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Inspecting a Home Without an Inspector

Scott is an award-winning professional educator with almost 25 years of experience.

Water heater overflow draining to a bucket

Water heater overflow draining to a bucket

DIY Home Inspection

If I am buying a home for my family I always hire a professional home inspection company and get a professional to handle that inspection. I have flipped several homes and am experienced at doing major home improvement projects and renovations. In some instances, because of my skills, I will also conduct a home inspection to find things that a home inspector may not. Home inspectors typically have a waiver that makes it so they are not responsible if they miss a major issue in a home. Even though this is true, I think that home inspectors are a great value for the average person. Years ago, I purchased a home in Washington state with a guest house. The guest house was an old farmhouse on the property, and it was cleared on inspection and on a separate pest inspection.

A year after moving in, my mother-in-law was coming to stay with us, and was going to live in that guest house. I made a fateful decision and decided to renovate it. The interior wall were covered with dark fake wood paneling from the 1970s, and when I attempted to peel this off, it damaged the drywall, which turned out to be lath and plaster. When doing this now compete gutting, I found partial installations of existing knob and tube electrical wiring, a huge potential fire issue. Next, as a bonus I discovered active infestations of wood-destroying carpenter ants. The inspectors did not see this, and for good reason, it was all inside of walls, and it was difficult to find. This cost me quite a bit of money to fix, as large amounts of framing had to be replaced, along with all of that old outdated cloth coated electrical wire. That wiring was normal to the period that the farmhouse was constructed in, but at every visible point, all you could see was modern wiring. They had spliced it inside of walls and behind the outlets. These are huge code violations, but it could have happened 20 years before.

Luckily, the price was right on the purchase, and I could afford to do the fixes that would make this a much more desirable property.

An old water heater vent that is not capped.

An old water heater vent that is not capped.

What to Look For

There is really no limit to the possible issues you might find in a home. If it is an old home, start by checking the level of floors, and walls. Check doorways and hallways to make certain they are square. Houses settle and frames get racked. This can be a huge expense to repair and may not even be feasible. It can cause all sorts of structural issues that may get worse with time.

When I was in my 20's I bought a mountain cabin near Lake Arrowhead for $37,000. It was 1200 square feet and was built in 1947. I bought it as a total wreck from an investor, who had bought up a great deal of the local property for resale. I had a two-year balloon payment on a monthly payment of $320.00. The house was severely racked. The back of the house, where the kitchen was, had dropped about 4 inches as the foundation footing had settled. I knew this was an issue when I bought the cabin. I DIY fixed this by getting (six) five-ton hydraulic jacks from Harbor Freight. I dug out the footing all around the back of the house, and dug a trench to give me access. I stockpiled about 120 bags of ready mix concrete, under a tarp, ready to be hand-mixed for this job. I dug 5 locations under the concrete footing with pockets to set my jacks into place. Realize that there was a solid gas line running under the crawl space to the oven on the back wall. I turned off the gas for this project, luckily.

Once I was set and was ready to go, and I got a friend to come and help me the house lifting began. It rose very easy on the five jacks and I lifted it, slowly watching for issues with windows. I raised it 4 1/2 inches, knowing it would settle some on the new footing. We left the "sacrificial jacks" in place and proceeded to hand mix 10,000 pounds of concrete and formed a new, much wider footing, under the old existing foundation and footing. At the end of the project, it was perfect. Definitely, this paper napkin engineered project would have been a problem for an inspector, but I never planned to sell this cabin. I knew it would be a great rental property, and it was. I built a nice back deck to cover all of the creative work that was done and it looked great. Unfortunately, that house burned down a few years later in an unrelated forest fire. I had just had it appraised at almost $200,000, and it was renting for $800 per month. An inspector would have never told me to buy this cabin, but it was the best investment I ever made, and I am sad that it is gone.

Some of the Basics

Water damage is also a tremendous issue in homes. If you are doing your own inspections, get a long reach camera that can look behind appliances and under cabinets. Also, get a moisture meter. You need to know if there is water damage. Water damage is a good indicator that there is mold, and this will mean that expensive mitigation is needed. This can get very costly and if the owner knows that they have water damage, then it should be in the disclosures.

Check all of the electrical outlets in the home. You can buy an inexpensive test unit for a few dollars. With this unit, test all of the outlets near water, for working ground fault circuit interrupters, (GFCI). GFCI outlets are required near sinks, and bathtubs because they shut off electricity very quickly in the event of a short. If there is a swimming pool, get an electrical contractor to check the grounds, breakers, and all of the electrical systems. Old pools almost always have issues with this and an error here can cost lives. Unless you are a licensed contractor, do not attempt to DIY any swimming pool electrical systems.

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Check windows and sliding doors to make sure they open smoothly. Carefully inspect window glass to make sure you have double-pained windows, and that there is nothing staining the area between the window glass. This can be algae, and it will cause huge issues in windows.

Here is a checklist to help you know what to look at:

  • Walls (Angles, water damage, etc.)
  • Flooring (What is the overall condition?)
  • Level of flooring and decks
  • Foundation
  • Roof (Condition if tiles, or asphalt)
  • Attic space (Are there any indications of pest infestations or old burn marks from past fires?)
  • Swale (Is the ground angled away from the home, so water will move away from the foundation and walls?
  • Irrigation (Are sprinklers hitting walls or fences?)
  • Exterior (Stucco, siding, bricks)
  • Electrical Panel (200 amp panel?)
  • Appliances (Test them all.)
  • Ceilings (Any discoloration?)
  • Doors (Do they stick, if one goes to the garage, does it auto close and seal?)
  • Windows and Sliders (Do they move freely and do locks work? Screen conditions?)
  • Railings (Are they loose?)
  • AC / Heating (Test both systems. Use a laser thermometer to check temperatures at the vents.)
Device for checking moisture in a wall

Device for checking moisture in a wall

The other side of that wall behind a wet bar refrigerator.

The other side of that wall behind a wet bar refrigerator.

Mold Is Visible in the Photo Above

Here you can see mold in a wall, which is obscured by a cabinet, behind a built-in mini-refrigerator. I suspected there might be an issue here as these refrigerators condense, they sometimes create moisture. I saw no drain, so I took a close look. The repair on that and the mitigation could have cost a great deal, so I took a pass on this home. An inspector may or may not have found this. I checked the moisture in the wall behind this, and it was just slightly outside of the safe range. Most walls have some moisture, and they are designed to not be totally dry, but excessive moisture will breed all kinds of mold issues and also makes favorite places for pests like carpenter ants and termites.

Be Prepared and Make Good Decisions

When I would flip a home or buy an investment property, I sometimes look at some very rough homes. I could walk through most of these homes and write a very bad inspection report without really even looking very closely. In some instances, I am walking the property with a general contractor pricing some of the work. The extra cost of an inspector may not make sense when I you are buying a property for massive renovation. You do need to know what you are doing, so that you can protect your money, and the safety of people who may call your investment, their home. Don't buy a cabin in the woods with a racked frame, if you can avoid it. It might not end up being a good investment in this day and age.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Scott P Davis


RTalloni on April 25, 2019:

Lots of good info here. Knowing what an inspector should be looking for is the only way to be able to depend on their report, besides giving the opportunity to make repairs before the inspection.

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