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Inspections: When buying a house, be aware of potential trouble areas

| Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009

When a home promises to be the site of a long and happy future, it seems difficult to look at it with a cold and unaffected eye.

Yet, it is vital for the potential buyer to "take the focus off the cosmetics" even in the first look at a residence, says David Kolesari, president of the National Association of Home Inspectors.

He and others in his trade say that makes it possible for a home-hunter to get an early idea whether the site is worth the money being asked. Or any money at all.

The formal inspection obviously is more involved than the layman's look at a home, but a casual, simple inspection can be telling,

• "Look around the neighborhood," says John Masaitis from Building Inspections Inc. in Oakmont. "If you see cracks in houses, there might be something to be concerned about."

• Curled shingles always are a tell that a roof is aging and needs to be replaced, says Steven Chioda of Clearview Home Inspections in Crafton.

• "Look up instead of down," to find potential water issues from plumbing, says Tom Grove from Certified Home Inspection Systems in Irwin.

But inspectors know why many buyers are interested in the home inspection only in a cursory level.

"'It's such a cute, little house,' they say," says Bruce Thomas from A-Z Tech Home Inspections in Greensburg. "They don't want to find anything wrong."

Kolesari, from the Minnesota-based organization that represents 1,200 home inspectors, talks about how some clients hear of a problem and keep asking questions about it with different phrases.

"When it is something they don't want to hear about, they hope they get a different answer," he says.

Charles Cornely of AE&C Engineering Consultants in Tarentum says it is a matter that resembles a good health exam.

"An inspector is like a doctor asking for further tests," he says. "It doesn't always look good, but it pays off."

A major problem seeps in

Be sure to check out a house from top to bottom, home inspectors say. Quite literally.

While nearly all inspectors point up at the roof as the first place to look when trying to determine the quality of a home, Ray Fonos from the Home Team Inspection Service in West Homestead is more cautious about drainage and water problems.

"The No. 1 source of problems is water," he says, talking about drainage issues as well as plumbing ones. Look for stains on the walls, floors and foundation.

Besides the structural damage that water can cause in block or wood, it also can create mold problems that can lead to asthma or hay fever.

Masaitis says those combined reasons point to the ever-important need to be alert to water issues.

Robert Wagner, president of Falcone Building Inspections in Carnegie, says an area to watch is around the exterior of the house. If grading slopes back toward the foundation, it means water is running that way, putting extra stress on water insulation at the lowest levels.

Such a situation could point to the need for a French drain -- if not now, in the future, he adds.

Kolesari says a consistent water mark at the base of a foundation wall indicates drainage issues that probably will require digging and drain correction.

"You don't need to be a technical guru to see evidence of bad drainage around the house," he says.

Fonos also points out water stains on walls or floors could point to damage to structural wood.

The ticket to trouble

Grove says it is obvious and easy to look for "big-ticket items" that need help. Check the age and evident condition of the furnace, the air-conditioning unit, the water heater or the electrical system.

Naturally, the professional inspector most lenders require will be able to examine elements such as furnace heat exchangers, water heater flues or electrical connections, but it is wise to get a sense for the need for a deeper look.

Chioda says the condition of windows and floors also are elements that can be easily appraised.

He advises potential home buyers to keep a notebook with all of their observations and questions.

While cracks in walls can indicate major problems related to settlement or even mine subsidence, Fonos says it is not necessary to move away from a home because one or several are seen.

He suggests as much as 90 percent of cracking can be related to differing rates of expansion and contraction in building materials rather than a serious problem.

"Everything can be fixed; it's just how much will it cost and who is going to pay," he says.

Seller inspections

Dan Howard thinks the home inspection process should begin long before a deal is in the offing.

The president of Howard Home Testing and Inspection from Freeport says a wise seller should have a home inspection done before putting the home on the market. It will show off a home's strengths and take time off the whole process.

"It changes the whole dynamic of the deal," he says,

Plus, he adds, it gives the seller a chance to fix a problem and avoid a possible argument.

"You know how it goes," he says, "If there is a $500 problem, the buyer wants $5,000 off the price."

Howard has advice for potential buyers, too. He represents the Pittsburgh Regional Office of the 1,200-member American Society of Home Inspectors.

Don't sign up for a home inspection simply because the firm is available, he says. There are too many inspectors more intent on "not blowing the deal" than doing a good job, he says.

Howard points out the national group has a listing of inspectors on its ashi.org Web site.

Don't forget about radon

All of the inspectors agree there is one area that cannot be passed up: radon inspection.

Anyone buying a home should pay for an examination for the gas that results from the breakdown of uranium in soil. It is an odorless, cancer-causing agent that can create problems above the level of 4 pico-curies per liter, which is four parts per billion of a liter.

Some do-it-yourself radon tests are available, but inspectors urge professional examinations.

Robert Wagner, president of Falcone Building Inspections in Carnegie, says 60 percent of homes need some sort of mitigation because of radon. Dan Howard from Howard Home Testing and Inspection in Freeport, agrees with that and says he has heard of radon-test levels hitting 160 pico-curies.

Wagner says mitigation systems, which generally involve running a pipe through the basement floor and clearing the air with a ventilation system, cost about $1,500.

Radon testing usually costs around $150, inspectors say, and they urge buyers not to pass up an inspection. After a sale, it is a buyer's problem. Before that, the seller can be asked to help.

"You either have the problem or you don't," says Tom Grove from Certified Home Inspection Systems in Irwin. "The issue is: If the house has it, who is going to pay for fixing it."

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