Inspecting for the unexpected

Professionals are there to find problems in homes before the buyer invests

Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2003

A person may want to pinch pennies when considering spending $200,000 on a house in Juneau. But spending an extra $300 to $500 on a home inspection before buying a home could save a buyer thousands of dollars after the sale closes.

"If you go in with your eyes wide open, you'll be much happier coming out of it, said PeggyAnn McConnochie, owner of ACH Consulting, a real estate consulting company. "It's a small price to pay to know what you're buying."

Most real estate agents and lending institutions require potential home buyers to have a building inspected before they purchase. Home inspections come in three varieties, said McConnochie. Structural inspections, those most often performed by engineers, usually are the primary inspection.

"They're just to see whether the structure is structurally sound, and whether additions or changes are reasonable," said McConnochie. Structural inspectors do not check plumbing or electrical systems, though.

"There are times during a structural inspection where they'll say, 'You know, it might be a good idea for you to have an electrical inspection, because that's not our area of expertise,' " McConnochie said.

The most common problems that affect the structure of Juneau homes result from the city's location in a temperate rain forest.

"Most of the important things we do is to look at the structure as it's related to water, vapor and moisture," said Ron Hansen, owner of Hansen Engineering, which performs many home inspections in Juneau.

"People have no idea what's in a crawl space," he said. "We have people who say, 'Well, we've lived here for a long time and we have a foot of water in our basement.' "

Hansen and his son Tim, also an engineer, check home ventilation and insulation in the crawl space and attic. Mold often infests attics because of insufficient ventilation, or because exhaust fans for bathrooms or clothes dryers are vented into the space, Ron Hansen said.

Most recommendations made by inspectors are small projects, said McConnochie.

"Some of it has to do with just the age of the property - a roof that's getting older or ... some boards need to be replaced because rot has come in because of water seepage," she said.

One of the simplest recommendations an engineer can make, and one that will save a homeowner a considerable amount of money, is installing a vapor barrier in a home's crawl space, Hansen said.

"It's just a sheet of plastic on the ground that prevents moisture from coming up," Ron Hansen said. The plastic keeps moisture from evaporating off of the ground and condensing on the structure.

"You want the crawl spaces to be cool and dry," Hansen said.

Structural home inspectors also will look at safety items, such as the amount of space between the bottom of a bannister and the floor - it must be less than 6 inches, to prevent children from squeezing through and falling - and the location and number of fire alarms, Hansen said.

A structural inspection costs around $350 - "a small fee when you're talking about a big purchase," said McConnochie. While some homeowners will have their home inspected before they put it on the market, about 90 percent of structural inspections are paid for by the prospective buyer.

"They make an offer to purchase and say, 'I'll buy your house if I can have an inspection and if it's to my approval,' " McConnochie said. Based on the results of the inspection, the terms of the sale may be renegotiated.

The practice of having a home inspected when bought or sold began in the mid-1980s, when the economy slumped due to falling oil prices, McConnochie said. Many people lost jobs, and many banks and lending institutions were forced to repossess houses.

"Banks ended up with properties that they knew nothing about," she said. "They decided it was in their best interest to first have an engineer inspection and then make changes before they put it on the market. That was the start of using engineers to inspect homes."

Most structural home inspections in Juneau are done by engineers such as Hansen Engineering, R&M Engineering and Cooper Consulting Engineers. Juneau differs from Anchorage in this respect, Hansen said.

"In Anchorage they almost always use home inspectors," he said. Because Alaska has no regulation of home inspectors, anybody can call himself a home inspector in Alaska, including contractors and carpenters.

"I think in Juneau they're doing a good job of using engineers," Hansen said. "Not only do we know what to look for, we know how to fix the problem."

If a structural engineer recognizes a problem but doesn't know how to fix it, he or she then will recommend an electrical or plumbing inspection.

Don Cameron, vice president and manager of Cameron Plumbing and Heating, said his company's plumbing and heating inspections last about one hour, cost around $80, and can alert prospective buyers to major expenses that a structural inspector might miss.

"We check out the boiler system, the domestic hot and cold water pipes, the fittings under the sinks and toilets, the operation of the heating plant," Cameron said.

The most common problems the company comes across concern the heating systems.

"Usually the condition of the boiler or furnace ... it might look like it's in good shape but it's probably on its last leg," Cameron said. "Within a year they could be buying a new one, not knowing any better."

An electrician will try to get as good a feel for the condition of a house's electrical system as possible without tearing the house apart during an electrical inspection, said Carla Meek, owner of Juneau Electrical Supply Co., which performs home inspections.

"Usually you can get a feel for whether or not the electricity in the place has been done correctly," she said.

An electrician will make sure all the wiring is up to city code, and that there are no safety risks in the home.

The result of the 1- to 1 1/2-hour inspection is a written report noting deficiencies and recommending corrections.

"If a person doesn't know about electricity and about electrical wiring systems, they certainly should have somebody take a look at what they have, what they're buying," said Meek. "It's kind of cheap insurance."

Christine Schmid can be reached at

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