Structures – Foundations
Poured concrete walls should be steel reinforced. When poured, the footing will have a V-shaped groove at the top with rebar from the footing- exposed to tie the wall steel. The concrete wall should be 8 inches thick and it should be poured in a single pour. The inspector will evaluate the condition of the concrete foundation and examine any cracks or other defects, signs of water seepage, etc. Any problems, severe or otherwise, will be brought to the attention of the buyer and recommendations made to correct these problems.
Concrete blocks, also referred to as concrete masonry units (CMU) are used as basement walls as well as retaining and crawl space walls. Regardless of the end use, a concrete block wall must have a supportable footing. A horizontal crack in a basement wall, even if it is only a hairline crack, can be the most significant crack observed and the most costly to repair. The inspector will carefully examine all visible foundation cracks and make recommendations depending on the severity of the crack. A significant crack may cause a wall to fail and be very costly to repair.
Brick foundations are usually seen in older homes. It is no longer cost effective to install brick foundations and this type of foundation is often not as durable compared to other modern installations such as poured concrete or cement block. A brick foundation is installed in much the same way that a solid brick house is built except it is below grade and should rest on a solid footing. It is not uncommon however that some of these foundations were not placed on footings and now may be settled badly. Brick foundations are inspected carefully for the particular defects that they are prone to such as, settling, water seepage and deterioration of the bricks themselves. Many brick foundations have been sealed with wire lathe and cement stucco giving them a look of a poured concrete foundation.
Stone foundations are usually seen in older homes. They were seldom used in construction dating after WW II. Stone foundations can be prone to settling and water seepage. A unique problem to stone foundations is that the foundation itself can be a source of Radon gas, which is an environmental hazard. This type of installation is also prone to such problems as settling and water seepage. A stone foundation when maintained well is a very aesthetically appealing installation, but must be inspected carefully. Joints wear quickly because they are usually not smooth and uniform. Shifting or settling can occur because of the uneven nature of stones.
Slab-on-grade foundation is used when the structure is built directly on the ground. Monolithic slab-on-grade foundations require a wide base and steel reinforcement. A floating slab is a reinforced slab placed between two walls and footings. Aside from the usual defects (cracking, seepage) the inspector will be looking for, slab foundations are more susceptible to termites and other insects. Slab homes are difficult to inspect because almost all of the entire structure is enclosed and not visible. Other areas will be inspected more carefully for indications of problems related to slab-type construction.
Structures – Framing Systems
Most modern residential and light commercial designs use platform framing. The first floor is built on top of the foundation walls like a “platform”. The walls are then constructed and raised on the platform and the second story floor or platform is built on the raised walls. This process is repeated for each additional floor. This type of construction provides a safe and simple form of building. When a slab is used for the foundation, the first story walls are raised and the second floor becomes the first “platform” of the building. Your inspector can quickly identify the type of framing used for construction and adjust his inspection according to each style.
Balloon framing is seldom used in modern construction but still often seen in older homes. The wall studs start at the base of the building and are continuous to the attic. The floor beams or joists are attached to the wall studs and supported by a ribbon board. There is limited shrinkage of the wood in balloon framing reducing vertical settlement of the building. Fire stops must be installed to prevent fires from quickly spreading from one floor to the next.
Post and beam framing is a style of construction often found in rustic type of housing or exotic homes. This style of framing lends itself to large open areas. Posts are the upright timbers used to support the roofing system and form the exterior walls. Beams are horizontal timbers used to tie the structure together and support live loads. Post and beam framing is also often referred to as timber frame construction. This type of dwelling is more complex in design because the joining of each post and beam is a crucial element to the structural stability of the building. Most of the timbers are exposed which will enable your inspector to carefully check many of these areas with his well trained eyes.
Mechanical Systems – Heating Systems
A hydronic heating system, typically referred to as a hot water or steam system, is one that uses water or steam as a medium of transporting heat from the heating unit. The heating unit itself is called a boiler because it heats or boils water in a vessel made out of cast iron or steel. The heated water is then distributed through the desired areas of the dwelling to create an even temperature throughout. The desired temperature is controlled by the thermostat. The boiler goes on and off automatically to keep the water temperature within it to a range which enables the maximum benefit of the system. Almost all hydronic systems in operation today use either gas or oil for fuel. Most systems have significant controls for safety and efficiency. It is our job as professional inspectors to operate the system using normal controls to expose defects or maintenance requirements. It is possible though not typical to find combination steam and hot water systems. These installations are usually seen in expanded older systems and can be prone to maintenance problems because of the two types of operation from the same vessel.
The forced warm air heating system uses a fan or blower to draw air from rooms through a return air duct way. The return air is passed through a furnace where it is heated. The heated air is then pushed into the plenum and distributed via ductwork to rooms as needed. Dampers within the ductwork are opened or closed to balance the heated air into the various rooms as desired. Furnaces are commonly set up to use fuel oil, natural gas or electricity in order to supply heat. Some systems incorporate a humidifier to lessen the dryness of the air. The moisture introduced into the system, however, can cause corrosion to the metal parts. The inspector with evaluate the overall condition of the furnace and control systems. Of all the major heating systems (Steam, Hot Water, Warm Air), warm air heating systems pose the greatest hazard. When the heat exchanger of a warm air furnace is cracked or leaking it can leak carbon monoxide gas into the living area. The heat exchanger is not visible for inspection.
Electrical resistance heat may be used as either a primary heating method such as, electric baseboard, electric radiant, electric furnace and electric boiler, or it is used more commonly as a back up heating source in a heat pump installation. Heat pumps are used to provide both air conditioning and heat to a home. In the heating mode they are effective in climates where temperatures seldom go below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. When the heat pump can no longer acquire enough heat from the ambient exterior air the auxiliary electric resistance heating elements turn on automatically to supplement the unit and supply adequate heat. The system then functions as an electric furnace. Electric resistance heating is common in areas where systems are not used for extended winter months or where electricity is economical. The inspector will pay careful attention to not only the function of the system, but the requirements of a large electrical supply to the home as it relates to the electrical system itself. This is the most common problem of systems installed in expanded homes and older homes. The electric service must be adequate for the installation of electric resistance heat.