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 much attention 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 LED. However, this is not someone 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 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.
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:
According to the InterNACHI Standards of Practice, we are required to check for and report as in need of correction “the presence of solid conductor aluminum branch-circuit wiring”. Does this mean aluminum wiring in a home is dangerous? Not necessarily.
Let’s first back up to the 60s. While that timeframe might bring images of Woodstock, counterculture or political change to a home inspector a different type of change comes to mind: that of a switch from copper (CU) to aluminum (AL) wiring due to the skyrocketing cost of CU wires in the mid-1960s. Until about 1973 this type of wiring was almost exclusively used in branch circuits, which are the wires that go to individual outlets and switches.
Why is this type of AL wiring a concern? There are several reasons:
AL Wiring is More Malleable
Another way to say this is to say it is damaged easily. As it is a softer metal, it can be nicked or damaged far easier and a more amateur installation can greatly reduce the ability of the wire to safely carry electricity (and heat).
AL Wiring Expands/Contracts Easily
The #1 issue with AL wires is the significantly increased fire risk. The biggest danger comes from connections can come loose that can build up heat and eventually lead to an electrical fire.
AL is an Inferior Conductor
Compared to CU wiring, AL is not as good of a conductor of electricity. In most cases this is not a problem as an electrician knows to account for this but amateur DIYs might not realize the size difference between CU and AL. To give you an example of what I mean, below is a sample chart of the proper types of wire to use. Remember as the gauge gets smaller the wire gets bigger. As you can see AL is one size bigger in almost all conditions.
AL wiring was never discontinued or banned and is still widely used to this day. Due to its low weight, it is the preferred material for outdoor transmission lines and is frequently seen inside homes as the material the main service conductors are made of. As well, post 1973 aluminum wiring is of a much higher quality and generally does not have the safety issues just mentioned to nearly the same degree.
To summarize, while widely used, AL wiring can be considered dangerous in certain circumstances, especially if installed from 1965 to 1973. A home inspector can identify if you have this type of wiring and if so, will recommend an electrician evaluate the system to see if any corrective action needs to be taken to ensure the system is safe and functional for years to come.
One of the questions frequently posed to home inspectors is if a home can fail an inspection and if so, how often do homes fail? The simple answer to that is no: we are independent consultants, not municipal code compliance officers and do not condemn homes. Every client has different expectations and what their tipping point is and will have to make that decision for themselves and as home inspectors we provide the necessary knowledge and facts. Yes, there are a number of issues that are very serious and difficult if not impossible to remedy at a reasonable cost but luckily they are rare in my experience.
One of the ways I accomplish my goal of providing detailed information and organize my reports in a way that is easy to understand is to provide an action list at the end of each report. I then organize tasks based on what I consider the priority level: every inspector is different but I personally break down my recommendations into four basic categories:
In reality, while these specific examples look easy to categorize in many cases a great deal of judgement is used in making proper recommendations. One such example is a cracked foundation: a crack can be a sign of anything from a cosmetic nuisance right up to a symptom of complete structural failure. Luckily the overwhelming majority of cracks are minor but as a home inspector we can advise whether the services of a structural engineer or other specialist should be sought.
As a volunteer first responder, possibly the most important skill other than immediate life-saving actions is to not only report and observe but also to understand when an issue needs further attention and if so what form it should take: many issues look serious on the surface but are relatively minor while others are only serious to the trained eye and need immediate attention. Developing this skill has served me well as a home inspector too, where I am able to put issues in the proper context, not overreacting or underreacting to what I see.
To summarize, inspector's reports do not have a grade and there is no such thing as pass or fail but there are issues with various degrees of seriousness in each and every home. This is why I promote and recommend regular maintenance inspections: we can help you avoid surprises and to plan and budget for preventative maintenance on your terms.
According to the InterNACHI Standards of Practice, there are a number of items all members must inspect to meet the minimum requirements. The one category that has by far the most items to inspect is electrical. There are couple of main reasons for this: the first is that electrical work can be expensive (it is mandatory to be licensed in Nova Scotia for a very good reason!) and many of the issues are hidden and can be very dangerous, even fatal. Today I am going to talk about something that any homeowner can do on their own to check their electrical system.
Nearly everyone in North America knows what these are and every home has dozens of these duplex receptacles. As can be seen in the diagram above, the short slot is for the hot (or energized) pin, the left is for the neutral pin that connects to the wire that completes the circuit back to the grid and the semi-circular slot is for a ground (or emergency path) pin. These outlets can also be installed with the ground on top and while this isn't common in residential properties it is both acceptable and safe.
The tester pictured here can be bought at any home improvement store for an affordable price and used by any home owner or renter to gather quick diagnostic information. While they are not perfect, they can help identify some significant electrical issues. Let us run down all the various fault codes on this particular tester and what they mean:
This is the most common condition I see and it may either be a systematic or localized problem. What this means is that the detector does not sense a emergency path in the case of an electrical fault. Grounding has been required in both Canada and the United States since the 60s and is especially important in objects made of metal as they conduct electricity. Without a ground wire, the electrical path may use your body as a way to get back to source and this could lead to anything from a nasty shock right up to cardiac arrest. There are a number of reasons for this, which can range from a simple slipped wire to a complete lack of grounding protection in the home that requires a complete and expensive home rewiring to correct.
This means there is a disconnect detected on the neutral wire. Simply put, in most cases two things will happen: the device plugged in won't work since there is no return circuit and you may receive a nasty shock as the outlet is still energized. This is a dangerous situation that needs immediate correction by an electrician.
This is a case where there is no hot wire connected to the outlet. This is very easy to spot as the outlet will not work as there is no energy source. This is the reason why none of the three lights will come on during an open hot situation.
Hot & Ground Reversed
This is a rare situation that is extremely dangerous and would be the result of someone who had no idea how to wire an electrical outlet. Like most inspectors I have never seen it and likely never will. This indicator can also be a false positive and could actually mean an open neutral, which while also serious is not nearly as expensive to correct.
Hot & Neutral Reversed
This is the second most common issue I see after open grounds and can also be known as reversed polarity. This means that the outlet is wired in reverse, where the energy is flowing in the opposite direction from what is intended. This can go undetected for years, even decades as many items (particularly electronics) are not polarized and it doesn't really matter to them which way the current flows. Other items that are polarized, such as light sockets or appliances will be energized even when off and will deliver a nasty, potentially fatal shock if you touch the wrong spot.
These testers are not 100% reliable. For example, a tester cannot detect a dangerous condition known as a bootleg ground, where the ground wire is illegally hooked into the neutral wire. This essentially means that the GFCI protection needed in wet areas is removed and the entire casing can become energized. This is one reason why if it is safe to do so I attempt to take off every electrical panel cover I see to inspect for proper wiring and grounding: if the panel isn't grounded (mostly due to age) and the outlet tester says it is, this can be a symptom of a very serious problem. Another way to put this is that a tester is just one of many tools a home inspector uses to perform their duties.
It is important to note that all electrical work in Nova Scotia is required to be done by a licensed electrician. These testers are a great diagnostic tool but unless you know what you doing, contact an electrician to correct any issues in a home. While they can be pricey, it is not worth losing your life or burning your home down to save a few hundred dollars.
If you ever do research on how to become a home inspector or what makes a great home inspector, you will find lots of information on the benefits of having things like a construction, engineering or trades background or a strong eye for detail. One thing that rarely is discussed is the importance of communication: not only to explain potential issues we find but to put them into the proper context using our skills and knowledge. Here are some examples of statements that are 100% true, yet are very misleading:
Electric Heating is 100% Efficient
No high efficiency furnace or boiler can compete with electric heat, but this ignores the simple fact that electricity is usually produced by generators which are about 30% efficient. Overall, electric heating is the most inefficient and expensive way to heat a home.
Electrical Heating is the Most Inefficient and Expensive Way to Heat a Home
Again, this is correct on the surface but is misleading. There are a few advantages of electric heat: no oil or propane tanks are needed, they are easy and inexpensive to install, and they can be relatively easily added to cold areas of a home. They are also great for distant areas where heat is only needed sparingly, such as in a garage or workshop. In short, all heating sources have advantages and disadvantages and that is why there are so many different examples seen in homes.
Radon is a Deadly, Tasteless, Odourless Gas That is Everywhere and There is No Safe Limit
You can also substitute “Carbon Monoxide” and this statement would again be true but misleading. Every single home has radon and while there is no agreed safe limit the Canadian guideline is 200 becquerels per cubic metre (200 Bq/m3) and no action is recommended unless the long-term levels in your home exceed this. I have discussed this in depth in a previous blog post, but the bottom line is radon can indeed be dangerous but, in many cases, it is not a concern.
Inside Edge Home Inspections Uses a Unlicensed Inspector
Sounds shocking that I would admit this is true until you learn that in Canada ALL inspectors outside of British Columbia and Alberta are unlicensed: a license not only is not required but does not exist. Furthermore, as of 2021, there are absolutely no requirements to anyone calling themselves a home inspector in any of the Atlantic Provinces. Our website demonstrates my impressive credentials and extensive experience, including completing 340 hours and counting of continuing education just in 2021 alone. If licensing becomes available our company will be first in line to sign up.
The reality is we are fully incorporated in Nova Scotia, our company is a certified member of InterNACHI, the world’s largest home inspection organization, and I am a Certified Professional Inspector with InterNACHI. Our passion is providing quality, independent home inspections and we fully support all efforts to raise the standards in our industry.
As both a professional home inspector and a father to a young child, my biggest concern is home safety: particularly of hidden dangers in a home that might not be immediately apparent. One such danger is Knob and Tube (K&T) wiring, which was commonly used from approximately 1880 up until the 1940s. Here is a picture of what K&T wiring commonly looks like:
As you can see, once you know what to look for it becomes obvious, however it is often buried behind walls, in attics, in crawlspaces and other areas that are difficult to access. Contrary to popular belief, K&T is not inherently unsafe by itself, and it is not illegal to use in a residential property, although new installations of K&T in homes most certainly are! Furthermore, there are some advantages, such as better heat dissipation and a near guarantee it was installed by someone highly skilled as it was very difficult to install K&T properly.
With that said, I will always recommend an electrician evaluate a K&T system and if I were buying a home with K&T I would make immediate plans for its removal without exception. What is wrong with K&T and why do I personally consider it necessary to remove?
Knob and Tube is Old and Outdated
Given that K&T has not been widely installed in North America for almost 90 years, it is guaranteed that any K&T wiring installation is well past the expected lifespan of about 50-60 years due to deterioration of the cloth sheathing that was used. These systems are also underpowered for modern electrical needs and have almost certainly been modified with various degrees of skilled DIY’s, contractors, or electricians. There is also the concern of added insulation not allowing heat to escape from these wires, which can be a significant fire hazard.
These Systems are Not Grounded
All modern electrical systems are required to have a grounding wire (this is the bottom part of the plug), and this has been a requirement since about 1960. Therefore, since almost all K&T predates this timeframe, it can be safely assumed that a K&T system is not grounded. I plan on doing plenty of articles about residential electrical in the future but in the meantime just understand a ground is a safety feature designed to protect against electrical shock and all homes should be insured against ground faults. Speaking of insurance:
K&T Has Potential Insurance Implications
I would someday love to create a neat little table of all insurance providers in Nova Scotia and what their policy is on insuring houses with K&T. While I unfortunately do not have that information, I can safely assume that almost all insurers will either refuse to offer coverage to a home with K&T or require a significantly higher premium and/or deductible.
It should also be mentioned that finding K&T in an attic or crawlspace is not by itself a cause for panic: due to the difficulty in removing K&T it is often just abandoned and left in place. This is not a concern if it is properly decommissioned. A home inspector or electrician can determine if your home has active K&T and can offer recommendations of the next steps to ensuring you have a safe electrical system.
If you have ever looked at your electric panel, you might see a label similar to this. If you are like most homeowners, you have no idea what all the circled numbers and letters mean. Let us take a quick look at each one:
125 AMP MAX
This is a measure of the maximum amperage rating. Simply put, this is a measure of the flow of electricity. Most modern houses have a 200-amp service although I have seen service as low as 100 amp without issue. There are systems that are smaller than 100 amp but in general, many insurance companies will not insure a home with less than 100 amp mostly due to the fact these are generally older systems that do not meet a modern family's needs.
This means that this panel can use either copper or aluminum conductors. You may have heard that aluminum wires are a major fire hazard and while that can certainly be true, there are many situations where they may be used safely. Your home inspector should be able to tell you if you have aluminum wiring and if so, whether an electrician should be consulted.
This is a measure of the voltage (pressure) this system is designed for. Well over 99% of homes in North America use what is known as a split phase system that uses two 120V service wires (120+120=240). While there are some properties that use just one 120V (mostly very old homes or cottages), I have never encountered one in the field.
Fun fact: you may have heard that high voltage is very dangerous and while in most cases this is true, there are some ways that getting shocked with high voltage can be perfectly safe. Did you know that a simple static shock can deliver between 5,000 to 15,000 volts?
This is an acronym for alternating current in both English and French. I could write several essays on alternating vs direct current (DC) and why we receive power as AC yet use DC in most appliances and gadgets but, with the exception of solar systems, nearly every home receives power from the utility as AC and this is a standard designation.
This refers to the fact that this panel is designed for single phase power. To make a complex concept simple, there are two types of phasing used: single phase and three phase. Almost all homes and small businesses use single phase and three phase is used in large buildings. The way inspectors tell single from three phase power is the number of hot service wires, which brings us to our last point.
This means that is designed for 3 wires from the utility: 2 hot (usually black and red) and 1 neutral (white) wire that services the home. Three phase systems usually have an extra hot wire (any color except white or green but usually blue) and are extremely rare in homes.
Still confused? Let me quickly summarize: the only thing you need to worry about as a new or existing homeowner is the amperage, which usually varies from 100 to 200 (and up) amperage. The rest is standard to nearly every home and any deviation should be investigated by an electrician.