Rooflines: Unlocking a House Hunting Secret
Want to know a great trick for looking at houses? Before you look at anything else, take in the roofline. You would be hard-pressed to find a single feature or attribute of a house than can tell you more about the house in less time than the roofline. As a home inspector, the roofline is always the first thing I look at if I can.
First, some clarification – The roofline is not the roof covering!
The roof covering: the shingles, tiles, membranes or metal panels that cover your roof, are what most people see when they look at a roof. The roof covering is a critical and expensive system; a well-installed roof covering sheds water, wind and UV radiation but it is not, like the roofline, a defining attribute of the home. By this, I mean that the roof covering is a disposable system. Houses are constantly needing new roofs the way cars need new tires. Many of the most common roofing systems last only 15-20 years. But not the roofline.
The roofline is a core house system that will last the life of the house, or at least until an extensive addition is done. As a core system, looking at the roofline is also one of my five guiding principles for all prospective home buyers. Extensive attention is given to rooflines in my book, The Confident House Hunter and the more you learn about its importance to the over-all quality of the house your are looking at, the happier you will be with your final home buying decision. Changing a roofline is expensive and difficult and the shape of the roofline will determine, more than any other feature, how the house looks from the outside. Rooflines define the space that is weathered-in below: the outer lines of your floor plan. They dictate the exposure of your siding, windows, and doors and define how your building will shed water and deflect damaging UV rays. Learning to look critically at rooflines is a skill that is often overlooked but it is easy. The average house hunter can learn how without any technical training, it just takes some basic knowledge and a desire to learn how to look.
How to look at rooflines
To enhance your home buying experience, look at the roofline. Start by stepping back from the house and observing at a distance. Take in what you see. Does the house look sturdy? Complicated? Simple? Elegant? Vulnerable? Weak? Does it look as though the roof will shed water reliably in a hard rain or will it pool and become trapped? Does it appear as though additions have been done or is this an original roofline? Are there large roof overhangs to protect the siding or does the roof leave the rest of the home exposed to the weather?
Once you take in this bigger picture, move closer and try to orient yourself to the roofline so you can sight your eye along the plane of the roof and the ridge. This is not always possible without a ladder – it depends on how the house is sitting on the lot. What do you see? Do you see dips and sags in the roofline? If you do, that can indicate structural weakness. Do you see large humps? These can indicate an addition.
You do not need to be a home inspector to see this. Keep in mind that many older homes have some moderate sagging in the roof frame, but extensive sagging is a red flag of a structural problem.
What the roofline tells you
Sagging rooflines indicate houses that are likely to have structural problems of some kind. I would ask for an opinion from your home inspector and try and chase the clues: do you see other signs of structural movement? Doors that bind, un-level floors, cracks in wall and ceiling finishes?
Quirky rooflines are almost always indicative of quirky houses. These rooflines can indicate do-it-yourself remodels executed without the benefit of a strong plan or understanding of how to build. Expect the quirkiness to translate through much of the workmanship and even the floor plan.
Floor Plan Rooflines are common in newer construction. The floor plan roofline is not a commonly used term but one I made up to describe buildings where it seemed as though the architect was designing a floor plan to maximize space and not trying to create an elegant roofline. They are often surprisingly dysfunctional when it comes to one of the roof’s primary purposes, shedding water.
Sturdy and elegant rooflines are usually sturdy and elegant houses. Expect houses like this to be well built and have good bones and a strong underlying logic.
What about home additions?
One of the most frequently asked questions home buyers ask is, “Can we add an addition to this house?” My answer is virtually always the same: Think about how an addition will affect the roofline.
As long as you have enough land and you are in compliance with local building regulations you can almost always add onto a house. However, to make sure it has a positive or neutral impact on the existing home, it’s all about how it will affect the roofline.
Early in my construction career, I was working within earshot of a generally well-regarded architect. I was impressed by his sense of style and I enjoyed the homes he designed. One day, I found an opportunity to ask him a question that had perplexed me:
“Why are there so many ugly buildings?” I asked.
He looked at me, smiled, then thought for a moment and he said, “People design floor plans, they don’t design rooflines.” Then he walked away, looking rather pleased with his answer.
I am unsure if he made this up on the spot or if this is conventional architect wisdom, but his words echo in my head. When you tour homes, it will start resonating in yours if you are looking. The roofline is one of the most important bones of a house. Dysfunctional rooflines can be impossible to ever repair and beautiful and functional rooflines difficult to replicate. Rooflines are the first place I start when looking for clues about the structure, design, and quality of a home.
I hope this helps with your home buying, and if you are a first time home buyer, I do recommend The Confident House Hunter for more tips on how to see a house. Best of luck!
Dylan Chalk is the author of The Confident House Hunter – a book to teach home buyers how to look at and understand houses: Cedar Fort Press www.dylanchalk.com. He is also the founder of ScribeWare inspection report software offering innovative and simple report-writing solutions – www.getscribeware.com and he is the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC www.orcainspect.com.