The Home Inspector

William Kibbel III, The Home Inspector

Dear Home Inspector: We are thinking of purchasing and renovating aturn of the century farmhouse in Southern Maryland. It is built on a piers withfieldstone. It sits about one foot off the ground. We have a lot of questionsabout the foundation. I have called structural engineers, builders andarchitects--even soil engineers. No one wants to go under there. Actually no oneseems to want to help us at all. It's creepy, I'll admit, but we have to knowwhat shape the sill and floor joists are in. We want this house but don't wantfoundation trouble down the road. We are probably not qualified--but havedecided to do this ourselves. What should we look for when investigating thefoundation? What would indicated trouble down the road? Also, who else in thebuilding industry could we call for assistance? Is there any alternative tocrawling under the house?

Inspecting under houses can be miserable work -- but it's part of a home inspector's job.

Of the consultants you listed, the one profession you did not mention was ahome inspector. I can't speak for other companies, but at our firm, we dowhatever we can to view conditions underneath floor structures. I'm hopeful thatthere is an experienced and qualified inspector in your area that can assistyou.

Inspecting under houses can be miserable work at times--occasionally is nothumanly possible. I find that being prepared for anything can eliminateapprehension about entering these nasty places. I carry the following with me toeach inspection:

  • Heavy padded coveralls
  • Knee pads, Kevlar gloves
  • Head cover
  • Hip waders
  • Chest waders
  • And, most important, a quality respirator (I learned to use a respirator after contracting several bacterial respiratory infections).

Equipment necessary to bring into the crawlspace includes:

  • Flashlight
  • Cordless floodlight
  • Large probing screwdriver
  • Voltage detector
  • Moisture meter
  • Level
  • Pocket multi-tool
  • Digital camera.

Being physically fit also helps if the clearance is so low that you have to"snake" through the confined space. The twelve inch elevation youmention is going to be a challenge for anyone. In some crawlspaces, sometimes aprevious contractor has partially excavated some channels to install pipes,wires or ducts. These channels allow for more access than assumed from outsidethe space. On the other hand, I sometimes find on entering a crawlspace thatmuch of it is completely unexcavated, and so I can view and probe very little ofit.

To list what should be evaluated in a crawlspace would be equivalent toseveral chapters in a thick book and still not cover every condition one mightencounter. The following are just some of my first thoughts about what might bea concern from your description of your potential new old house.

Foundation: In my area of Pennsylvania, homes constructed solely onpiers are very unusual. This often suggests that the house was not originallyintended as a permanent building, or that it was constructed for seasonal use,like a summer cottage. I usually advise that a complete perimeter foundation beinstalled for full-time centrally heated residences. The standards may bedifferent in southern Maryland. Failures of piers are typically easy to detectand are often reflected in settlement of the structure above grade.

Floor Structure: All wood structural components, especially at bearingpoints, should be completely probed for wood rot and wood destroying insectdamage, fungus and mold. Excessive moisture measurement, wood soil contact,vegetation or debris inviting insects from the soil into the wood are allconditions conducive to insect infestation and rot. Structural membersshould support acceptable spans and should be examined for any signs of otherstresses or failures of joists and beams. Structural components should beexamined for damage from plumbing system leaks.

Mechanicals: Plumbing, electrical and heating components should beinstalled to acceptable standards for function and safety. They should also beexamined for physical condition and remaining service life, to see that they areadequately protected from freezing in susceptible areas, in general for anyunsafe condition or hazardous materials.

The above suggestions only scratch the surface of a thorough foundationinspection. I do not consider this a do-it-yourself checklist. I stronglyrecommend continuing your search for a qualified, experienced professional.

About the Author
William Kibbel III is a home inspector and restoration consultant specializing in historic residential and commercial buildings. He is vice president of Tri-County Inspection Company, serving Southeastern Pennsylvania and Central New Jersey.

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