Buying a home is the biggest investment many people ever make. So spending a few hundred more in a home inspection by an engineer could be considered well worthwhile.
Consumers can hire home inspectors who aren’t licensed engineers. But engineers have a broader perspective, said David Church of Criterium-Church Engineers in Jackson.
“We can look at things such as the structure of the building, things home inspectors can’t legally comment on,” Church said. “Professional engineers, in most states, are the only inspectors who are legally qualified to evaluate and assess the structural integrity of a home.
“Certainly an engineering inspection is a good investment to make. It doesn’t cost very much in relation to the cost of the home. We look at commercial and industrial buildings of all kinds, as well as homes. So we have a broader perspective than home inspectors. Those are the primary advantages of using an engineer. And an engineer probably doesn’t charge much more than the average home inspector.”
In the South, in the Jackson area in particular, there is a potential for problems with expansive clays. A type of soil called Yazoo clay, which expands and contracts with moisture content, is a big issue in the Jackson area.
In addition to problems with the soil, there can also be hidden damage from termites, or moisture and mold issues.
“At times, I have had to tell people a home wasn’t a good investment,” Church said.
Making the investment
More people may be in the need of honest evaluations of the integrity of a home because of the increasing popularity of homes as an investment. Low interest rates have spurred home buying in a couple of ways. One, financing is cheap. Two, interest rates on savings are so low that real estate can seem an attractive alternative.
“Americans are buying homes in record rates, and this boom in the housing market has led more people to purchase houses on impulse, without the benefit of several walk-throughs or an inspection by a professional engineer,” Church said. “Engineers offer homebuyers tips for maximizing their investment. It’s expected that all homes, both new and existing, will require some kind of improvement or repair. But it’s important to know how to distinguish between normal wear and expensive defects. We see structural problems in 15% of the homes we look at.”
That 15% is close to the national average. But the incidence of structural problems might be even higher in areas with a lot of older homes.
Finding problems doesn’t always kill the sale. It could be a bargaining chip for the buyer. In those cases, it is a good to get an educated guess from an engineer of how much it would cost to repair. Engineering companies can also do repair design, which is beyond the cost of the inspection.
Church recommends ensuring your home purchase is a wise investment by examining the following.
Your home rests on its foundation. Defects here may easily affect the rest of your property. When entering the basement or viewing the concrete slab, check for anything larger than hairline cracks. A few small hairline cracks may be completely normal and reflect the usual shrinkage. Narrow cracks in concrete floors are probably not a sign of structural damage. A crack larger than 1/8-inch wide or evidence of uneven settlement could be a cause for concern. A local engineer should inspect the foundation further to gauge the cause and potential for repair.
Your home should be sturdy and have straight, strong beams and joists with few, if any, holes. When in the attic or the basement, look closely at the framing members for cracks, splits and holes or cuts made for plumbing and wiring.
Any sign of insect infestation (piles of dust, droppings or holes) is cause for concern. Not all states require a pre-purchase termite inspection, so it’s necessary to take your own steps to check for a possible infestation. The first signs of water infiltration can sometimes be found in the frame as well. Search out mold or rot, even in the darkest corners.
The frame inspection should also cover windows and doors.
“Close the door behind you and take a step back,” Church says. “If you can see a border of outside light or feel a draft, or if it doesn’t seem to swing smoothly on its hinges, the door frames may be misaligned from structural movement. Windows should also open and close easily. Windows may also have diagonal cracks originating from the corners of the frame. An engineer will be able to tell if this is significant.”
The exterior can show the first telltale signs of poor construction or upkeep. Church recommends crossing the street and looking at the overall big picture. Signs of excessive and problematic movement include a sagging roof, a slight leaning effect to your home and cracked or damaged siding. These types of cracks can be very costly to repair.
Look at the roof to see if it has multiple roof surfaces. Sometimes workers just nail over the old roof instead of tearing off the existing roof, which is the proper way to install a new roof.
Wiring and more
Check to see if the home has aluminum branch wiring. Aluminum was used in the early to mid-1970s. Aluminum can be okay, but you need to take the proper precautions.
Depending on the age of the homes, look for asbestos or lead paint issues, and evidence of rot, mold and excess moisture. Galvanized pipes on older homes may contain rust and scale, making them vulnerable to stopping up or breaking. Lead solder in older copper tubing can contaminate drinking water. And lot drainage is also important. Look for evidence of water ponding and standing water.
“No house is perfect,” Church said. “But a professional engineer will deliver a report that includes a review of the structure and will help you avoid expensive surprises.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.