The Importance of Documentation

Over the past few months, I have worked with the California State Contractors License Board (CSLB) investigating several complaints against contractors performing home improvement work. All of the cases involved work not performed to industry standards, and most also involved substantial portions of work not being completed, and the fact that the contractor was paid more money than what he or she was entitled to.

The problem with complaints involving a contractor’s work is that the consumer is the one who often winds up investing a lot of additional time and money in trying to resolve the complaints. What I found interesting is that in each of the cases I worked on, the contract and description of the work to be performed between the homeowner and the contractor were poorly written and vague. This one fact substantially compromised the homeowner’s ability to justify their claims their claims against the contractor, and their ability to receive an appropriate judgment.

Unfortunately, most consumers do not realize the importance of proper documentation when dealing with a home improvement contractor. Documentation is critical if a job is to be completed as planned, and at the agreed upon price. Without it, resolving disputes can be a long and drawn out battle. It can take months, and sometimes years to settle most construction related disputes. To make matters worse, homeowners often spend more than the cost of the remodeling job in trying to settle a dispute with a contractor.

The very first thing a homeowner should do when considering to hire a contractor is to verify that the contractor is properly licensed and carries general liability and workman’s comp insurance. This can be done by contacting the CSLB at their website, www.cslb.gov, or by calling them at 1-800-321-2752. This sounds simple, but I am amazed at how many homeowners fail to do this, and wind up contracting with someone who is not licensed or qualified.

Once you have verified that the contractor is appropriately licensed for the type of job you want done, the next step is to establish a contract that clearly describes the work to be performed and the terms of payment. The contract should state an approximate starting and completion date. It should also describe the order in which the job will proceed, and who will be responsible for the selection and payment of the material.

In one of the cases I investigated, the contractor was hired to install a hydro-massage tub and the contract did not specify a specific brand or model of tub. The contractor went ahead and bought a new (ordinary) tub and installed a hydro-massage kit that hangs over the edge of the tub to circulate the water. Yet the contractor charged the client for a complete packaged unit where the motor and pump were below the tub, and the water jets are molded into the sides. The homeowner was shocked to see this, and had a difficult time in trying to prove the installation was not what she had ordered because there was no documentation specifying the type of tub.

Almost every home improvement job involves changes to the contract. This could be in the form of additional work being performed, or changes to materials or fixtures being used. A good contract has language stating that change orders will be in writing, will indicate how much will be charged, and how the change order will be paid for. Never allow a change to be made on a job assuming “it can be worked out later”.

In addition to clearly stating what work is to be performed, a good contract also states how and when payments will be made to ensure that the contractor is only paid for the work that is completed. Remember, a contractor can only charge a down payment of $1,000.00 or 10% of the contract price (whichever is less) before any work is actually performed. Once the contractor delivers either material or labor to the job, he or she is entitled to receive compensation.

Therefore it is wise to establish exactly when payments will be made. Usually payments are tied to the completion of major portions of the job, or when a substantial amount of material is delivered to a jobsite. For example, on a bedroom addition it is common to make a payment after the foundation is poured and after the rough framing, plumbing, and electrical are installed. There could also be a payment made at the delivery of the sheetrock and floor coverings, and then one final payment once all the work is completed.

The contract should also state that the work is to be done with permits. This is where many homeowners get into trouble. Contractors will sometimes tell the homeowner that permits will add to the cost of the job, are not really necessary, or are not required. Without permits, the municipal building department cannot inspect the work to verify that it meets minimum health and safety requirements, and this may expose the homeowner to future liabilities. It is always best to have the contractor obtain the permits.

Finally, the most important thing a person can do is to check references and visit similar jobs that their contractor has performed. More often than not, a reference can give you information that will help you with your decision on whether or not to hire. Also, seeing the actual work a contractor has completed will prevent any misconceptions as to the level of skill and professionalism he or she may possess.

Take the time to investigate a contractor’s license, establish a written contract clearly describing the work to be performed, and record any agreements or changes that occur after the contract is signed. It will be your best defense in ensuring that your home improvement job is successful.

Rebuilding Decks Q&A

QUESTION

“The house we just bought has an old, partially rotted wood deck at the rear yard that we want to remove and replace with a new one. Although the deck is redwood, it is only 12 years old, and many of the deck boards are twisted and bowed. Are there any other materials that we can use instead of redwood? Someone suggested that we use pressure treated lumber or go with a hardwood like mahogany. Any suggestions?” – B. L., Richmond

ANSWER

Redwood is by far the most common decking material on the west coast because of its natural decay resistance, beauty and affordability. However, if it is not properly installed and maintained, it will deteriorate. Your letter did not go into detail about the installation of the deck, but if many of the deck boards are twisted and bowed, it was probably not installed or fastened correctly.

To answer your question about other types of materials for decks, there are actually several options for the home owner and contractor. Besides pressure treated lumber and select hardwoods, there is also plastic, vinyl and wood-plastic composites.

Pressure treated lumber is most commonly used for deck supports, girders and joists. The advantage of this material is its excellent ability to resist rot; it is even designed to have direct contact with the earth. One of the disadvantages of this wood is that it tends to crack and split, leaving splinters and a rough surface. Sometimes these boards also tend to twist and bow, which can affect the aesthetics of the deck surface. Painting and staining can prevent some of the cracking and splitting, but it must be done on a routine basis to keep the deck looking good.

Besides using pressure treated wood or redwood, you could also consider the use of tropical hardwoods. Tropical hardwoods (commonly a type of mahogany or teak) have rich colors, are naturally decay resistive, and have a high density. They are also more expensive than either redwood or pressure treated wood, and require more care and skill in the installation. For example, if nailing the boards by hand, they usually have to be predrilled. These decks also require more maintenance than other decks because the surface of the boards must be coated regularly with a water repellant to prevent the boards from splitting and turning grey.

A new alternative to wood decking is synthetic decking, decking material made from recycled plastics and wood fibers. These materials look and feel like real wood, and are a little more expensive than redwood. However, they have several advantages. These boards are impervious to moisture and will not split, crack, warp or rot. They can be worked with standard tools, and do not require staining or sealing

One of the best known manufacturers of wood-plastic composite is Trex, with their “Easy Care Decking”. This material is slip resistant and splinter free and can be nailed or screwed down. It comes with a limited ten year warranty. For more information call 1-800-289-8739.

Another type of composite material called TimberTech, a material manufactured by A Crane Plastics Company (1-800-307-7780). This material is produced in hollow tongue-and-groove extrusions that are dimensionally stable, lightweight, and fit together by hand. Because of its design, most fasteners are hidden. The material comes in a light brown color, which fades to a light grey over time.

Finally, there are several all vinyl and aluminum decking systems that are designed to interlock or snap together. These products have an integral and sometimes concealed fastening system. This can speed installation and make it easier for the do-it-yourself market. Basically, a type of track or base is screwed or fastened to the framing members of the deck, and the vinyl or aluminum material is snapped or slid into place. These materials should basically last forever, and require less maintenance than a wood deck.

There are two things to remember when choosing these alternative decking materials, cost and availability. Most of the composite and vinyl products are made back East and are not widely available on the West Coast. You should contact your local lumber supplier and see if they carry any of these materials or if they can order them. The majority of these materials are sold as “systems” with their own fasteners, clips and end caps. You should make sure that you have all material on hand before you begin to lay out or build your deck.

Construction Workmanship Concerns Q&A

QUESTION

“We just bought a new house and we’re having trouble with the builder correcting several things that are wrong. There are problems with the exterior paint coverage, scratches on the cabinet and tile installations and the finish on all the woodwork and doors appear to be sub standard. We have contacted the builder several times and their response is that there is nothing wrong. What are the requirements for workmanship to be acceptable.” –  T. & C., Alamo

 

ANSWER

You have touched on a subject that many new home buyers are asking, “What constitutes an acceptable level of workmanship?” While there is no one place that you could find all of this information, most of it is available and is usually based on common sense.

Every aspect of construction has specific standards and requirements that dictate what an acceptable level of workmanship is. It can be found in the texts for union and trade schools, as well as the standards specified by manufacturers, designers and architects.

There is even specific language in the various building codes that dictate what steps are necessary for work to be considered acceptable.

For example, acceptable workmanship for painting a door would be to have the door sanded and primed, and then painted with a finish coat of paint providing a smooth, uniform surface with no voids or brush marks.

Does this mean that if there if one little brush-mark or slight unevenness to the paint in a particular location, the whole door needs to be repainted? No. If the imperfection is not obvious, and does not affect the inherent characteristics of the object, it is usually considered acceptable. The general rule of thumb for deviations to a finished surface is if the defect is visible within six feet, under natural light, it usually does not reflect industry standards.

Complaints for workmanship are on the rise and it is partly because of the hot construction market. In a market where houses are going up thousands of dollars each month, there is a willingness of some builders and contractors to sacrifice quality for cost and speed of installation. Workmanship issues can also be the result of poor jobsite supervision by a builder as well as a lack of in-depth trade knowledge and skills of the workers. As a consequence consumers are having to accept less than standard levels of workmanship.

A few weeks ago I was asked to inspect a newly built home two months after the buyers moved in. They began noticing problems with the finished condition of the house. While most of the complaints were cosmetic in nature, the buyers did have some legitimate concerns.

The biggest problem had to do with the finish painting and the installation of the cabinets in the kitchen. The finish painting had voids in its coverage and some walls were uneven in color. The enamel finish on the wood trim and doors had some obvious brush marks and paint runs. The cabinet installation had missing pieces of trim, the seams and joints that were not tight, and several of the cabinet doors did not match in color, or pattern of wood grain.

The builder’s initial response was that the quality of workmanship in this home was consistent with the standards of production housing and that the buyers were being too “picky”. He also stated that most of these items were not mentioned on the final walk-through, which meant that the buyers accepted it.

After inspecting the property, I agreed with the buyers that the workmanship was not acceptable and that it did not reflect standards of the industry for the reasons that I have mentioned above. We then arranged to meet with the builder at the property. It wasn’t until each item was pointed out and discussed, that the builder was willing to correct these conditions.

Most contractors and builders want to take care of any legitimate complaints that the consumer might have. Yet sometimes they are asked to correct things that really don’t need correcting or that are unreasonable. This is when most of them draw the line on what they will do for a customer.

It sounds like you have some legitimate complaints that need to be resolved with your builder. You might want to call in a couple of painters and tile contractors to get their opinions on the workmanship in question. You will need to establish that, indeed, the workmanship does not reflect acceptable levels.

Ask the builder in writing to meet with you at the property and discuss each item in question and determine how each one can be resolved. More than likely he will be willing to cooperate if your complaints are reasonable.

Discovering Wood Rot in the Home Q&A

QUESTION

“I’m getting ready to paint my house, and I’ve been patching some of the bad spots in the wood trim around the windows and at the edges of the roof. On two sides of the house, there are pieces of wood that are starting to rot. Although the wood looked okay, when I started to scrape the loose paint off it, the wood started to crumble. What causes wood to rot, and what do you have to do to fix it?” –  M.C., Hayward

ANSWER

Many homeowners are familiar with wood damage caused by rot. It can be found at the base of fence posts, roof eaves and rafters, exterior doors, exterior wood trim, or decks and patio covers. Wood rot usually occurs because of excessive moisture, and is often not visible until the wood is completely damaged. To give you an idea as to how much wood is damaged by rot, the wood industry estimates that about 10% of its annual wood production will be used to repair damaged caused by wood rot alone.

Wood rot is a term used to describe the deterioration and breakdown of the cellular structure of wood that is caused by certain types of fungus. The spores of these fungi are carried through the air, and when they come into contact with moist wood, they will attach themselves to the wood, and begin to feed on its nutrients in order to grow. The fungi releases an enzyme that actually breaks down the cellular structure of the wood into a form of food it can eat. As the fungus grows, the wood decomposes and looses its strength.

One of the dangers of these fungi is that they can grow for long periods of time before producing any external evidence of their presence in the wood. Most wood decay fungi grow only on wood with high moisture content, which is normally considered 20% or above. Wood is actually a porous material that can absorb moisture if left unprotected. Although some woods such as redwood and cedar are naturally decay resistive, under the right conditions, all wood can rot.

Therefore homeowners need to check for wood rot on a periodic basis, and take preventative measures to stop it from occurring. This should be done twice a year, in the autumn and after the spring rains. Any wood member at the exterior of the house can be subject to rot, and therefore should be inspected. However, be most suspicious of wood trim, roof eaves, and any wood close or in contact with the ground, or wood that gets repeated wetting from sprinklers.

At the exterior of a building, wood rot commonly occurs at joints between wood trim and the exterior siding or windows, at the base of wood jambs for exterior doors, wood that is contact with dirt, or on the parts of wood where water can sit and not drain away. This includes most horizontal surfaces, or top edges of boards. Although wood at the exterior of the building is usually painted, moisture can get under the paint through small cracks, allowing rot to form. Because rot can form under the paint, most of the time wood rot is not visible from the surface of the wood. Therefore it is often helpful to have a small screwdriver to be able to probe for rot, and to test the firmness of the wood.

There are two main types of wood rot to look out for. In one type, the decayed area has a brownish discoloration and a crumbly appearance. As the cellular structure of the wood breaks down, it forms a cube like pattern in the wood. The other type of rot causes the wood to have a white or yellow discoloration, with the decayed wood being stringy or spongy.

Once wood rot is discovered, it must be cut out and removed from the wood. The reason for this is that if the wood is to dry, the fungus becomes dormant and stops attacking the wood. However, once the wood gets wet again, the fungus continues its destructive course. This wetting and drying cycle continues over a period of time, until the wood becomes structurally unsound.

The best way to prevent wood rot is to make sure that all exterior wood trim, siding and roof eaves are kept well painted and sealed. Preventing water from getting into joints, gaps or separations in wood, where it can be trapped and not allowed to dry out, is the secrete to preventing rot. All horizontal surfaces and edges of wood are most prone to absorbing moisture, as well as joints between wood members. All vertical and horizontal joints between the pieces of wood should be cleaned out, and filled with a good quality exterior caulking material. Loose paint should be scrapped off, and the wood primed and painted with good quality paint.

Wood rot can also occur at the interior of the building, particularly in areas exposed to water or leakage. The source of water can be a plumbing leak, such as a water line, or water splash from sinks, tubs, or showers. Homeowners should check the base of sink cabinets, or floors adjacent to clothes or dish washers, or floors in bathrooms adjacent to the tub or shower pan for signs of swelling or discoloration.

Taking the time now to inspect and locate wood rot, will allow you to make repairs before further water damage can occur. Failure to repair wood rot when it is first discovered, will allow the fungi to continue to damage the wood, requiring more extensive and costly repairs in the future.

Remodeling a Kitchen or Bathroom Q&A

QUESTION

“We plan on moving in about six months and want to fix up our house for sale. My husband wants to re-do the kitchen and the bathroom and wants to do the work himself. Does he need to get permits? My brother who works for a contractor will be helping him.” – E. Anderson

ANSWER

Remodeling a kitchen or bathroom usually does require a permit particularly if you change any of the plumbing or electrical, or make a structural modification. However, your question raises two concerns that I think you might not be aware of.

The first concern is that when you sell your house you are required to provide extensive disclosure information regarding any modifications to the property. There are two specific questions on the Seller’s Transfer Disclosure Form that ask whether modifications done to the house have been done with a permit, and whether the work was done to code. Both of these questions have to be answered truthfully and you must sign this document to verify it’s accuracy.

If un-permitted, or non code complying work was done to the property, and not disclosed, the seller may be liable for damages. So from this point of view, I would encourage everyone to obtain a permit whenever it is necessary, and to do the work in a code complying manner.

The second concern is that there is a little known law in California’s Business and Professions Code that states that a home owner cannot obtain a permit for work done to prepare a house for sale. This can include any work that is done within the twelve months prior to the sale.

I spoke with Steve Pierce, a broker associate at Contemp. Realty in Fremont, and a licensed California attorney. He said, “Sellers can perform some repairs themselves, but if a permit is required, only a licensed contractor can do the work”. The reason for this is to provide protection for the buyer.

Under the Contractor’s License Law, municipalities that require permits for the construction, alteration or repair of a building, must also require that the permit be only given to licensed contractors. There is however, an exception to this. Home owners can obtain a permit if they perform the work themselves or with their employees, and do not intend to sell the house within 12 months. When home owners do apply for a permit, they must sign a statement stating that this is so.

There is an important reason for restricting sellers from doing their own work. Contractors, by law, have to obtain permits for basically any work that they do. When contractors do perform work, they have to guarantee it for at least one year. These rules do not apply to home owners. So if a home owner does some work on his house and then sells it within a year, the buyer has no specific recourse if the work turns out to be faulty.

This was a real problem in the late 1970’s when the real estate market was booming. Investors were buying up houses, fixing them up and then selling them. Often there was little regard to doing the work in a safe and code complying manner. All they had to do was to make the house look good enough to re-sell. This left many buyers stuck with problems that they then had to correct. In turn, this led to an increase in litigation between buyers and sellers.

Today, most homes that are for sale, have inspections that are ordered by the buyer. Home inspectors routinely find problems with unpermitted work that has been done on homes. And because these problems were not previously disclosed, the buyer is often in a position to legally have the seller make the necessary corrections.

This puts the seller at a tremendous disadvantage. Once in contract, the seller usually does not have the options of correcting the condition that he or she would have had otherwise. Usually there is a very short time frame within which all repairs have to be preformed, and often the repairs can cost more than the original job.

I would strongly recommend that you consider using licensed contractors for the work and insist that they obtain permits for all work that is being done. Also make sure that your contractor calls for the rough and final inspections from the city to ensure that the work is done in a code complying manner. Believe me, it is easier to do this at your convenience rather than under the pressure of contractual agreements. Good luck on your job.

Property Line Setbacks, Title Company Q&A

QUESTION

“A person buys a cabin in the foothills. It was sold “as is” and there was not much disclosure about the property. After living in the cabin for two years, It was discovered that the laundry room addition to the cabin was actually built on the neighbor’s property line. The neighbor is now thinking about suing me. Shouldn’t this property line issue have been disclosed by someone? Doesn’t the title company check some sort of maps to make sure that there no discrepancies with property lines?” – D.W., Oakland

 

ANSWER

Buying a piece of property in a probate sale, particularly in rural areas, can be quite a gamble if you are not prepared to do a lot of research. When a property is sold in probate, it is usually part of an estate of someone who has just died. There are no requirements for the estate to provide disclosure information to a prospective buyer. This basically relieves the estate of any liabilities that might arise after the sale if some problem were to be discovered. This is one of the few situations in which a house can actually be sold “as is,” leaving the buyer with very little protection from non disclosure.

The title company that you received your policy form, does give you some protection, but it is specifically related to the “Ownership” of the property. Having title insurance policy makes sure that your rights and interests to the property are clear, and that no governmental or individual entity has any right, lien, or claim to your property.

California has two commonly used title insurance policies, California Land Title Association (CLTA) which insures that all items on title are revealed to affected parties, and American Land Title Association (ALTA) which further insures that if an unrecorded claim of ownership arises it will be settled or affected parties will be reimbursed. ALTA policies are preferred by most lenders to insure a deed of trust.

Title companies spend a large percentage of their operating income each year collecting, storing, maintaining and analyzing official records for information that affects title to real property. Their technical experts are trained to identify the rights that others may have to your property such as recorded liens, legal actions, disputed interests, right of way or other encumbrances to your property.

Title companies do not normally check for permits, and they would not necessarily know of any property line violations if there were no recorded notices. The maps that they provide in the preliminary title report show the boundaries and size of the property, but do not show the location of any buildings or structures. This prevents anyone from knowing if there were property line violations. The responsibilities of a title company are clearly set forth in the specific coverage of each policy. To determine the coverage that you have, you must first check the existing policy to see if it even includes coverage of building violations or property line disputes.

If it does, you then want to carefully check to see what the exclusions are, and whether or not there is a deductible. It is possible that the title company is responsible for the result of not having a permit, but each case needs to be evaluated by all parties on its own merit and the conditions in the policy

However, without knowing all of the specifics of your policy, it is impossible to say if your title company had any responsibility. If the title policy contains the new expanded coverage that has recently been introduced by CLTA, there may be some protection for you as legal owner of the property.

Effective August 1998, CLTA began offering an “enhanced” title insurance policy which includes additional coverage that were normally only offered at an additional price. Some policies offered in California now provide coverage for such things as building permit violations, property line violations, restriction or covenant violations and coverage for post policy forgeries that may occur in the future and cloud the title.

All of these enhanced coverages do have some restrictions, limitations and deductibles, but they allow the title companies to provide a higher level of service and protection for the consumer. For more information about the CLTA Policy, you can contact your local title company.

The Condition of your Home?

It’s hard to believe a new year is already underway, and this is probably the best time to invest a couple of hours in taking stock of your most important investment, your house. How much do you really know about the house you are living in? Whether you’ve been living in your house for several years or have just moved in, it is necessary to know the current condition of your house and its various components to be able to maintain it and keep it in optimum working order. Over the years, building components age and deteriorate. Think about it. Are you living with conditions now, which might affect the value or safety of your home?

The truth of the matter is that most people know very little about their homes, and this can lead to costly expenses in the future. It does not take an experienced person to realize or see that a problem exists, but it does take a conscious effort to look for them. The problem is that people can sometimes live with deteriorated conditions for years without really realizing they exist.

For example, if the dishwasher is running, do you still have enough water for a shower? Do the kitchen lights dim when the microwave oven and toaster are operated at the same time? How old is the roof? Is it water-tight? Are there any cracks in the walls or ceilings that might be an indication of building settlement? When was the last time you looked in the attic or under the house? If improvements have been made to your house, have they been made in a safe and code complying manner?

Whether or not these specific questions apply to your home, you will want to know as much about your home as possible to properly maintain it. If you do not maintain your home, you could face large expenditures of time and money when a system or component finally fails. Take some time and think about the actual condition of your home. Look around and find out what kind of shape your house is in.

The best way to begin analyzing the condition of your house is to approach it in an organized way. Start by looking at the outside, and then move to the interior. Keep a written list of the items you see, and note their condition. Once you have finished, you will have a good idea of the things that will need to be fixed immediately, or in the near future.

The exterior of your house can be divided into several categories to assess; the exterior siding, the drainage around the building, the walks, patios, and decks, and the window and doors. Check the siding and trim around the windows and doors for signs of weathering and cracking. Look at you gutters and downspouts for signs of leakage at the seams and rusting. Make sure all the water from the downspouts drains away from the building.

Step back away from the house and look at the roof for signs of missing roof covering or debris in the valleys. If the roof is wood shake, it should be serviced every three to five years and has an average life of 18 to 22 years. If the roof is tile, look for broken or missing pieces of tile.

One of the most important things you should look for at the exterior of your house is the emergency shut offs for the gas, electric and water meters. Are the shutoff valves and disconnects accessible, or are they concealed by plants and vegetation. If there were an emergency could you shut these items off?

Once you have finished the exterior, inspect the interior of the house. Inspect each room, and look at the walls, ceilings, and floors. Check the interior walls and ceilings for signs of cracking and water staining. Minor cracking around window and door openings is common, but it can also be an indication that the house is settling. Cracking in sheetrock less than 1/16” is usually not serious. However, it is important to know if the crack is existing, or new, and if it is getting bigger. Is the floor sloping? If they are new cracks, or they are getting bigger, the house may be settling with the recent rains.

Do all of the doors and windows properly open and close and are they weather-stripped? Are there panes of broken glass? Do the windows have screens?

Inspect the bathroom and kitchen, paying particular attention to the plumbing under the sinks. Many times, leakage under sinks goes undetected because of all the items people tend to store in the sink cabinets. Do the toilets flush properly, and does the water shut off when the tank is full? Toilets that continue to run, or faucets which leak once the water shuts off not only costs money, but wastes water. Finally, check to make sure that all of your smoke alarms operate.

Once you have finished, you will not only have an accurate appraisal of your house’s condition, you will also have a detailed list of what needs to be fixed at your house. With this information, you can plan your repairs, and avoid having to fix things at the last minute. In this way, you can keep your house in top condition with a minimum of effort.

To assist homeowners in this process of inspecting their home, All About Homes, Inc., has develop a free, simple and straight forward checklist called the “Home Owners Guide to a Property Review.” It walks you through the exterior and interior of your home, allowing you to inspect each of the components, and make comments. If you would like a copy of this checklist, you can either visit our website at www.allabouthomes.com, and click on Brochures, or you can fax your request to our office.

Green Building Development Q&A

QUESTION

“I’m starting to hear and read more about “green building”, and how efficient and economical these homes can be without taking a lot of natural resources to create. Can you tell me what builders are doing incorporate features that are environment friendly, and what features homebuyers should be looking for? What kind of real savings does building green generate for the consumer?” – C.T., Pleasanton

ANSWER

“Building green” refers to building homes that use natural resources to their full potential in creating an energy efficient dwelling. These homes use materials, systems and components that do not require lots of energy or resources to create, and that use a minimal amount of energy to sustain. Examples of green building include homes that use solar or wind energy for electricity or heat, and homes that are constructed from recycled materials. However, the list does not stop here.

Green building is definitely on the horizon for the future of construction, but it has not yet taken over mainstream thinking. The reasons that many of the green systems and components are not being fully utilized in today’s construction are the initial costs, lack of easy integration of components, and the lack of motivation for builders to do so. In some cases, there are also aesthetic concerns such as the visibility of solar panels or passive heat components.

Before builders will embrace and utilize many green components, they have to be convinced that the demand is there, and that the initial costs of gearing up and incorporating the components into their homes will pay off. For every new component or major building system that builders use, there is a learning curve for not only the builder, but the manufacturer and sub contractors involved in its installation. Many of the individual components of green building have never been fully integrated into a particular home or development, which presents little or no history on their actual acceptance or performance.

Today, most homes being built meet certain energy standards to be classified as an “Energy Star” home. These homes include energy efficient features such as high insulation values in the floors, walls, and ceilings, tight sealing ductwork for all furnaces, double or triple pane windows, and energy saving appliances and fluorescent lighting. Yet, building green goes much further. Building green means making the entire structure and mechanical systems so energy efficient, that they consume less energy and resources than conventional housing.

As an example of this, consider the amount of trees needed to produce the wood necessary to construct a house. What if you could use recycled materials, or wood scraps to build the house? Think of the natural resources we could save. Well, some builders are using this alternative today, and they do it by using structural insulated panels.

Insulated structural panels (ISP’s) are panels used to frame walls, ceilings, floors, and roofs that are basically a sandwich of two wood panels made up of wood chips glued together, with a dense layer of rigid insulation in between. These panels are designed to interlock, and can be assembled and mass-produced to almost any design. A house built using SIPs will be at a minimum 50% more efficient that a house built with conventional framing. Straw bale construction is another option for creating an extremely efficient shell of a house, however its use has not been developed to consistent standards that allow it to be easily mass-produced.

Once the structure is built, a photovoltaic system can be installed to generate most or all of the house’s electrical needs. You can then add solar heating for the interior of the house and water heater. You can also heat the house using stoves that burn corn kernels, or generate your electricity with a wind generator. Decks, porches, and outdoor structures are being built with recycled plastics and wood fibers. Builders are also devising ways to recycle gray water (water from sinks, washing machines, and tub and showers), to be filtered, and used to irrigate the landscaping around the house.

The options for green building seem to be ever expanding as the industry develops new technologies for recycled materials, and better systems and designs of current innovations.

Next week, I will tell you about an ambitious green building project of historic proportions that is in the process of being developed in Northern California. It is being designed and built by some innovative industry members from the Bay Area, and has the cooperation and support of local and state governments. The goal of the project is to build a small, truly affordable community that contains a mix of residential, commercial, retail, and light industrial uses that meet the energy and renewable resource requirements of California’s EPA’s Million Solar Homes Initiative, and many of the programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Once completed, this project will become a model for the industry to follow.

The Value of a ASHI or CREIA Inspector Q&A

QUESTION

“What standards do home inspectors have when writing reports and disclosing information? We made a decision to buy a house because it looked pretty good, and the inspection report was minimal. However, after our offer was accepted, a second inspection report from a previous buyer surfaced, that noted serious defects with the house. There was leakage everywhere, from the roof, to the exterior walls, to water leaking into the garage, and to water pooling under the house. The siding wasn’t properly installed and there was extensive wood rot. Once I got the report, I went back to the property with my agent and rechecked the house, and it was amazing the damage this inspector found that I never would have noticed. I was going to buy a real money pit. How come the other report missed all of these significant items? Wouldn’t the other inspector be liable for not disclosing this?” –  C.H., Castro Valley

ANSWER

Home inspectors and their reports vary greatly in terms of thoroughness and the ability to clearly communicate their findings to a client. The reason for the variance is basically two-fold. First, there are no real standards or specific requirements that govern the experience of an inspector or the details that have to be in a report. The basic obligation of a home inspector in California is to perform the inspection according to nationally recognized standards for the industry. This requirement is so vague, that it offers very little assurance for the consumer that the inspection will provide the information it should.

The second reason for the variances between inspectors and their reports is directly related to the experience and skill of the inspector. Since there are no licensing requirements for home inspectors, anyone can hang a sign out and start in the business whether or not they have any construction experience. There are many people entering into the home inspection industry that believe that the home inspection industry is an easy opportunity to generate income. They think, how hard can it be to inspect a house?

Having 20 years of experience in the industry, I can attest that it requires skill and experience to thoroughly inspect a house, and provide the level of disclosure information expected in California. Having trained dozens of inspectors, I know that it takes about 500 inspections before an inspector can adequately perform an inspection with a consistent amount of skill. This is not a profession that you can learn and master on your own, or through a class.

Based on the information in your letter, I could only guess that the first inspector was unskilled and the second inspector experiences. Finding and disclosing the water issues you mentioned often require a keen sense and a thorough knowledge of how a house is constructed. Obviously, the first inspector did not have the skills or abilities to identify the items that the second inspector did.

You were very fortunate to have seen the second inspection, because if you had purchased the house based on the information listed in the first report, the inspector would have had tremendous liability. He or she would have been liable for any damages resulting from those non-disclosed items, assuming they were visible during the first inspection.

The best advice I can give anyone thinking of buying a house is to hire a qualified inspector to inspect it. And make sure you see a sample of the inspector’s report to see if it will give you the type of information you will want to rely on. There are literally hundreds of inspectors in the industry today, with dozens of report formats, and several national and regional inspector organizations. To find a good inspector, consumers do a little research and find someone they feel comfortable with, and one that is willing to stand behind the accuracy of their report.

The two most established home inspector organizations in the industry are the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), and the California Real Estate Inspectors Association (CREIA). Both of these organizations require that their inspectors have a performed a minimum number of inspections before becoming a member, and require continuing education to continue membership. The strengths of these two organizations are that they truly support the industry by promoting high standards of professionalism, and the continual education of their members.

For example, the local ASHI and CREIA chapters hold seminars and trainings almost every month, and there are many opportunities for inspectors to share experiences and learn from established members. Last month, the Silicon Valley ASHI and CREIA Chapter hosted one of the best seminars on moisture intrusion ever offered in the Bay Area. The inspectors attending that seminar learned more about how moisture infiltrates into building during that day, than they could after years working in the industry.

Remember, the most important thing when hiring an inspector is to feel comfortable with the person and their experience. You will be relying on their abilities and written report when you buy your next house. And you want that information to be accurate, and clearly communicated. To locate an ASHI inspector you can call ASHI headquarters at 1-800-743-2744, or you can contact ASHI through their web site at www.ashi.org To find a CREIA inspector, you can visit their website at www.CREIA.org.

Water from Exterior Damages Floor Covering Q&A

QUESTION

“I live in a 4 year old townhouse and I have vinyl floor covering installed in the kitchen and eating area. A few months after I moved in, I noticed some faint discoloration and staining on the floor covering near the outside wall. It appears to be on the underside of the flooring because I could not clean it. I contacted the builder and he said that it was probably a manufacturing defect and he had the vinyl replaced. Lately I have noticed that the staining was coming back. Do you have any idea why the staining is occurring? My house is built on a slab so there is no way to look underneath the floor.” – R.K., Alameda

 

ANSWER

Staining on the underside of vinyl floor covering is usually the result of moisture infiltration, and before the floor covering is replaced, it is important to locate and eliminate the source of this moisture. If you don’t, the staining will continue to re- appear no matter how many times you replace the floor covering.

The most common example of this type of staining occurs in bathrooms, usually near the base of the toilet or adjacent to the tub or shower pan. While moisture cannot permeate the surface of the vinyl floor covering, it can seep underneath at joints and edges that are not fully sealed.

If the joint between the vinyl floor covering and the face of the tub or shower pan is not kept properly sealed, it will be exposed to moisture that can collect there from tub or shower over spray. People do not realize how much water can collect at this location just from stepping in and out of the shower or tub.

Water that collects at this area can then wick under the vinyl floor covering, making the back side of the vinyl wet. Over time, this moisture creates mildew growth which starts out as a light gray stain and then turns black. If the staining or discoloration that you see on the floor covering won’t come off, chances are it is coming from the underside, and it is probably moisture related.

The staining that you are describing in the kitchen and eating area also sounds like it is moisture related because it has re-occurred. What you need to do first is to find out where the moisture is coming from. The fact that your house is built on a slab, limits the possible sources of the moisture to three things; a leaking water line in the slab, water being sprayed at, or pooling at the face of the concrete foundation, or finally, sub surface water wicking up through the underside of the slab.

If it were a leaking water line, the staining would be more or less in one area (near the break in the pipe and the slab would be wet or damp. This would have been discovered when the floor covering was first replaced.

If there was sub surface water wicking up through the slab, it would mean that there was a break in vapor barrier beneath the concrete that is allowing the moisture to pass through. This commonly occurs during periods of heavy rain, or over-watering. My guess is that your particular situation is the result of water either pooling or being sprayed at the face of the foundation.

This could be the result of heavy and /or continuous rains or possibly from the sprinklers. Sprinklers spraying against the house allow water to run down the face of the foundation and then pool at the base. The surfaces of the concrete foundation can absorb tremendous amounts of moisture when exposed to water.

When this source of moisture is allowed to occur on a daily or every other day basis, (such as with sprinklers that are on timers), there would be enough moisture for it to travel in towards the interior of the house two to three feet.

If you find that the sprinklers are not spraying directly at the building, check the drainage to make sure all water flows away from the house. This is particularly important if your property has an up slope on one side of the house. If water cannot be drained away from this area, you may need to install a drainage system to carry the water somewhere else.

Remember, when water is allowed to pool adjacent to a foundation for long periods of time, it can do a lot more than cause staining to floor coverings. It can be one of the biggest contributing factors to building settlement and foundation failure. Water and moisture also have the capability to destroy wood members throughout the house if left unchecked. It pays to eliminate sources of moisture infiltration and improper drainage before they have a chance to become bigger and more expensive problems.