which like all plastics is derived from petroleum by-products. As such, while it can be hard to ignite, once a fire has started it burns very rapidly with highly toxic smoke. As it is located in the basement, it would be nearly impossible to detect before the fire got out of control.
Solution: this type of insulation needs to be covered by a fire barrier, such as I have done here with drywall. This simple action can greatly reduce the spread of fire, allowing for precious minutes to take action.
This is a door frame that was walled over. How do I know this was added later and is not part of the original construction? Not only is the wood slightly different, but the plastic vapor barrier is missing over the former doorframe. This barrier is designed to keep wood and concrete from making direct contact, and having moisture travel up from the concrete into the wood by capillary action, which will reduce the wood's lifespan by promoting rot and mold growth. Below is proof that moisture is travelling up: you can see a moisture content of 10% compared to 6% to a nearby section of the wall with a proper moisture barrier. Generally we start worrying when the moisture content hits 20% as that is conducive to rot and mold growth.
Solution: given how the moisture content isn't in the "danger zone" it is easier (and cheaper!) to just leave this alone, especially since this is not a new home. If this wood needs to be replaced in the future a plastic barrier such as polyethylene will be installed first.
This is from our basement where the washing machine is connected. All electrical receptacles within 5-6 feet of any water source need to have ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection as water and electricity do not mix.
Solution: I replaced this receptacle with the proper GFCI unit and while you may have noticed it was installed “upside down” it is 100% acceptable to install them upright, upside down or even sideways.
I have inspected houses that appeared on the surface to be perfect, only to discover similar issues that aren't always apparent. This is just one of many example of why I love being a home inspector!
Isn’t it ironic how we have gone from a handful of TV channels as a child growing up in the 80s to over a thousand today yet there seems to be even less to watch? Occasionally I flip through the channels (no pun intended) and see one of the too-many-to-name home renovation shows. The main premise is that the host finds a house with many problems and spends about a half hour overcoming unexpected issues before revealing a beautiful, remodeled home to the cameras.
There is no shortage of houses that are bought with the sole purpose of being renovated and sold quickly, usually within a few months. The common term for this type of property is a flipped house and those who buy these type of homes are known as flippers. Ask any home inspector their opinion of flipped houses is and I doubt there will be many positive stories. The term “lipstick on a pig” is one I hear other inspectors throw around regularly and I can’t say I disagree with it.
The main concern most home inspectors have is that flippers in general have a financial incentive to cut corners, especially in our current seller’s market conditions. There is a saying you might have heard that says “kitchens and bathrooms sell homes”. What this means is that important areas such as plumbing, electrical, roofing, etc. are usually not given as much priority as they should. I compare this to a refurbished car: sure, a new paint job, a reupholstered interior and shiny rims are great, but it is far more important to replace the engine, tires and transmission.
Another concern is that many amateur house flippers, while well intended, simply do not understand the large scope of a home renovation and how difficult, complicated, and expensive a task like this is. This is made far worse by the construction boom we are experiencing, where many skilled trades are booked well in advance on one of the many high rise apartment buildings under construction in the Halifax area. When I was working in home improvement retail in the early 2000s one of the saddest things we saw regularly was distressed DIYers who got in way over their heads and ended up needing to have professionals re-do much of the home improvement work at significant cost and inconvenience.
That isn’t to say that all home flippers are bad or are well-meaning-but-ignorant: there are many quality home flippers who care about providing a great home and a flipped house can be a great way to get a like new, turnkey house in an established neighbourhood. Often it can be difficult to tell whether a home rehab was comprehensive or just done on a surface level and for these reasons and more it is important to always have a flipped house inspected prior to purchase. Home inspectors have the training and experience needed to look past shiny cabinets or granite countertops and towards what is ultimately most important in maintaining an affordable, safe, and healthy home. Hopefully with the help of an inspector your flip doesn’t become a flop.
While I pride myself on being thorough and detailed in all my inspections it is simply impossible to catch every small detail, especially when the previous owner/tenant’s belongings are still in place. Here are some examples of areas a home inspector generally doesn’t focus their priorities to:
I make it no secret that I am big on energy efficiency and am a huge fan of Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs. Simply put, LED bulbs are brighter, last longer, don’t fade with age and generate very little (waste) heat. In fact, the very first thing I did upon moving into our home was replace almost all our mostly incandescent lighting with LEDs. However, this is not something I check for because:
Not only are cosmetic finishes excluded from a standard home inspection, but in most cases the flooring, if it isn’t brand new, almost always has defective areas. It can be very difficult to identify the quality of a flooring installation from look alone and in many cases new homeowners prefer to change the flooring style anyway. I do look out for major safety issues but normal wear and tear, scratches, dents etc. are normal in a lived-in home and to be expected. I will however point out inappropriate flooring such as carpet in bathrooms and kitchens.
I am generally not worried about holes or dents in drywall as, like most homeowners, I have created more than one moving furniture or carrying a large, pointed object. In fact, it can provide the inspector a way to see in behind the walls even if just a small area. Drywall is generally easy to patch and repair and I have done this myself without issue for a very low cost. Having said that, I do notice and evaluate cracks or holes in a ceiling as they can provide valuable clues.
While outbuildings are not included in standard home inspections, if I could sum up my observations on sheds I have inspected I could simply just say “recommend complete replacement” as the cost is usually cheaper than doing necessary repairs. In my experience, sheds have a shorter life expectancy, are generally not maintained or properly footed as they aren’t designed for living and are rightfully not a priority for homeowners on a limited budget.
I have discussed previously that as a professional home inspector, one of the most important skills to be successful in this field is discretion about what is really important and not just filling in lines on a boilerplate. Roofing, HVAC and structural systems are three such areas that can be very expensive to repair/replace and are the focus of the majority of our efforts.
Being a professional home inspector means there is never a time where you can say that the learning stops and you know everything. If I haven't made it clear through my credentials I have an insatiable appetite for growing my understanding of all things home related that was fostered both through my late Grandfather (possibly the most skilled carpenter I have ever known) and 14 years at working with NSCC. My education continues to this day as can be seen clearly in the photo above: I especially like to learn more about topics that are only lightly touched upon in the formal home inspector programs: one such topic is marijuana grow-ops.
As everyone is well aware, marijuana has been legal in Canada for a while now and while still technically illegal throughout the entire United States, in reality as of 2021 only 5 out of 50 states have a full ban on it. One of the consequences of this is a drastic decrease in the black market and a corresponding drop in houses that are used to grow large quantities of cannabis illegally. It goes without saying that former growers generally do not advertise what the home was used for in the past and it can be difficult to identify a house that was used as a grow-op. There are a number of reasons why it is critical to know if the home was used as a grow house aside from insurance and mortgage issues:
I remember way back when I worked in home improvement retail how it was emphasized over and over that there is no ‘profile’ of a shoplifter and the 'average' thief could look like literally anyone from any background, culture, gender or age. This is a good analogy for grow-ops: contrary to the stereotype that drug houses are run down, dirty and scary looking they can just as easily be your neighbour with a clean, well maintained property. Grow-ops were generally designed to blend in to not attract attention and this is the reason it is important to know the signs and keep an eye out for clues that a home might have been used for nefarious purposes in the past. These are numerous and include: