Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Confessions of a House Inspector

By Matt Cantor
Friday March 02, 2007

I have a terrible confession to make. I feel really bad about it, but it’s probably not going to change any time soon. I don’t care if your roof leaks. O.K., I know that I’m supposed to make a big deal about this sort of thing but I’m not going to. There, I said it and I feel a whole lot better. 

Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. I do care if your roof leaks, but not that much. And I would argue that you shouldn’t either. Now, if you have OCD you might need to fix it right away to prevent suicide and I would say, “Bully for you, get on with it then” and hand you the phone, to call to the roofer, myself. 

However, for most of us, it’s just not all that important because roof leaks don’t kill people. I’m very interested in everything about the house but I’m much more interested in things that kill people or hurt them seriously or cause a massive loss of value.  

This is what might be called worst-case scenario inspecting and is what I try to do everyday.  

It is very easy to lose perspective when looking at a large list of issues and, to the credit of many of my clients; they will intuit and communicate this when we’re looking at their house, skyscraper or aircraft hangar. Most will, at some point, say “Please tell the things that you think matter the most” or “Can you tell me the five things that you’d do first after I’ve moved in.” 

This is a darned good start and prescient, to be sure, but it’s not enough. These questions should also include, “What’s going to kill me?” and perhaps “What’s going to end up costing me a bucket of money?” and whether I’m asked or not, this robot comes preprogrammed to do this. 

Maybe it’s because I’m a worrier but it doesn’t make any sense to me to look at a range of issues and to fail to list them by hazard-level. 

So let’s take a look at a few things that I would place near the top (and near the bottom) of my worst-case scenario inspecting list and I would virtually always begin with those things related to fire. 

In my world, there’s not much worse than death by fire and there’s so much we can do to prevent it. Not that we can prevent all fires but we can certainly do a lot about preventing deaths caused by fires. So, my favorite inspection item is the smoke detector; low cost, high benefit. That’s another criterion that must be made a part of this thinking: What’s the cost and what’s the benefit?  

Smoke detectors are very rich when it comes to this set of criteria; they have very low cost, high benefit and address needs in a very bad-case scenario. They don’t prevent fires but they do help prevent deaths caused by them. 

CO (carbon monoxide) testers are similar. While fire is much worse and far more common than CO, CO still remains a killer that can be addressed with a $25 device and a $2 battery. By the way, let’s not forget batteries. Installing fresh batteries for smoke and CO detectors has an extremely high yield in our index of safety versus cost. It’s amazing how many smoke detectors I see that lack only a $2 battery to save one or many lives. 

Let’s jump to the other end of the scale and look at our leaking roof (actually, your leaking roof, mine’s fine). If the roof leaks, it is almost impossible for this to cause a death (although my mind, like yours, rushes to all the wild Rube Goldberg linkages that could cause a death). 

In fact, there are, for the most part, only very small amounts of damage done to most houses by roof leaks. This is primarily due to the fact that roof leaks rarely hide (although they certainly can in some cases) and usually become extremely noticeable, if not unsightly, before they’ve done any significant amount of real structural damage. For the most part, roof leaks damage ceiling finishes and, if allowed to advance (if you drink heavily) can do some damage to other components such as wiring and framing. I always like to remind people that wood is not easily damaged by water; they build boats out of it!  

Sheetrock and plaster are quickly damaged and possibly destroyed by roof leaks and this is sort of sad (and sort of not really very much) but it shouldn’t be anyone’s worst-case scenario. 

Flipping back to worst cases again, fire escape is very high on my list. This can include removal of window bars, looking at the needs of the disabled (e.g. can they get downstairs), training of children and installation of rope or chain ladders. Window size and type is also a pretty large issue here. 

If a window doesn’t open enough to climb out (or for a firewoman to climb in!) it’s a big problem. Window locks that require a key are a huge hazard and have a big cost/benefit and worst-case index. The same applies to “double cylinder” door locks that require a key to escape. 

I won’t miss the chance to throw in my person dead-horse (the thing I like to beat), the earthquake. While you may never experience a very large earthquake, the worst-case scenario is very, very high. There can be death (most likely by fire) and there will almost certainly be a great deal of property damage and loss if you experience a very large earthquake. 

If you live where this has a low likelihood, substitute your own disaster (are you reading this Mr. Brown?) and adjust your funding and action accordingly. For my friends in the Bay Area, earthquake concerns should take precedence over roof leaks. I would sooner see my client spend seven grand on seismic retrofitting for an earthquake that they may never experience than one grand fixing a leak that’s occurring today! 

Now, I’m not actually suggesting that you let the roof leak but you get my point. It’s fine and good and terrific to spend money on the things that make you crazy or present themselves to you, dirty paws and all, but it’s vital that we focus a portion of our energy on the things that might do great harm to us, and those we love, even if the event seems way off in the distance.  

And of course, remember to eat out more often, smile a lot and get more hugs. 


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.