Archive for the ‘Home Inspections’ Category

General Guidance and Anchoring System Options for Manufactured and Modular Home with Perimeter Support Foundations (REV.)

January 30, 2011

Overview:

This document discusses the proper methods (and more than one exists) for anchoring manufactured and modular homes with perimeter support foundations, which will be better defined just a little further on. The subject of this document is primarily proper anchoring methods because I frequently find mistakes in these anchoring systems. In my internet searches, I have not come across other publications that specifically address this topic. Building codes and other regulations, such as the Housing and Urban Development’s model regulations, and manufacturer installation instructions describe or dictate construction of other foundation elements and the installation of the home; but details on anchoring requirements for these foundation systems is sketchy.

Therefore, I wrote this document to summarize the anchoring methods, and errors in anchoring methods, that I have found while performing over 500 FHA or other inspections on these homes (and all of the photos in this document came from those inspections). This document covers both manufactured and modular homes because some of the home constructions have very similar foundation and anchoring systems. Although Criterium-Cincinnati Engineers does not get many calls for modular home inspections, those I have inspected leads me to believe that the prevalence in anchoring issues are similar to those for manufactured homes.

Note that this article and its contents are only intended as guidance. It is not intended to be used as a design document or to replace any building codes or other applicable rules. Be sure to check local and state building code or other state installation rules for specific installation requirements.

General Guidance for Manufactured and Modular Home Foundation Systems:

Manufactured and modular homes mainly differ visually in that manufactured homes arrive on-site on their own wheels while modular homes are transported on-site via another carrier, such as a flat-bed trailer. For a more detailed description of differences, refer to these web sites:

The majority of the manufactured and modular homes have pier (rather than perimeter) foundation systems. Photo 1 shows a typical pier system:

Photo 1. Typical manufactured home pier system.

This foundation system uses piers, commonly constructed from concrete blocks (seen in the photo above) for the foundation system. The piers are supposed to be erected on either poured concrete footings or slabs For manufactured and on-frame modular homes that have I-beam structural members that are part of the home structure, the piers are located under and support the I-beams. (For manufactured homes, these beams are commonly called carriage beams because they are used to transport the home to the site. To use common terminology for both manufactured and modular homes, I use “home structural beams” in this document.)

Vinyl skirting or a concrete block perimeter wall is usually installed around underside of the perimeter of the home to enclose the pier foundation system. This skirting or perimeter wall is not part of the foundation system and is not structural. Skirting and perimeter walls have purpose, though, in that they help keep water and vermin from getting under the home, help protect the plumbing from freezing and prevent wind (more particularly high winds) from getting under and lifting the home.

Manufactured homes come in both single and doublewide constructions, while modular homes are usually doublewide construction. Singlewide means that the home is a complete home, constructed so that it can be moved into place as a unit and set on the foundation system. Doublewide structures arrive on-site in two halves that are moved together on a foundation system and the halves are then screwed together. Each half of the doublewide home comes with a hinged roof. Once the two halves of a doublewide are assembled, the roof is rotated into position and assembled. Although not yet common, complex manufactured and modular homes, such as multiple story structures, are being built. Foundation systems for the more complex structures are similar to the single-story structures, although adjusted for the extra weight.

Both single and double-wide homes would have piers under the home structural beams, while a double-wide home would also have additional piers supporting points along the home’s marriage line, as specified by the manufacturer. (The marriage line, which is sometimes also known as the mating line, is where the two halves of a double-wide home meet.) The anchoring systems for pier foundations for manufactured and on-frame modular homes is either a lateral brace system or steel straps with concrete or ground anchors, which are shown in Photos 2 and 3, respectively.

Photo 2. An example of one manufacturer’s lateral brace anchored to a concrete slab.

This article, though, is about anchoring manufactured and modular homes that have perimeter foundation systems. The terminology “perimeter foundation system” might inspire a mind picture of the typical site-built home foundation system where the perimeter of the home is supported directly on the foundation system. Some manufactured and modular home foundation systems are similar to site-built home foundation systems, and they are discussed later in this article. However, most manufactured and on-frame modular homes with perimeter foundation systems are supported on H or I-beams that are in turn supported on the perimeter foundation system. In this article, these beams are called foundation beams (and can be seen in the photo below). Homes with foundation beams have different anchoring requirements than homes without foundation beams, and the former are discussed first. A typical foundation beam installation is shown in the Photo 4.

Photo 3. An example of one manufacturer’s steel strap anchored to a concrete slab.

As the photos throughout this article show, perimeter foundation systems can be used for either basement or crawlspace foundations. Normally, though, foundation systems with center-support steel columns are used in homes with basements to allow for possible finishing of the basement. Basements and crawlspaces could have either gravel or concrete slab floors; but all should have footings installed under the center support columns or piers.

Manufactured and modular home perimeter foundations are constructed from either poured concrete or concrete block, similar to site-built homes. Local building codes usually dictate how foundations should be constructed. If the area has no local building codes, construction usually has to adhere to state building codes, which are usually a derivation of the International Building Codes (although the state’s current building codes might not be as current as the International Building Codes). Homes installed in areas under the jurisdiction of a building department usually need to have a building department permit and at least a foundation system inspection. Further, installation permitting and inspection requirements can vary from state to state and even from area to area. Be sure to check local building code requirements specific to manufactured and modular homes. Concrete foundations usually have pockets built in the walls to support the ends of the foundation beams similar to the pockets installed in site-built home foundations to support the ends of these homes’ main beams. Concrete block foundations usually have pilasters installed to support the beam ends, and the concrete blocks that comprise the pilasters need to have their holes completely filled with concrete. The concrete fill needs to have rebar reinforcement installed in the concrete. That being said, some concrete block foundations have pockets for the foundation beams instead of pilasters and some poured concrete foundations have pilasters for the foundation beams instead of pockets. Still, even if pockets are installed in a concrete block foundation, pilasters are still usually built in the foundation under the pockets and the blocks are filled with concrete with rebar reinforcement. Examples of foundation beam installations are shown in Photos 5 through 7.

Photo 4. An example of a manufactured home with a perimeter foundation system that uses foundation beams and concrete block center piers.

The ends of all structural beams for manufactured and on-frame modular homes need to be supported. In Photo 8, pilasters built next to the end foundation wall are used to support the structural beams. Other acceptable means for supporting the ends of the structural beams that I have found were pilasters built into the foundation walls, steel columns or foundation beams. Unlike the pilasters supporting the structural beams, concrete block columns do not have to be fully mortared, but must have proper cap blocks, which are usually half-filled 8-inch or 4-inch thick concrete blocks or 2-inch minimum hardwood boards that are at least the same dimensions as the pier blocks. Piers and steel columns need to have proper footings. If foundation beams, piers or steel columns are used instead of pilasters to support the ends of the home structural beams, they need to be located within 2 feet of the ends of the home structural beams.

Photo 5. Example of a foundation beam installed in a pocket on top of a pilaster in a concrete block foundation wall.

Photo 6. Example of a foundation beam installed on a pilaster of a concrete block foundation without a pocket.

Photo 7. Example of a foundation beam installed in a pocket in a poured concrete foundation wall.

Photo 8. An example of piers supporting a manufactured home’s structural beams.


Photo 9. An example of shimming for the end of a home structural beam.

 

As Photo 9 shows, the ends of the structural beams may need shimming. While the home’s structural beams are shimmed, the foundation beams are not normally shimmed. When wood shims are used, they need to be a minimum 4-inch wide hardwood and used in pairs, as shown in the photo. Shims are not usually used between the foundation or pilasters and the foundation beams. The reason is that the home is usually leveled by installing shims between the foundation beams and the home structural beams because adjustment needed between one foundation beam/structural beam contact point and another can vary significantly. Shims are also sometimes used between the middle support piers and the foundation beams. The proper shims between the home structural and foundation beams will be discussed in more detail later in this article. But the shims between the middle support piers and the foundation beams are a minimum 4-inch wide hardwood and used in pairs

As Photos 4 and 10 show, the foundation beams are located in nearly the same locations as would be the piers for a pier foundation home. That is, steel beams run the width of the home in similar locations to the piers and support the home’s structural beams and marriage line (if needed) in the same way as the piers. The ends of the foundation beams are supported on the home’s front and rear perimeter walls.

Photo 10. An example of a perimeter foundation system that uses foundation beams and center support
columns.

Double-wide homes usually have either concrete block piers or steel columns supporting the center of the foundation beams. Photo 10 shows an example of steel columns while Photo 11 shows an example of concrete block piers. Columns need to be fastened at the bottom to the footing or slab and at the top to the foundation beam or other marriage line structure, which will be discussed later. These fastening requirements hold true for other locations steel piers might be used, such as at the ends of the home structural beams.

Depending on the manufacturer requirements, extra piers may be needed to support the marriage line at other locations other than above the foundation beams, as shown in the Photo 11. Installation instructions usually show where marriage line piers are needed. For newer homes, most manufacturers indicate where support is needed along the marriage line with some kind of mark on the bottom board (the membrane covering the underside of the home). If the manufacturer calls for support of the marriage line at a point less than 2 feet from a foundation beam, then additional support may not be needed.

I have been asked whether piers have to be unmortared (a.k.a. dry-stacked) or mortared. Mortaring is required in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 7487. Permanent Foundations Guide for Manufactured Housing, the guidelines used for foundation inspections for Federal Housing Authority (FHA) loan approval. The latest HUD standard (24 CFR 3285. Model Manufactured Home Installation Standards) used as a model for current manufactured home installations does not require mortaring of any foundation pier blocks, including the marriage line piers, unless they are specially designed or in flood plains. This standard does require piers from 32 to 60 inches to be double-stacked, as shown in Photo 11, and piers over 60 inches to be designed by a licensed engineer or architect. Additionally, the standard requires that ALL piers for homes in flood plains be designed by a licensed engineer or architect and meet the requirements of the local flood plain authority. But, the standard provides no information for the piers used in perimeter foundation systems other than they are designed by a licensed engineer or architect or adhere to the manufacturer’s installation instructions. I have found both mortared and unmortared marriage line and end support piers. I have also not found any issues with properly installed unmortared piers built on properly designed and installed footings.

Homes that have steel columns instead of piers may also need to have support for the marriage line that is farther than 2 feet from the foundation beams. In these cases, additional steel columns can be installed, or if a wall has been installed under the marriage line, for example as part of finishing a basement, the wall can be extended to the marriage line to provide support. However, that wall then becomes a load-bearing wall. Other methods can also be used to support the marriage line between foundation beams; but a licensed engineer or architect should be hired to specify such construction.

Double-wide homes also have blocking installed on top of the foundation beams above all center piers to support the marriage line. Foundation systems that use steel columns instead of piers to support the foundation beams also have blocking is installed on top of the foundation beams above the columns, as shown in Photo 12. Blocking is usually wood, although concrete blocks can also be used as long as a cap block is installed on top of the blocks, as visible in Photo 11. Blocking needs to be at least the width of the foundation beam flange and at least twice as long as wide to assure stability.

Gaps between the top of piers and blocking along the marriage line need to be shimmed. Shims need to be at least 4 inches wide, hardwood or equivalent and used in pairs. These shims need to be driven tight between the pier or blocking and the marriage line.

For information on the currently acceptable construction piers, please refer to 24 CFR 3285: MODEL MANUFACTURED HOME INSTALLATION STANDARD (http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_08/24cfr3285_08.html) or your state’s current installation standards (which should be a derivation of 24 CFR 3285). Keep in mind that these standards defer to the manufacturer’s installation instructions, if available. Installers should read and follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions. Not following the manufacturer’s instructions could void the home’s warranty or the expose the installer or others to liability issues. The information presented in this article is not intended to replace the installation instructions.

Photo 11. Examples of concrete block piers under the marriage line and mid-point of the foundation beam.

Photo 12. Examples of marriage line support blocking and a steel column support under the mid-point of a foundation beam.

Anchoring Systems for Perimeter Foundation Systems:

To properly anchor manufactured and on-frame modular homes with perimeter foundations, the foundation beams need to be anchored to the foundation AND the home structural beams need to be fastened to the foundation beams supporting them. This latter part of the anchoring system seems to be most often forgotten or unknown. No one method exists for anchoring the foundation beams to the foundation; but the anchoring method needs to meet these basic criteria:

  • BOTH ends of all foundation beams need to be anchored to the foundation.
  • If the foundation beam ends are not located in pockets that are tight enough to prevent twisting or sideways movement of the beams, both sides of each end of the foundation beams need to be anchored or the full widths of the beams have to be anchored (as shown in the example photos later in this article).
  • The anchors have to prevent the foundation beams from being pulled laterally out of the pockets or off the pilasters, as could happen if the foundation wall moves outward.
  • The anchors have to prevent the foundation beams from being pushed sideways off of the pilasters.
  • The anchors or the foundation pockets have to prevent the ends of the foundation beams from being lifted vertically off of the pilasters or within the pockets.

Manufactured and on-frame modular homes installed on poured concrete foundations have more anchoring options than concrete block foundations because anchors for the latter need to be tied to the reinforcement in the concrete-filled blocks in the foundation. Photos in this section show examples of a variety of anchoring methods that I have found during inspections of manufactured homes with foundation beams.

Photo 13 shows the end of a foundation beam on top of a pilaster. By far the most common method for anchoring foundation beams to concrete block foundations is using the rebar installed to reinforce the pilaster. As shown, the rebar is extended above the pilaster, and bent over onto and welded to the foundation beam, as shown in the photo. This photo shows the preferred method for attaching the rebar to the beam in that the rebar ends are kept short and at least 2 inches of the rebar is welded solidly to the beam (indicated by the arrow). A similar rebar anchor is on the other side of the beam to prevent the beam from moving sideways on the pilaster. Both sides of each rebar end should be welded to the beam.

Photo 14 shows another variation of a rebar anchor that is acceptable, although not as ideal as the previous photo. In this installation, a similar rebar anchor was installed on the other side of the beam. This anchor would be more ideal if the area around the base of the rebar inside the block were mortared to stiffen the rebar.

Photo 15 shows another rebar/beam anchor that is not acceptable. As this photo shows, the rebar is much longer than those shown in Photos 13 and 14. Although the longer rebar means that it can be bent into position more easily, the longer rebar does not restrain the beam from excessive movement. Furthermore, only the very end of the rebar is welded, which could allow the rebar to break loose if the beam moved. A closer pocket around the beam would restrict the beam from moving sideways; but the excessive length of the rebar would not prevent is from being pulled from the pocket. This anchor could be fixed by shortening the rebar on both sides of the beam and welding at least 2 inches of the rebar to the beam.

Photo 13. Example of pilaster rebar being used also as an anchor for a foundation beam.

Photo 14. Another example of pilaster rebar also being used to anchor a foundation beam.

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Photo 15. Example of pilaster rebar being used improperly as an anchor for a foundation beam.

Improper welding of the rebar is a common issue with the rebar anchor, as shown in the Photo 15. If enough off the rebar is not welded to the foundation beam, the weld can break loose, as indicated by the arrow Photo 16. In this case, the installer apparently tack welded the rebar and the weld had later broken loose simply by the rebar pulling upward on the weld. If the weld could break loose simply due to the rebar force, imagine the rebar trying to prevent the beam from moving. As with the case shown in Photo 15, to fix this issue, the rebar should be shortened first and at least 2 inches of the rebar welded the beam

Photo 17 shows a gross misuse of a rebar anchor. As the photo below shows, the rebar is run from the foundation footing to the foundation beam. Obviously, this anchor would not constrain movement of the foundation beam and would therefore not be an acceptable anchor. This photo also shows another issue with the pilaster construction. Gaps in the mortar show that the blocks were not fully mortared, nor filled with concrete or reinforced with rebar.. At least, this installer used a sold 4-inch concrete block on top of the pilaster to properly transfer the beam load fully across the pilaster.

Photo 16. Another example of an improper rebar anchor; but in this case, the rebar has pulled loose due to not being welded properly.

Photo 17. Another example of an improper rebar anchor for a foundation beam. Also shown is an example of an improperly constructed pilaster.

As stated previously, poured concrete foundations offer additional anchoring options as shown in the following Photos 18 and 19.

Photo 18. Example of a proper foundation beam anchor using angle iron that has been bolted to foundation and welded to the foundation beam.

Photos 18 and 19 show two variations of the same type of anchor, except one was installed under the foundation beam and the other over the foundation beam. Both photos show that the anchor is bolted solidly to the foundation and both are wider than the beam flanges. The foundation beams need to be welded fully to the anchors, as can be seen clearly in Photo 19. Even if the anchor is installed above the beam, welding is needed to prevent the beam from being pulled upward or out of the pocket. Note also that the beam pockets in both photos are just wide enough to accommodate the beam, which helps prevent beam twist. However, these types of anchors should also help prevent twist.

Photo 20 shows a clever use of tie-down straps normally used to anchor homes on pier foundation systems. In this case, the straps normally used to fasten piered home’s structural beams to a concrete footing or pad have been used to anchor this home’s structural beams the concrete foundation. Further, the strap has been properly looped around the carriage beam according to the manufacturer’s instructions, which firmly secures the strap buckle to the home structural beam. Many installers do not properly install these straps. The additional strap between the carriage beam and the end foundation wall should not be needed because the home structural beam’s movement is constrained by the foundation and other anchors; but the manufacturer’s installation instructions should be followed to prevent voiding warranties. Nonetheless, this installation does not meet the overall guidelines stated earlier because the foundation beams have not been anchored to the foundation or the structural beams have not been fastened to the foundation beams. Note also that this photo shows an example of an installation with a foundation beam installed near the end of the home structural beams instead of a pilaster, pier or column.

Photo 19. Example of another proper anchoring method using angle iron bolted to foundation.


Photo 20. Example of an anchor method using steel strap anchors attached to the foundation.

In some cases, concrete block is sometimes installed on top of a poured concrete foundation. This kind of change can happen if additional headroom in a basement was desired after the concrete foundation has already been poured. Photo 21 shows the way one installer, almost acceptably resolved this issue. The installer built pockets in the block to constrain the foundation beams and then welded angle anchors to the beams that extended to the poured concrete foundation. However, the installer did not bolt the angles to the foundation, making this installation not acceptable. The installer also did reinforce the concrete blocks surrounding the foundation beams by installing rebar that was anchored into the concrete foundation and filling the block holes with concrete. In fact, I believe that the designer should have specified that all of the concrete block sections be reinforced and concreted.


Photo 21. Example of a possible proper foundation beam anchor used on a mixed materials foundation. However, the angle section needs to be bolted to the foundation.

To complete a proper anchoring system for foundation beam systems, the home structural beams need to be fastened to the foundation beams. Manufacturer installation instructions that I have reviewed require that the structural beams be fastened to the foundation beams at ALL points where they cross. Manufacturers usually allow two fastening methods, either 1/4″-inch fillet welds or bolting. An example of welding is shown in Photo 22 and bolting in Photo 23.

Photo 22. Example of a proper welding between a structural beam and foundation beam.

Photo 23. Example of a bolt fastening a structural beam to a foundation beam.

By far, welding is usually more expedient than bolting and more secure. Installers considering bolting should check with the manufacturer to assure that drilling holes in the home structural beams will not void the home’s warranty. If bolting is allowed, installers should also check for the manufacturer’s specifications for bolt size and torque. Installers should also verify whether washers and lock nuts are needed. Installation instructions for welding usually require that both sides of either the home structural or foundation beam be welded; but installers should follow the manufacturer’s specific instructions for the home. Installation instructions also normally require that each joint be fully welded across the full width of the structural or foundation beam, as shown in Photo 22. A number of installers us a weld of only 1 or 2 inches, which is normally not acceptable. Alternative methods of fastening the two beams together may exist; but the installer should check with the manufacturer for acceptability. In the absence of installation instructions, installers should follow local building codes requirements for fastening the beams together.

Earlier in this article, I noted that shims are normally installed between the foundation beams and home structural beams rather than between the foundation beams and the foundation. Wood shims, as shown in Photo 24, are not acceptable because they may not support the load and they do not allow proper fastening of the foundation beams to the home structural beams. Additionally, when joints with shims are welded, the shim needs to be fully included in the weld, as shown in Photo 25.

Photo 24. Improper use of wood shims between a foundation beam and structural beam.

Photo 25. Proper welding of the metal shims used between a structural beam and foundation beam.

Alternative Foundation Systems and Anchoring Methods:

Previously, I mentioned a second general type of manufactured and modular home construction that is supported directly on the perimeter foundations without need for foundation. From the underside, these homes look very similar to site-built homes, as can be seen in the Photos 26 through 28. The first two photos are manufactured homes and the last photo is a modular home. The marriage line of these homes are usually supported on steel columns or concrete block piers. A load-bearing wall could also be used instead of columns; but, the homes I have inspected that had frame walls built under the marriage line also usually had steel columns. If a frame wall is planned to be used as a load-bearing wall instead of steel columns, consult the manufacturer’s installation instructions or local building codes to verify that load-bearing wall construction is acceptable.

Note that in Photos 26 through 28 the marriage line is the equivalent of the main beam in a site-built home, except one-half of the marriage line “beam” belongs to each side of the home. The two halves are screwed together when the homes are mated together. These homes come in a variety of constructions, and manufacturers are likely to make changes in the future to make the homes look even more like site-built homes.

Another difference between these homes and those with foundation beams is that these homes are anchored around the perimeter to a sole plate that sits on top of the foundation. To fully anchor these homes, the sole plate must be anchored to the foundation AND the home needs to be anchored to the sole plate.

Photo 26. Example of one style of manufactured home that uses perimeter anchoring to a sole plate instead of foundation beams.

Photo 27. Another example one style of manufactured home that uses perimeter anchoring to a sole plate instead of foundation beams.

 

Photo 28. Example of one style of modular home that uses perimeter anchoring to a sole plate instead of foundation beams.

Two methods for anchoring the sole plate are shown in the following Photos 29 and 30. Photo 29 shows a sole plate anchored to the foundation using an anchor bolt while Photo 30 shows a sole plate attached to the foundation using metal straps fastened to the foundation. Some installers have also used concrete anchors and bolts to fasten the sole plate to the foundation. Local or state building codes, the International Building Code or the manufacturer instructions should be consulted to determine acceptable methods for how the sole plate is fastened to the foundation. Keep in mind that the weaker the fastening method, the more anchors might be needed. For example, I would expect fewer anchors being needed for the anchor bolt fasteners in Photo 29 than the strap anchors in Photo 30.

I have observed two variations in home construction that determine how the home is anchored to the sole plate. For homes with wood joists, the joists can be fastened to the sole plate directly, as shown in Photo 31. In this installation, the sole plate was oversized and lag screws were used to screw joists to the sole plate.

Homes with steel joists may have a sole plate attached to the bottom of the joists, as shown in the Photo 32. As can be seen in this photo, this sole plate is then screwed to the foundation sole plate.

Photo 29. Example of a sole plate bolted to the foundation. The home is then fastened to the sole plate.

Photo 30. Example of a strap anchor being used to anchor a sole plate to foundation.

Photo 31. Example of a home joist being screwed to the sole plate to complete the anchoring system.

Photo 32. Example of a manufactured home bolted to a sole plate.

Some homes have band joists that extend below the floor joists, which can be seen as oriented strand board in Photo 29. For these homes, the band joist can be fastened to the sole plate from the exterior side of the rim joist prior to siding being installed over the band joist. On the other hand, some manufacturers extend the exterior sheathing below the floor level and attach the joists to the sheathing, which appears to be the case in Photo 30. Manufacturers may have specified methods for anchoring the home in the installation instructions. If the instructions do not specify an anchoring method, refer to local or state building codes or contact the manufacturer or a licensed engineer or architect for recommendations.

Although manufacturers might allow anchoring the home using the rim joist or exterior sheathing, I do not favor this method of anchoring. One major issue with this anchoring method is that a gap is sometimes left between the exterior sheathing or band joist and the sole plate because of an error or inaccuracy in construction. This gap could be sizeable. For one home I inspected, a gap of nearly 1 inch was present in some places around the home’s perimeter. The strength in this anchoring method comes mainly from the contact between the sheathing or band joist and the sole plate woods when the fastener pulls them together. If a gap is present, the fasteners take the entire load, which weakens the anchor. Additionally, verifying whether the home has been properly anchored is difficult to impossible once the siding has been installed. Due to the number of issues with this method of anchoring the home, I recommend that an alternate method that anchors the home’s joists to the sole plate be used if possible.

The Wrap:

I have tried to be as thorough as possible in writing this article; however, I have likely missed some important points. Further, manufacturers periodically change designs that could change installation requirements. Further, so much variation exists currently in home designs that a particular home’s foundation system and anchoring method may be different than presented in this article; but those in this article may still be acceptable.

Another important point is that recent HUD rules require states to develop installation rules based on the HUD model standards (24 CFR 3285). HUD further required that new manufactured home sets be inspected according to each state’s rules. For installations not covered in the HUD or state rules, such as perimeter foundation systems, HUD rules and likely many state rules defer to the manufacturer’s installation instructions or specifications by a licensed engineer or architect designs. If other state rules are similar to those in Ohio, this information must be obtained prior to obtaining a permit to begin construction. Make sure you are aware of your state’s requirements so that a potentially stiff fine or reconstruction costs are avoided.

Please be sure to contact us with questions or comments or to request a PDF version of this article. I hope to revise this article based on those comments and questions.

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Central vs. Portable Humidification Systems

November 14, 2010

In previous posts, I discussed how humidification systems work and how effective a central humidification system might be.  In that post, I hinted at differences between central (whole house) humidification systems and portable (local) humidification systems.  In this post, I want to discuss more about the differences between the two systems.

If you have not realized yet from previous posts, I am biased–I am not a fan of central humidification systems.  I see them often in the homes I inspect; but I suspect that most do not work as intended.  Yet, there they are.  I have to wonder if the installation company actually analyzed the need for a humidification system or was just selling a product that is quite profitable for the company.  Simply asking the homeowner whether he and/or she wanted a humidification system is not the analysis about which I am talking, by the way.

Following are the reasons that I believe a PHS is better than a central humidification system.  For simplification, CHS is used for central humidification system, while PHS is used for PHS.

First is the big picture.  Why try to humidify a whole home when all of the home occupants are not in all of the home’s areas at once?  Let me put is bluntly, injecting a gallon of water into a room is going to be more effective at raising the humidity than injecting a gallon of water into the whole home.

Second is effectiveness.  I believe that a portable humidification system providing spot moisture would likely work better than a CHS.  With a PHS, moisture from a judicially placed unit can be directed into the air around a person’s head (the area that industrial hygienist types call the breathing zone or when they really want to be cool—the BZ).  Even if the PHS cannot be aimed to direct moisture into the occupant’s breathing zone, it can be located close enough to elevate the moisture in the air people are breathing.  If the room can be closed up, such as a bedroom, humidification will likely be more successful than trying to humidify an entire home.  In fact, in the previous blog where I discussed virus and humidification, a portable humidifier was used in that research.  As my previous blog post showed,, CHSs are probably not effective at significantly elevating humidity levels in some homes, particularly air leaky homes.

Home leakiness leads to the third reason portable is better than CHSs—losses.  Moisture in the air is in the form of water vapor, which behaves like the other gases in air.  As such, if the amount of airborne moisture in one area is greater than in another area, moisture in the first area will travel to the second area as long as the two areas are connected.  On cold winter days, the amount of moisture in the outdoor air is usually lower than the amount in indoor air (a subject for another post).  In air leaky homes, indoor moisture will likely move outdoors, even if outdoor air is moving in the opposite direction.  So, most of the water a CHS is putting into the air could be traveling directly outdoors, barely elevating the indoor humidity levels.  Over an entire home, the total area of the air leaks is less than those in a single room.  Therefore, the amount of moisture being lost from one area will be less than throughout all areas.  If a PHS is supplying more moisture to a given area than the central system is supplying to the entire home area, moisture levels in the area with the PHS will be greater.  Even if the moisture from the PHS is also traveling outdoors, it has a better chance of being effective as it travels through people’s breathing zones on it trip outdoors.

A fourth reason is condensation areas.  Most homes have cold surfaces in the winter where condensation can occur.  The chances that condensation surfaces are in the same room with a PHS are less than the chances of moisture from a CHS seeing a condensation surface.

A fifth reason is better humidity control.  Some PHSs now come with their own humidistats.  Basically, the portable unit is sensing the humidity right in the space where the person is.  CHS humidistats are installed in the return air duct in an effort to sense the “average” humidity in the home.  What happens if the return air system is pulling more air from some areas of the home than others, meaning that it is not sensing the true average humidity levels?  That issue is more common than you might think.  Some central system humidistats are placed on a wall in the home; but those also have the same issues as far as sensing the “average” humidity levels.

A sixth reason is operation.  CHSs, if they are working right, only humidify air when the air handling system is working.  During the rest of the time, the CHS is at the mercy of the thermostat.  The central humidification control system has to wait until the thermostat calls for heat before it can work.  Just in case someone is thinking that the CHS can be set to operate without the furnace, remember that the CHS needs air moving through it to work.  Someone is likely also thinking that the thermostat can be set to ON so that the fan is operating all the time.  Then, if the humidistat calls for humidification, air will be flowing through the CHS.  It could; but, the reason air downstream of the furnace is passed through the CHS is because heated air can hold more moisture than cooler air. So, more water will be lost with the CHS if unheated air is passed through it than heated air.  With PHSs, the unit is always injecting moisture into the air without the need for moving air to transport the moisture.

A seventh reason is maintenance.  If a valve on the CHS sticks open, water will be dumped right down the drain when air is not moving through it.  In some cases, the CHS drain is plugged up, and water is dumped into the air handler and then ultimately onto the floor outside the unit.  If that water travels to nearby furnished areas, moisture-related damage can occur.  Sometimes, the damage is extensive, such as shown in the photos below.  The fact is that CHSs are usually not inspected very often and problems may not found until a serious malfunction occurs.  If a PHS malfunctions, it is usually right in the same room with the home’s occupants, who can then see that a problem is occurring.  Maintenance of a PHS is usually so easy that the home owner can do it.  For most homeowners, a HVAC technician is needed to service the CHS.  Remember too, that the more debris that collects on the media inside a CHS, the less air can get through the CHS and the less effective it will be.  The PHS, on the other hand, can be kept clean of debris.

 

Water damage caused by a malfunctioning CHS

 

 

An eighth is bioaerosols.  One of the more well-known cases with PHSs is humidifier fever caused by a PHS that was not properly cleaned and reservoir water was allowed to sit in the unit and grow yuck.  When the unit was operated, the yuck was injected into the air that people were breathing.  But, CHSs are not without the same problems.  In fact, they are essentially operating as a back-up filter to air handler filter.  The debris collected on the media inside the CHS stays there until the media is replaced and that debris contains bioaerosols that may find the conditions inside the CHS a very nice place to grow.  Nowadays, most PHSs are made so that the owner can readily clean the unit and all of them recommend using fresh water every time the unit is operated.

A ninth reason is cost.  A homeowner can buy a lot of PHSs for the cost of one CHS.  For sure, the initial cost of a CHS is much more than a PHS.  But, consider also that if you are not happy with the operation of the humidification system, replacing a PHS is a lot cheaper than replacing a CHS.  I have found cases where homes had unused or disabled CHSs along with PHSs that were being used.

A tenth and final reason is choice.  For residences, homeowners are mainly stuck with one option—the wetted media CHS.  Although residential steam injection CHSs are available, they are even more expensive than the wetted media CHSs.  With PHSs, the owner has not only choice of the method of humidification, as explained in a previous post, a number of manufacturers produce the various types of PHSs.  Having a range of options also means more competition with PHSs than with CHSs, which further means price and feature competition.  I have seen several CHSs and they appear to be amazingly similar, while I have seen a range of PHS designs and those designs continue to evolve.

I guess I could be faulted in this post for not finding more advantages of CHSs over PHSs.  The truth is, none comes to my mind other than the fact that water is supplied to the CHS, while the owner has to carry water to the PHS.  Even though that difference could be considered an advantage of a CHS over a PHS, I think it can also be considered a disadvantage because when changing water, the owner actually is inspecting the PHS and likely keeping it clean.

If you have another opinion, let me know.

Take note: ALL new manufactured home installations in Ohio MUST be inspected

September 23, 2010

I am a certified inspector for the Ohio Manufactured Home Commission (OMHC).  About every month, the Commission meets to discuss issues that arrive relative to the installation requirements for manufactured homes.  At the meeting this month, the Commission discussed the fact that a large number of manufactured home owners are still unaware that manufactured home inspections have been required since September 2007.  Therefore, I thought that this would be a good subject to blog about.

Prior to initiation of the OMHC, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), powered by the manufactured home industry, developed rules to serve as a model code for all of the states.  The law that passed also dictated that all states would have to initiate a program for inspecting all new installations (sets) of manufactured homes.  At the least, the states had to use the HUD model code as a minimum code for each state.  Ohio adopted a slightly stricter version of the HUD model code, and at times various revisions to the Ohio code are made.

The basic fact is that the Ohio code requires all new installations of manufactured homes undergo inspections.  “New installations” does not mean installations of just new manufactured homes.  It means all manufactured homes, whether they are installed on private property or in manufactured home parks or whether they are brand new or years old.  Even if you are relocating the home from one manufactured home park to another, you must have its installation inspected.  Even if you are relocating a home from private land to a manufactured home park or vice versa, you must have it inspected.

Installations currently require three inspections: footing, electrical safety and final installation.  The footing inspection may not be needed if approval is given to an existing footing that is being reused.  Furthermore, all installations must receive a permit prior to any work beginning.  For information on the permits, the permit application forms and the steps you need to go through in the installation process, refer to this location: http://www.omhc.ohio.gov/Consumers/tabid/59/Default.aspx.  The permit is issued by the same certified OMHC inspectors that perform the inspections.  Local building departments and some Ohio Department of Health agencies perform manufactured home inspections as well as Third Party Agencies, such as my firm, Criterium-Cincinnati Engineers.  You can find a list of Third Party Agency  inspectors by county at this location:  http://www.omhc.ohio.gov/CallforInspections/tabid/57/Default.aspx.   Note that you can be fined if you begin work without obtaining a proper permit.

The rules require that installers licensed by the OMHC perform both the footing and installation work.  Most installers have unlicensed assistants helping them.  In these cases, the licensed installer must be on-site 80% of the time supervising the work.  Installers may also obtain the permit and line up the inspection agency.

After a home passes its inspections, the inspector will place a seal inside the electrical panel.  Note that this seal is only for that home’s installation on the site for which the seal was issued.  If the home is moved to another location, it will need to undergo the permitting and inspection process again and receive a new seal for the new location.

Several other important points need to be understood:

  • If a home was installed  after September 2007, it must still be inspected and meet the existing rules.
  • Homeowners may do their own installations; however, if a homeowner chooses to do the work, he or she is required to do all of the work him or herself, including obtaining a permit.  We highly recommend that homeowners not do their own installations because we have had nothing but bad experiences when they do.  In pretty much all cases, the homeowner is taking on much more work than they realize and likely does not have the proper equipment to do a complete installation.  Homeowner who are thinking about doing the work themselves should review the rules to which the home’s installation must adhere at this location:  http://www.omhc.ohio.gov/LawsandRules/tabid/66/Default.aspx (if you looked, yep, every one of ’em).  Whereas, most installers have had a number of years of experience.  They are also required to be trained and pass a qualifying test prior to obtaining a license.  We therefore recommend that homeowners have licensed installers do the installation.
  • We recommend that the homeowner have the installer obtain the proper permits.  If the installer obtains the permit, he or she is responsible for completing the work.  If the homeowner obtains the permit, he or she is responsible.  If additional work is needed for the home to pass inspection, having the installer responsible for the permit gives the homeowner leverage to assure the work gets done.
  • On the other hand, we recommend that the homeowner select the inspection agency.  Some installers have a “comfortable” relationship with some inspectors and, let’s just say, the homeowner might not be getting the inspection they should.
  • Permits are for 180 days only, which should be adequate time for the installation to occur.  An extension can be given; but, if one is needed, then something is definitely wrong.
  • The homeowner is not supposed to occupy the home until it receives a passing final inspection and is sealed.  The inspector can issue a temporary occupancy permit if he or she finds that the issues that need to be resolved for the home to pass inspection are not serious.  However, the temporary permit, as the name implies, means that the home must eventually pass inspection.
  • Most electrical companies will not connect the electric service to a home until after it passes the electrical safety inspection.  The problem has been that some homeowners have gotten the electrical service connected and then not completed the installation so that it passes inspection.  The Commission is currently working to close this loophole.  Inspectors are also going to get more aggressive at assuring that the installation is satisfactorily completed.

I have heard all of the excuses about why manufactured homes should not be inspected and complaints about the inspection requirements.  But, after performing nearly 600 manufactured home FHA inspections, I understand the requirements for every part of the rules.  The inspections are not intended to simply aggravate the homeowner.  They are there to assure that the home is installed safely and to help preserve the homeowner’s investment.  With proper installation, a manufactured home can last for many years.  I see no reason why a properly installed and cared for home cannot increase in value over time.

Some more links I believe are useful

September 15, 2010

The following article, 10 Things Your Plumber Won’t Tell You, came in an e-letter I received today:

http://www.smartmoney.com/spending/rip-offs/10-things-your-plumber-wont-tell-you-18259/?cid=sm_pfspend_rss&mod=smartmoney

I recommend that you also check out the other 10 Things articles  that Smart Money has posted on-line at:

http://www.smartmoney.com/spending/rip-offs/

BTW, one of those articles are about home inspectors, on which I hope to comment in the near future.  That is one article, with which I don’t totally agree–at least for my firm.

A picture is worth a thousand words

September 13, 2010

A picture may be worth a thousand words; but a picture is also much better than a human memory.  As related to my business, I am referring to whenever a homeowner has work done on their home.  Time and again, I have had homeowners tell me about former work that was done to the home or its surrounding grounds.  Shortly after my questions begin, their memory of exactly what was done stops.

Now, I don’t blame the homeowner for not remembering.  In many cases, he or she trust that whoever is doing the work will do it well and right.  (Well, not always and that is a subject for another blog post.)  In other cases, the homeowner did not exactly understand what was being done and did not pay much attention to what a contractor is doing.  In still other cases, the homeowner may have been very observant of the work, but seen it through different eyes than I would as an engineer.  The result is the same–pretty shaky details.

I will give an example.  A home has trouble with water running out from under a sidewalk and curb and onto an asphalt parking area.  Water running onto asphalt is never a good thing because the water degrades the asphalt and shortens its life.  I was told a drain line was installed.  The problem was that the homeowner did not remember whether it was a drain was only for the gutters or whether the line had holes to also drain the soil.  The difference is important because it could either be the source of the problem if done one way or be a solution for the problem if done another way.  Furthermore, the homeowner could not remember exactly where the line was run relative to everything else.

With the age of digital photos and the prevalence and price of decent cameras, photos are cheap and can be made readily.  You can also take a bunch of photos and they will all have date codes.  And folks, please, please, please don’t use the camera phones to take the photos unless that is the only camera left on Earth.  Camera phones do not have the resolution of the digital cameras or the features, such as image stabilization.  I also recommend that you take photos with the highest resolution camera you can get.  I normally use a 12 megapixel camera.  The reason is that the more megapixels a camera has, the more a person can zoom into the picture to pick out fine details.  I have had to use this feature on many occasions  when trying to dig out details.  I also recommend that you take all photos with the flash on rather than with the camera set to automatic because the flash can highlight some details, even on sunny days.

So, how often should you take photos during the work?  At the least, I recommend photos of before work has begun and when demolition is done or when the dirt is removed depending on which is applicable.  Other times to take photos depends on the work progress.  Maybe the best recommendation would be at the end of every work day because work can progress rapidly.  Any time the contractor states that a change in plans has occurred would be another.  If in doubt, call us and we might be able to provide ideas.

And, what should you take pictures of?  I think one person said it best.  Paint the area with pictures.  In other words, take enough photos to show a complete picture.  Whichever way you have to look to see the work that was done, take a picture.  Be generous.  But, also be sure to review the picture in the camera view screen to be sure the shot is acceptable.  To do so effectively, you may need to go into your camera’s menu functions and change the time the image stays on the screen.

Once you have those photos, do not just put them on your computer or leave them stored in your camera.  I have learned over the years that hard drives are not the most reliable things.  I have also learned, through others thankfully, that laptops  can be stolen very easily.  Cameras also seem to sprout legs and walk.  I recommend that you store the photos on a dedicated SD card, thumb drive, CD or DVD.  In addition, I recommend storing them online through one of the many storage areas because I can tell you from personal experience, it works.  I personally use Mozy and like the service–but you may find others acceptable.  Flickr is a freebie for a certain amount of storage.  Most on-line storage services are quite reasonable for not only photos, but also for the other important documents on your computer.

Again, Criterium-Cincinnati Engineers provides service.  Although we like to earn money, nearly as much as the guys who like to receive money from us for their services.  That does not mean we charge callers for every phone inquiry.  We don’t and we don’t do the hard sell.  Call and discuss what is going on with one of our engineers.  We will be glad to help.

Home weather barriers, vinyl siding and Hamilton County Ohio

July 29, 2010

In inspecting a home under construction, I recently ran into an issue dealing with a weather-resistant barrier.  This barrier is one that protects exterior wall materials from weather exposure, particularly water.  So, the best place to begin this discussion is by defining what a weather-resistant barrier is.  The American Vinyl Siding Institute states the following on their website:

What Is a Weather Resistant Barrier System? It is a system that includes water shedding materials and water diversion materials. Weather resistant barrier systems commonly consist of a combination of exterior cladding, flashed wall openings and penetrations, weather resistant barrier material, and sheathing. Effective weather resistant barrier systems will shed the water initially, control moisture flow by capillary and diffusion action, and minimize absorption into the wall structure. The level of weather resistance required is determined by the applicable building code and structure.

The 2007 Ohio Building Code, which basically is taken from the 2006 International Building Code, defines a water barrier, which is basically one of the major purposes of a weather resistant barrier, as:

WATER-RESISTIVE BARRIER. A material behind an exterior wall covering that is intended to resist liquid water that has penetrated behind the exterior covering from further intruding into the exterior wall assembly.

This code further details a weather-resistant barrier as:

1403.1 General. The provisions of this section shall apply to exterior walls, wall coverings and components thereof.

1403.2 Weather protection. Exterior walls shall provide the building with a weather-resistant exterior wall envelope. The exterior wall envelope shall include flashing, as described in Section 1405.3. The exterior wall envelope shall be designed and constructed in such a manner as to prevent the accumulation of water within the wall assembly by providing a water-resistive barrier behind the exterior veneer, as described in Section 1404.2, and a means for draining water that enters the assembly to the exterior. Protection against condensation in the exterior wall assembly shall be provided in accordance with the International Energy Conservation Code.

1404.2 Water-resistive barrier. A minimum of one layer of No.15 asphalt felt, complying with ASTM D 226 for Type 1 felt or other approved materials, shall be attached to the studs or sheathing, with flashing as described in Section 1405.3, in such a manner as to provide a continuous water-resistive barrier behind the exterior wall veneer.

1404.1 General. Materials used for the construction of exterior walls shall comply with the provisions of this section. Materials not prescribed herein shall be permitted, provided that any such alternative has been approved.

1404.2 Water-resistive barrier. A minimum of one layer of No.15 asphalt felt, complying with ASTM D 226 for Type 1 felt or other approved materials, shall be attached to the studs or sheathing, with flashing as described in Section 1405.3, in such a manner as to provide a continuous water-resistive barrier behind the exterior wall veneer.

Section 1405.2 Weather protection. Exterior walls shall provide weather protection for the building. The materials of the minimum nominal thickness specified in Table 1405.2 shall be acceptable as approved weather coverings.

In looking at the home under construction for the first time, I noted that a weather-resistant barrier was not installed on the home.   Most people will recognize a weather-resistant barrier as the usually white paper-like wrap, most commonly with the name Tyvek printed on it in large letters.  Other similar wrap or other materials are also used.  That is where the problems began.

In inquiring about the lack of weather-resistant barrier, I asked for the drawings.  In reviewing the drawings, I noted that no weather-resistant barrier was specified.  When I inquired about why none had been installed, the builder informed me that the Hamilton County, Ohio Building Department did not require it.  Apparently, the building department believes that vinyl siding, which was being installed on this home, was an adequate weather-resistive barrier.

I decided to investigate further on the ultimate authority.  On the internet, I found that the Vinyl Siding Institute states in its Vinyl Siding Installation Manual (http://www.abtco.com/kp_abtco/docs/ABTCO_Vinyl_General_Installation_Instructions_.pdf):

Weather Resistant Barrier

Vinyl siding has always been designed as an exterior cladding, not a weather resistant barrier.  Vinyl siding is designed to allow the material underneath it to breathe; therefore, it is not a watertight covering. Because of its design and application, it provides a supplemental rain screen that enhances the weather resistant barrier system by reducing the amount of water that reaches the underlying weather resistant barrier.

What Is a Weather Resistant Barrier System? It is a system that includes water shedding materials and water diversion materials. Weather resistant barrier systems commonly consist of a combination of exterior cladding, flashed wall openings and penetrations, weather resistant barrier material, and sheathing. Effective weather resistant barrier systems will shed the water initially, control moisture flow by capillary and diffusion action, and minimize absorption into the wall structure. The level of weather resistance required is determined by the applicable building code and structure.

Best Practice: To achieve designed performance, vinyl siding must be installed over a weather resistant barrier system that includes 1) a continuous weather resistant material and 2) properly integrated flashing around all penetrations and where vinyl siding interfaces with other building products such as brick, stone, or stucco. Refer to the manufacturer’s installation manual for specific product applications and recommendations. Whichever product(s) you decide to use as part of a weather resistant barrier system, be certain the materials meet the applicable code by contacting the manufacturer of the weather resistant barrier material(s). Always consult the applicable building code for minimum weather barrier requirements in your area. Keep in mind that additional measures may provide better protection against water intrusion than the minimum requirements of the building code.

The Vinyl Siding Institute clearly states that vinyl siding is not an acceptable weather or water resistant barrier.  Since vinyl siding is not considered to be a weather or water resistant barrier, installing vinyl siding without a proper weather-resistant barrier cannot meet the requirements of the building codes for Hamilton County, as taken from the Ohio Building Code and the International Building Code and cannot be considered as proper building practices.  Furthermore, The Vinyl Siding Institute states that vinyl siding needs to be installed over a weather-resistant barrier, and basically describes the properties of a material such as Tyvek, although it is not the only weather-resistant barrier available.  This Institute further states that proper flashing is required for the siding.

So, am I making much ado about nothing.  I hope not.  Water, especially from wind driven rain can get behind any siding material, but more so vinyl siding.  This water then can reach the underlying wood materials.  The problem areas might not be behind where the water reaches the underlying materials, they usually are where that water flows after landing on the materials.  Water that gets behind the siding will flow down the face of the sheathing to points where it can pool, such as above windows and doors and at the base of walls.  At these points, it can enter into the wall cavity itself if those areas are not properly flashed.  It can also enter through gaps between the sheathing.

Once inside a wall, the water can be absorbed by the insulation.  Insulation holds water really well–nearly as well as a sponge.  If enough water is present, mold will grow because mold spores and their food sources are endemic.  Mold can further cause wood rot.  Other moisture-related damage can also occur, particularly to materials made from oriented strand board (OSB), a very common building material and one that has a bad habit of delaminating when exposed to enough moisture.  Do you think that repairing these materials can be expensive?  You betcha it can, particularly if structural members are involved.

What is the bottom line here?  If you have the abilities to review the construction drawings, do so very carefully and inspect closely for a proper weather-resistant barrier.  If you don’t have this expertise or ability, then hire someone who does, such as a capable architect or engineer.  And remember this point, drawings are best reviewed BEFORE construction begins.  My clients learned that lesson at a cost of $1800, and even then, the weather-resistant barrier was not ideal because the windows and doors were not properly flashed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

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.

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.


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