The Finish Line: The Joy of Home Inspections
One’s home is one’s “castle,” right? Yes, and because it is, homeowners take their homes seriously and personally and can get really lathered up if inspections are not done right. On commercial buildings, it’s usually much more of a business proposition, and hence the personal involvement usually isn’t quite so intense. What follows is geared towards doing non-intrusive, visual-only EIFS inspections on wood framed residences.
First, make sure the owner understands that if they want the EIFS inspected, that’s what they’ll get, and that it doesn’t (unless you are offering other services) include the roof or the interior or any of the other systems like air conditioning and so on. I’ve found that what almost all homeowners I’ve dealt with are actually looking for is an exterior wall inspection, and they expect that to include windows, penetration, doors and anything else that is part of the wall, including the framing, insulation and sheathing. Thus, if you are doing “EIFS inspections,” you do need to be familiar with other products that come in contact with the EIFS; foundations, various types of sheathings and framing, vinyl siding, brick, decks, chimneys, windows, flashings, caulking, and so on. When I moved to Florida from Seattle a few years ago, one way I discovered how things are done in The South was to volunteer some time with the local Habitat for Humanity group. Although there wasn’t any EIFS on the homes we built, I did learn a lot about other forms of construction, and it was a fun experience.
I’ve found that a lot of homeowners are not real sharp about how houses are built. To ease this problem, I bring a three-ring binder of standard EIFS details with me so I can show them how common conditions like window heads and sills are built, instead of making quick sketches to try to explain things. This saves time. I also bring a one-foot square cutaway hand sample of an EIFS on sheathing, so I can show them what the various layers are. Nowadays, for houses, I also bring two other samples, one of EIFS with drainage, so they can see the difference between a barrier and a drainage system, and one of a mechanically attached EIFS using polyisocyanurate insulation. I also put together a 32-page illustrated booklet called “The EIFS Homeowner’s Guide,” which homeowners can download for free from my website (www.eifs.com/home.pdf). This is really handy in dealing with many homeowners so we can communicate easily about EIFS and walls in general.
Standing and StaringWhen someone first contacts me and asks me to do an inspection, I ask them some basic questions to try to get a handle on what the building is like. This helps get a feel for how long it might take (and hence the cost), the extent of what they want done, and what sort of building (privately owned single-family home, or an entire apartment building or one unit in a condo) is being inspected. To avoid having to make repeat visits, I sometimes ask if they can take some simple digital photos of all the sides of the building and then email them to me before I show up. Then I’ll have a clue regarding how to get to the walls and what gear to bring. It also sometimes reveals that the walls are not EIFS at all, but are actually stucco with EIFS finish.
Certain types of problems with EIFS-clad walls are obvious, like cracks, failed caulking, bulging and discoloration. But an EIFS-clad wall or any wall for that matter-can have hidden problems that cannot be detected without cutting into the wall. This situation is a bit analogous to a person with cancer, who looks OK until exploratory surgery is performed. But it is prudent when beginning an inspection to walk all the way around the building, photograph it from all sides, and note where the EIFS is and how you would get to it. In other words, don’t start by taking copious moisture meter readings, but first try to sort out what you are up against. I use a standard checklist of basic questions to go over with the owner, which usually gets to the heart of the matter quickly. I include my hand-written notes on my checklist in my report. Sometimes, due to the shape of the building or its position on the lot, it is almost impossible to get to some wall areas. If so, the report should indicate what areas were, and were not, looked at.
What Do You Want?It’s important to be clear what service(s) you are, and are not, providing. The word “inspection” means different things to different people, and usually what homeowners and realtors are looking for is a “condition assessment.” Occasionally it also turns out that there are known problems, and this “inspection” work becomes more of a forensic and diagnostic project than merely seeing if the walls are OK. Furthermore, sometimes they want to know more, such as what is causing the problems (if any), and how to fix them. You need to be careful not to go beyond what you are actually getting paid to do (a condition assessment?) and into the field of architecture and contracting, unless, of course you want to do that type of work too. For instance, in my case, I can help figure out how to do a fix (I’m an architect by education), and perhaps help find a contractor and get prices, but I don’t do the repairs myself.
In my experience, a lot of home inspections are part of a buy/sell transaction; they are looking for a quick overall assessment. Especially, they want to know about major, non-cosmetic problems that are expensive to fix, such as walls with massive internal damage due to leaks. Because, for most people, their home is their biggest investment and sometimes involves other major life events (like moving across country), it’s quite important that the inspection be a good one, lest the parties tend to get very ornery and subject you to the wrath of lawyers.
If you’re not diligent in your work and miss something major, you may find the owners coming back after you for the cost of the repairs. One way to avoid incurring too much extra liability is to have a standard written contract as part of the agreement to do the inspection, and that contract should include some reasonable limit as to what you would pay if something unexpected is discovered later. Some contracts I’ve seen limit the liability to most of the inspection, but that doesn’t stop them from suing you.
Digging InWith EIFS, if the person requesting the inspection is looking for major assurances of the actual full condition of the walls, this will often require getting into the wall. Sometimes this can be done from indoors where the internal condition is visible without removing drywall. This condition can sometimes occur in crawl spaces, near eaves, and in garages. If access is available from the outdoors only, then make sure to get permission to cut into the wall, to seal it temporarily until final repairs are done, and to make sure the owner realizes that the patch area(s) will be visible. If the reason for the inspection is an imminent buy/sell transaction, sometimes the owners get edgy about tearing into the walls of a house they are trying to sell, so ask first.
Before you get started, it’s prudent to ask if there are known problems (and to have them pointed out to you) and to ask under what condition they occur, such as when its windy or rainy, or in the summer or winter, and so on. Also, ask if any other inspections have been done. I have found that sometimes homeowners want a second opinion about EIFS. Sometimes this is the result of rumors they’ve heard about the woes of EIFS, often found on the Internet. I’ve also run into cases where certain real estate firms will not do a transaction on EIFS-clad homes without a special EIFS inspection. This interest in having a specialized EIFS inspection is especially common if the prior inspection was by an inspector who does general inspections, and does not specialize in exterior wall systems.
One of the most commonly requested, and often expected, EIFS inspection services is for water intrusion. Usually a hand-held moisture meter is used for this purpose. For details on using moisture meters with EIFS, see the June 2007 edition of Walls & Ceilings, or visit the magazine’s website, www.wconline.com for the digitally archived issue.
What To Look ForWhen doing a basic, nonintrusive inspection, there are a number of simple things to look for. Here are some of the more obvious ones:
• Cracks, especially at openings, corners and floor lines. A small number of cracks is usually not grounds for saying the whole wall is “bad,” but may be due to some isolated, easy-to-repair error, such as a random big gap between insulation board pieces. The key is to check the crack area, find out what caused it, and then just fix it.
• Bulges in the middle of the wall. Press against the wall to see if the EIFS is loose. If it is loose, this is something that should be thoroughly looked into.
• Wood rot (sheathing and/or framing) is a big issue and can be detected using a moisture meter. However, using a meter to get actual moisture percentage readings is intrusive, because it puts small holes in the wall. See the article mentioned above for details.
• Aesthetic issues (color, texture, etc.). Some aesthetic “problems” are highly subjective and transient (they come and go). Examples include lack of flatness during certain lighting conditions, or mechanical fasteners being visible at certain times of day. Since these kinds of “defects” are not functional, resolving them is often a matter of negotiation, rather than doing physical repairs.
• Are the edges back-wrapped or edge-wrapped? Especially at the bottom of the wall, the edge should not be “raw foam.”
• Is the EIFS going below grade? It shouldn’t be. The edge can be cut back and rebuilt, above grade.
• Look carefully around windows. This is the Number One source of Leaks-not the EIFS itself, but the window itself and the EIFS-to-window detail (flashing, caulking, etc.).
• Failed caulking. Press on it to see if it is still bonded, and is still rubbery.
• Check to see if the EIFS is being used properly. Wide, flat parapets without flashings, and low-slope roof-like wall areas tend to have many more problems than vertical walls.
• Through-wall penetrations, such as scuppers, pipes, and deck beams. These are notorious leakers.
• From the interior, is there evidence of leaks, such as discolored drywall?
The Local YokelI have found that inspection of homes works best at the local level. Unless it is a huge, expensive house, or litigation is involved, traveling large distances is just too expensive. Home inspections, when done locally, also give you an inside track to “who is who,” such as builders, realtors, suppliers and contractors, which are opportunities for additional business. I’ve also found that getting involved with one of the regional or national trade groups is helpful too, as they offer courses and training in EIFS, including inspection.
The toughest home inspections, in my experience, are multi-unit condos with rich, retired lawyers who spend all day out on the deck looking for problems and getting their neighbors riled up about nothing. Here in Florida, there is no lack of opportunities to do inspections for these people, and they do have money, and the hurricanes just keep on coming … and so I put up with them.