Water Under a House Q&A

QUESTION

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a strong musty smell in the living room and dining room. I looked all over for signs of moisture or leakage but did not find any. However, when I looked into the sub area the smell got worse, and I noticed standing water under my house. The water appeared about 2” to 3” deep, and covered most of area that I could see. I’m very concerned, and do not know where the water is coming from. Is it possible that this is from a plumbing leak? How do I find out, and what do I need to do?” – D.S., Dublin

 

ANSWER

A little standing water under a house is not uncommon especially after all of the rains we have been having lately. Once the soil around the house gets saturated with water, water will tend to seep under it and often go unnoticed. However, too much standing water can cause structural damage to the foundation, corrosion to furnace ductwork, wood rot to the framing members, and cause mold and mildew to grow. The amount of water necessary to cause this damage depends a lot on the type of soil under a house, the amount of underfloor ventilation, and the clearances between the earth and the components of the house.

Standing water under a house is usually the result of only two things; either a leaking water line, or from surface water drainage around the house. If it was from a leaking water line, the leak would have to be substantial, and you would hear running water in the house. It would take a few days of leaking to create the amount of water you described, and the leak would continue until the water to the house was shut off.

I suspect that the water under the house is actually the result of poor surface water drainage around your home. It is important for all homes, whether they are built with a raised foundation or on a slab, to be constructed so that the water from rain and irrigation drains away from the house. This is why most homes built within the past 20 years have all of their downspouts connected to a drainage pipe to carry the water to the curb and gutter, and why walks, patios, and planter areas slope away from the house. Builders understand the importance of keeping water away from the house’s foundation.

To determine if the amount of water under your house is serious, look into the sub area from the access opening with a flashlight. Usually, if there is enough height to the sub area, standing water is not necessarily a concern. If the water only covers a small portion of the sub area, and other areas are dry, it is not significant, and will probably drain away after a few days.

However, if the water covers a large area and is in contact with the base of any wood supports, or the furnace ductwork, then the water should be removed. The simplest way to remove water from a sub area is to use a sump pump to pump the water out. The pump must be installed at the deepest area of water to be efficient, and the water needs to be discharged away from the house.

If it turns out that there is a lot of water under the house, then consideration must be given to improving the drainage around the perimeter. A simple investigation can often determine where the water is coming from. Water can drain into a sub area from planter areas next to a house, or low points in the landscaping. Walk around the outside of your house and see if you can spot where the low points might be. If most of the water is under the rear of the house, there is probable a low point at the rear yard. Next, check to make sure that all downspouts drain away from the building by using either splash blocks, or corrugated piping to divert the water to a safe location.

Sometimes correcting the low points of drainage and adjusting the downspouts is not enough to prevent the water from infiltrating into the foundation, and other measures must be considered. The best solution for keeping water from getting into the sub area is to install a French drain on the sides of the house where the water appears to be coming in. A French drain is basically a 12” wide trench dug around a building down to the base of the foundation, and then filled with gravel and a perforated pipe sloped to collect and divert the water to the street.

Although, basic in design, French drains often require the expertise of a foundation or drainage contractor, or landscaper to install so that they operate properly. If the drain is installed too far away from the house, does not have the proper slope, or has not be installed with a filter fabric (to keep the soil from clogging the trench), a French drain will not work. Installing a French drain can cost thousands of dollars, therefore before you consider one, make sure that it is necessary.

My best advice for homeowners is to check your sub areas at least twice during the rainy season for signs of standing water. If standing water has been under the house in the past, it will leave a mud like (bathtub) ring around the inside face of the foundation, the interior pier supports, and any furnace ducting or pipes that have been in contact with the water. Find out if there are drainage issues before they cause a problem, because it is much easier to fix them when it is not pouring rain and the ground is real muddy.

The Importance of PreSale Inspections Q&A

QUESTION:

“I am thinking of selling my house and a Realtor friend of mine suggested that I have the house inspected before I put it on the market. I don’t think that’s really necessary because we have only been in the house for five years and we have not made any changes. Won’t the buyers pay for an inspection when they buy the house? Is there any real reason why I should do it?” – A.C., Fremont

ANSWER:

“Regardless of how long you have lived in your home, the best protection you can give yourself is to have your house inspected prior to listing the property. Pre-sale inspections not only tell you the current condition of your home, they also help you to comply with a seller’s disclosure requirements, and limit your exposure to future liability. In California, a seller is responsible for disclosing every “known” material fact that may affect the desirability of the house. This includes potential “red flags”, and conditions which may indicate a problem such as, noisy neighbors, poor drainage, an un-permitted addition, illegal wiring, or unstable soil.

The fact of the matter is that most sellers know very little about the house that they own, and are often unaware of hidden concerns. Think about this. When was the last time you looked in the attic, or under the house? Have there been modifications or additions to the house that were not done with permits or not to code? The answers to these will be the basis of the information that you must legally disclose to a buyer prior to your sale of the house.

In most real estate transactions, a seller does not provide disclosure information to the buyer until after the buyer signs a contract. Usually, within 3 days of signing a contract, the sellers provide this information to the buyer. Any information that is not disclosed or is discovered after receiving the disclosure statement, can potentially create a situation of vulnerability for the seller, and delays in the sale.

To get a Realtor’s perspective on the value of ordering pre-sale inspections, I spoke with Tony Bruno, of the Coldwell Banker office on Walnut Avenue in Fremont. Tony is a well respected, and experienced agent who encourages a pre-sale inspection on all of his listings. “A pre-sale inspection not only protects my sellers from liability exposure”, said Tony, “but it also simplifies the transaction by putting all the information we know about the property up front. This benefits the buyers because they can review this information prior to making an offer, and can then decide if they want to proceed.

“The current market is absolutely a seller’s market, and most homes are being sold ‘as-is’. This gives the illusion that the seller is protected and that a buyer cannot sue, but this is not true. Sellers still have liability for anything that is not disclosed to the buyer”, Tony cautioned. He commented that a seller should order at least a general house inspection and a termite inspection. However, prudent sellers may also get roof, chimney, and sometimes appliance inspections.

The general house inspection will include an inspection of the property site, drainage around the building, the building exterior, the roof, chimney and the utility disconnects. It will also include the interior of the house, the electrical wiring, plumbing lines, the furnace and the water heater, and finally, information about the structural framing in the attic and the garage and the presence of any health and safety concerns.

Once the seller has this information, they have the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to fix or correct an item before they enter into a contract with a buyer. By disclosing this information up front to a buyer, a seller can prevent the buyer from trying to negotiate repairs on those items after they enter into the contract.

Tony stated, “I try to make the selling process as easy and painless a possible for both the buyers and sellers, and I have found that when all the facts are presented up front, each party can make intelligent and confident decisions about the transaction. In fact, local Realtors can now post this disclosure information on the Multiple Listing Service when they list the property. Buyers can view this before they even come to see a listing.”

If you are working with a Realtor, discuss the inspection reports with your agent before you make any decisions. Agents can often advise you whether or not it would be in your best interest to have certain items repaired. Correcting health and safety conditions, drainage or structural concerns is far more important than fixing something that poses little exposure to liability, or a minimal cost to fix. Your agent can also help you establish the terms of the sale based on what is being disclosed. If you would like to talk with Tony more about how sellers can benefit from the use of pre-sale inspections, he can be reached at 510-608-7626.

All About Homes has developed a three page check list called the “Seller’s Property Review”, that home owners can use to help evaluate the condition of their homes. If you would like to receive a copy of this checklist, visit our website or call our office.

Experience: Condo Roof Leak

AAH was retained to evaluate roof leakage and provide litigation support regarding defective construction, and management services for the eventual repairs of the defects.

Concealed Fire Damage Q&A

QUESTION:

“We just bought our first house three months ago and have been painting and carpeting. My husband was in the attic last week to cut a hole for a skylight to be installed. When he cut into the roof boards, he noticed that the wood had been charred from a fire. You can’t see the charring on the surface because the attic had been sprayed with a white paint. After talking with the neighbor, we found out that there was a major fire in the kitchen three years ago. Shouldn’t this have been disclosed to us? Our property inspector did not mention it in his report, and now we’re worried that we’re going to have some real problems.” –  M. T. , Alameda

ANSWER:

California law requires that any material fact, defect or condition that may affect the desirability of a house must be disclosed to prospective buyers. A major fire in the kitchen would definitely qualify as needing to be disclosed. I’m surprised that the sellers did not inform you of this. I strongly suggest that this be investigated further to determine the extent of the fire and whether the repairs were properly done and completed.

Any time there is a fire in a house, the extent of the damage has to be thoroughly investigated to determine what components must be replaced in order for the house to be safe and structurally sound. This includes not only the framing members, but also the plumbing and electrical lines and any appliances such as the furnace and water heater. Often damage can extend beyond the wall surface, affecting items that cannot visually be seen.

The two questions that you need to answer are whether or not the fire damaged repairs were completed with the approval of the city, and why wasn’t this disclosed to you by the sellers. I am assuming that the sellers were living in the house at the time the fire occurred. If not, they may have had no knowledge of it either.

Most people assume that after a fire, a house is restored to its original condition and will not cause present or future problems. This is usually true, however, there are some exceptions to this. One such exception is the fact that not all charred or smoke damaged wood is required to be removed. It only has to be removed if it has been structurally weakened. Usually, if the charring is less than 20% of the depth of the board, the board is considered to still be capable of serving its intended purpose and left in place.

When charred or smoked-stained wood is left in place, it is almost impossible to clean. It is commonly sealed with a lacquer based, sealer / deodorizer that leaves the surface of the wood with a light white, painted finish. That is what you observed in the attic. I’m a little surprised that your house inspector did not mention that your attic had been sprayed painted with this sealer. There is really no other reason to see this done in an attic. It would have given you an opportunity to question the sellers about it.

Does this mean that you bought a house with problems? Not necessarily. The first thing that you want to do is to check with the building and fire department. They should both have records and a report of the fire. If there is proof that the work was signed off and completed, there should be no problem with your house.

If the work was not signed off and approved of by the building department, you could have some problems, and should investigate further. Sometimes fire damage repairs fall through the cracks in the system and not get properly inspected. This is often true when there is no insurance company involved at all, or if the insurance company settles directly with the home owner and is not involved in the repairs.

I’ve inspected many homes where the fire damage was cleverly concealed and not repaired, or repaired in a sub standard manner. Unfortunately for the average person, the evidence of this damage was cosmetically covered over. It was only discovered after a wall, a ceiling or floor cavity was either opened up, or undergoing repairs. Correcting in-place fire damage can be messy and expensive. Hopefully, you will not be faced with that.

If, after checking with the fire and building departments you are still unsure about the extent or safety of the repairs, you should immediately contact the seller. Your agent should be able to assist you in contacting them and in your handling of the matter. If the house was insured at the time of the fire, the seller’s insurance company would also have documentation of the fire and it’s repair. If it was not insured, and the work was done without permits, there could be definite liability on the part of the sellers for not disclosing this to you and for any costs you incur to settle this.

Sidewalk Repair, Who is Responsible?

QUESTIONS

We just moved into a new housing development and we are having problems with the contractor fixing some large cracks in the driveway and sidewalk. The cracks were caused by trucks and heavy equipment crossing our lot to finish up work on the house next door. The builder keeps saying that the city will fix the sidewalk when the development is done at the end of the year. I called the city and they say that it is the builder’s responsibility. Who is responsible for repairing our driveway ?

“I live in an older neighborhood, and for years the tree the city planted in the sidewalk area has been causing the sidewalk to crack and lift. It has gotten so bad, that last week one of the neighbors tripped on the sidewalk and injured their hip. I called the city and they said that the maintenance and repair of the sidewalk is the responsibility of the home owner. They stated that I needed to get a permit if I take out a section of the sidewalk. Isn’t the city was responsible for the maintenance of the sidewalks?”

ANSWER

In order to understand who is responsible for the maintenance and repair of the sidewalk, it helps to know that most people’s property line stops somewhere on the house’s side of the sidewalk. In some municipalities, the property line goes right up to the sidewalk, in others it can stop a few inches or feet before the sidewalk begins. This raises the question, “If a home owner’s property line stops short of the sidewalk, is the property owner responsible for its maintenance and repair?”

The answer is yes. Although a home owner does not actually “own” the sidewalk in front of their property, they are still held responsible for maintaining the condition of the sidewalk and the public right of way. The reason is, the public right of way is not only for the convenience of others, it also benefits the home owner by allowing safe access to their own home.

Whether this right of way may ends at the inside edge of a sidewalk, is not always clear. In some developments the right of way may end two feet beyond the inside edge of the sidewalk. This portion of the right of way could be used for the installation of underground utilities such as electrical, telephone and cable. A home owner would not be able to build or erect any permanent structure, planter, or fence that may affect passage in this area.

For many years, California has required a 40 foot right of way for city streets and sidewalks. This is the minimum width of a residential street and sidewalks to ensure that vehicular and pedestrian traffic have a safe and un-encumbered space to travel on.

To enforce these requirements, the local government has the authority to control how streets and sidewalks are installed, and how they are to be maintained.

For example, before a new sub division can be built, the builder must submit plans outlining how all of the streets and sidewalks will be installed. These plans must meet the strict guidelines of the local public works department, or city engineer.

Once approved, the builder is then responsible for installing the streets and sidewalks for the development.

Usually a year after the development is completed, the municipality will inspect the streets and sidewalks. If they find the streets and sidewalks in acceptable condition, they will assume the control for their continued use and maintenance. If sidewalks are badly cracked or damaged, the local government will not accept control until corrections are made. Builders are therefore ultimately responsible to ensure that the sidewalks, driveways and streets are in serviceable condition.

In existing neighborhoods, the city also maintains control of the streets and sidewalks, and how they are repaired. If the city receives a complaint that a sidewalk is cracking and lifting so as to create a tripping hazard, they will notify the home owner and request that they fix the condition. For a crack to be considered a tripping hazard, it would have to have a gap of about one half inch, or a lift of three quarters of an inch. If the owner does not fix the condition, the city can hire a sub contractor to make the repair, and bill the home owner.

Many times in older neighborhoods, where the trees in the parking strips have caused damage to several blocks of sidewalks, the city will contract with a sub contractor to repair the entire area. When this is done, the billing for the home owner often appears as a fee on the property taxes.

Repairing a sidewalk does not always require that the sidewalk be replaced. If there is only one or two large cracks or lifts in the sidewalk, they can usually be repaired by the home owner with patching concrete, or mortar. Cracks more than one half inch should be filled with mortar and leveled off. Raises or lifting of the sidewalk more than one half inch high should be bridged with the patching compound to create a smooth sloping surface.

Cracks or lifts larger than these may require that a section of the sidewalk actually be replaced. This will require a permit to ensure that the work will meet the local guidelines. Before attempting to perform any major repairs to a sidewalk or driveway, the public works department or city engineer should be consulted. They can answer any questions that you might have and will usually provide handouts and drawings outlining their requirements. They will also be able to tell you if there are any special programs through the city that may share in the costs of repairing or replacing damaged sidewalks.