Today’s show is part two of red flags that buyers should look out for to avoid big and expensive issues when checking out properties.
Windows is one to look at first, especially the type of windows that potentially are going to rot. Tessa advises giving windows a gentle push or touch to see if they are solid or rotted. She highlights that replacing windows can be a huge expense for home buyers. Reuben shares about looking out for aluminum-clad wood windows that were installed in the 90s or early 2000s.
Another on the list is the deck. Reuben discusses how to check the deck and ensure that everything is plumb and level. He also talks about the materials used in the deck and their life span and painted decks. Tessa highlights that it’s very important to check the entire structure and ensure proper attachments. She adds checking for deterioration, loose guardrails, flashing at the ledger board, and visible signs of rot in wood, joists, beams, and deck boards.
Next is the structure of the house and the foundation. Reuben discusses stacked stone foundations, foundation cracks, and the typical areas where foundation problems can be seen. While not common in Minnesota, he also talks about wood foundations. Tessa talks about finished basements but there’s so much that can’t be seen and can go wrong—including the foundation, plumbing, and electrical. They also discuss in-slab ductwork and the potential moisture that is building up in the slab.
Another is plumbing and sewer lines. While a lot of problems with plumbing are more present in older houses, the thing to really look out for is galvanized water distribution pipes and galvanized drains. Reuben shares how to do a simple little test to check the water flow.
They also talked about appliances such as the water heater, the furnace, and the air conditioner and the importance of knowing their ages. Then they talked about electrical concerns such as bad panels and aluminum wiring. Reuben discusses the Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) or Stab-Lok, Zinsco or Sylannia, or fuse panels that need to be replaced. Tessa shares that the knob and tube wiring is not designed to handle the current household load. These are red flags for fire hazards and concerns insurance companies.
Visit StructureTechCE.com to join the full 1.25 hour class with all photos and a polished video presentation about these red flags.
E-mail your questions and podcast topics to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Reuben Saltzman: Welcome, everybody. You are listening to Structure Talk. A Structure Tech presentation. My name is Reuben Saltzman along with my co-host Tessa Murry. We are the two-legged stool, [chuckle] very wobbly today. There’s no such thing as a two-legged stool, but that’s what we are. We do not have Bill here today. He had something going on. He could not make it. And this is a retake. We tried recording this and it was just not going well, so we’re doing a retake and then it wasn’t working. So we said, “You know what, Bill, we’re going to have to leave you out of this one. I’m sorry.” So…
Tessa Murry: We miss you, Bill. We’ll…
RS: We miss you tons.
TM: Yeah, we’ll do our best without you.
RS: Yeah, it’s not going to be the same, that’s for sure, but we’ll do what we can. And today we’re recording part two of what to look for when you’re looking at houses. We loosely titled this, “Showing Red Flags.” And we called it that because we’ve got a CE class for real estate agents of the same title, but really when we do our podcast, I think it’s going to be a little bit more of a kind of a sexier title or something, a little bit more intriguing to get people to understand what this is about. And it’s really it’s what to look for when you’re at showings, stuff you need to be aware of when you’re going to showings. It’s all those big red flags that would let you know, “Hey, I might be buying a bad house.” Right?
TM: Yeah, or big expensive issues that need to be addressed.
RS: Yeah, yeah, that’s a better way of putting it. I like the way you say it. Maybe not a bad house.
TM: There is no such thing as a perfect house. Yeah, and we tell that to people all the time. And so it’s just a matter of what are you willing to deal with and what can you afford to deal with? So hopefully, this podcast will help you identify some of these big potential expensive problems.
TM: So what do we cover in the first one? I know we started on the exterior and we covered roofs, we covered chimneys, we talked about water management and looking at the roof and thinking about where the water goes and focusing on kind of those areas and siting a little bit too, right?
RS: Yeah, exactly. And we were gonna finish with everything on the outside, but there’s just too much [chuckle] for even one podcast. We couldn’t even get through all of it. So, I think where we left off was on windows.
TM: Right. That’s right. Yeah, we did, we left off on Windows. And should we just add too, for anyone that’s listening that has questions, how do they get in contact with us, Reuben?
RS: Oh, good point, Tessa. Go to email@example.com. That’s the email address. Shoot us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Since we’ve been asking, I’ve been getting a few more people sending in questions. I just had one person send me a email about what was a heat pump water heaters asking about heat pump water heaters. And I was thinking, that would be a good one to discuss.
TM: Yes, it would be. I do not know enough about them to have an educated podcast. We’d have to find a good guest. We should do that.
RS: Okay. Alright. Maybe I could get my neighbor on the podcast, we’ll see. He’s got one.
TM: Oh, okay.
RS: So, maybe we’ll do that. Maybe our future show topic, but you got questions… Oh, and Tessa, we’ve got to do one on challenger electric panels.
TM: Yes, we do.
TM: Oh my gosh, how have we not already?
RS: I know. How have I not written about those? [chuckle] We’re teasing it. We’re not telling you why this stuff is such good topics, but oh, we’ve got some good topics.
TM: Stay tuned.
RS: Stay tuned.
RS: Yeah, sound effects. [chuckle] I’ve got sound effects with this new system we’re using for podcast, but I’m not going to try them again ’cause it was a disaster last time I tried doing it.
TM: You know, maybe we should try them, Reuben, I think that sounds like a fun idea.
TM: Try a new one each podcast.
RS: Alright. Are you ready for this one?
TM: Yes, [chuckle] I’m ready. Hit me.
RS: That was it. [laughter] It is the drum roll.
RS: Alright. We’re turning into one of those wacky morning radio morning shows where they got the air horn and…
TM: Well, shall we get into it? If you’re still listening, thank you for your patience. But we’ll cut to the chase now and get into those red flags.
RS: This why we need Bill. [laughter] We’re just a couple of toddlers.
TM: Oh gosh.
TM: Yeah, what are we doing?
RS: Alright, Tessa, we’re on windows. If you’re looking at buying a house, you wanna look out for obvious problems with windows. What can people spot?
TM: Yeah, well, for the sake of this discussion, I think most people can look at a window and identify, “Okay, well, that window might be just at the end of its life. It’s toast,” right? But there’s some things to pay particular attention to. And you know how we discussed focusing kind of looking for problematic areas, areas that are gonna fill first, you look at the roofline, you think about where the water is going. If it’s shooting off the roof, hitting the side of the wall, that could be a potential area for failure, right? And so, same thing goes for windows that stick out beyond the wall, and bump out windows or windows that don’t have any overhangs and have a lot of exposure. Those are the windows that potentially are going to rot first. So, when you’re looking at a house, take a look at those windows first and also take a close look if it looks like they’ve been patched and painted over, give it a gentle push or touch just to see if it’s solid or if it’s rotted there as well.
RS: Yeah, good advice. And on that, as far as touching your windows, one that I’m always on the big lookout for is windows, I’d say right around the 90s, maybe up through early 2000, they had a lot of these aluminum clad wood windows. So if you’re buying a house where you think the windows may have been put on some time around that era, look out, if it looks like an aluminum window, there’s… It’s probably not aluminum. It’s probably aluminum clad wood, where they just cover the wood with aluminum. And so often you can go up to those windows. You just push on the aluminum with your thumb and you realize there’s nothing behind it. The wood is rotted apart to nothing. And the there’s usually no visual evidence of that. That’s the unfortunate part. So it’s a matter of just going up to a few windows, like you said, that have the most exposure and giving ’em a little push, or maybe if you’re feeling really ambitious, go to a couple windows and just crank ’em open. And so often we’ll crank open windows that look just fine on the outside and the crank arm just falls apart. [chuckle] And it connected to just about nothing.
TM: Yeah. Sawdust at the bottom part of the window.
TM: I will add to, don’t be scared off by wood windows that have some staining on them too. We see a lot of wood windows that have…
TM: Staining from moisture and condensation, and so give those windows a poke too, and if it feels solid… A lot of times you can just stand that off and refinish them and they’re fine.
RS: Well, that is a great point Tess. ‘Cause I think I’ve shared it on this podcast, where the house that I live in now, the windows looked horrible, they were all original wood with… I don’t know… They were stained, and somebody didn’t control their humidifier, and they didn’t run the HRV, so there was way too much moisture in the air, and all these windows in my house were stained black. But for the most part, they were still in very good condition, they just looked horrible. And I think it scared the daylights out of people who were looking at this house and it never sold. And for me, I went around and it was just like, “Hey, these windows are fine. I’m gonna hire someone to sand ’em and paint them.” And they look like new today.
TM: Yeah. Yeah.
RS: Yeah. Black stains are not a big deal, they just look bad. It’s only a big deal if it actually rots your window.
TM: Yeah. Windows can be such a big expense for people if they need to replace all the windows, tens of thousands of dollars, and so there’s a lot of things you can do, I think, to kind of repair or improve your windows that don’t involve replacing them completely.
RS: That’s right. Exactly.
TM: So next, I think we’re gonna dive into decks, is that right?
RS: Yeah, yeah, let’s do it.
TM: Well, we’ve got so many pictures of deck defects in our database, don’t we, Reuben? Just probably… Just even thousands, I would say.
RS: It feels like more about decks than just about anything else. And most of the stuff, you really need to see the photos to appreciate it, so we can’t do a deep dive into what to look for if you’re buying a house. We’re talking about the stuff that people should just be able to spot that you don’t need a home inspector for. So the stuff that we’re gonna talk about, number one, is just looking at your deck from a distance and making sure everything is plumb and level. Making sure you don’t have sagging going on in the middle of the deck, making sure that everything looks the same. There’s a deck I drive by every time I leave my house and it’s like, it’s two blocks away, I can see it through neighborhoods, but I can see that it has experienced frost heat. And that’s a phenomenon in cold weather climates where the ground freezes and it pushes the footings up, and it actually raises sections of the deck. And there are decks around my area that have experienced that, and you can see it from blocks away. But sometimes if you’re standing right underneath it, you may not notice it. It’s one of those macro things you need to see from a distance.
TM: Yeah. And I think one of the biggest things we look at as home inspectors, is the deck attachment to the house too. And does it look like it’s been bolted on securely? Is it just nails or do they have proper attachments there? Is there flashing at that ledger board? And those sorts of things. But we’re not gonna get into that level of detail. The main thing that I’d say you can look for if you’re buying a house with a deck is, is there any rotted wood? Does any of the structure, the framing of the deck, the joist, the beams, the post, the deck boards themselves, is anything rotted? And decks have… What would you say? I’ve heard anywhere around a 20-year life span, what would you say?
RS: Yeah. Depends on what they use. Cedar is probably gonna have the shortest life span. Pressure-treated wood is gonna last longer, and composite will last even longer. Now, we’re talking about the deck boards, of course. For the framing, all we ever see is pressure-treated wood, right?
TM: Hopefully [laughter]
RS: Yeah. Every once in a while you’ll see like an LVL or something, but those are rare exception. Every once in a blue moon, I’ll see steel used on the outside at a deck, and it just freaks me out a little bit. I’m gonna be honest, it seems weird to see steel on a deck. But like you said, make sure that there’s no rot, take the time, get your flashlight like we told you to get in episode one of this podcast, and go underneath the deck and look at the joist. If you’re not taking the time to do that, you could be missing something really big. We’ve seen decks where people have completely replaced all the deck boards, but they left rotted joists in place. And on that for deck boards, look out for painted decks. I don’t think anybody ever paints a deck that’s in good condition.
TM: [laughter] It’s like our tip. We just like… With windows that look like they might have been patched and painted over, give it a poke, see if your finger goes through the paint, and through the deck board.
RS: Yes. Yes. And look at guardrails. I’ll tell you, I think one of the worst designs for a deck guardrail is where you have aluminum balusters going into wood top and bottom rails. I hope you can picture that. We’re talking aluminum balusters, aluminum rails, and then the top and bottom rails that the aluminum connects to is gonna be wood. And the problem is that there’s no way to stop water from traveling down the aluminum and then getting into the wood. And man, do those things rot. So look out for those. That’s another thing I did. I bought a house that had those, probably one of the biggest defects with this house that I knew about when buying, and I just thought “I’m gonna have to replace all these guards.” And it was a lot of guards.
TM: I was gonna say, and it was way more expensive than you thought, wasn’t it? Can you give us a ballpark of what to expect for replacing guardrails?
RS: It was. Although luckily, I asked a contractor what it was gonna cost me before I did it. And let me do a little bit of quick math here, I think it ended up being about $100 per lineal foot of guard.
TM: Oh my gosh. Wow.
RS: Yeah, yeah, that’s about right, yeah. It was about 100 bucks per lineal foot.
TM: That’s crazy. Oh, my gosh. Wow. And was that for just a kind of a standard guardrail, we’re not talking glass or metal or anything like that?
RS: Nothing super fancy. I ended up going with aluminum.
RS: It was a fairly inexpensive version of aluminum. I think it looks really nice. It’s aluminum at the top and bottom. And it’s 100% aluminum. And I think we got them from Menards. We ordered them, and I hired a contractor to do it all. And yeah, that’s about what we ended up paying. It wasn’t anything crazy. It probably would have been less expensive had we simply gone with standard pressure, treated lumber. But I’m not into doing that. I’m not into cedar either ’cause I don’t want to have to stain it. I wanted to put it in and be done. Exactly, exactly.
TM: Yeah. Maintenance free.
RS: So watch out for guards. They can be surprisingly expensive.
TM: Yeah, so just a quick recap on the decks. The biggest thing is just take a walk around from a distance, right? And look at that deck from a distance, does it look level plumb square? Do you see any visible signs of rot, deterioration or guardrails loose and then hire a home inspector to do the rest?
RS: Yep. Yep, exactly.
TM: Okay. Well, what’s next? What’s after decks?
RS: Next, We’re moving on to the structure of the house and we’ll talk a little bit about foundations. We get a ton of questions about foundation problems. It’s one of the things that freaks people out the most. And we’ve seen our share of nasty foundations. But more often what happens is that, you have hairline cracks, typical settlement cracks. And I know, we had Rob Vassallo on, I don’t know how long ago, and he insisted there’s no such thing as a normal settlement crack.
RS: But still I’m going to call them settlement cracks. Foundations do crack and it’s not a big deal. Typically, our general rule is if you have a concrete block foundation and you got cracks that are less than a quarter-inch, probably not a big deal. If you’ve got poured concrete, if they’re less than one-eighth inch, probably not a big deal. We’re looking for stuff larger than that. And when I say general rule, there’s always exceptions. If you’ve got a small crack in concrete block and it’s been patched and it has opened up again since, I’d be more concerned, it tells me that somebody knew about it.
RS: They tried to do something about it and it’s actively moving. It opened up again, I’d be more concerned about that. And also, we’re concerned about long horizontal cracks. Those can be a bigger deal and it’s usually the result of pressure against that foundation. And your walk around the outside is probably going to tell you where you’re most concerned. It’s probably going to be areas where you have poor water management. You’ve got the ground pitching in towards the house, maybe a driveway that slopes towards the house, and then vehicles park there, there’s additional weight and maybe no gutters or you have gutters and you’ve got a downspout discharging right next to the house. Those are typically areas where we see foundation problems.
TM: Yeah, definitely. Water management is key and grading and like you said, driveways that are right up against the foundation too, that’s where we see the most failures for foundations. But one other thing I just wanted to add to this discussion is, so many houses have finished basements.
TM: And if you’re buying a house with a finished basement, there’s just so much you cannot see. You can’t see the foundation. You won’t be able to see any plumbing, electrical, HVAC stuff if it’s finished in the ceiling. And personally, I am a huge fan and I’ve said this on many podcasts of unfinished basements.
TM: Not only for reducing your risk of mold and moisture and problems in finishing these basements, but just for being able to inspect the rest of the house and the structure of it too.
RS: Yeah, we… That’s where Tess and I, we butt heads just a little bit.
TM: Yeah. [chuckle]
RS: I love the finished basement but I am with you. It is a lot scarier when you got a finished basement. There’s so much more that can go wrong and it can take a long time to find out about it.
TM: Yeah, it’s hard to see, hard to detect these problems, potentially. But we do have some examples of pictures in this class showing red flags of foundations where they are finished on the inside but there’s a little bit of foundation that’s exposed above grade. And we’ve got some pictures of foundation walls that are bowing and they’re caving, and you can kind of tell that actually from just citing down the side of the house looking at that small portion that’s visible above grade. So that’s something you can do, is just look at the foundation that is exposed and look at the condition of that. And we have a lot of older houses too in this state that have stacked stone foundations. And as they’re missing mortar or some crumbling stones and areas too that need maintenance. And if that’s the case and it’s finished on the inside, then you can bet there’s more areas that are of concern that are hidden too.
RS: Yeah. And let me just kind of repeat what you said, ’cause that’s such a good point, Tess. And we are in 100% agreement there. Is that, if you’ve got a Stacked Stone Foundation, you ought not finish that basement. If the basement does get finished, there’s no way for those walls to dry to the inside. And that’s how they’re designed. They’re supposed to dry to the inside. And what you end up with is water at the base of your walls. You end up with a damp basement, you end up with mold issues and deterioration of the base of your walls. There’s so much that goes wrong. So I would be very, very concerned about any house with a Stacked Stone Foundation and any portions of that basement are finished.
TM: Yeah, that’s a huge red flag.
TM: In general, yeah.
RS: That creeps me out.
TM: Me too. [laughter] And if it looks pristine and it looks perfect, great. But to me, that says it’s probably been recently refinished and it’s only a matter of time before it gets wet again.
RS: Yep, yep. You’re probably right. We are such pessimists, but we’re basing this on experience.
TM: Experience. Look for fresh paint. I don’t know if that’s in your… If I’m skipping ahead. Reuben, stop me if I am. But another red flag in basements is like anything that’s been freshly painted or sometimes if a basement is new paint and new carpet, new tack strips and everything, and you can tell on the outside, the grading is really bad and there’s no gutters and no downspouts. That’s a red flag in and of itself.
RS: Yep, yep, agreed. And…
RS: Let’s just take that to move on to wet basement issues. Where…
RS: We’re going a little bit out of order on what we planned to talk about, but as long as we’re on that… When you’re doing your walk around on the outside, if you see areas where a lot of water is concentrated, those are the areas where you wanna focus your efforts on the basement, looking for any signs of water intrusion, if it’s all finished. And you do that by looking at the base of walls. What are we looking for? What are the signs that you’ve got water?
TM: Yeah. You can look for stains on… If you’ve got wood door frames in the basement, look for staining on the base of those door jams. Or baseboards, if you’ve got more finished areas down there too, look for staining at the bottom of the baseboards. And if you can, you might even be able to pull up a little bit of carpet in a corner, to take a peek at the tack strip underneath. And if that tack strip is black or rotted or deteriorating… That’s a good sign you’ve had water intrusion.
RS: It’s not that big of a deal to pull back a little corner of carpet. If you’re pulling back several feet, that carpet is probably gonna get messed up, and it’s gonna need to be re-stretched. But we can usually, even without even pliers, you can usually use your fingers. Just peel back a little corner to see, maybe an inch or two of the tack strip, and you can kinda tuck it back down underneath the baseboard trim if you… You’re not gonna have a screwdriver with you, but you can use a car key… The old car key.
TM: If your car uses a key. [laughter]
RS: Yeah. The old car key. Yeah. Not the new key fob. But you can usually use that to tuck it back under the baseboard trim, and nobody’s ever gonna know you peeked.
TM: Yeah. With finished basements, I think one thing we skipped over a little bit… Talking about wood foundations.
TM: Do you wanna talk about that, Reuben?
RS: So, wood foundations are not common in Minnesota. I wanna say, surely less than 1% of homes have a permanent wood foundation. But for the ones that do, a lot of them have water problems. And a lot of the time people don’t even know that they have a permanent wood foundation. They’ll fill out the disclosure form, and they’ll check the box for concrete foundation or poured concrete foundation, and it’s not, it’s wood. They just don’t even know. And so, it’s kind of a big deal if you got one of those, ’cause if you do, you’re gonna wanna have specialized testing done to make sure that you haven’t had water intrusion, and that things aren’t bowing in and everything is still plumb and level and dry. That’s surely the biggest concern with permanent wood foundations. And I’m not saying this to say you shouldn’t buy one of these houses, but if you’re gonna buy one, you definitely want a specialized inspection on it.
TM: Yeah… The concern is exactly what it sounds like, you’re putting wood and you’re burying it in wet soil, and that’s what’s holding up your house. So, if that wood gets wet, you can imagine major structural concerns and a lot of money to repair that.
TM: Another thing to look for too is, in-slab ductwork. And I know we’ve talked about this on the podcast before…
TM: A lot of people use the term… They confuse the term Transite ductwork with in-slab ductwork. And Transite ductwork is, specifically, talking about an asbestos-type of ductwork. And there are ducts in slabs that are made of Transite material, but not all of them. And so, we’re really careful to not call something Transite ductwork if it’s not. A lot of times we’ll see PVC or plastic, or maybe metal or there’s other materials out there, too. But…
TM: Yes, cardboard… What is that called?
TM: Sonotube, yeah.
TM: Sonotube… I can’t believe they used cardboard and concrete, and then… Oh, my gosh. Anyways…
RS: It’s nuts.
TM: Yeah, that would be a huge red flag. But any time you’ve got ductwork in a slab, there’s a potential for moisture building up in that slab, either through condensation or through moisture coming through the slab itself… And basically flooding that ductwork. And so, what we like to do as inspectors, is pop off a floor grate, a register cover, and take a look inside that ductwork with a flashlight. So, we’re looking for any lines or staining that water would have left behind, if it’s sat in that ductwork and then dried. Or sediment or sand, or silt that’s been left behind from that standing water, too. And usually, I would say… Probably more than half of the time, you will find some signs that that duct has had water standing in it.
RS: Yeah. Yeah, completely agree. And just to be clear, so you say, you know what Tess is talking about when she says in-slab ducts or sub-slab ducts. Basically, if you go down in a basement, or you’ve got a slab-on-grade home and you look at the concrete floor that covers the dirt, and you’ve got heat registers coming out of there, it means you’ve got sub-slab ductwork.
TM: Yes, thanks for your clarifying that. Yep.
RS: That’s your tell. Yep. So, it’s a concern that there’s water in there. If it’s all been dry and there’s no signs of problems, fine, you don’t need to do anything.
TM: Yeah. And I mean, the solution for that, if you do have in-slab ductwork, you try to correct the water management issues on the exterior of the house. But we’ve seen plenty of houses where they’ve done that, and they still have a problem. And so, the reason we’re talking about that now as a potential big red flag, is because it could mean… The solution could be moving that ductwork up into the finished space of the house, relocating it.
TM: And as you can imagine, that’s not gonna be cheap.
RS: No, no. There’s a lot involved in that. Yeah.
TM: Yeah. Unless you’re okay with the air that you’re breathing, running through moldy nasty water.
RS: Nobody’s okay with that, Tess.
RS: Hey, built-in humidifier. Yay!
TM: Built-in humidifier… We could make a collage of just all of the disgusting things we find in-slab ductwork, right?
RS: Oh, I’ve got one. Yeah, absolutely.
TM: Mice, bugs, spiders…
TM: Anyways. Okay. Yeah. People get the point… And sub-ductwork can have some problems with it.
RS: Yeah. So moving on, we’ll talk about plumbing a little bit. And for plumbing, it’s a little bit easier when you’re buying a relatively new home, we don’t find a lot of problems with plumbing, it’s more of an older house thing. And the stuff to really look out for is galvanized water distribution pipes. Those are the pipes throughout the inside of the house and galvanized drains. Both of those can lead to kind of expensive problems, and they were using galvanized pipes up until around 1960 or so. There was kind of a transition period between about 1950 and 1960 where they started using other materials. If it’s before 1950, it’s almost a guarantee, you’re gonna have galvanized drains and galvanized distribution pipes, unless someone has taken the time to go through and replace them. And the problem with those is that they corrode on the inside, the diameter gets smaller and smaller, and it means that your drains just don’t drain, or if somebody has been trying to fix it the wrong way, they’ve been pouring acid down their drains. Or, excuse me, dreno down their drains and they’ve been ruining their drains or with distribution pipes, the concern was that you get less and less water flow to the point where you can’t do two things at the same time.
TM: Like you can’t shower and have your dishwasher running at the same time, or?
RS: Yeah, yeah. Or do laundry, and what do we do for home inspections? This is not a big deal to do, it’s just turn on a high flow fixture, turn on the laundry faucet in the basement, and then try turning something on at the highest level of the home and make sure that you still have acceptable water flow. Anybody can do that, you don’t need to be a home inspector to do that simple little test.
TM: That is such a good tip. Yeah, if you’re buying a house, 1960 or earlier, we encourage you to do that little simple test. Turn on a fixture in the lower part of the house and then run upstairs and turn on a shower or something like that. And then worst-case scenario, we’ve come across is a lot in older houses that have that original plumbing where you turn on the shower and nothing comes out, or just a few drops of water come out.
RS: Yeah, and it could also indicate a problem with your water main, what’s coming in from the street into the house, I think we just recently did a podcast about that. And the problems are with either galvanized steel or with lead, those can lead to poor water flow and also with lead, you got a concern over the drinking water quality.
TM: Yeah. Yeah. So that’s another potential red flag. If you’re buying a house that has original water supply line that’s galvanized or lead, that would be found in a house that’s what, 1920s and earlier in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. There’s a chance it’s original unless someone has replaced it, which is expensive, but can happen. You can also check with the Water Works Department, right, Reuben? And for historical records on the property to see if that water supply lines ever been replaced by a previous owner.
RS: Yeah, it depends on the city. If you’re in Minneapolis, you gotta give them a call, if you’re in the city of Saint Paul, they have a look-up feature. This is a fairly new thing and you can search right online, and it tells you what type of plumbing they have, bringing water into the house. Super helpful information.
TM: Yes. That’s a great tip. I was gonna say back to the galvanized… Someone’s wondering what that looks like. I know you’ve written several blogs about galvanized water distribution pipes and drain pipes, people can Google that, find the blogs, read about it more. But if you’re just… If someone is looking for quick tips on how to identify it, how would you describe it?
RS: I’d say for the piping coming in, it’s gonna be the stuff coming up from the floor, what you want to see is either copper and hopefully you can figure out copper when you see it or plastic, those are the two modern materials. If it’s something else, it’s gonna either be to be galvanized steel or lead. If it’s galvanized steel, you’ll have a threaded connection, if it’s lead, you will have something called the wiped joint where it looks like it’s this big ball of metal. It’s a big ball of lead. Now, that wiped joint could be installed on copper too, so it’s not a tell-tale sign that you’ve got lead, but it would make you question it at least.
TM: Yeah, and another reason why I like unfinished basements, so you can see what type of plumbing we have in the house, right?
RS: Yeah, yeah, you’re right, you’re right.
TM: Okay, moving on. Drains are another big thing too in sewer lines, and we started offering sewer inspections at Structure Tech. How many years ago was that?
RS: I’d say about six years ago.
TM: Okay, about six years ago. And it’s just blown up. It’s huge now. We do almost 50% of the houses. I get a home inspection, get a sewer inspection.
RS: That’s right.
TM: And we encourage anyone that’s buying a house, old or new, to get their sewer inspected because we found that even new houses have problems with sewer lines. With the plastic during construction, heavy equipment can run over it, and if the dirt is not compacted properly, it can cause damage or dipping or sagging in the pipes too. We’ve got plenty of videos and reports of failed sewer lines in houses that are 10 years older or newer, so we do. We recommend sewer inspections on any aged house?
RS: Yes, yes. And we’re gonna talk a lot more about that in next week’s podcast. We’re gonna have Istvan Zsako on and we’re talking all things sewer inspection. We’ll fill you up on those next week.
TM: That’s awesome.
RS: Little teaser. Alright, so moving on, we’ll talk a little bit about appliances. Probably the best thing you can do for your appliances, like the water heater, the furnace, the air conditioner, is just figure out the age of them. Figure out if they’re really old, that’s the best piece of advice I could give you. I’ll share with you a website that every home inspector in the country either knows about or should know about, and it’s building-center.org, www.building-center.org and they’ve got a very nice site where you type in… You look up the make and some of the model number and they will interpret the age of that appliance for you. Whatever you’re looking at, use this site to help guide you, and if you’re at a house, you’re just not sure, you wanna look it up later, take a picture of the model and the serial number of the data tag and look it up later. That’s the best advice I can give you on appliances.
TM: A lot of times on the water heater, you can just look at the tag, it’s visible, if the water heater is not covered in insulation or blanket or something. But on a furnace, it might be a little bit more difficult, most times the data tag is on the inside of the furnace cover. So if you’re comfortable doing that, can pop off the cover and take a picture of that data tag and then pop the cover back on.
RS: Yeah, good point, Tessa. And most of them you don’t need tools for. Sometimes you have little thumb screws you can take off with your hands, every once in a while, you have furnaces where you actually need a screwdriver. You probably wouldn’t wanna be doing that during a showing.
RS: But for most furnaces, you can easily pop the cover off without any tools.
TM: Yep, and same thing with the AC unit. If the house has central air, look at the data tag on the AC unit on the outside, and sometimes it’s really close to the ground level in the very back, so you might need to crawl on your hands and knees and stick your head underneath it to look, but you can usually pull that off of the unit pretty easily too.
RS: Yeah, and it is rare that units do not have a data tag. I’ve done many a home inspection where I’m training a new inspector and they come back to me and say, This one doesn’t have a data tag. I looked all over, it doesn’t have one and I go, let’s take another look, and I always find it. It’s like you just gotta get down on your knees, you got to look a little bit harder.
TM: You gotta get in the most awkward, inconvenient posture possible and you’ll find it.
RS: Yes. Yes, exactly. Alright, moving on, we’ll talk a little bit about electrical. And now I mean, there’s so much that can go wrong for electrical, but we’re really looking for the big stuff, so there’s a handful of big expensive things that we’re looking for. What’s…
TM: Oh. I’m sorry to interrupt you. But Reuben, what should we tell people is a concern, like a red flag in terms of age for appliances, ’cause they’re gonna get the age, but then they’re gonna say, “Well, what does that mean?”
RS: Oh. Yeah, yeah, yeah, good point. Alright, for water heaters, I’d say, it really depends on where you are. I mean, if you’re in Bloomington you might have a water heater last 30 years, if you’re where I live in Maple Grove, maybe seven years.
RS: Seven, yeah. So it’s really dependent upon the water quality where you live, but I mean, on average, we go with about 10 years is a good life for a water heater, maybe 15 is really pushing it.
TM: And we’re talking about just like a standard tank water heater like…
RS: You got it.
TM: Yeah, we’re not talking about the really big tanks, 100 gallons, and we’re not talking about on-demand water heaters or anything like that.
RS: Yup, yup. Just your traditional tank water heater. And then for furnaces, air conditioners somewhere around 15 to 20 years is a good life. Boilers, you should be able to get at least 30 years out of a boiler.
TM: And that surprises some people like boilers, 30 years. A lot of times you see boilers that are much older than that.
TM: In general, 30 years is kind of the average life expectancy.
TM: Okay. Sorry, I just wanted to throw that out there for people…
RS: No, thank you. Thank you.
TM: That are looking at their appliances and wondering, “Okay, well, what’s expected out of this?” Okay, so you were moving on to the electrical aspect here. What were we gonna talk about with electrical red flags?
RS: First, let’s talk about the couple of the bad panels. One of them is buying a house that has a Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok panel or FPE. Those are bad panels, they start fires, the breakers don’t trip when they should, they should all be replaced, so you’d be looking at the main electric panel and you’d be looking for the letters FPE or Federal Pacific Electric or Stab-Lok. Any of those words means you got a panel that ought to be replaced and it’s probably gonna cost a couple of thousand bucks to have an electrician come in and swap it out.
TM: Yeah, and what each house are you most likely to find these panels in?
RS: I dug through the last 100 panels that we’ve found at Structure Tech, and out of all of them, it looks like we had 79 of those 100 were in houses built in the ’70s and ’80s.
TM: Okay, wow.
RS: So that’s really where you’ll find most most of ’em, ’70s and ’80s is where you’ll find Stab-Loks.
TM: Yep, and maybe if you’ve got a much older house and someone replaced an old panel with something in the ’70s, then you could find it in a really old house potentially, but…
RS: Yup, yup, exactly. And then another brand of panel that you wanna look out for is one called Zinsco or Sylvania, and this is one where you’ve got a bunch of really thin breakers stacked on top of each other, and they usually have colorful, colorful handles, like you’ll have green and blue…
RS: And red. Yeah. Zinsco or Sylvania, those are bad panels too. Those should always be replaced.
TM: And we’re not gonna talk about challenger panels today. Are we, Reuben? You already did talk about saving that. Okay.
RS: We are not talking about challenger. What I will say for the Ts is that we have no stinking problem with those.
TM: Okay. I know you really feel. Yeah.
RS: Oh, I’m whipped up about these tests, I am whipped up. [chuckle] I’m telling you, but we’ll come back to that later.
TM: Okay. Well, I know there’s a few things that we look for to in terms of just like wiring in houses that could be a potential red flag, and you’re showing a picture right here, we can see it of knob and tube wiring, and knob and tube is kinda the first generation wiring, and we’ve seen it in houses up until 1920s. I think the oldest house I’ve ever seen it in was like 19… Like late 1920s. I haven’t seen anything older than that. Have you? Have you seen it in houses in the ’30s or ’40s?
RS: Yeah. I think you can have ’30s and ’40s. It’s not as common, definitely not as common, but it could be. Yeah.
TM: Okay. Yeah, so that’s something to look out for. And you identify that knob and tube wiring by… Well, the look of it, you’ve got porcelain knobs, white knobs, and then you’ve got this cloth thick kind of black wiring too as well. And so a lot of times, if we’re in a basement, it’s unfinished, that’s a good place to start looking for that knob and tube wiring. And the problem with knob and tube is that over time, this system, it’s not designed to handle the kind of the loads that we have today, and you can’t update this type of system with GFCI outlets or anything like that. There’s no ground wire, just a two-wire system, and so that in general, is one of the concerns, but another thing is too, if that cloth insulation disintegrates or comes off the wire, then you’re left with these bare wires that if you touch them, you could get shocked or electrocuted. And they’re meant to be free air to not be buried in insulation or touching anything, and so a lot of times when we go into a house that’s a 100 years old and has the original knob and tube wiring, it’s been modified somehow, it’s been spliced together with Romex or it’s been buried in insulation in the attic, and those are reasons for concern. Those are potential fire hazards.
RS: Yeah, and besides all of that, insurance companies hate it. We did a survey a couple of years ago asking probably about 30 insurance companies, “Will you insure a home with knob and tube wiring?” And most of them just flat out said, “No, we will not insure it.” so that could be a big concern too.
TM: Yo, I’m wondering what in the real world, what are people with knob and tube wiring doing then, because there are so many houses in the Twin Cities that still have knob and tube in use in some portion of their house.
RS: The insurance company doesn’t know it. That’s what it comes down to.
TM: Yeah. Okay.
RS: I’m sure of it.
TM: Yep. Yeah, there really are a lot of houses in the Twin Cities that do have knob and tube style.
RS: Yup, yup. And then another type of wiring, probably one of the worst ones that we find, on this one, I’ve got countless photos of scorched and melted wires with… Where you’ve got aluminum branch circuit wiring, and we’re not talking about the wires that go directly from the panel to an appliance, like wires that go to your dryer or air conditioner or things like that, that’s not a branch circuit wiring. We’re talking about the stuff that goes to your outlets, your lights, your switches. If that stuff is aluminum, and they used it from about, I don’t know, 1965 up through about ’75, somewhere in that range. If you’ve got aluminum wiring there, that’s a huge concern, if I’m looking at a house that’s built in that age, it’s one of my biggest concerns, does the house have aluminum wiring? And it’s really tough to figure that out, if you’re really lucky, you may be able to look down at the main electric panel, and you might be able to see some wires coming out that are labeled aluminum, it actually says aluminum on the wires, short of that, really, the only way you’re gonna figure it out is by having the panel cover removed. So there’s not much you can do during a showing to figure out whether or not you’ve got aluminum wiring.
TM: I think the biggest thing is if you’re just buying a house from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s or even late 70s, I’ve seen a house with aluminum branch circuit wiring, that was like 1978, just be aware that that could be present, and I think it’s a reason to have either electrician or home inspector come in to verify that.
TM: You might have mentioned this, but did you say how much of a risk it is for fire with aluminum?
RS: It’s probably the biggest thing that we see when it comes to electrical, I don’t know of a bigger concern. I just… We’ve got so many photos of problems, Federal Pacific Stab-Lok panels. The concern as those things start on fire or wire start on fire, I don’t have a huge library of photos of melted bus bars and melted breakers, but I do have that when it comes to aluminum wiring.
TM: Yeah, yeah, I think… Wasn’t there some research that was done, was it Franklin Research Institute or something? That said basically like aluminum branch circuit wiring is 55 times more likely to catch fire than your copper, your standard copper.
RS: You know your statistics, Tessa, yeah.
TM: Well, that’s because you’ve taught me well, Reuben. Well, and it’s in those classes we teach for real estate agents, we share that information with real estate agents so that they’re aware of helping their clients with what they’re buying and looking for these potential… These problems, so yeah, it’s definitely something to be cautious of, and the double whammy is when you get a Federal Pacific Electric Panel from a house built in 1970 that also has aluminum branch circuit wiring in it.
RS: Oh, no bueno. Yeah.
TM: Not good, not good. Well, there’s another thing to look out for too, what about old fuse panels?
RS: Yeah, that’s another one too. A lot of insurance companies don’t like fuse panels, they’re not inherently unsafe, but most of them, somebody has gone in and made some changes and done something to probably make something unsafe, so we almost always find problems with those, insurance companies don’t like ’em, and you can’t have modern safety devices installed like arc fault circuit breaker, it’s just not an option if the fuse panels, so it’s always a little bit more concerning if you’ve got fuse panels.
TM: We don’t see a bunch of those, but they are around every once in while. Well, okay, so does that cover everything that we’re gonna talk about with electrical red flags?
RS: I think that’s electrical, and really, I think that that was kind of the last topic that we had to talk about for showing red flags…
TM: Oh wow, okay.
RS: There’s other miscellaneous stuff we could get into, but without having photos to show people, that’s really about as good as we can do talking through it. I wanna mention one more time, if you want the full 1.25-hour class with all of the photos, it’s a polished video presentation, you can go to a structuretechce.com and you can download that whole class, it’s like six bucks and some change if you wanna download it. And you don’t need to be a licensed real estate agent, you can type in anything you want under the license number, we would prefer you say not an agent or something like that, so we don’t have to search for your license. And you can buy the whole class. So…
TM: Yeah. Good tip, good tip. And if you have any questions, they can go to… What was it?
RS: Email us email@example.com.
TM: Perfect, hopefully, we hear from you guys with your questions or thoughts, and if you have any suggestions about other podcast topics, feel free to shoot us some ideas.
RS: Yeah. Tessa you wanna close out the show, I know you’ve been dying to.
TM: Okay, alright, here we go. Without Bill, I cannot replace Bill and his little dogs that always accompany him, but you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech podcast production.
RS: Presentation whatever, yeah.
RS: It’s also good too.
TM: You can tell we’re missing Bill here, but this is Tessa Murry with Reuben Saltzman. And thanks for joining us. We’ll catch you next time.