Reuben, Tessa, and Bill discuss what would make for a perfect Minnesota house. They talk about rooflines, water management, siding, basements, heating, and cooling systems. They also talk about an old blog post of Reuben’s, titled Boilers vs. Furnaces.
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: If I could just design my dream house, what’s that gonna look like?
Bill Oelrich: Sure. Through the lens of a home inspector yes, yes.
RS: Sure. Number one, I think for me and Tessa, we’ve talked about this. There’s gonna be water management, right?
Tessa Murry: I was just thinking that.
RS: Yeah, it’s making sure that all of the water that comes down and hits the roof gets carried well away from the house, and in a perfect world, all of those walls are gonna stay bone dry even during a hard pouring rain. In my world, that’s perfect.
BO: Welcome to Structure Talk. Today, we’re gonna venture away from the technical building science part of this conversation, and we’re just gonna dig into the perfect house in the eyes of a home inspector. What does it look like? What makes you go “yes” when you walk in?
RS: And so when you say perfect house, you’re thinking, “What would I want?” Right, if I could just design my dream house, what’s that gonna look like?
BO: Sure. Through the lens of a home inspector, yes, yes.
RS: Sure. Number one, I think for me and Tessa, we’ve talked about this, it is gonna be water management, right?
TM: I was just thinking that.
RS: Yeah, it’s making sure that all of the water that comes down and hits the roof gets carried well away from the house, and in a perfect world, all of those walls are gonna stay bone dry even during a hard pouring rain. In my world, that’s perfect. And it means, ideally, you don’t have a single valley on that roof. You have a super basic roof design. It’s a hip roof, all ridges, no valleys. That’s a perfect roof. And you have huge overhangs, right?
TM: Mm-hmm, yes. You know what’s really funny about that, Reuben? Driving around a lot of new construction developments, you know what we see all the time?
RS: The opposite?
TM: Yes. Yep, we see the opposite. It seems like it’s the style now to add these little gables on the front of a house.
RS: It’s called gable-itis.
TM: Gable-itis, thank you, to add a little bit more architectural interest, but what does that do for water management?
RS: And just for anybody who doesn’t know what a gable is, it’s a triangle.
TM: Thank you, yeah.
RS: A useless triangle.
TM: But it’s pretty.
RS: Yeah, yeah.
BO: There are neighborhoods that you can go to in some of the first ring suburbs, where it’s just hip after hip after hip after hip, and there’s two-and-a-half, three-foot overhangs and you’re like…
RS: Yeah, that was really smart. They had it dialed in then.
BO: They weren’t worried about aesthetics. Okay, so you manage the water, life’s great. Now what?
RS: Well, and the other stuff for managing the water, not only that. Have big overhangs, but gutters. Gutters take all that water away. Instead of all the water running off the roof and then sitting next to the house, you have gutters, down-spouts, down-spout extensions taking that water way out into the yard. And then think about where those down-spout extensions are gonna terminate. If you take all of the water from the front half of the house and then you shoot it out into the front yard a little bit, and then it just soaks into the ground, where’s that water gonna go? Is it gonna come down into your basement? Where are you gonna put your down-spout extensions? Does it have to pass over a walkway? If it does, then somebody should have thought about that ahead of time. So planning all of this stuff when a house is built, that’s a good idea.
TM: And grading, you didn’t talk about grading.
RS: Oh my goodness, grading. Yeah, yeah, once it does get down to the ground, where does it go?
BO: I kinda like to see when the foundation sticks out a little bit. It gives you a little wiggle room, right? Maybe a block and a half is visible and you’re not challenging Mother Nature and…
RS: Totally agree. Yeah, having the foundation stick up above the ground for a couple of courses, maybe. Yeah, and today, it’s probably gonna be a poured concrete foundation. We’re not gonna have concrete courses, but whatever, having it stick up.
BO: Yeah, you see that a lot in some of these city houses, though. What do they call them, the four squares, where there’s two and a half blocks sticking out of the ground, so pull out a number.
TM: The opposite of that is when you have an older house and it looks like it’s getting eaten up by the surrounding grade and it’s sinking below ground, right?
BO: Yeah. The house isn’t sinking, just the grade is.
TM: The grade has been piled up and piled up and piled up next to that house, and now their wall framing is actually below ground level.
RS: Yeah. When you say wall framing, you’re talking about the wood that sits on top of the foundation wall. It’s such a challenge when you inspect these houses, ’cause you’re like, what do you tell people? You can’t tell them to easily re-grade. What are you gonna do, dump dirt up against the house and now bury the wood? Well, no, that’s a sure recipe for rot. If you leave it alone and let water just leak in your basement, you gotta do something. Those are challenging to describe.
BO: All right, so we’re managing water, that’s all cool. Drainage and grading is great, overhangs, good roof line, love it. What do you recommend for siding?
RS: Personally, nothing’s gonna outperform vinyl. It’s a fantastic product. It’s not a very good-looking product, I’ll admit that, and I see somebody who has had a vinyl-sided house, it doesn’t look great, but nothing’s gonna outperform that when it comes to water management. Vinyl is just a rain screen. It’s a first layer, and it protects the waterproof barrier behind it, and if it gets damaged, you just slip out a piece of vinyl and you pop a new piece in. It’s a great product, but as far as looks, I would much prefer something like James…
TM: LP or James Hardie or, yeah.
RS: Exactly, yeah, LP SmartSide or James Hardie, yeah.
BO: Not the old clapboard?
RS: That you have to paint every other year?
BO: That’s what homeowners do. We’re supposed to get out there on a ladder and maintain, let’s go.
RS: It sounds like a lot of fun.
TM: No thanks. You were probably gonna say this, Reuben, but the one type of siding that would make me a little bit nervous is newer stucco, and also with that, stone veneer.
RS: Yeah, lumpy stucco.
TM: Lumpy stucco.
RS: Well, you see a lot of stone siding today. It’s a gorgeous product, whether it’s all different flavors of it. And really, it’s stucco. Think of it as stucco. It’s the same thing, it has a little bit different look. It’s these concrete chunks that get stuck on the wall, but it performs exactly like stucco does. All the problems that we had with stucco on homes built about 1990 and newer, we’re having all of the exact same issues with stone veneer. But we should save this talk ’cause this is gonna be like a full podcast episode.
BO: Okay, we promised that we weren’t gonna do anything technical, we were just gonna talk about all the great things that we’d love to see in a house. But Reuben, I need you to explain just a little bit more about bumpy stucco and newer stucco just to contextualize it for everybody who’s listening.
RS: Sure. What it comes down to is, there was a lot of changes that started happening with buildings right around 1990 or so. And it was a lot of changes that happened at once. If it had been one change, like we simply added an air barrier at the wall, we might not have had all these problems that we had. If it had just been the stucco formula change, probably would have been okay. But we did, probably about five or six changes all at the same time, and houses started to rot out. Water would get in behind the stucco. Water wouldn’t come back out. Walls would stay wet for a really long period of time, and then you’d have mushrooms growing on to your walls and they’d have to tear stucco off of entire faces of walls, to the tune of, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars… Serious problems.
BO: When we drill into that, that’s gonna be a great podcast and we’ll go deep dive on that.
RS: So we’re talking about siding. Tessa, what would be your siding preference?
TM: Kinda like you said, vinyl, you just can’t outperform vinyl. I think it’s great. It’s cheap, it’s easy to replace pieces… It’s…
BO: It’s inexpensive.
TM: Thank you, Bill.
TM: It’s inexpensive. But…
RS: It’s cheap too, Bill, who are you kidding. I’m just kidding.
TM: I think the look of LP, in my opinion, is really nice.
RS: Yeah, I do like it too.
BO: There’s something classic about the overlapping siding.
BO: I like it too.
RS: I like the look of wood but I’ll tell you this… I’ve mentioned this house I used to have in Minneapolis. I had… What was it… It was redwood. So expensive wood…
RS: Very durable and wouldn’t hold paint to save its life. Oh my gosh, that thing would peel.
TM: Did you have to fight the woodpeckers on that, too?
RS: No, I didn’t have woodpeckers.
RS: Thank goodness.
RS: But I’ve got a friend who’s a painter and we took this thing, we scraped it down to bare wood all over. We took the stuff that was… It was basically like Elmer’s glue or whatever this stuff was. And we… It was super thick. We rolled it all on, guaranteed to fix all of my paint issues. And then we painted it and it was probably about a year and a half later, paint started peeling again.
BO: Do you think you had a moisture problem going on inside that house?
RS: No. It’s because the wood never should have been painted. And there was no…
BO: Just stained? Sealed? What are you supposed to do?
RS: Yeah, yeah. That’s it. As soon as they started insulating walls, people started having these problems. I don’t like wood siding. I’ve had bad experiences with it. If people just stain it, yeah great. But if you paint it, boy, you can have problems.
BO: One thing we didn’t talk about was windows. And I know as a home inspector, I always loved seeing the classic double hung windows. They’re durable, there’s a screen on the outside, kinda deflects some of the water. And so, I always like to see double hangs myself. Some of the newer casements seem to… Had aluminium clad over the top of them. Some of them seem to have leakage problems and things of that nature but double hung seem to stand up to the test of time. You have any preferences window wise?
RS: I don’t. Personally, I do like the fact on a casement or a crank out window, you get the whole opening is openable area, you only get half of that on a double hung, but whatever. I like them both.
TM: I don’t have a preference on windows either.
RS: One thing that I would not get if I were building my dream house would be a room above a garage.
TM: Mm-hmm. Amen.
RS: And… They’re great. It’s wonderful. I like the idea of it, but what always ends up happening is the same thing you have on a one and a half story home. You’ve got six surfaces. You got front and back walls, two side walls, the ceiling and the floor. Those are six surfaces, your cube. You’ve got one of those that is touching a heated space. The other five, unheated. What does this create, Tess?
TM: Yeah, comfort issues.
RS: Yes, yeah. Those are gonna be bonus spaces.
BO: But it’s the bonus room? Who cares?
TM: Oh, so many people complain about their bonus room being cold in the winter, uncomfortable…
RS: Yeah. The short answer to your question, Bill, home owners.
TM: Home owners…
RS: That’s who cares.
TM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RS: And we know this from hearing all the complaints. It’s almost impossible to keep those things comfortable.
TM: Very small.
RS: At least when you got hot and cold days.
TM: And for those homes that have plumbing that runs through those tuck under garage areas, or bathrooms that are located, I’m sorry… Especially in our cold climate.
BO: One or the more challenging homes that I inspected was… For some reason, they had a pipe, a supply pipe ran right through the garage, that was not heated. I have no idea what they were thinking about doing, but it was there and it had been repaired ’cause it had broken…
BO: You could see where it was once [12:15] ____ together. Yeah.
TM: Frozen and burst, yeah. Well, we talked about storey and a half houses last time. If I see a storey and a half house… Well, there’s no way I would buy a storey and a half house, knowing what I know as a building scientist.
TM: I’m sorry, Bill. I would just walk away from that.
BO: Enjoy your outer rings suburban home. That’s all I’ll say.
TM: You know what, I would be happy with a ranch, a rambler, 1950s, 1960s rambler, or a two storey house that has a flat attic. Any type of house that has a simple easy design, a square box, it’s gonna improve comfort issues, reduce cost for HVAC, roof, siding, all that for a simple design, yeah, it looks ugly, but it’s functional. And also, the attic spaces are accessible and so you can do good air sealing insulation work as well. So for me, it would be a very simple house. It would be a easily accessible attic, one flat attic…
RS: How about the basement. What would you have in the basement?
RS: Would you finish it?
TM: That’s a great question, Reuben. You know what, if I was picking my dream lot and it was sandy soil on a hill and I had a poured concrete foundation that had waterproofing on the exterior, which is required by code, and insulation on the exterior rigid foam and drainage underneath the slab and insulation underneath the slab, I think I might finish it.
RS: Maybe. You can’t… It’s all this maybe…
TM: And there would be drain tile… There would be a drain tile system and a sump basket and sump pump, I think I might feel comfortable finishing that basement.
RS: Now would it have to be a walk out?
TM: That would be nice. Yes, I would like a walk out basement as well.
RS: Okay. I love walk outs.
TM: I do too.
RS: For me, I almost have to have to have a walk out.
TM: It doesn’t feel like a basement anymore when you can walk out.
RS: Yeah, it’s not nearly as bad. You got a lot of light coming in. It’s… You can have the deck easily put above it, you get shelter there, I love that. So for me, I love the idea of a walk out, for sure.
TM: The opposite of my ideal basement, a lot of these sandy limestone 1900s foundations with poor water management and they’re just starting to crumble.
RS: Oh yeah.
TM: I’m sure you’ve seen those.
RS: And every time you kinda wipe your hand against the wall, you get a…
TM: It just disintegrates. Yeah.
RS: Bunch of the wall coming down with it. Yeah.
BO: I call that the root cellar.
RS: Yeah, but then people finish them and…
RS: Water ends up making its way through and you get wet basement issues.
BO: Okay Reuben, what do you like to see in a house, mechanical wise?
RS: What I would love is to have that basement and have in-floor heating. That is my perfect home.
TM: That’s nice.
RS: And we’re talking about, you’re gonna have a boiler. And today’s boilers are gonna look a lot different than the old school ones that took up a big chunk of the room. Today, they’re basically mounted on a wall and they’re about the size of a tankless water heater. You almost can’t tell the difference between the two today. That fires up, it heats water, water flows underneath your concrete slab and now your concrete floor is just toasty warm, all throughout the basement. Maybe put carpet on top of it, maybe you put something else on top but it’s warm. Heat’s radiating up. And it might not be like you step on it and your feet are toasty warm, but this is gentle radiant heat. And not having that cold floor just changes the entire environment. Bill, you and I were chatting earlier today about how you were saying, “I set my thermostat at this temperature, yet I still don’t feel comfortable.” And it’s all about what you’re outside walls and your ceiling and your floor’s doing. And if you have a heated floor and you have warm walls, you can actually turn the temperature down and be just as comfortable. So I love in-floor heat. My dream house someday is going to have that.
BO: Have you ever blogged about that?
RS: I’ve mentioned it in a blog post or two but I’ve never blogged specifically on the topic of in-floor heat… Radiant in floor heat.
TM: It’s probably the only topic you haven’t blogged on.
RS: You know what? I take it back, I think I have. I think it was a very long time ago, like 10 years ago.
TM: Of course, of course.
RS: I bet you I can dig that up.
BO: Alright. Can you tell everybody where to find it?
RS: Yeah, Structure Tech blog. If you go to Google, you type in Reuben’s home inspection blog, or the Structure Tech blog, or just home inspection blog, it should the first thing that comes up.
BO: Great. Well, so you’re saying furnaces don’t move the needle for you?
RS: That’s the traditional type of heat and you need some way to make your house comfortable during the summer time. And for air conditioning, it relies on a four stair delivery method. And it would just get basically cost prohibitive to have in-floor heat throughout your entire home plus have an air conditioning system. But, I’ll tell you, if I did do that, I would probably go with a ductless…
TM: Mini Split.
RS: Mini Split. Yeah. Tess, do you get the Journal of Light Construction?
RS: Do you read that?
RS: Oh my Gosh, they have so many articles about those and it’s gotta be the greatest thing since whatever came before it.
TM: I think they’re great. Yeah, yeah.
BO: Okay, so dial it down a little bit for those who are not reading the Journal of Light Construction on a regular basis. What is a mini split and how is it different?
TM: It’s that thing if you go to a hotel, you get this big box on the outside wall and it blows cold air or it blows warm air out of there. That’s basically what it is. It’s one of those devices that gets mounted on your wall, and it’s been pumped full of air.
BO: So are we talking an individual furnace or air conditioner in a separate room all around the house or?
RS: That’s basically it, yeah.
RS: And these things are powerful. They move a lot of air, and you have some type of air delivery method to move that air from one room to the next. But the beauty of these things is that, they get scaled up and down. When you have a traditional system, you turn on… Just about any of the air conditioners out there, it’s full on. It’s like, it’s cold as it can get, instantly, and it’s gonna try to cool the house as fast as it can. It needs to get two degrees cooler, it’ll go hard as fast as it can, and then it shuts off. That’s not an efficient way to do it. You’re not gonna be removing moisture from the air the way that you should. With these systems, they scale down and they’ll run for whatever they’ve figured out they need to run for at, say, 20% capacity. If you only need to drop it down two degrees, they’ll do that over a longer period of time to do proper dehumidification.
RS: And I know we’re getting geeky here, but what it really comes down to is, they create much more comfort and it costs less.
TM: Reduce humidity. Yeah.
BO: So, in-floor heat, it’s not moving any air, a Mini Split is moving air but these are self-contained units. So, how do we make a house, the indoor air quality, good? How do we move that air around because you can’t just breathe the stale air.
TM: Yeah, you need to have some sort of ventilation system in your house for good air quality. And so, the best way to do that is through balanced ventilation. You wanna have air that’s being taken out of the house and new fresh air that’s being brought in. And so, a lot of times, it’s an air-to-air exchanger, it’s a heat recovery ventilator, or energy recovery ventilator that’s in use, but the challenge is making sure that they’re installed properly and that they’re balanced.
RS: Now those, they’re all great for new homes and they’re basically required. But I’ll tell you, Bill, if I were just to have my dream home, and I could do this without any big penalties of bunch of warm air leaking into the attic, this is my dream home. It may never happen, but you know those houses where you have a whole house fan? It’s like a jet engine that’s installed at the ceiling of the highest level of your home, I would love one of those things. I am very much a windows open in my house type person. And if the outdoor temperature is somewhere between about 60 and 90, I want my windows open. I hate turning on my AC. And with these whole house fans, you flip that fan on, making sure that all your windows are open, of course, and it sucks in outdoor air through everything and it’ll cool house down very quickly. Those are the greatest thing ever. I would love to have one of those. The only problem is that, it’s really tough to put that on your ceiling and insulate it properly in the winter and make sure that it’s totally air-tight. With all that, it’s almost like, yeah, maybe I wouldn’t have one.
TM: Maybe in a different climate, you could have that, it would work better.
RS: Yeah, but boy, I don’t think I’ve talked to a single homeowner who has one, who doesn’t love it. Everybody loves these whole house fans, seriously. Tess, what do you think about them?
TM: Yeah, if you like your windows open, yeah.
RS: Oh, that’s right, you don’t. You like it freezing cold.
TM: I like my air conditioning.
RS: I forgot about that.
BO: It’s gonna be like, “Thanks, Grandpa, for the tip.”
RS: I’ll just, I’ll talk to Jay. Jay’s on my side.
TM: Oh my gosh, don’t get me started on what we keep our thermostat set at.
BO: This summer would be like 95% humidity in your house at all times with that thing on.
TM: I know, the humidity is ugh, that’s why I like the AC. I can’t stand the humidity.
BO: There you go, folks, that’s perfection in the eyes of a home inspector. Reuben, any last words before we go?
RS: You know what, one last thought, Bill. I did a quick little search here, and I really did blog about in-floor heating. I did a blog post over 10 years ago titled Boilers versus Furnaces. So if you wanna hear what I had to say on it, 10 years ago, you could check that out. I’m pretty sure I haven’t changed my mind. I’m pretty sure I feel the exact same way. So you go to structuretech1.com, type in boilers versus furnaces. You can read all about it.
BO: Clearly, it’s important that anybody in a real estate transaction consider a home inspection, and it doesn’t matter where the house is in its life cycle. It’s super important that you find a qualified home inspection expert to come out and do a thorough evaluation of the real estate you’re considering.
BO: Thanks for joining us, we’ll catch you next time.
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