Home & Garden

About the House: Kicking the Tires

By Matt Cantor
Thursday April 23, 2009 - 06:27:00 PM
Though they looked just fine to the naked eye, these tiles were barely attached
Though they looked just fine to the naked eye, these tiles were barely attached

As an inspector, there are certain phrases that catch my ear and cause me to run some little macros that I’ve been cognitively building over these many years looking at houses. One of them is some version of, “The sellers did all this work for themselves and were planning on living here for many years.”  

OK. Maybe so, maybe not. It’s sort of a set-up to say that. It’s kind of like saying, “If we’d known some suckers were buying the house, we’d have remodeled with spit and glue, but since we were planning to live here for many years to come, we decided to have the work properly done.” I don’t know. Maybe I’m over the top but it just seems to me that it shouldn’t matter and it’s overstating just a bit. Nonetheless, I did have cause to confirm my distrust of such statements this week. 

The house was largely pretty solid, having been built in the years just after World War II in a somewhat unimaginative but very reliable El Cerrito neighborhood. This era produced good solid workmanship, great foundations and spacious lots. It’s also home to those great huge garages that we wood-workers always salivate over. The original work was good, but as I looked at the interior and places where recent upgrades had been done (the ones done just for themselves, mine you) I found a couple of pretty sorry items. The worst was a bathroom counter that had obviously been tiled very recently and with the very worst possible preparation.  

When I entered the bathroom, I looked at the tile counter and it didn’t look quite right. Sometimes it’s hard to specify, but there are any of a hundred reasons that this might be true in a case such as this, and it implored me to thump. Now thumping is an art and should not be attempted by the careless or the angry. Do not thump wantonly or capriciously. Thump only as one who is seeking exact details, as one might swirl a glass of wine prior to smelling. 

When I thumped I heard a hollow sound, as if a void were present below the tile. This was a bad sound. I thumped some more, but far less than would be expected to produce any sort of damage. I thumped as though I were tenderizing meat, as one emphasizing a point. The sounds continued to be bad and it looked as if the tile were moving. The wood backing was bouncing far too much. Virtually no bounce should be possible once tile is installed over an appropriate backing. 

Then the edges began to loosen. Initially, I was taken aback. This shouldn’t happen. I had been preparing to write items of concern down on my pad (“This tile may not be properly installed and may have a shorter then typical…” Uh oh). I called in my client and pointed out my discovery. I asked her to tug lightly on the edge of another tile. Four came off in her hands. Clearly, these were not going to survive the first month or two of life in her possession before they started to come off. Any playful activity (no suggestions here) or an accidental bump onto the edge of the counter was going to reveal this and probably quite soon. 

This raises questions as to what sort of testing is reasonable when examining a house one is preparing to acquire. Is it appropriate to kick tires and, if so, to what extent? There is, of course, no easy answer but before I attempt one, here’s another story. 

Many years ago, when I was far newer to my current profession, I found myself, one day, as I have many times since, down on my butt in front of a kitchen sink cabinet investigating the contents thereof. Behind me stood my clients (a young couple), two realtors (one for each side of the deal) and at least one or two more friends or relatives. In short, an audience. Drawing focus to my subject, I pointed to the sink trap (that funny shaped piece that runs from the sink drain to the cabinet wall) and began to wax didactic about the advanced corrosion on the trap. “Here,” I pointed, and stuck my thumb right through it’s filmy shell, water dribbling down my hand and onto the floor. 

OK. Did I break it or did I reveal that it was no longer competent? As in the prior case, it’s clear that, like some sort of booby-trap, it might have been a matter of days into new ownership before the newlyweds found themselves with either a leaky trap or a broken countertop, depending on which story we’re talking about. When do you want to know? Before you buy or after? It’s clear to me that I want to find out anything I possibly can prior to sale, and that pulling on this and rapping on that, within very judicious limits, is very important. A concrete wall should not crumble when tapped with a hammer and a plastic waste line should not pull apart when two parts are grasped and torqued with moderate force. If one does not do these things, one does not learn important—nay, vital—details about houses. 

My clients in both these cases were very happy to learn of these things. And though these findings sometimes make sellers unhappy, the cost of repair prior to sale is often less than the price of retribution afterwards. The more a buyer knows, the better for everyone. 

It’s astonishing how many brand-new countertops aren’t secured; how many dishwashers aren’t screwed into place; and how many dishwashers leak when we run them. I’m not suggesting there is malice in any of these things. Not at all. People are often stressed and harried when the sale is under way. The owner of the tiled counter may have no idea that the worker did such a poor job (though I’m pretty sure that this was the low-low bidder or simply a laborer from off the street) and besides, who looks at traps under sinks? 

The house with the tiled counter had a number of other similar troubles, and it was pretty clear that, if permits were ever obtained, the house was subjected to only the most insubstantial of inspections from the municipality. In short, one should never rely on that alone. It was claimed in this case that permits had been obtained for all the work, and this is often a claim that turns out to be untrue or of mixed truth. Permits may have been obtained for A but not for B or C. Permits may have been obtained but not followed by a full array of inspections. Even when permits were obtained, and for the exact claimed items, they may not have been adequate. Codes are not a guarantee of good workmanship. They simply establish that certain metrics have been applied and certain milestones passed. Work can be pretty awful regardless of having met the code. 

If you’re looking at houses, remember that far too many have piles of goop and paint brushed out over stains, rotten soft wood, rusty metal and formerly leaking foundation walls. Carpets are often installed over formerly damp basement floors, and various remodeling efforts are often well below the standards demanded by the code and by better builders. Again, these are rarely cases of malicious malfeasance, but simply the day-to-day acts of imperfect humans doing the best they can under the circumstances. Our ideas of best practice rarely rule the day, and to everyone’s detriment, I’m not in charge of the world. 



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