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Common Problems of Houses





Salespeople, appraisers, potential buyers, government employees, students and others often are asked to inspect a house and give an opinion about its condition. The best way to do this is to look for specific problems rather than just checking the house in an unorganized, random manner.

This appendix lists the 34 most common problems found in houses and how to identify them. There also are some suggested solutions. Many problems can be corrected easily at low cost, while other problems are so costly or difficult to correct that the occupant must be prepared to accept the unpleasantness of living with them.

1. TERMITES

The termite has been around longer than man has. Termites attack wood structures above the ground. They don't like light, so they prefer wood that touches the ground that can be reached directly from their subterranean nests. Termites also will travel to aboveground wood through cracks in the masonry foundation or, as a last resort, through shelter tubes the insects build on the exterior surface.

Termites look substantially different from flying ants with which they often are confused. Termites have wings similar in shape and size, patterned with many small veins, and without stigmae. The middle of the body is wide, and the antennae aren't “elbowed.” Ants have unpatterned varied-size wings with stigmae. The midsections of their bodies are very narrow, and their antennae are “elbowed.”

The best way to check for termites is to hire a professional. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the Veterans Administration (VA) and other lending institutions require professional termite inspections in many areas of the country. Many reliable exterminators guarantee their work for five years.

Termites work fairly quickly. If they are caught in the early stages of infestation, they may be stopped for a few hundred dollars.

2. INADEQUATE WIRING

The problem starts with inadequate voltage and amperage in the house; there should be a minimum of 220 to 240 volts and 100 amperes or more if the house is large, or if it has major electrical appliances such as ranges and clothes dryers, or electric heat and air-conditioning.

The lack of sufficient branch circuits to the various rooms of the house and appliances can be corrected by installing a bigger distribution panel and additional wiring.

The use of fuses with higher ratings than is necessary is a sign that the wiring is under the needed capacity.

Insufficient wall outlets in the rooms leads to the dangerous use of extension cords and monkey plugs.

The lack of outside outlets is an inconvenience.

Knob-and-tube wiring must be viewed suspiciously. It often is old and its insulation has a tendency to crack, leaving exposed wires that are very dangerous. Most houses with old knob-and-tube wiring are ready for rewiring.

Switches should be placed to permit walking into any area of the house, lighting a path and extinguishing the lights without retracing steps.

3. POOR HEATING

The major causes of poor heating are insufficient insulation and an in adequate or poorly functioning heating system. Insulation often may be added, as may storm windows and weather-stripping.

The best way to determine if a house is heating comfortably is to visit it on a cold day.

The condition of the furnace often is reflected in its appearance. An old furnace encased in asbestos probably is a potential troublemaker.

An adequate clean furnace without rust may require minor repairs but usually will last for quite some time.

A free or nominally priced inspection of the heating system often is available from fuel suppliers in the area. The performance of many furnaces can be improved with a good cleaning, minor adjustments and /or replacement of clogged filters.

4. INADEQUATE HOT WATER

This is a common complaint when water is heated by the heating unit; sometimes an additional storage tank is helpful.

Undersized or low-grade hot-water heaters will produce insufficient hot water. A larger tank either purchased outright or rented from the utility company will correct the problem.

5. DEFECTIVE SEPTIC SYSTEM

The nose often is the best test, so walk around the area of the tank and sniff; odors are a sure sign of trouble. Be suspicious of an overly green lawn in the area of the leaching field. Another sign is a toilet that flushes slowly.

It does not hurt to ask how often the system has to be pumped out. In many towns, the local health officer is very knowledgeable about the systems in his or her jurisdiction and of the problems in a particular neighborhood.

Be sure to find out the location of the cleanout from the current owner. This saves a lot of digging and searching if it's buried.

Septic-system problems sometimes may be corrected by simply pumping out the tank. Or a new leaching field may be required. Unfortunately, there are situations such as when the soil-absorption rate is poor or the water table is close to the surface when nothing can be done to make the system function properly.

6. DEFECTIVE PLUMBING and PLUMBING-SYSTEM NOISES

Plumbing suffers from two major problems; leaking and clogging with rust and mineral deposits. Leaking can be detected by visual inspection. Old-style iron or steel pipes are much more likely to develop leaks than corrosion-resistant copper and bronze. Iron and steel pipes can be detected with a small magnet, which will be attracted to an iron or steel pipe, but not to a copper or bronze pipe.

Insufficient water pressure can be caused by clogged pipes, too small a water main from the street, low water pressure in the street main or problems in the well or plumbing system.

Test the water pressure by turning on full all the faucets in the highest bathroom and then flushing the toilet. If a substantial reduction of flow from the faucets results, this is a sign of trouble and the system should be checked by a plumber to determine the cause and the cost to correct it.

Look for stains in the bathtub and lavatories; these are a sign of rusting pipes or unsoftened hard water. If hard water is suspected, have a sample professionally tested by a firm selling water softeners. The firm also may recommend the equipment necessary to correct the situation and give an estimate of the cost.

Look for leaks under sinks that may be caused by simple things such as a loose washer or may indicate a cracked fixture.

A high-pitched whistling sound made when the toilet is flushed is caused by the valve in the toilet closing too slowly. A simple adjustment by a plumber should eliminate the noise.

A sucking sound that occurs when water runs out of a fixture often is made by a siphoning action in the trap caused by improper venting of the waste stock. If unclogging the vent does not eliminate the noise, a major change in the vent system is necessary.

A hammering noise in the water pipes when the water is turned off is caused by a sharp buildup of pressure in the pipe. This is a serious problem that, if uncorrected, will result in broken or leaking pipes.

In areas where there is high pressure in the water mains, capped pipe sections filled with air called water-hammer arresters should be installed at the time of initial construction to provide a cushion of air in the system. A hammering noise is a sign that either the needed air chambers were not installed or they have become filled with water and no longer operate effectively. Draining the system and restoring the air in the air chambers may solve the problem; otherwise, it may be necessary to have a plumber install air chambers or other pressure-reduction devices to eliminate the hammering noise.

The sound of running water is caused by undersized pipes and pipes run in walls that aren't sound-insulated. Wrapping the pipe with a noise- insulation material may help. If the noise is very objectionable, the pipe may have to be replaced with a larger one.

7. A WET OR DAMP BASEMENT

Dampness in the basement reduces its usefulness, is unpleasant and affects the comfort of the rooms overhead. A basement that's wet or damp only part of the year usually can be detected any time by careful inspection. Check all walls for a powdery-white mineral deposit a few inches off the floor. Only the most diligent cleaning will remove all these deposits after a basement has been flooded.

Look for stains along the lower edge of the walls and columns, on the furnace and on the hot-water heater, etc. Be suspicious if nothing seems to be stored on the basement floor. Finally, just smell; mildew odor is hard to eliminate.

The causes of wet and damp basements are numerous. Some are easily corrected and others are almost impossible to correct.

In areas where the soil drainage is poor or the water table is near the surface of the ground, it's necessary to have well-constructed footing and foundation drains to maintain a dry basement. They should be installed when the house is constructed because this would be quite expensive to do afterward. The same is true of a vapor barrier under the basement floor, which is easily installed during construction but impossible to add afterward.

Cracks in the floor and walls can be patched with various com pounds whose advertised claims should be taken with a grain of salt. A more drastic step is to dig down and repair the wall from the outside.

What appears at first to be a major water problem might be traced to a leak in a window or the hatch door. A simple caulking job will stop the leaks. Water will leak in at the bottom of a window well that does not drain properly during a heavy rainstorm. Extending the drain line or deepening the dry well will eliminate the problem.

The ground around the house should slope away from the foundation wall so that groundwater will not collect along the edge of the foundation.

If there is an edge of roofline without a gutter, water may be running off and collecting near the foundation wall. The water collected by the gutter flows into the leaders and must be diverted away from the foundation wall. The leader should run into a sewer drain, dry well or splash pan in that order of preference.

Dampness and mildew also may be caused by moisture condensing on the walls, ceiling and pipes. Proper ventilation eliminates this problem.

8. LEAKS ABOVE THE BASEMENT

Water may leak through the roof for a variety of reasons. Asphalt-shingle roofs may leak in a high wind if light-grade shingles were used. As these shingles get older, they curl, tear and become pierced with holes.

Wood shingles curl, split, loosen, break and fall off the roof. Asbestos shingles crack, break and become lost. Metal roofs become rusted, bent and pierced with holes. Roll and built-up roofs become loose, torn, patched and worn through.

The condition of the roof usually is apparent on close examination. If the house has an uninsulated attic, light may shine in through holes in the roof. Also, look for water stains on the ceilings and be suspicious of any ceiling that has been repainted recently.

The valleys and flashing will leak when they become loosened, rusted, worn and pitted with holes.

Leaking gutters allow water to run down and through the exterior walls.

Windows and doors are other sources of leaks. Often a simple re caulking will solve the problem.

Water may penetrate through a masonry wall when the joints become soft or cracked. Some masonry walls will leak during a driving rainstorm and must be treated with a waterproofing material.

9. DEFECTIVE HOUSE FRAMING

The best thing to do about a house with a defective frame isn't to buy it. If, unfortunately, a house with a defective frame is encountered, the ad vice of a competent contractor regarding what may be done to arrest the problem should be sought.

After a house is a few years old, visual signs of defective framing of ten can be detected. One sign is bulging exterior walls, which are best seen by standing at each corner of the house and looking along the wall. Or make a plumb line out of a key and string and hold it against the wall.

Stand back from the house and look at the ridge line. If it sags in the middle, trouble is developing.

Windowsills that aren't level are a sign of settling, defective framing or original sloppy carpentry. A careful house inspection should include the opening and closing of every window. Sticking windows may be a sign of settling or defective framing.

Check all doors; look at the bottoms. Have they been re-sawn to allow free movement after sagging of the frame caused them to jam?

A sure sign of trouble is a large crack developing on the outside of the house between the chimney and the exterior wall. Another tip-off to defective framing is cracks running outward at an angle from the upper corners of window and door frames.

Sagging and sloping floors may be detected visually or by placing a marble on the floor and watching to see if it rolls away. This may be a sign of defective framing or it may be caused by weak or defective floors.

Cracks in the walls other than those just discussed should be a cause of concern, but in themselves aren't conclusive evidence of framing problems. All houses settle unless built on solid rock; rare is the house that does not develop some wall and ceiling cracks. These should be of concern only when they are accompanied by some of the other signs of defective framing.

If the house supposedly has defective framing, professional advice should be sought to confirm this opinion.

10. WEAK and DEFECTIVE FLOORS

In addition to the problem of sagging and sloping floors caused by defective framing, there are other reasons for floor troubles. Perhaps the floor joists are too small or lack support from adequate bridging, thus causing the sagging or sloping.

Floors that have been exposed to water may warp and bulge upward. Wide cracks between the floorboards are a sign of poor workman ship or shrinkage caused by wood that was improperly dried or not stored correctly at the time of installation.

Fortunately, floors that are rough, stained, discolored, blemished, burned and gouged usually can be cured by refinishing.

11. DEFECTIVE WINDOWS

In problem number 9, the need to open and to close every window in the house was emphasized and the fact that defective, hard-to-open windows may be a sign of defective framing was noted. Dust streaks or water stains around the window trim are evidence of leakage. Of course, it's possible that the water came in because the window was left open in the rain.

In the process of opening and closing each window, missing locks, window lifts or counterbalance weight may be discovered. It also may be difficult to reach over the kitchen sink to open that window if it's the double-hung type.

A window in the bathroom over the tub or toilet lets in uncomfortable drafts.

Windows in children’s rooms should be high enough to be safe, yet low enough to allow escape in the event of fire.

12. LOOSE OR DEFECTIVE INTERIOR PLASTERING

In problem number 9, cracked plaster caused by defective framing and settling also was discussed. As long as the cracked plaster is tight to the wall, it may be sufficient to just patch and redecorate the crack.

Bulging plaster on the ceilings is dangerous and should be repaired. When suspected, it often can be detected by pressing a broom handle against the ceiling and feeling if there is any give in the plaster.

13. BROKEN OR MISSING STORM WINDOWS, SCREENS and SHUTTERS

The only way to be sure if there is a complete set of these items and their condition is to count and inspect them.

14. MORTAR JOINTS BETWEEN BRICKS OR STONES CRACKED OR LOOSE

Mortar that's not perfectly installed will, in time, become soft, crack and fall out. This will, in turn, weaken the wall and allow water to seep through.

The joints can be inspected visually and by poking them with a pointed instrument. Defective joints should be re-pointed.

15. CRACKED PAVEMENT IN SIDEWALKS, DRIVEWAYS, TERRACES, PATIOS, STEPS, ETC.

Cracks can be easily detected by visual inspection. In cold climates, water seeps into the crack, freezes and expands, and enlarges the crack if left unattended.

16. PEELING and BLISTERING PAINT and PEELING WALLPAPER

Most exterior paints become chalky with age but shouldn't blister or peel. Peeling and blistering is a sign of trouble, which as been caused by incorrect initial application or moisture in the wood.

Paint blisters filled with dark, colored water are a sign of moisture in the wood underneath.

Peeling wallpaper likewise may be caused by poor initial application or moisture in the wall. To prevent recurrence of the problem, first the source of moisture must be located and corrected, then the paint or paper may be reapplied.

17. CRACKED, LOOSE OR LEAKING BATHROOM TILES

The principal area where the problem occurs is around the tub, especially when there is a shower splashing water on the tile wall. Defective grout will permit the water to seep behind the tile and loosen the glue. New waterproof adhesives help eliminate this.

Tiles set in plaster also are less likely to present problems. This is an area where initial good workmanship will produce lasting results, while shoddy work will have to be redone.

18. INFERIOR-GRADE BATHROOM FIXTURES

A good-grade fixture produced by a major manufacturer, when properly installed, should give many years of trouble-free service. Look for the name of the national manufacturer stamped on each fixture; a fixture without a name stamped on it often is the lowest grade or a “second.”

In general, a cast-iron tub is better than steel. It can be identified by knocking on the bottom with knuckles. There is a distinct difference in the sound of a steel and an iron tub. In general, the bigger the tub, shower stall or lavatory sink is, the better it's .

Wash-down toilets are a sign of cost-cutting. Best materials for toilets are vitreous china and enameled cast iron. Enameled steel is a cheaper product.

19. TOO FEW BATHROOMS

Every family’s requirements are slightly different. If the bathroom is a social center, the family will need fewer than if Mom or Dad likes peace and quiet. Naturally, the number of children and their ages also make a difference.

A three-bedroom house without at least one full bath and one lavatory now is substandard. A two-floor house should have a full bathroom on each floor. There should be at least one bathroom for every two people, with an extra bathroom or lavatory for each bedroom over three.

20. GARAGE and DRIVEWAY DEFICIENCIES

It is dangerous to have a driveway that enters the public street at a blind curve. A driveway that slopes upward to the street may be dangerous, especially in winter.

It is dangerous, if not unlawful, to back into a public street, so there must be room to turn the car around in the driveway. The driveway should be designed so that cars parked in it will not obstruct the walkway to the house.

Though once very common, now it's considered inconvenient to have a garage that's detached from the house with no connecting, sheltered accessway.

21. POOR SECURITY and PRIVACY

Millions of tract houses have been built with large picture windows facing the street that, unless covered with closed drapes, result in a major loss of privacy.

To check if activities inside the house can be seen by passers-by on the street, walk slowly by the house, trying to look inside the various areas of the house. Then make the same test for privacy from the neighbors’ view by walking slowly around the lot line, trying to look into the house. Sometimes, a substantial improvement can be made by planting a few shrubs or building a fence.

Bathrooms shouldn't be visible from the living room and halls.

The danger of opening the door to a stranger is obvious. To safely determine who is at the door without opening it, there should be some glass in the door, a sidelight, peephole or an intercom unit. An additional safety feature is a door chain that permits the door to be opened a crack to talk with a stranger before deciding to let him or her in.

Most professional thieves will get into a house no matter what kind of locks are installed or other precautions are taken. Many robberies aren't performed by professionals, however, and good hardware with locks that are difficult to pick often will act as satisfactory deterrents.

An automatic burglar-alarm system connected to the police station or a private security system provides maximum burglar protection. The kind that sounds an alarm on the premises may scare away a prowler be fore he or she has a chance to take anything.

Electric, gas and water meters should be outside the house so strangers don't have to enter the house to read them.

22. A POOR FLOOR PLAN

Following is a list of some of the most common floor-plan deficiencies:

1. Front door entering directly into living room.

2. No front-hall closet.

3. No direct access from front door to kitchen, bathroom and bed rooms without passing through other rooms.

4. Rear door not convenient to kitchen and difficult to reach from street, driveway and garage.

5. No comfortable eating space for family in or near the kitchen.

6. The separate dining area or dining room not convenient to kitchen.

7. Stairway located between levels of a room rather than in a hallway or foyer.

8. Bedrooms located so as to be visible from living room or foyer.

9. Walls between bedrooms not soundproof (best way to accomplish this is to separate them by a bathroom or closet).

10. Recreation room or family room poorly located.

11. No access to the basement from outside the house.

12. Outdoor living areas not accessible from kitchen.

13. Walls cut up by doors and windows so it's difficult to place furniture around room.

23. INADEQUATE KITCHEN

Many kitchens suffer from one or more of the following inadequacies, listed in order of the most common occurrence:

1. Insufficient base-cabinet storage space.

2. Insufficient wall-cabinet storage.

3. Insufficient counter space.

4. No counter beside the refrigerator.

5. Not enough window area (at least 10 % of floor area).

6. Poorly placed doors that waste wall space.

7. Traffic through work area.

8. Too little counter space on either side of sink.

9. No counter beside range.

10. Insufficient space in front of cabinets.

11. Distance between sink, range and refrigerator too great.

12. Range placed under a window; this is unsafe.

24. INSUFFICIENT and POORLY PLANNED CLOSETS and STORAGE SPACE

A poorly planned closet is one with doors that are too narrow, shelves too high and clothes poles so low that coats and long dresses trail the floor.

If there is no coat closet near the main entrance, where will guests put their coats?

If the living room is going to be used, it needs storage for books, re cords, fireplace wood, etc.

A dining room without storage for linens, dishes and silverware is in convenient.

Ironing boards and dangerous laundry and cleaning products require special safe storage space.

A bathroom without storage for towels, soap, extra toilet paper, cosmetics, medicines and dirty clothes soon becomes a cluttered mess.

Nothing is more inconvenient than bedrooms without adequate closets.

Houses without attics or basements often lack dead storage areas for trunks, boxes, extra furniture, sleds, storm windows, etc.

Outdoor living is made unpleasant by lack of nearby storage for the barbeque, outdoor furniture, garden tools and lawnmower.

25. HOUSE TOO SMALL FOR GROWING FAMILY’S NEEDS

A growing family has three ways to solve the need for additional space:

1. A house that can be expanded or with additional areas that may be finished into living space.

2. A house that's bigger than that currently needed with the extra space to be used in the future.

3. Moving to a bigger house.

26. SAFETY HAZARDS

The number of household accidents is staggering and , unfortunately, many of them result in death or permanent injury. Following are a few common sources of household accidents that can be eliminated:

1. Closets and cupboards that latch shut so they can be opened only from the outside and can trap children inside.

2. Doors that open out over stairs without a landing.

3. Steep, poorly lit basement stairs without a handrail.

4. Bathroom light fixtures with pull strings or switches that can be reached from the tub or shower.

5. Swimming pools that aren't fenced completely with at least a four- foot fence and a gate that locks (the neighbor’s pool should be fenced, too).

6. No adequate, convenient space to lock up dangerous cleaning products, medicines and other poisonous things so that young children can't reach them.

7. Too little headroom on stairs.

8. Porches, patios and stairwells without strong handrails around them.

9. Changes in floor levels in the house that are only one or two steps.

10. Stair risers of unequal size.

11. Stairs without adequate lights that may be turned on and off from both top and bottom of the stairs.

27. FIRE HAZARDS

The ten most common causes of residential fires are as follows. An examination of this list should suggest many ways to reduce these hazards:

1. Smoking.

2. Defective and overloading electric wiring.

3. Heating and cooking equipment.

4. Children playing with matches.

5. Open flames (fireplaces, candles, etc.).

6. Flammable liquids.

7. Arson.

8. Chimneys and flues.

9. Lighting.

10. Rubbish in cellar and attic (spontaneous combustion).

28. DECLINING NEIGHBORHOOD

Some early warning signs of a neighborhood starting to decline are:

1. Increasing average age of population.

2. Unusual number of For Sale signs, where permitted.

3. Construction of new homes stopped before all vacant land used up.

4. Conversion of large homes into multiple dwellings or rooming houses.

5. Increasing ratio of rented houses.

6. Breakdown of enforcement of zoning regulations and deed restrictions.

7. Declining reputation.

8. Decrease in rental rates.

29. NUISANCES and ADVERSE INFLUENCES

The following is a list of nuisances that, when too close to a house, will decrease its value. On the other hand, having them a few blocks away may be very convenient:

1. Fire stations.

2. Vacant houses.

3. Schools.

4. Funeral homes.

5. Stores.

6. Apartment houses.

7. Motels.

8. Restaurants and bars.

9. Utility wires and poles.

10. Noisy highways.

11. Hospitals.

12. Offices.

13. Commercial buildings.

14. Gas stations.

15. Industries.

30. NOISE

Noisy plumbing is discussed in problem number 6.

Steps to decrease noise in sleeping areas are discussed in problem number 22.

Often, it's possible to place some insulation material between the studs to soundproof an existing wall.

Noisy hot-air heating ducts are caused by being directly connected to the furnace without a short piece of canvas between the furnace discharge and the beginning of the ducts.

31. HOUSE POORLY LOCATED and ORIENTED ON LOT

The poor location and orientation of a house on its lot substantially de tracts from its livability. Unfortunately, the vast majority of existing houses aren't located or oriented in the best possible way.

One problem is that an individual house will be nonconforming with the neighborhood if it's oriented on the lot by taking into consideration topography, view, sun, trees, etc., when all the other houses on the street are lined up in a row facing the street.

32. VERMIN

Rats, mice and a variety of other rodents and animals like the same type of food and shelter as humans. Often, when such rodents move into a house, they will remain there happily until expelled. Vermin may transmit diseases and destroy property, and they are a source of annoyance. To control vermin, the house should be made as rodent-proof as possible. Food and water sources should be made inaccessible. Many types of poi sons are available for household use. For extreme problems, an exterminator will kill off the existing population and help prevent future infestations.

In addition to termites (previously discussed in problem number 1), a partial list of insects that often invade homes includes: flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, fleas, ticks, moths, millipedes and centipedes, crickets, ear- wigs, ground beetles, ants, spiders, scorpions, mites, wasps, bees, hornets, yellow jackets, bedbugs, lice and silverfish. Besides being a nuisance, in sects may transmit diseases and destroy property. The best long-run methods of control are to close up or screen any holes through which in sects may enter and to eliminate sources of food and water. Household poisons will produce temporary relief, but an exterminator may be needed.

33. WOOD ROT and POOR VENTILATION

Sooner or later, except in very dry climates, wood that directly touches the ground will begin to rot. Older homes often contain rotted wood. This can be easily detected by poking the wood with a sharp instrument such as an ice pick.

Poor ventilation will cause wood below the floor, in the attic and be hind the siding to rot. It also will cause paint to peel and will decrease the effectiveness of the insulation. Often, ventilation problems can be corrected by installing ventilators on the roof, in the attic, in the crawl areas and under the cornice eaves.

34. ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS

Every house should have a safe, adequate supply of water and a satisfactory way to dispose of liquid sewage waste. Without such a system, the health of the inhabitants is seriously endangered. Other environmental hazards that endanger the family’s health include high levels of radon, asbestos, lead, PCBs and soil contaminants both on and near the house. People’s health and safety also are affected by air pollution, urea formaldehyde foam insulation, radiation, electromagnetic radiation and geological hazards.

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