Part 9c: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival
[30 suggestions over 10 sub parts, starting with Part 9a. -ed.]
8. Water — the enemy
Remember this mantra: Water is a house’s worst enemy. — Tom Silva, This Old House
Vancouver was carved out of a temperate rainforest. The forest is gone, but the rain is still here. It’s what keeps everything green and allows the remaining trees to grow large, but it also represents a constant assault on the integrity of houses. The frequency and duration of rain in Vancouver is the real problem for houses and wood-frame condos, rather than the total amount of rainfall. Instead of intermittent cloudbursts that dump a lot of water in a short time before the sun reappears, drying out everything, rain in Vancouver tends to be an all-day or all-week affair. Drizzly, misty, fine rain alternating with overcast skies means that buildings can stay damp for long periods of time, which coupled with mild temperatures is exactly what promotes mould growth and rot.
One way of looking at a house is as a water-resisting structure, or perhaps more accurately, a water-management system. Most of us would think first about the roof, but in some ways roofs aren’t the main problem. They’re specifically designed to resist and shed water, and if properly built and maintained, do their job well. Problems that do arise tend to be with roof penetrations for vents, chimneys, or skylights, and improperly installed or poorly maintained flashing and caulking. But everything’s exposed, so finding and fixing problems is usually straightforward.
If you’re buying a house, one thing to be cautious about is a roof with insufficient overhang — the part of the roof that extends beyond the house wall. Overhangs are important because they prevent water from rain and roof runoff saturating house walls and potentially working its way into the house. Deep overhangs are best. Anything less than a foot won’t be that effective, and even a foot isn’t that much. A roof with little or no overhang may once have had one, but poor maintenance of the roof allowed the edges to rot, and instead of repairing the damage, someone doing a quick roofing job just buzzed away the rot with a saw and re-roofed what was left. Be cautious about buying a house with a compromised or missing roof overhang. In subsequent years water may have penetrated the walls, and rot may have spread through the sheathing and framing. At the very least, rebuilding a roof overhang should be one of the first things you do.
Less straightforward are problems associated with water penetration through walls, through concrete foundations, and around windows and doors — the elements that along with the roof make up the building envelope. One of the veteran house builders who worked on our reno maintained that flawed building envelope design was at the root of the leaky condo crisis. A number of years ago, the BC building code and the Vancouver building by-law were amended to require that all new construction incorporate a vapour barrier on the inside of exterior walls — typically a layer of heavy poly between the drywall and the studs and insulation. The idea was to improve heat retention and energy efficiency, and protect the cavities of exterior walls from condensation, by preventing water vapour from warm interiors meeting cold exterior air inside the wall. However, no change was made to the code regarding the outside of exterior walls. A typical assembly remained wood siding or stucco over a single layer of black building paper over plywood or OSB sheathing. The result was that any water that made its way into a wall from outside, because of a leak, or wind-driven rain, or was present in the wall framing materials during the construction process, now became trapped behind the vapour barrier. Walls could no longer dry to the inside, and given the Vancouver climate, drying to the outside might not happen for days at a time. The veteran builder likened the results to “leaving wet salad in a polythene bag.” It’s why the exterior walls of thirty-year-old condos might be rotting, whereas wood-frame apartment buildings built in the 1940s or 1950s, or hundred-year-old houses, with plenty of air movement through walls that can dry to both the inside and the outside, might be virtually rot-free. (Although being dry because of draftiness isn’t really a solution.)
Once government and industry realized the problem, they came up with the response: the rainscreen, the missing half of the wall assembly equation. A rainscreen is a drainage and air drying layer immediately beneath the exterior siding that cuts off the passageway for water, and drains any buildup to ground. Drainage mat against concrete foundation walls is another development that serves the same purpose — cut off the seepage of water through the foundation and move it to ground. Several other factors contributed to condos rotting in coastal BC, including California-style architecture (flat roofs, no roof overhangs, architectural adornment) inappropriate for the climate. And I’ve omitted some of the more esoteric building science details, because I don’t yet fully understand them. However, sealing up the inside of exterior walls without considering the outside was probably the most egregious of various design issues.
If you’re house hunting, be alert for signs that water is causing problems for a structure. Check the exterior closely for spongy-looking areas, flaking or bubbling paint, or crumbling stucco. Understand that vinyl siding may be have been installed over the original wood or stucco siding, covering up evidence of rot. In preparation for a sale, a house may have been freshly painted, hiding signs of water incursion. Inside, look for water staining on walls, dark, discoloured bottom corners, and tiny black dots of mould. Again, take into consideration a recent paint job. Pay special attention to the basement or lowest level of the house. Spend lots of time there. Breathe in deeply while walking throughout. Does it smell musty or damp? Trust your nose. Put your hands on the walls, especially below the foundation line, where drywall may cover concrete. Does the drywall feel firm and dry, or damp with a hint of softness? If the basement is unfinished, look for white powdery marks on the concrete. This is efflorescence, the salts left from water that has seeped through the foundation and evaporated. It’s not critical if you intend to leave a basement unfinished, but a problem if you intend to finish a basement, potentially trapping moisture that had previously been able to evaporate. If possible, tour a house during a rainy period, when any signs of water incursion are likely to be most noticeable. One of the reasons the peak house selling season is during the months of good weather is that the various symptoms associated with a leaky building envelope are going to be much less noticeable. Lastly, make sure that as part of a thorough home inspection, the inspector goes over the house with a moisture meter.
If it becomes apparent that a house has been losing the battle with water? Flee.
[Further resources/reading, general]
“Weathering the storm”, The Vancouver Courier, no date.
[Further resources/reading, advanced]
“Understanding Vapor Barriers”. Building Science Corporation, 24 Oct, 2006.
9. Find a good home inspector
While learning the basics about a house’s systems is a good idea for any home buyer or homeowner, most people don’t have the time or the inclination to truly delve into the hundreds of details that these systems represent. And even if you do learn a lot from books, or other sources, it’s not the same as years of experience gained scrutinizing the inner workings of hundreds of houses. For that kind of expertise you need a good home inspector, or some other kind of knowledgeable construction industry professional.
During the height of the bidding war frenzy that gripped the Vancouver real estate market in the mid 2000s (with sporadic outbreaks ongoing), it was common to hear of people putting in over-asking offers without any subjects. In a more normal market, a typical subject would be the requirement of passing a home inspection. Incredibly, during this abnormal market, formulating a competitive bid might require that you waive the right to look closely at the most expensive thing you were ever likely to buy. Step in to a massive financial commitment, and do it blind. Foregoing a home inspection is risky behaviour, to put it mildly. It’s rolling the dice, with ten of thousands of dollars, or more, potentially riding on the outcome. In the subsequent years, some of these buyers will have discovered they’ve been burned. Basement walls full of mould, foundations crumbling, whole sections of house frame or roofs rotted out, failing building envelopes, plumbing and wiring systems at the end of their lives, plugged or non-existent drainage, even major structural deficiencies associated with unpermitted work. Big dollars to fix, and after spending those dollars, the house still looks the same on the surface. The stove is still harvest gold, the toilet’s still blue (which may be cool, depending on your aesthetic, but doesn’t do much for resale value), and 1970s paneling still prevails. You don’t feel any closer to achieving your vision for the house, but a big chunk of your budget is already spent. A good home inspection can save you a lot of grief by alerting you to expensive liabilities in advance, allowing you to make a more informed purchase decision, or avoid some purchases altogether.
Unfortunately, the story that’s been emerging in the last couple of years is that there are a lot of incompetent or even unethical inspectors operating. In Ontario, what regulation there has been of inspectors is toothless. British Columbia has only recently started qualifying and licensing inspectors (as of 31 March 2009), which means that previously anyone could hang out their shingle and call themselves a home inspector. And the barrier to entry may still not be that high.
Generally speaking, you shouldn’t use an inspector recommended by a realtor. Either the listing realtor, or the buyer’s realtor. Realtors on both ends of a sale only make money when they close a deal. Deals get closed when subjects such as home inspections are removed from offers to purchase. Home inspectors who find lots of problems with houses are themselves a problem for realtors who want to close deals and get paid their commission. As a buyer, if the problems are legitimate, those are the inspectors you want. Some realtors may be inclined to recommend a ‘realtor-friendly’ inspector with a reputation for passing houses that another inspector might fail. You need to ask yourself which inspector is likely to best serve your interests.
That said, when I asked a realtor during our house hunting in 2003 about a well-known local home inspector, he was scathing. In this realtor’s opinion, this inspector manufactured reasons for failing houses in order to generate additional business for himself. According to the realtor, he’d fail two or three houses, collecting his inspection fee on each one, before finally passing a house for a client.
As well, realtors who are interested in repeat business, good word of mouth, or surviving as realtors once a real estate boom has run its course, know better than to make a quick and easy sale by foisting a piece of junk on an unsuspecting buyer. You need to know whether the realtor you’re dealing with is ethical, or a quick-buck artist who’ll be closing up shop once the easy money is gone.
It’s hard to know where the truth lies. Do your homework. The time and effort required to find a competent, ethical home inspector is time and effort very well spent. And do it early, well in advance of any offer to purchase. Rushing to find an inspector while the clock is ticking on an offer makes it less likely you’ll find a good one.
Inspecting a House: A Guide for Buyers, Owners, and Renovators, by Alan Carson and Robert Dunlop. Toronto: Stoddart, 1999.
The Holmes Inspection: Everything You Need to Know before You Buy or Sell your Home, by Mike Holmes. Toronto: Collins, 2008.
“Think you’re safe from problems when you buy a new home? Think again”, CBC Marketplace, 9 Jan, 2009
“Can you trust your home inspector?”, CBC Marketplace, 8 Jan, 2010
“Homeowners out thousands despite warranty”, CBC News, 16 Nov, 2010.
Coming soon: Part 9d: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival – Suggestions 10 – 13.
Part 9 subsections are posted every Tuesday and Friday.
Read them all before you dig up the foundations. -ed.