Inspecting a House


In this heavily illustrated guide, a master plumber, electrician, and inspector presents a rational sequence of home inspection so that you won't miss anything in heating, electrical, plumbing and drainage systems.

Whether it's an overloaded electrical panel, a driveway that sends water into the basement when it rains or a gas furnace that's improperly vented, you're shown how to spot and evaluate areas of concern.

Weight 1.6600
ISBN 1-56158-462-2
Page Count 266
Author Rex Cauldwell
Publisher Taunton Press
Dimensions 8-1/2 x 11

In this heavily illustrated guide, a master plumber, electrician, and inspector presents a rational sequence of home inspection so that you won't miss anything in heating, electrical, plumbing and drainage systems.

Whether it's an overloaded electrical panel, a driveway that sends water into the basement when it rains or a gas furnace that's improperly vented, you're shown how to spot and evaluate areas of concern.

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Chapter 1

The Inspection Process 4
Professional Courtesy 5
The Rules of The Profession 6
Creating a System of Inspection 8
Tools of the Trade 11

Chapter 2

The Service Inspection 17
The Service Entrance 18
The Service Panel 30

Chapter 3

Siding, Doors, And Windows 48
Siding 48
Doors 71
Windows 75

Chapter 4

Roofs, Gutters, And Grading 80
Inspecting The Roof 81
Guttering 93
Grading 98

Chapter 5

Foundations, Structural Supports, And Decks 100
The Foundation 100
Decks 109

Chapter 6

Garages, Driveways, And Walkways 114
Types Of Garages 114
Inspecting The Exterior 117
Driveways And Walkways 130

Chapter 7

Basements And Crawl Spaces 132
Types Of Basements 133
Basement Water Damage 135
Basement Lighting 141
Basement Structural Inspection 141
Basement Electrical Inspection 143
Basement Plumbing Inspection 144
Crawl Spaces 152

Chapter 8

Utility Room Appliances 154
Water Heaters 154
Dryers 168
Clothes Washers 171
Water Conditioners 173

Chapter 9

Heating And Cooling Systems 174
General Inspection 175
Gas Burners 180
Oil Burners 186
Electric Forced-Air Furnaces 188
Electric Water Furnaces 189
Electric Baseboards 190
Wood-Burning Stoves And Fireplaces 193
Heat Pumps And Air Conditioners 198
Geothermal Heating 202

Chapter 10

The Kitchen, Bathroom, And Other Rooms 204
The Kitchen 205
The Bathroom 220
Bedrooms And Hallways 227

Chapter 11

Water Supply and Septic 229
The Water Source 230
Septic Tanks 244


Cross-Connections 248
Common Cross-Connection Points 252

Index 261


This may sound like an exaggeration, but I believe the home inspector is responsible for saving more lives and property than any other tradesperson. Houses degrade from the day they are completed. And with human nature the way it is, many people won't fix a problem with their home unless they are forced to. Until the home inspection service came into being, houses were typically bought and sold in �as is" condition. This process continued from buyer to buyer until the house virtually fell apart or a disaster occurred.

The electrical system is a typical example. Owners of older houses have added extra receptacles and appliance loads to the point that you can almost see the smoke rising from the old ungrounded wiring and outdated, overloaded fuse panels. Many owners simply live with the problem. Only when the house is put up for sale does the electrical system get upgraded. In recommending the upgrade, the inspector can honestly say that he or she has possibly saved the house from burning down and perhaps taking some lives with it. Many times things look so bad it amazes even the most hardened of us. The inspector looks around the basement or crawl space, shudders, and then slowly backs out hoping nothing happens until he or she gets out of there.

Sometimes the plumbing isn't much better. The inspector often finds that drain lines are held together with duct tape and that water lines look like a sprinkler system. I know one homeowner couple who allowed a leaky pipe to drip onto the water heater for years, until it eventually ruined the heater. When they finally installed a new water heater, rather than fixing they leak, they moved the heater a foot over to the side and left the leak alone. I'm sorry to say that such illogic is commonplace when it comes to utilities.

Occasionally, houses are fixed up before they are sold, but these are the exceptions, not the rule. Owners who decide to sell a house rarely want to invest time and money in it because they usually won't get their money back. And when they decide the problem must be fixed, they do it themselves (although they may not quite understand the problem or how to fix it) or hire a not-quite qualified nonprofessional to do it, which creates other problems. This process isn't new: The old saying "let the buyer beware" is just as appropriate now as it was when the Romans coined it.

A typical example would be homeowners who just found out that the hardboard composite siding on their house was rotting away. Or perhaps the siding is synthetic stucco and not only the siding but all the exterior walls are deteriorating. Rather than fix the problem themselves and be out many thousands of dollars, they would rather keep it quiet, sell the house, and let the new owners take care of it. But with the advent of the home inspection trade, many houses now get repaired before they're put on the market, because the owners know the house will be inspected and don't want the problems to hold up a sale. This gives the house a longer life expectancy and the new buyers a safer house. All in all, the home inspection profession has increased the quality of homes nationwide and made them safer for us all.

Who needs this book? Every home inspector who wants to be consistent and accurate in his or her inspection. But I didn't write it just for inspectors. It's also for every home seller who wants to know specifically what the inspector is going to be looking for, for every home buyer who wants to know specifically what to look for in the house he or she is buying, and for every Realtor who wants to judge the quality and resalability of the house he or she is getting ready to list.

Chapter 1


  • Professional Courtesy

  • The Rules of the Profession

  • Creating a System of Inspection

  • Tools of the Trade

The home inspector's job is to provide a general, overall inspection of the home-it's that simple. The inspector is someone who has a working knowledge of many trades and can give an "overview" of the condition of the home. An overview means that the inspector will be listing "areas of concern"; if these areas of concern are considered significant, the owner or buyer will be advised to contact a specialist in that area for expert evaluation. For example, if an inspector suspects that a house sided with synthetic stucco has moisture problems, he or she will recommend that someone certified to evaluate this material be consulted.

An analogy would be a general medical practitioner finding something wrong with a patient and then sending him or her to a specialist. The specialist in our case would be a structural engineer, licensed electrician or plumber, pest-control expert, well driller, HVAC technician, or similar professional. Inspectors are the general practitioners-they do not compete with the specialists, they work with them.

Anyone who wants a home inspected has two choices: Spend a lot of money and bring in experts in all the trades or spend significantly less money and bring in one person who has a general knowledge of all. Most homeowners can ill afford to bring in all those individual professional services. For a certified structural engineer, master electrician, master plumber, and so on to inspect a house would cost the homeowner well over $1,000 (a typical home inspection costs about $300). And think of the headaches of trying to get that many people to a house in a short period of time. It was from this need to have a single person with a general knowledge of all the trades that the home inspection profession was born.

Professional Courtesy

Cooperation with other trades is the hallmark of a good inspector. Home inspectors should always cooperate with other professionals and recommend specific trades (not specific companies or people) when they think there is need. This way, you, as the inspector, will develop a good relationship with other tradespeople because you'll generate work for them rather than taking work away from them.

It's important for the home inspector to be congenial and polite-not just to the customer but to the other trades as well. (It's also advisable for the inspector to have a close and amicable relationship with as many Realtors as possible.) If you see something wrong, don't condemn it. For some, it's human nature to look at something and then proudly proclaim that it is the worst piece of construction they've ever seen, but try to keep your opinions to yourself.

The home inspector cannot "fail" a house-no one can do that, except perhaps a structural engineer along with a state inspector. The work of the home inspector is simply to list areas of concern to look for and list possible problems, to observe and report. Something may fail a specific test done by the home inspector, but it still just an area of concern for the owner and buyer. Many times the problems should be fixed, but sometimes there is no legal reason the owner has to fix them-other times legalities are involved.

The homeowner and buyer will have to agree on what is to be repaired and what isn't. It's possible the sellers won't fix anything-they may simply tell the buyer, "If you want the house, fix it yourself." On the other hand, it's possible that the sellers are so desperate to sell the house that they'll fix anything just to do so. When neither party can agree on who is to pay for the repairs, I've even seen the Realtor pay just to allow the sale to go through.

The Rules of the Profession

Professional organizations such as the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI) and the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) have a Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice that the home inspector should adhere to. In addition, local organizations (such as the California Real Estate Inspectors) provide professional local guidance to inspectors in their communities.

Both NAHI and ASHI are very specific about what home inspectors should and should not do. For example, the inspector should not disassemble any appliance or equipment within the dwelling or even take the cover off a receptacle or switch plate. The inspector's job is to visually inspect-not technically evaluate to the point of disassembling the appliance. One exception to the do-not-disassemble rule is the cover of a main electrical service panel or subpanel. The cover will have to be removed to inspect the breakers ( or fuses) and wiring within. And if the furnace has a burner cover, it may also have to be removed.

Similarly, the inspector should not report on the life expectancy of a component or system. Homebuyers sometimes assume that just because it went through an inspection it cannot fail the next day and everything comes with a warranty to last forever. It's up to the inspector to make sure the buyer does not make those assumptions.

What follows is a general list of what an inspector should not do, a combined adaptation from the Standards of Practice of NAHI and ASHI and my own system. Any deviation from NAHI and ASHI is of my creation and should not be thought of as NAHI and ASHI policy. If you are a member of either organization, you must follow their guidelines, which sometimes go into much greater detail than those listed below and may even differ. In addition, each locale will have its own list that applies to specific problems that may exist in that area.

  1. Do not attempt to predict how long something will last. If you can do that, you can add fortune telling to your list of skills. This includes offering warranties or guarantees. However, certain products-such as roof shingles, siding, and water heaters-do have projected life expectancies, and you can pass that information along to the homeowners, assuming they don't misinterpret it as a guarantee. When people ask me the life expectancy of a water heater with a five-year warranty, I tell them five years and one day.

  2. Do not explain why something doesn't work or how much it will cost to repair. If it does not work, just say so; don't speculate on the reason why or what it will cost to repair. I know that many inspectors do this, but you risk making enemies of other tradespeople if you underestimate the cost of the job. You are not the expert on repair; they are-be kind, be quiet.

  3. Do not offer advice on the material that it takes to fix something. Again, this should be left to the professional in that specific area. If the floor joists are rotten, just say they're rotten. Don't start giving the buyer a list of required materials to repair them.

  4. Do not comment on the suitability of anything for any specific use or the adequacy or efficiency of anything. Keep your opinions to yourself. If, in your opinion, the overhead paddle fan is too small to adequately circulate air, keep it to yourself. By criticizing, all you are doing is creating problems. You don't want to get into a debate of opinions. And you don't want to be overruled by an expert-even if you are right.

  5. Do not say that something is a code violation unless you are certified in that field. What is a code violation one year may not be the next. Codes are constantly changing, and there's no way anyone, except an expert in his or her specific field, can keep up with them. A specific test is either an area of concern or not, depending on what your company wants to call it.

  6. Do not comment on market value or marketability. There's nothing wrong with saying how nice a house is-this is being polite and is in the realm of general conversation. But never comment on market value or money or even marketability. If a sale gets lost because you don't think the price of the house is right, the Realtor will never use you again.

  7. Do not comment on the advisability or inadvisability of purchase of the property. Memorize the following: "I am not a real estate expert." This is what you recite when asked to comment on the property.

  8. Do not comment on any component or system that was not available to be observed. For example, a house either has water pressure or it doesn't. You have no idea why. It's possible that the pump isn't working properly or that there is not enough water in the well. Similarly, do not comment on underground items such as buried storage tanks. If you cannot see it, you cannot comment on it-period. In my opinion, this rule applies to septic tanks as well.

  9. Do not give verbal or written assurance of the presence or absence of pests, such as wood organisms, rodents, or insects (beyond the obvious, such as termite tracks). You can and should point out and log obvious damage. However, a professional in that field will have to give a complete examination if the owner wants a written guarantee. You may say, "It appears that there is no damage" or "I don't see anything." The accent here is on the word see. There may be insects and damage you cannot see.

  10. Do not propose or do any work against any law or code-or do any work requiring an occupational license that you do not have. Normally, the inspector inspects and the tradespeople fix. In most places, it is considered a conflict of interest to have the inspector do both.

  11. Do not project the operating costs of components. You do not comment on how much it costs to operate anything-in particular, the annual cost of utilities.

  12. Do not do anything within the house or property that may be dangerous to you, other persons, or the house and property. Always be wary when you fire up and operate any system or component that is shut down or otherwise inoperable. It may be turned off for a reason. It would be nice to say that you should never start any system that has been shut down, but many times the breakers are thrown in the building you're inspecting and it will be up you to turn the breakers back on again. Be especially wary in crawl spaces and flooded basements. Some inspection organizations have height restrictions below which you shouldn't go into a crawl space (for example, 3 ft.). If it doesn't look safe, it probably isn't, so stay out.

  13. Do not operate any system or component that does not respond to normal operating controls. You are not to troubleshoot the system or fix it to make it operate.

  14. Do not disassemble switches and receptacles or any other electrical or electronic component to determine why they do not work. Just write it up that they do not work.

  15. Do not report on the quality of interior wall and floor finishes, such as carpeting, paint, wallpaper, varnish, and other finish treatments.

Creating a System of Inspection

The single most important thing a home inspector can do upon entering the trade is to create a methodical system of inspection. Experienced inspectors already have their own system-one they have developed from years of working in the trade, a set pattern that they have either created or just fallen into. This set pattern has a purpose other than the outgrowth of habit. A set pattern ensures that the inspector won't forget part of the inspection or be wasting time by constantly going from the outside to the inside or from basement to attic. Only a set, established procedure will ensure the inspector of a smooth, fast inspection that covers all the bases.

I normally inspect the outside first, and I start looking the minute I pull up to the driveway. As I approach the house, I normally take in the grade surrounding the house to see if there's any obvious problem. The utility is another check my eyes take in at about the same time. I immediately check off whether the service entrance is aerial or buried, and then monitor the grade as I walk the utility power line from house to pole. At the house, I inspect the grounding system, service entrance, and meter base. With this done, I walk around the house, again checking the grade as well as the driveway and sidewalk, but paying particular attention to the siding and roof. After that comes the inspection of the structural system (the foundation), deck, columns, and crawl space. If there's a garage, I'll inspect that before I go inside the house.

Once the exterior inspection is done, I move inside to check the service panel and the water supply. After that, it's on to the heating and cooling system. This will most likely take me into the basement, which entails a lot of plumbing and electrical checks if the basement is unfinished. Following that, I go to the kitchen and bath and then the appliances. As I walk through the house, I make a quick inspection of all the rooms, hallways, and staircases, checking for electrical outlets; lighting; and the condition of doors, windows, walls, floors, and ceilings. The final check is the attic.

I'm not suggesting that this is the only way to inspect a house, but it's the system that works for me. Bear in mind that a home inspection is not necessarily a strictly linear process; it's unlikely, for example, that you'll inspect all the siding, all the roof surfaces, and all the grading in separate steps. There's a good deal of overlap from one to another as you walk around the house, and you never know what you'll find that will pull you away from your usual order of inspection.

For the purposes of this book, I have grouped related subjects that logically go together in the same chapter-even though they may not be inspected sequentially. For example, the chapter on the electrical service inspection includes the service entrance ( one of the first things I check) and the service panel (something I typically don't check until I go inside). Similarly, all the information on inspecting doors and windows is grouped together, even though I check the exterior of doors and windows at a different time from when I inspect the interior.

Tools of the Trade

Knowledge and tools go hand in hand. If you're going to be a home inspector, it's important to act like one and invest in the proper tools. That said, you really don't need a lot of tools to get started. I've seen sets of inspection tools advertised for the beginning inspector, but I don't recommend you rush out and buy one. Included in the sets are some tools you'll probably never use (because inspection procedures and the tools required are not always exactly the same in all parts of the country), whereas other tools that you need will be missing.

Basic tools

The basic tools you need to inspect a house are the same tools you'd find in any carpenter's toolbox: screwdrivers, pliers, nail pullers, utility knives, tape measures, and levels. You'll need a variety of tools iust to be able to get into some areas of inspection. For example, you'll typically need a few different types of prying tools to get into scuttle holes and access panels to inspect the attic, crawl space, or dirt basement. You never know if the access panels are going to be nailed shut, screwed tight, glued, or open to the public. As in the Scouts, it pays to be prepared.

Some tools you can make yourself. For example, I fashioned a sharp-pointed awl from an old screwdriver whose head was worn down. (You'll need an awl to check for wood rot in siding, trim, and floor joists.) I've also rigged up a water-pressure gauge for testing water pressure at an outside hose bib (see p. 234) and a thermostat bypass for checking a furnace in summertime (see p. 184).

Inspecting a house can be dangerous work. Of paramount importance, take care of your eyes. Sometimes you'll be looking directly overhead and debris will fall directly into your face as an access panel breaks free. Another danger zone is when you open a service panel or subpanel. You never know what is going to happen when you pull the lid off. If a spark hits your eye, you could be blinded for life. The bottom line: Wear safety glasses. Inspecting a house can also be dirty work, so make sure you have a pair of coveralls on hand for when you're scurrying around a crawl space or dirt basement.

Because a good deal of the inspector's work is in basements, attics, and other dark and dreary spaces, it's important to have a reliable source of lighting. Some inspectors carry a trouble light and extension cord with them throughout the house, but that can be a real inconvenience. It's much easier to use battery-operated lights. A common method is to use a flashlight (attached to a metal ring on your belt to keep it by your side). Another popular choice is a headlamp, which straps to your forehead and frees up both hands as you do the inspection. Low-cost headlamps are available at hardware stores but look for high-quality lamps in specialty inspection catalogs, diving stores, and stores that sell cave lights. My favorite form of lighting for inspections is a high-intensity diving light. Although diving lights are relatively expensive (about $80 for the larger light shown in the photo above), once you start using them, nothing else will do.

Some people use ladders to inspect the roof, others prefer binoculars. Always check with your insurance company before using long extension ladders-some companies may prohibit you from using them. To save money on ladders, you may be tempted to use metal ones-they are light and less expensive than other types, and perhaps you already own one. But don't use them for outside inspections! Using metal ladders outside is dangerous: You never know when a bare wire or a hot siding nail is going to brush against a ladder. When outside, always use nonconductive ladders, such as fiberglass or wood.

Extension ladders have a tendency to "kick out," which means that the bottom of the ladder slips away from the building. To prevent this, make sure your ladder has swivel feet that can be stuck into the ground for better stability. At the other end, consider using a stabilizer bar and wrap some toweling or other protective padding over the ends to prevent the ladder from marring the wall or roof.

Whether or not your insurance agency allows you to climb ladders to get to the roof, you'll need a pair of binoculars to inspect the shingles, flashing, and chimney. I recommend you buy a pair with at least 10 x 50 magnification (they should cost about $50).

Electrical testing tools

Inspecting the electrical system is a critical part of the home inspector's job, and it's important that you have the right tools for this work. You'll need a high-quality multimeter to make continuity, current, and voltage checks. I carry two models with me: Fluke model 25 and Fluke model 30.

Model 25 (see photo above) is autoranging, which means that you don't have to know the voltage before you measure it and you don't have to switch the meter to the right scale. Simply put the probes on the testing points. It has a continuity tester built in to test light bulbs and water-heater elements around your own home. On inspection jobs, I use this multi meter to verify the voltage amount, to verify that there is no voltage from the panel to either the ground or the neutral bus in the main panel, and to check that metal water lines and ductwork are not electrically hot before I handle them.

Model 30 (see the photo at right) is a clamp-on meter that measures how much current is flowing in a wire so you don't have to touch the wire. Just hook the fingerlike probes around the wire, and the meter will measure the electromagnetic flux that emanates from the wire. I use this tool to verify that there is no current on the ground wires.

You'll need a plug-in circuit analyzer to check if a receptacle is wired properly and to test ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). Some inspectors use a simple three-bulb tester; but, although these are good for a general check, they are not adequate for a detailed inspection. My tool of choice is a SureTest branch circuit analyzer (see the photos below). Besides standard wire checks and GFCI testing, the SureTest looks for a "bootleg" ground, where the installer has jumped a wire from the neutral to the ground in an attempt to fool the tester into thinking the receptacle is grounded (the three-bulb tester does not pick this up, but the SureTest indicates "false ground"). The SureTest can also be used to test for high or low voltage in a circuit and voltage drops in 15- and 20-amp circuits.

Specialty tools

Aside from the basic tools and electrical testing tools, home inspectors may also need some specialty tools. The type of tools you'll need depend on the type of construction where you work. For example, if there's a lot of synthetic stucco siding in your area, you may want to invest in a "wet wall detector" (you may also need to get trained and certified for specific inspections). This tool is expensive-as are other specialty tools like the carbon monoxide sniffer and gas sniffer that you will need to test for gas leaks (see chapter 9), but this is what separates the pros from the amateurs. Another specialty tool, the draft checker (made by draft-rite), has a probe that inserts into a hole in a furnace flue and can measure the furnace draft, including downdrafts.

An enterprising inspector will identify areas of inspection that others haven't found or recognized yet, acquire the right tool and/or knowledge, and make a significant amount of money before the rest of the pack catches up. But there are risks involved with this approach: Sometimes things don't turn out quite the way you predicted-asbestos testing in home inspection is one example that comes to mind

Peeling paint, a cracked foundation, missing roof shingles. When you're inspecting a house, some problems are obvious, but what about the not-so-obvious problems: an overloaded electrical panel, a driveway that sends water into the basement every time it rains, a gas furnace that's improperly vented? In this comprehensive, heavily illustrated guide, Rex Cauldwell offers insights from his years of experience, presenting a logical sequence of inspection so that nothing gets missed. Cauldwell explains how to:

  • Create a methodological system of inspection

  • Evaluate heating, electrical, and plumbing systems

  • Check for "cross-connections" that can contaminate the water supply

  • Ensure safety on the job

  • Inspect roofs, gutters, flashing, and more

With it's wealth in no-nonsense advice, Inspecting a House is destined to become the indispensable reference for the home inspectors. But it's also essential reading for home sellers who want to know what the inspector will be looking for; for homebuyers that want to know what to look for themselves in a house; and for the realtors who want to judge the quality and resale value of a house they may list.

About the Author: Rex Cauldwell master plumber, master electrician, building inspector, and licensed general contractor with over 25 years of experience. He gives home inspection seminars nationwide and is a frequent contributor to Fine Homebuilding magazine and author of Wiring a House and Safe Home Wiring Projects, both published by the Taunton Press.