Wednesday, June 14, 2006

From the outside, the Fairfax County home looked brand-new. Even after entering the home, Hollis Brown was impressed with the visible condition of the first floor. His impression changed dramatically, though, when he discovered mold growing on a load-bearing floor joist in the basement of the $1,000,000 home.

Mr. Brown says it was a “black-looking growth.” It looked as if the first-floor had been salvaged after a fire and firefighters had washed the soot down into the basement.

“In the end,” says Mr. Brown, a long-time home inspector, “there were 10 pages of items listed, including an improperly installed water heater and $100,000 worth of work to be done even without dealing with the mold in the basement.”

Buying or maintaining a healthy home can be daunting for someone who doesn’t know what to look for, says Kensington-based home inspector Kevin Richardson.

“Typically, in an average 2,000-square-foot home, there are 500 to 700 individual items that are checked in a home inspection,” Mr. Richardson says.

The sample home inspection report on the Richardson Home Inspections LLC Web site ( runs 33 pages and includes a comprehensive review of a home’s exterior and interior components, including heating, plumbing and electrical systems.

Home buyers can look for several potential problems to ensure they are buying a healthy home.

Home inspector Steve Atkinson says the age of the home has a great deal to do with the potential problems that should be considered.

“It largely depends on how old the home is,” says Mr. Atkinson, owner and operator of Ashburn, Va.-based Heartland Home Inspections (

He says, for example that electrical systems in many older homes have aluminum wiring that should be replaced.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that home wiring done between 1965 and 1973, including in new homes and additions, may contain aluminum wiring. The commission reports that corrosion of such wiring impedes the flow of electricity, resulting in dangerous overheating.

Homes built between the 1930s and 1950 may have asbestos insulation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Moreover, the agency reports that until the 1970s, many types of building products and insulation materials used in homes contained asbestos, including roofing and shingles, hot water and steam pipe insulation, vinyl flooring, and oil and coal furnaces.

On its asbestos Web site (, the EPA says the best thing to do is to leave the asbestos material alone if it is in good condition, as “material in good condition” will not release asbestos fibers associated with increased risks of lung cancer.

Before 1978, lead-based paints were used in many homes. The EPA encourages careful maintenance and removal of lead-based paints, as “lead from paint, chips, and dust can pose serious health hazards if not taken care of properly.”

The agency has a great deal of information regarding lead-based paints on its Web site (, including federal requirements that sales contracts include a lead-based paint disclosure.

Radon, which occurs naturally from uranium breaking down in soil, rock and water, is a major concern no matter the age of a home.

The EPA reports that the U.S. surgeon general has determined that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

In its online publication “Home Buyer’s and Seller’s Guide to Radon” (, the agency says radon gases enter the home through cracks and holes in the foundation or via well water becoming trapped in the home.

Mr. Atkinson says radon is not a “real estate deal killer anymore, since there are numerous passive and active radon mitigation systems on the market.”

When it comes to newly built homes, “craftsmanship and quality” are among the major concerns for home buyers, Mr. Atkinson says.

“Walls out of square, structure and foundation problems may not show,” he says, but they can lead to future problems.

Mr. Brown says that though asbestos and lead were built into homes and “can be removed or lived with,” mold is a bigger problem.

“Sealing up houses traps energy and moisture. The saying is, ‘Build it tight, ventilate it right,’” he says.

The Washington-based Alliance for Healthy Homes reports that homes typically account for a major share of exposure to toxics, irritants, allergens and gases that “can cause disease and hurt our health.”

Alliance spokesperson Brian Gumm says that if homeowners “tackle water damage and moisture, they can eliminate significant health risks.”

He says some of the leading environmental and safety concerns found in the home can be linked directly to water and moisture.

For example, he says that lead paint, which is not a problem when it is in good condition, becomes a serious health risk when water and moisture damage cause the paint to crack and peel.

Mr. Brown, owner and operator of Manassas-based Thorospec LLC ( is the lead instructor at the Home Inspector Training Academy in Bethesda. He identifies two categories of potential trouble signs for home buyers: homeowner repairs and deferred maintenance.

“The football game is on, and the homeowner is remodeling the basement. You can end up with a furnace starved for air and faulty electrical wiring. Ceiling fans, a popular do-it-yourself project, are a concern when they either put [the fan] on a plastic box not meant to support [it or] the homeowner wired it themselves,” Mr. Brown says.

Deferred maintenance can include plumbing leaks from caulking around pipes that start out small but grow in impact.

“We as homeowners don’t take care of our houses. We will spend $20,000 to $30,000 on a car and make sure we change the oil and perform routine maintenance. But when it comes to our most valuable possession, the home, we overlook routine maintenance, such as draining the water heater and changing a filter in the air-conditioning system,” Mr. Richardson says.

A good way to avoid costly deferred maintenance and to preserve the value of the home, home inspectors say, is to understand how your home is put together and the operations of the major systems — electrical, plumbing, heating and ventilation.

Home buyers are encouraged to go along with the home inspector to learn not only of potential costly problems, but to gain a better understanding of how to operate and maintain the home.

“My inspection is a pretty informative process,” Mr. Brown says, “making sure the home buyer knows what things are and how they work.”

Home buyers who passed up home inspections as roadblocks to bidding wars during the fast-rolling seller’s market of the past several years are calling for home inspections, as homes sit longer on the market, Mr. Richardson says.

“I have experienced a 180 percent difference from last year in the demand for home inspections, including pre-listing inspections,” he says. “And there are those homeowners who have been living in their new homes for three to six months, maybe a year, and they call me up for a home inspection or a home energy tuneup.”

Home inspection checklist

• Structural system: Foundation and framing, including walls, flooring, ceiling and roof.

• Exterior: Wall covering, flashing, eaves, soffit and fascia, and trim. Check potential threats to home, including vegetation, grading, surface drainage and retaining walls.

• Interior: Walls, ceilings, floors, steps, stairways, doors, windows, garage doors and garage door operators.

• Roof: Roof covering, drainage system, flashing, along with roof penetrations, such as skylights and chimneys.

• Plumbing: Interior water supply and distribution systems, including fixtures and faucets.

• Electrical system: Electrical service entrance into the home and interior components, including service panels. Check of service grounding and overcurrent protection devices.

• Heating system: Installed heating equipment and vent systems, flues and chimneys.

• Air conditioning: Installed central and through-wall cooling equipment.

• Insulation and ventilation: Ventilation systems, including vapor retarders in unfinished spaces and ventilation of attics and foundation areas.

• Fireplaces and fuel-burning appliances: Fireplace and/or solid-fuel-burning appliances and system components, including vents, flues and chimneys.

Source: American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) Standards of Practice (

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