Archive for February, 2010

Is air sampling for mold a necessity?

February 22, 2010

I lost a home inspection job for this weekend and I believe I know why.  The job involved not just the routine inspection but also had a suspected mold problem.  Although I would have liked the income, I am more concerned that the potential client decided on another inspector because he was convinced that air sampling for a potential mold problem was needed.  The client said that possible mold was present and described construction that could create moisture conditions conducive to mold growth.  But, I told the client that usually air sampling for mold is not needed because no matter what, if you see mold, you clean it up.  If you find moisture problems that could lead to mold growth, even if no visible mold growth is present, you attempt to eliminate them.  A skilled inspector should be able to recognize both without the need for air sampling.

The truth is that no where is there a requirement for air sampling.  In fact, air sampling is usually not recommended.  The main reason is that the complexities of mold and sampling for mold usually creates more confusion than explanation.  The results are usually confusing, and many times do not mean anything.  Over the years, I have found that nearly every time I have collected air samples–and a lot of other types of mold samples other than clearance samples–the results create confusion and misinterpretation.  When I have been an expert consultant in legal cases, I most often do not have trouble discrediting others mold sampling results.  And the truth is to get any kind of statistical accuracy upon which to make significant conclusions, many more samples are needed rather than the two or three most so-called “mold experts” collect.

Over the years, I have found that when so-called experts do not really understand what they are doing, they rely religiously on protocols they learned in their two or three day mold courses.  Those courses teach them how to conduct sampling, but usually do not dig very deep into the logic behind the sampling.  In most cases, the limitations of the sampling are not explained.  Further, I suspect that even when the limitation are explained, most attendees at these classes do not really grasp those limitations because they do not have the background to understand them.  I know my background and all of the various bits of expertise, special training  and experience I have needed to understand those limitations, and it took over 25 years to get it.  So, I suspect highly that a person coming from a non-science background with less than a week’s training probably does not understand them.

The thing is air sampling for mold is a tool, just like many other tools needed to investigate such problems.  In fact, I can think of nearly 20 different types of sampling used to investigate mold problems.  In fact, many various air sampling methods exist besides the usual Air-O-Cell cassette usually used by so-called “mold experts” and I know of at least three air samplers that collect samples similarly to the Air-O-Cell.   I have found that many of the other sampling methods even provide more useful information than any air samples.  With air samples, you HAVE TO understand how air travels throughout an area to determine the validity of the sample and whether it provides information about a risk.

But, the most important tools that an investigator takes into an area is his/her visual acuity and knowledge.  I specifically stated visual acuity because the inspector needs to have an eye for detail.  I have been on many inspections with clients where I have pointed out possible mold or signs of moisture problems that the client did not even see.  The stuff between the ears can only be gotten one way and that is through long hours of learning, knowing the right people and a lot of hard work.  No one is going to stuff that expertise into someone’s head in a couple of days.

So, when it comes right down to it, I lost an job opportunity because someone else was much better at selling a likely unneeded service than I was at convincing the client that the service was NOT needed.  At the same time, the client had a part in my loss and  I don’t mean by just selecting the other person.  No, the client also came into the picture with beliefs–things read or heard.  In fact, I could hear doubt in the client’s voice when I said that I rarely take air samples.   When I get these calls, I try to educate the client.  Sometimes, I succeed and sometimes I don’t.  My only request to anyone reading this is that you listen and learn to ask the right questions.  I also recommend that you also dig deeper into the expertise of the person offering you advice.  It could save you a lot of money in the long run.

Risk, investment and home buying

February 16, 2010

Tonight’s Nightly Business Report on PBS was about risk and investment.  One statement made during the program is that most people invest emotionally rather than rationally.  An example given in the program that all of us have experienced is the purchase of lottery tickets rather than putting money in savings.  We would rather take long-shot chances on a fast and big return rather than a much surer, but lower return.

I have seen the same when it comes to the way most people buy homes.  I partially discussed this point in another blog post.  However, it bears repeating.  Most people purchases homes from an emotional rather than rational level.   I have often heard potential buyers say how much they love a home before I begin a home inspection.  That goes further during the inspection when I can almost hear them hold their breaths when I mention a finding.  The same is true even at the hiring level in that many buyers hire a home inspector either because the bank or other agent requires that one be hired or as a formality.  The buyers really do not want the home inspector to find any problems.

I recommend that potential home buyers look at the home inspection in a different way.  The home inspector should help bring the buyer down to the rational earth from the emotional clouds.  Good home inspectors can strip the home down to its bare skin to see what the home buyer might not be able to see through his/her rose-colored glasses.  While some of the inspectors findings might be related to his/her skills and experience versus that of the buyer(s), in many cases, the inspector has no invested interest in the property other than a fee.  So, in many way, the inspector is the buyer’s anchor to reality.  The inspector should be considered that way.

Buyers should not be afraid to receive information from the home inspector and should not hesitate to ask the inspector questions.  A home purchase is a major investment decision.  As many found out during the latest economic downturn, making a wrong home investment can end up financially setting back a family and in some cases destroying a marriage.   Know up front what you are facing and make your decisions based on that knowledge.  Moreover, remember that part of the investment is those you hire to get that information; be sure to know who you are investing in.  Most of all, treat the home purchase more like a stock purchase than a lottery ticket.

Home drainage

February 10, 2010

If someone were to come up to me on the street and ask me, “Hey Matt, what do you consider to be the top five problems with homes?”, I would definitely have to include drainage as one of those five.  However, drainage problems have many causes.  Some are due to improper control of the roof drainage, while others are due to improper sloping of the ground around the home. The thing is the severity of these kinds of problems are highly under-rated by most homeowners.  In many cases, fixing drainage problems could stop or severely reduce water intrusion through foundation cracks.  For those with concrete block or stone foundations, fixing these problems could reduce moisture intrusion through the blocks, which is a chronic problem with most block and stone foundations.

Well, I just happened to have an e-letter arrive in my inbox this week with a link to a very nicely illustrated and explained article about site drainage.  I believe it explains a lot and could be very useful to those who have drainage problems, and even those who think they don’t.  Here it is:

What exactly is a home purchase?

February 3, 2010

What exactly is a home purchase?  The answer to that question is both simple and complex, depending on who you ask.  To a real estate agent, no matter whether he or she is working for the seller or buyer agent, it is a sale, a source of income.  To the lender, home purchase is an investment intended to get future income for investors.  But, for the home buyer, a home purchase is the most complex.  To the home buyer, the home purchase is among many things an investment, one of the largest purchases that he/she will ever make, one of the scariest steps in his/her life, a dream, a future, a place to raise a family, a refuge, a social tie to the community, a form of non-verbal communication and, whew, so many other things.  I better stop before my brain catches on fire.

BUT, one of the most important things that a home purchase should be to a buyer usually is put way down on the list.  A home purchase, first and foremost, is a business deal.  Someone is selling a product and someone is buying it.  Why is it then that many buyers put less thought and consideration into this deal than other much less important ones?  I think that many buyers feel totally overwhelmed (freaked out) by the complexity of the home purchase.  Therefore, a number of these buyers defer (that is, trust) others involved in their buying process, which is usually the real estates agents.

Most real estate agents do a great job of helping buyers find properties and they have a basic understanding of homes and their construction.  However, many of these professionals do not have the detailed knowledge about the home to help a buyer make an educated buying decision.  That is, the agents usually cannot supply specific information about the home’s elements that could impact the buyer financially.

And that is an important point.  The buying price of a home is NOT just the price being asked.  A buyer should also factor in all taxes, heating fuel, electrical, school fees and tuition, transportation between work and typical shopping and entertainment locales, and the normal costs of living in the home.  But, I did not mention what could be the biggie–current and future repair and maintenance costs.

That is where people like myself, the home inspector, come into play.  Part of our job is to identify the near and future repair and maintenance costs.  We cannot state exactly what those costs or work might be.  But, at the least, we can give the buyer warning that those costs are imminent.  With this information, the buyer can consult with specific professionals to get more accurate costs.  For example, a home inspector should be able to identify roof problems, where upon the buyer can ask a roofer to provide an estimated repair cost.  A home inspector could also let the buyer know the approximate age of a furnace, most of which have a lifetime of about 15 to 20 years.  The buyer can then get an estimated replacement cost for an HVAC company.  Hopefully, you get the idea.

The home inspector also should be looked at as having a perspective that no other party in the buying process has.  The home inspector is supposed to be the only TRULY NEUTRAL party providing service to the buyer.  (I say “supposed to be” on purpose and will go into more detail about that point in a future post.)   The home inspector is the buyer’s extra eyes and building expertise.  As such, he/she is supposed to provide the buyer with important information that should be factored into the buying decision.  The only money he/she should be making from the deal is his/her fee.  Whether the home sells or not is not his/her concern because he/she gets paid the same.

Some will likely argue that appraisers are also a neutral parties; but their work tends to be more important to the lending and real estate tax agencies.  Usually, buyers determine their own estimate of a home’s value using their own criteria regardless of the appraisal.  Insect inspectors and radon testers should also be neutral agents; but in reality are part of the home inspection.  Even then, some insect inspectors and radon tests also provide remediation services too.  That is why, I recommend that these services be purchased through the home inspector to provide a layer of protection for the buyer.

So, I will close with a thought.  Given a home inspector importance to what is most likely the most expensive and important purchase in a person’s life, why do so many buyers trust their real estate agents, who have vested interest in the sales, to select the home inspector?  Given that importance, why do most home buyers select their home inspectors primarily by his/her fees and not credentials?  And that is where I will leave the discussion for another day.

More on our “new” paving ideas

February 3, 2010

I was watching a program on NOVA this evening titled. “Ghosts of Machu Picchu”.  In one part, the narrator was describing a main plaza.  Excavation had found that the plaza had a top layer of soil, under which layers of sandy soil and white granite were placed.  The granite was chips from granite blocks the Inca had used to build the city.  From there the water was directed to fountains and irrigation.

We are so brilliant in coming up with our new paving options.  While the Incas had already come up with the system centuries ago.  We prove once again that our discovery is actually rediscovery.

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