Guest article co-authored by : Scott Truax of US Inspect
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Historic Homes Require Unique Inspection Talents
Older homes present challenges to home inspectors. Whether the home is designated “landmark” or not, balance your inspection against the time period of the one against contemporary, acceptable building practices. But, the bottom line of your inspection is presenting the general quality of the home.
Plan to spend extra time, because you may be investigating components you haven’t seen before. And, your report will have special additions to protect your position as a home inspector.
Set aside extra time for the inspection. You’ll be learning new things, like unfamiliar construction materials, a variety of electrical systems, environmentally hazardous materials, and unique plumbing installations.
A home that is for sale may be prettified with paint, but years of deterioration and old and insufficient systems can hide underneath. Pay attention to parts of the home that have been exposed to the elements, like the foundation, wall coverings, and roof.
As you go through your inspection routine, be prepared to encounter unusual findings. Plan to evaluate your findings in terms of a historic perspective.
- Current codes become less relevant. Safety and structural integrity become the priority.
- Evaluate potential defects in terms of “is it doing what it is intended to do safely?”
- Many systems will be obsolete. Make note of these items in your findings.
Be alert to environmental items. Indoor and outdoor paint may have lead. Old insulation and heating system exhaust ducts may contain asbestos. Wear a respirator in attics and crawlspaces. Plus, older items in the home may contain asbestos, like linoleum flooring, exterior siding, and older roofing tiles. Lead paint on walls can leach into the soil or flooring over time creating a toxic health risk for pets and children.
Old foundations may be brick, wood mudsill, or none. In these cases, recommend a foundation inspection. On the other hand, older floors will not pass the rolling marble test. Be prepared to uncover some floor sloping you wouldn’t find in newer homes.
Be aware that root cellars and crawl spaces may have been neglected for years. Be prepared to encounter spider nests and creatures who have taken up residence like rats, raccoons, possums, and skunks. Best to announce your arrival with some noise. And, if the place has been empty for years, you may encounter animal carcasses in various states of decay.
Check mortar joints. As in modern homes, they can be secret pathways for water intrusion both inside and outside the house. Mortar can leach away over time, providing excellent pathways for water damage.
Pay special attention to the electrical system. It may be outdated, minimal, mixed from different eras of installation and insufficient for modern use. You may find a variety of fire hazards and jerry-rigged systems. When confronted with these older systems, recommend a specialist inspection by a qualified electrical contractor. The liability connected with electrical systems is high because insufficient wiring and junctions can burn down the home or cause serious or fatal injury. Protect you and your clients by passing on this responsibility to an electrical contractor if you encounter items you are not familiar with that look “unsafe”.
Often historic homes have “fixes” that have been integrated into the current structure over the years. These could lead to additional defects because poor construction techniques may have been used to “fix” the issues. Concentrate observations on remediation to electrical, plumbing, and siding construction techniques.
You can end up with unusual places to restore the house effectively, like an electrical panel in a stairwell, because it’s the only place to put it.
Be prepared to examine old masonry chimneys. They can present a fire hazard with single-wall flues. Note your findings in your report, and include a picture of the flue taken from the top of the chimney.
Check older plumbing for functional flow at fixtures. You may also find unsafe conditions like missing or obsolete traps. Although rare now, if the house is old, double-check for lead pipes. Older copper piping may be joined with lead solder.
In general, be prepared to notice a number of details you won’t see in newer homes. Look carefully and note any unusual findings. Your role is still the same, to report on the condition of the home. You’ll probably just have more unique findings to report.
As with any inspection, your role is to report the condition of the home. Let clients translate the findings into terms compatible with historical home requirements. State in your report the inspection does not address historical home requirements.
Your buyer client may be planning for modernizations and renovations. If the home is designated as a landmark home, mention that in your report. There may be limitations on the renovations they can perform, but you are not required to advise your client on those limitations.
Protect your position by making recommendations as you normally would. Note all your unique findings in your report. Many systems will be obsolete, note them in your findings. Take extra photos of unique findings that document your attention to detail.
In the same way you budget more time for the inspection, plan to spend more time creating your report. You’ll have many unusual findings and possibly more recommendations than in a report for a modern home.
Be sure to include any recommended further inspections like foundation or electrical systems in your report. Limit your liability and serve your client best by knowing your limitations, and when it makes sense to pass along final analysis to a trades expert.
Make sure to remove any boilerplate phrases and paragraphs in your final report not consistent with historic homes.
Details Protect Your Inspection Business
Bring your powers of observation to an historic home. You’ll be challenged with findings you may have never seen before. Spend the time to thoroughly examine all the areas in your standard of practice. Then note all your findings in your report. You owe it to your client to give them all the details.
Published in the American Society of Home Inspectors ASHI Reporter, December 2020 issue.