Are Home Inspectors Wrong?
When Home Owners Should Start with the Cheapest and Most Obvious Solutions
A few months ago, I did a home inspection on a well-built custom home that was roughly 15 years old. When I worked my way around to the back deck, which was done as a membrane system that acted as a roof for the lower porch, I found signs of leakage and water damage: water stains on the walls below the deck, frass and exit holes from moisture ants, cupping wood and soft rotted-sounding bits of plywood under the membrane around the posts. And, where the decking was soft, it was no longer sloping to drain, so water could now pool around the posts. It was July, which in the Pacific Northwest, means it had not rained in months, so everything was dry at the time of inspection. The places where the membrane ended: at the deck to wall junctures and around the posts, were smeared with clear caulking, indicating what in my mind is a temporary repair.
Here is a video showing a few of the red flags:
What to do?
How should a home inspector report on this? In my book, The Confident House Hunter, I make the case that home buyers should visualize how their prospective home will perform during the worst weather. While everything was dry at the time of inspection, I was concerned that what I saw in front of me was going to leak in short order and that when the new home buyers hired a qualified contractor to further investigate the leak, expecting minor repairs, they would find concealed wood decay and water damage below the membrane. In short, I did not want my client to have surprises and I felt obligated to point out what I saw: signs of past leakage in the deck water proofing system, signs of temporary repairs, and evidence of concealed water damage. I then recommended additional inspection by a qualified contractor to try and head this problem off at the pass.
As it turns out…
The seller disagreed with my findings…. which is not wildly surprising. They stated that the deck had been repaired by a qualified contractor and was fine – and this brings me to the point of this blog.
One of the odd points of view that a home inspector develops is that we are constantly muddling into house maintenance problems that arise in the midst of a real estate transaction. It is important to recognize that home repairs done to prepare a home for a new home buyer, or as a response to a home inspection, may not be the same repairs you would do if you are keeping the house for yourself. Interestingly, this can lead to some controversy as contractors get called in for inspection response; they may have differing opinions on the best approach for repair.
In this case, the sellers did what I would do if I owned the house. If this were my house, and I was keeping it, I would implement the cheapest and most obvious repairs in the hopes of prolonging the useful service life of the deck, while acknowledging that eventually, a more cohesive solution would be needed.
There are a lot of instances where home owners should start with the cheapest and most obvious solutions and work their way back. Examples of other problems like this are:
- Drainage problems
- Indoor air quality / odors
- Difficult to diagnose leaks and moisture problems
- Attic condensation issues
- Rodents (non-wood destroying organism pests)
- Questionable minor to moderate signs of structural settlement.
With all of these house maintenance issues, sometimes the cheapest and most obvious solution will work. The difficulty with these solutions is that they might not work and they will require time to monitor and to see. Such a tepid approach to home repair is logical for an owner, but not necessarily in the best interests of a new home buyer. At the point of a real estate transaction, you are asking a new owner to take responsibility for this more temporary, wing-and-a-prayer approach and the new owner, who is paying a lot of money for a complex object that is new to them, may not especially feel like hoping for the best. From a new home buyer’s point of view, this could feel like an unfunded liability for their new house.
So are home inspectors wrong when they advocate for their home buying clients and recommend a more cohesive repair first? I think it’s a question well worth asking. As I state in my book, The Confident House Hunter: every house is a great house for the right person at the right price. A home inspector’s job is not to specify the scope of a repair, but to help our clients understand what, in the larger sense, they are buying or selling from a structural and maintenance point of view. In the case of this deck, I felt obligated to be clear that the repairs looked temporary and incomplete in nature and that someone buying this house should brace for the need for a more substantial repair at any time.