It’s official, we’re doing a home inspection podcast. Structure Talk is a podcast about houses, home maintenance, homeownership, buying and selling houses, and of course, home inspections. This podcast is hosted by me, Tessa Murry, and Bill Oelrich.
For our pilot episode, the focus is home inspection Easter eggs. These are hidden defects with houses that take some extra knowledge or investigation to find, and it’s stuff that could be easily missed. Tessa starts out telling the story of a major issue with a lead water line coming into a house. Tessa talks about being looked at suspiciously, being both a young inspector and a female. I can relate to this because I also started out very young. People used to ask me when my dad would be showing up to the inspection! Bill also asks me about the funniest thing I’ve ever found, and then I discuss a major air quality problem found at a new-construction home.
For the record, what I found was a trailer used to support an addition at a home in Hopkins:
You can find this episode and future episodes at the Structure Talk Podcast page.
We’ll have a new episode each week. If you have any topics that you’d like to hear discussed, please leave a comment. Thank you!
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.
Tessa Murry: If I was trapped in an elevator with a real estate agent or a homeowner and they’re like “Why should I get a home inspection? Why does that matter?” What would I say? Well, in the words of Reuben [chuckle] this is coming from the classes we teach to real estate agents for continuing education, you get a home inspection to learn about what you’re buying. To learn about your potential investment and to make an educated decision.
Reuben Saltzman: Yeah, that’s exactly it. You don’t get a home inspection because you wanna negotiate with the seller, you wanna get a better deal on the house. You get a home inspection to know what you’re buying. There are those rare cases where people decide I’m not buying this house because of the inspection but in most cases, you’re just doing it because you wanna be educated and if there is any big stuff, you wanna know about it ahead of time.
RS: So Tessa, tell me, did you find any good Easter eggs lately?
TM: You know what Reuben? As a matter of fact, just today, I inspected a house and I found a great Easter egg. This was a 1925-built house in Minneapolis and I’m checking the water flow at the bathroom at…
RS: Oh, I know where you are going. Okay, go on.
TM: Okay so I turn on the shower, full blast… I go down into the basement, turn on the laundry sink, get the water going, go back upstairs, check the shower and there’s barely any water coming out of the shower head.
TM: So my first thought, let’s check the water pipes in the house. Let’s see if we’ve got some old galvanized steel water pipes somewhere that could be restricting the water flow. All of the pipes had been replaced. They’re all copper in this house.
RS: Okay. You could see it. It was like an unfinished basement. You’ve got access…
TM: Yes. It was in an old unfinished basement, checked all of the water pipes, everything had been replaced. They still had some of the old galvanized steel pipes in place but all the copper lines were there, I could see them. So my next thought was “Well, let’s look at the water main coming into the house.” Well, there was a pit at the front of the house, a dirt pit so I had to kinda dig out some of that dirt to get to the main pipe. It was kinda hard to tell but I scratched some of the dirt off just to look at the pipe and it looks like it was copper, which it was kinda confusing ’cause if it’s copper why…
RS: Yeah, you’re expecting lead or galvanized steel to explain the bad water flow.
RS: Okay, sure.
TM: Yes. So I ended up calling Minneapolis City Waterworks Department.
RS: Did you call 311 or did you call them directly?
TM: It was a 612 number but I got this guy who answered the phone and I explained I needed some records on the house to see if they’d replaced any of the main water supply at any point and he directs me to another number. I get in contact with this guy in Minneapolis, explained the situation and he says “Yeah, it looks like in 1936 they replaced the water supply line from the curb stop into the house with 3 1/4 inch copper pipe.”
RS: [chuckle] Yes.
TM: And I happened to look at the street in front of this house and the fire hydrants were on the other side of the street which tells me the water main goes underneath the street to connect to the city water supply.
RS: Yeah, ’cause you only have one main.
RS: Okay, yeah.
TM: Yeah. So what about the pipe from the curb stop out to the city water main? It goes underneath the street and there’s no record of that being replaced.
TM: So, 1925-built house, it’s gotta be lead or galvanized and the person working at Minneapolis City Water Works said “They use lead in that area.”
RS: Oh my gosh!
TM: So that’s gotta be it.
RS: So that’s it. You got to wrap it up with a nice little bow and it’s all about just making this phone call and knowing the background. Remind me, what’s the age? It’s like 19… Up until 1928, Minneapolis was using galvanized steel and lead exclusively.
RS: And then… Well, it was a transition period up until 1932. Okay, yeah. And then after… Everything after 1932, it’s gonna be copper. We know that.
RS: For St. Paul. It’s similar, right?
TM: I think it’s 1926 they were using lead or galvanized up until that point and then they switched over to copper.
RS: Okay. Basically, if somebody is buying a house and it was built before this time, look into your water pipes.
RS: This is a big deal. Especially if you got poor water flow, you probably have an issue with your water main coming in. Doesn’t matter if you see copper coming up, you don’t know what’s underneath there.
RS: Oh, man. That was a good win. That’s an Easter egg. That is a fantastic one. I love it.
TM: Not the best news for the young buyer though.
RS: No. But I mean, gosh! Once they know this, once you have that information, it’s like you have a lot of power. Now you know why there is no water flow at that upper level shower and you can go back to the seller and say “Hey look. I can’t take a shower if I’m doing laundry and I know you’re cool with it but I’m not cool with it and I know why. My inspector got on the phone with the City Water Works Department, we figured it out and here’s the resolution, it’s gonna be a yard day. We gotta replace the water line… ”
TM: And a street dig.
RS: And a street dig.
TM: It’s a street dig.
RS: Oh my gosh! Yes.
TM: Yep. So how much does that cost?
RS: Well, I don’t know. [chuckle] It’s…
TM: Thousands of dollars. This is…
RS: It’s probably gonna be a five-figure project I would imagine.
TM: Yes, definitely.
RS: For the street dig. If it’s just the yard, it’ll be a four-figure project but oh yeah. Yeah, it’s a good find.
RS: Alright, that’s an awesome Easter egg. I love it.
Bill Oelrich: Thanks, Tessa. That’s awesome. That’s House Forensics 101. Those people got their money’s worth and then some. You stepped in, you played the role of guide very well and now they’re home buyer heroes. They got this all figured out.
RS: Yeah. Not only that but this is the stuff where having a good background knowledge on how these houses are put together, what the city does, all of this, that’s what makes a difference because if you’re just looking for low water flow and you don’t know what’s causing it, you’re just gonna go “Yeah, it’s a problem. I don’t know. Have it checked by somebody else” and the next person’s not gonna know.
RS: But you knew enough to make those calls. That’s what makes a difference when someone’s hiring a home inspector. That’s why it’s so important to hire a good home inspector. We used to have this as a tagline on our website. Not all home inspectors are created equal. There’s a huge difference in the quality of inspectors from company to company and that’s what people pay for.
BO: Well, I’m sure you turned that buyer just completely upside down there and they’re like “Wow!” I think our industry is looked at a bunch of people who have a tremendous amount of experience and if anybody saw you test it, you were the smartest person in the house and they wouldn’t know that you’ve got those volumes and volumes and volumes of knowledge all stored up. It’s amazing, great job. Great find.
TM: So one challenge of being a young woman home inspector, you show up to the home inspection and the buyers are there usually, sometimes the parents of the buyers are there. That’s what happened today and the dad happens to own a large basement finishing company that he sold and he’s there analyzing the house. He’s playing inspector, he’s going through and his daughter is hanging on every word and for the first hour, I didn’t see them because she was following her dad who was inspecting the house and he’s doing his thing, he’s talking about issues with support beams in the basement and all these things and I just let him do his thing and I’m inspecting the house and that’s one challenge, is you show up and no one thinks that you know what you’re talking about.
You’re too young, you’re a woman, what do you know? So, I actually didn’t have this conversation about the water main supply with him. He did his evaluation. The house looked good and then he left. So I’m there alone with his young daughter.
RS: That’s when you could finally get her attention, is after he took off.
TM: That’s when I can get her attention, yep and explain some of the issues with these older houses and how to fix them. It’s just a battle sometimes.
RS: Oh Tessa, I totally get it. Not as bad as you have it but when I first started doing home inspections, I’m a second generation home inspector. My dad’s been doing this forever and when I started doing it, I was young. A lot younger than you are now and just the age thing was a big deal. People would show up and be like “Oh yeah, so when’s your daddy gonna show up to do the home inspection?” I’d be like “I’m doing the home… I am the home inspector” and they kinda look at me like “Oh great, okay,” a little pat on the head.
RS: “Alright, well what are you gonna tell me about the house?” And it’s like I have to work so much harder to overcome that. I don’t get that anymore but I can only imagine it’s gotta be twice as bad being about that age and being female, it’s like you got it twice as bad as I ever had it. I feel you Tessa.
TM: I’ll put on my tool belt, the both double saddle and the thing in the back which makes me about 50 pounds heavier and then people start to take me seriously. But initially they’re like “Who are you and what are you doing here? And where is the inspector?”
BO: And my guess that support beam that was discussed early in the inspection with dad and daughter is way down on the bottom of the list right now.
TM: It’s just gonna be a common report, not even a… Not a significant issue at all.
BO: You know what’s funny is actually everybody on the team knows this, when they first started out and they showed up to do the inspection the first time by themselves and the real estate agent looks at to you and they’re like “You’re not Reuben?” and you’re like, “Yes, we’re not Reuben but we’re trained by Reuben so we have a lot of knowledge and it’s all gonna be okay, just trust me.”
So Reuben, tell me what is the funnest things you have found?
RS: Boy, maybe it was the trailer that was in a basement that they had put their addition on top of. It was like the trailer supported this addition. I’m looking in this crawl space and I’m seeing this wheel, I’m just staring at it. I’m trying to figure out why there’s a wheel that seems to be embedded in concrete. It’s a tire and a wheel, it’s the whole thing and I just stared at it for a long time before I realized that they had this whole edition built on top of the trailer.
BO: This is not for real.
RS: Oh, this is for real.
TM: This is in Minneapolis?
RS: This was in Hopkins.
TM: What? [chuckle]
RS: This was in Hopkins I kid you not. Right off of 11th Street.
TM: Oh my gosh!
RS: Single-family home and that’s what was in the crawl space. I just had to stare for a long time.
TM: A removable addition. A portable addition.
RS: It was buried in concrete. It was made permanent.
RS: But yeah, that was wild. That was one of the funnest things I’ve ever seen. Once it dawned on me what I was looking at.
BO: Did you have to crawl way back in to find that or was it just…
RS: No, you could see it right from the opening.
RS: And I’ll tell you what, we’ve got a picture of it on our website. If you go to our website and you go to the photo section, it’s like our funniest finds or whatever, it’s one of the oldest photos that we have on there. You can see the wheel in that crawl space. Yeah, that was a fun find, yeah.
BO: [chuckle] I’m surprised it’s not like a badge of honor for this particular house. Like each inspectors’ gotta find the wheel, otherwise you failed the test.
RS: Yeah, yeah.
TM: I’m surprised that section of the house is still standing with it being on a trailer.
RS: Well and I’ll tell you what, I didn’t even make a big deal about it. I stood there and stared at it for a long time and I finally went “This ain’t going anywhere, I really don’t have anything to say.” I’ve blogged about this. Talking about calling out foundation problems and it’s so easy for an inexperienced home inspector to just look at something that’s not normal and say “This needs further inspection.” Recommend further evaluation by a qualified blah, blah, blah, fill-in-the-blank and home inspectors…
TM: Structural engineers.
RS: Structural engineer. Yeah, whatever. People are so quick to just punt and not take on the liability of any of this stuff but that’s what’s important about hiring someone who knows what they’re doing. I’m sorry, I’m saying the same thing again but that’s why it’s important to hire somebody who knows what they’re doing ’cause they’re gonna know the difference between this needs an engineer or yeah this is totally crazy, they built an addition on a trailer but it ain’t going anywhere, nobody needs to do anything about it. It’s okay.
BO: Yeah, the aluminum support beams on that trailer are probably gonna carry the load just as well as any wood post, whatever.
RS: Oh, they surely will, yeah. It ain’t going anywhere. I’m fine with it. We talk about fun stuff and the Easter eggs. There’s another one, now this one maybe isn’t quite as fun but this was one of those like drop-the-mic moments where, I’m done with the inspection, let’s go home. [chuckle] We’ve found as much as we could possibly find today.
RS: I was doing a new construction home. It was a one-year warranty inspection and I’ve done a ton in the same neighborhood. It’s like on those deals, you do one home and then all the neighbors say “What happened? Why is the builder coming out here five more times once we’re all year into home ownership. Well we had Structure Tech doing inspection and they found a lot of stuff that was wrong and the builders gotta fix it all. So I’m doing the the 11-month warranty inspection, that’s what we call these and we started out the way we always do.
I talk to the homeowner and say “Hey, what’s going on? What kind of pains you having? What do you wanna get out of this?” And she says “Well I’ve got two main issues. One of them is that I get all this frost build up on the hinges for all of my outside doors during the winter and on the sliding glass door, I get all this frost that builds up on the track and I can’t even open and close the door, it’s just ice shut and I get all this frost that builds up on the hardware, the latch coming into all my doors and it just was way more frost than I think” and so right away, Tess, I know what you’re thinking. What are you thinking?
TM: Well, a few things. What does she keep the humidity at in her house?
RS: Both exactly, that’s exactly what I asked her first question.
TM: She have an Aprilaire?
RS: She does but she keeps it at 30% so that wasn’t the issue.
TM: Okay. The other thing I’m thinking of was this… These are doors on the first floor of the house.
RS: It’s a slab on grade, no basement.
TM: Okay. Okay. Oh, slab on grade.
TM: And the frost is on the inside?
TM: Okay. So we’ve got air leakage happening around these doors.
RS: That’s what I was thinking and she said… That’s what she said and she said “So, the builder agreed to replace the weather stripping.” I don’t wanna get let you get too far ahead because I knew you’d have the exact same thoughts. I check out the weather stripping, it’s fine. It was a cool day, it was like 40 degrees. I take my IR camera, shoot around it. There’s nothing. It’s a normal door. You don’t have weather stripping issues and I told her as much.
RS: I’m like “You could have the builder replace the weather stripping. That ain’t your issue. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if I’m gonna get to the bottom of it but it’s not that so maybe I’ll figure this out before we’re done today. What else is going on?” And she says “Well, I’m concerned that my ERV isn’t working right.” And she knew ERV. She knew the term.
TM: That’s amazing.
BO: ERV equals Energy Recovery Vent?
RS: Energy Recovery Ventilator, also known as air exchanger or if you’re really old school, you might call it a vanEE system or if you don’t know any of that, it’s that big box in your furnace room that hangs from the ceiling and you don’t know what it does.
TM: Or it could be some people say HRV for Heat Recovery Ventilator. HRV, ERV.
RS: I say HRV a lot more. Yeah, yeah. But this…
TM: Yes cause there are more HRVs in our area than ERVs.
RS: Oh, for sure. For sure yeah. But this woman knew the difference. Let me set the background. I think she’s retired and she’s single, living there by herself so the builder probably just assumes this person doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Crazy old lady. That was surely the builder’s picture of her but she had brought this up to the builder. She’s saying “My house is stuffy all the time. It feels stuffy in the winter and I think my ERV isn’t working right ’cause I got to change my filters and I’ve owned these before and the filters always get dirty and these filters are always clean.” And the builder was just like, “We maintain a clean job site, it’s a clean house and all this and that and it’s all installed properly. There’s no problem with any of this.”
And she’s like, “Well, I don’t think it’s right.” They assured her it’s right. They even took her outside, then they showed her the intake and the exhaust terminals and they’re like “Yeah, there’s air coming in and coming out of these, we’re all good. No problems. It sounds good. Well, I’ll check and I’ll make sure that’s working too.”
So I start the inspection in the same way that we start every inspection, we turn everything on. Turn on the ERV, tur on the bath fans, turn on the kitchen fan, clothes dryer, go and verify airflow at everything and just take a quick little lap around the house and take a mental inventory of all this stuff. I didn’t find the ERV intake nor the ERV exhaust and what else do you always have near those two things?
BO: Combustion air.
RS: The combustion air intake, yes. Or in this case, it was all sealed appliances, so it was called the make-up air intake. It’s just that duct that drops down into the furnace room that replaces all the air that leaves when you’re doing things like running your bath fans, your kitchen fan and your clothes dryer. So I couldn’t find terminals for any of those things.
RS: Now, I’ve been to a lot of these units and I know where the terminals are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be at the soffit, right by the back patio door, real close to there so I get up on my ladder and I put my ear up to the soffit. I’m listening.
If anybody else have been looking at this from a distance, they’d go “This guy’s crazy, what is he’s doing?” But I knew what I was listening for, couldn’t hear anything. I’m like “This ain’t working right.” So we go inside and the ERV is running, there’s ducts, the ducts disappear into the attic, who knows where they go from there. You look inside the attic space and all the heat runs are going through the attic, it’s what we call a big old ductopus, where you just got ducts running every which direction. I can’t trace anything down so I don’t know where they’re going but for sure they’re not going to the outside and even with all those fans running on a 40-degree day, we normally turn all that stuff on.
We’ll take the IR camera, you shoot the combustion air or the make-up air intake duct and it’s gonna be about the same temperature as the outdoors, it’ll be 40 degrees. It was 70 degrees. There’s no air coming through there. So what it all comes down to is I was able to wrap up this entire problem with a neat little bow and just say, “There it is, here’s your problem. The builder did not bring the ducts for the ERV to the outside and they didn’t bring the combustion air duct to the outside. I don’t know where they’re going, but they can’t go into the outdoors.”
And so now in the dead of winter, when you’re running all your exhaust appliances, that’s removing air from the home, how does the air get replaced? It leaks in around your hinges, it leaks in around your hardware, it leaks in around your sliding glass door and then you get frost accumulating there. This is why you have all the frost, all the moisture accumulating and this is why your house feels stuffy. This is why your filters are clean all the time and oh, let’s come back. What did the builders show you? Was the intake and exhaust.”
TM: I was gonna ask you that, exactly.
RS: “Yeah, what were they pointing at?” Oh she shows me, we go outside and she points at them. The builder is showing her the clothes dryer exhaust on the roof and the bath fan exhaust on the roof.
So, he’s just lying to her. I don’t know if he’s lying. Either…
TM: Just didn’t know, maybe.
RS: Yeah. I won’t say he was lying. Maybe he was just…
RS: Well, yeah, I won’t say what he was but he was wrong.
TM: Yeah, yeah.
RS: That much was for sure and so this right there, my goodness, there is value in having every house inspected whether it is brand new or not and people will say “Well, even if the builder does screw stuff up, even if they make mistakes, they’ve got a one-year warranty.” So even if there is stuff that’s done wrong, they’ll fix it within the first year. We’ll find out about it. I’m sorry but no you won’t.
RS: The builder will lie to you and this isn’t in every case but builders, I’ve been personally involved where the builder lies to people and the people they sent out just simply don’t know any better. The whole point here is there’s a lot of value in having a home inspected whether it’s brand new or not.
BO: So now we’re back to Building Forensic.
RS: That’s it.
TM: That was Building Forensics, yes.
BO: That’s amazing story. Did you get a hug?
RS: I never got a hug. I wasn’t gunning for that but I’ll tell you, another just small world thing. I end up talking with this woman and I see a little sticker on her car that says “Asheville.” I’m like “Oh, Asheville, what’s that all about?” She’s like “Oh yeah, well I’m gonna end up going back there. I’m not… This isn’t my home forever. I’ll probably be moving back there in another five years or something like that.” I said, “Well, whenever you do, I know a great home inspector out in Asheville. His name is Greg, Greg Schmidt.”
Were you guys around when Greg was part of our team.
RS: You guys weren’t, alright. Well, Greg’s an awesome guy. He’s the only home inspector who has ever gone through training at our team and is no longer a part of Structure Tech and it’s because they moved. They moved across the country and he wanted to stay on board with Structure Tech but I just kinda said, “It’s not gonna work. I can’t franchise in Asheville.”
So I said “I know a great home inspector” and she said “Oh no, that’s okay. I already have a great home inspector. I had bought a house in Asheville, probably about four or five years ago and I found an awesome guy and actually he had just moved here from Minnesota.”
I said “Wait a minute. How long ago and he just moved from Minnesota? His name was Greg Schmidt, wasn’t it?” And she’s like “It might have been.” and she had to pull up his report and sure enough it’s him.
RS: I’m like wow! That is an awesome small world thing.
TM: Small world.
RS: Pretty awesome.
BO: Very cool.
RS: So we had a good connection even if we didn’t hug. [laughter]
BO: Thanks Reuben, Tess. This was great. We looked at both ends of this spectrum today. Brand new houses, we talked about old houses. Clearly, it’s important that anybody in a real estate transaction consider a home inspection.
It’s super important that you find up qualified home inspection expert to come out and do a thorough evaluation of the real estate you’re considering. Thanks for joining us, we’ll catch you next time.
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