Talking home building safety with certified Home Inspector David Fairbairn
Mark: Hi, it’s Mark Bossert from Top Local Lead Generation. We’re here with home inspector, David Fairbairn of Fairbairn Inspections in Vancouver, how are you doing today Dave?
David: I am good Mark, how are you?
Mark: I good, great. So we’re talking about safety issues in older homes in Vancouver, BC. Come on, there’s no problems here in Vancouver are there?
David: If there was no problems, guys like me would probably be unemployed right now but luckily for us there are a lot of issues, depends upon the type of building you buy but with the older homes there’s a lot to look out for so, I’ll be happy to go through those with you and tell you a bit about them.
Mark: Sure, is there asbestos in older homes in Vancouver?
David: Yes, most of the time and when I say older homes, we’re talking about houses that are pre 1950’s, you know those are your character homes, those are you’re really, really old homes but it could be anything pre 1970’s and asbestos is actually not quite as ancient as you think, you’ll actually see it more recently in buildings, you can actually find asbestos in homes up to 1996 which always surprises people. With the older homes as soon as you go back before about 1970, you’re going to see it in really obvious places and when you get a quality home inspection the inspector will go through and point out areas where you don’t necessarily have to do anything about it but you would want to know about it. For instance, I don’t know if you’ve ever gone into maybe a Vancouver special and taken a look at the furnace duct work, for your heating system and you’ve got this sort of white plaster tape on there, it almost looks like, you know, when you break your arm and get a cast, so you’ve got this wrapped around all your joints. Most of that material, we’re probably talking a range of about 95 to 98% of it has asbestos fibers in the actual tape. So that’s one of them, and in other areas especially in older homes, attics are a big one. If you go to an older home, I was in one from about 1941, 1942 the other day and the attic had what’s called vermiculite insulation and it kind of looks like almost like a silver popcorn, I describe it as light and fluffy but it’s actually almost like a mineral, very hard to explain unless you’ve actually felt it, but that material does contain asbestos as well and then there’s some other ones that aren’t really as obvious, sometimes with your flooring tiles, or even if you go to a finished in basement, the ceiling tiles could actually have asbestos and what I like to do is basically tell a client, you’re buying into a house that’s quite old, there’s a good chance you’ve got asbestos here and here but as long as you disturb it this may not be a safety hazard for you but, if you’re going to go in there and gut the whole place and reno the entire house then you’re definitely going to want to get this stuff tested so that’s going to add to your expenses because all of a sudden you’ve got to pay for disposal and having everybody wear respirators while you’re working and it’s going to send up your costs and the safety aspect as well for your family.
So to answer your question, yes there’s definitely asbestos in older homes. The inspector will point it out to you where it’s located.
Mark: Sure and that’s probably true right across North America.
David: Yes that’s true, it’s very similar. You go to the states, some areas in the states where they actually have some really, really old homes. The oldest home I’ve ever inspected was 122 years old. In certain areas of New England a lot of the houses, most of them are that old so if you down there they have similar problems as well.
Mark: So what about, talking about old technology, what about knob and tube wiring, do we have that in Vancouver?
David: Yeah, we’ve got a ton of knob and tube wiring, there’s a lot of knob and tube. I know your house was built in 2006 and you are not really at risk for that problem, you’ve got what’s called Lumex wiring which is your standard new construction wiring that we’ve been using since about the 50’s or 60’s and knob and tubing wiring was a very early version of electrical wiring where they actually sent the wire along and they hung it on a little ceramic knob on the side of the joist, usually you can see it in the attic and then when it goes through the joist they drill a hole and put a little tube, ceramic tube and it goes through the tube and it’s a series of knobs and tubes, you can probably guess where the name comes from, knob and tube and the problem with that is it can, the jacketing on it can actually fall apart and then you’ve got exposed conductors which poses not only a shock hazard but also a fire hazard, especially in older attics where they’ve buried the knob and tube in the insulation. So this is a big one, if I were to tally up all the major issues that I’ve found in older homes, knob and tube would probably be the number one issue that’s a real sticking point because the insurance companies don’t like them and if you do find knob and tube you have to get somebody who’s a qualified electrician or a qualified electrical inspector to come out and basically sign off saying, o.k. it’s either safe or it’s not safe and you have to do this much work to make it safe. So older homes definitely knob and tubes are probably one of the top concerns that home buyers have.
Mark: Alright, so when you mentioned insurance doesn’t like it as in you’re probably not going to get house insurance.
David: There’s a pretty good chance that could happen. In some cases they will actually grandfather you in; let’s say someone’s been living there for ten years and they have somebody sign off saying it’s safe, there’s a pretty good chance that you might be able to get insurance from the same company. There’s no guarantees and insurance companies are in the business of making sure that they don’t pay out on a huge fire or flood and rightfully so. So these are the kinds of things that I warn the clients about and I say get somebody to check it out before you proceed with the purchase and every once in a while they say the electrician actually said we’ve got to rewire the top floor and it’s going to cost 8 thousand to 10 thousand dollars, yeah, so definitely that’s something that you’re going to want find out if you’re buying pre 1950. This is probably one of the most important things and I’ll talk about some of the other issues later but this is probably the single most important to look out for.
Mark: Alright, so again another kind of old technology that isn’t banned at this point, what about lead paint?
David: Lead paint, yeah, a huge one. We see lead paint pre 1978, so obviously if you’re going into a house that has been painted a number of times and it’s still got the original plaster or the original drywall or what have you, there’s a pretty good chance that if you scrape away the layers of paint you’ll come across some old lead paint. That was just a fact of life back then, some of it was leaded and the big thing to know about lead paint and I always tell the customers is that unless you are destroying it in some way or removing it in some way it’s really not a serious hazard because it’s buried usually behind other layers of paint or you may have wall paper on top of it or it just may be sitting there not doing anything; if you start removing the paint, steaming the wall paper off, things like that, you will definitely want to test for lead paint, actually get a lead paint test kit. I think Home Depot sells one right now and you can just do a test right there in your home, so definitely very common, in terms of being a huge, huge safety concern, probably not top on the list but definitely something that I get asked a lot about; I try to let them know that probably there is something here if it’s a certain age.
Mark: So these last three really are big concerns if you’re the fixeruper or you’re buying something that you’re going to remodel a whole of stuff because none of these are going to be obvious to you.
David: Yes, that’s right, exactly and if I’m a general contractor and I’m going to come in, you call me in to reno your kitchen I’m going to find these things if the home inspector didn’t tell you, I’m going to find these things I’m going to go in there and say o.k. you’ve actually got asbestos in your ducts and in your walls and we’re going to test your plaster and maybe your plaster has asbestos, so the thing is to just know about it before you start planning and if you have concerns about it, there’s a number of companies that will come out and do asbestos testing and we can actually get the air cleared in your home. They can actually test for asbestos fibers and my company offers some basic testing services as well. So a lot of inspectors will find vermiculite in the attic and say well it might have asbestos, we do have the ability to take a sample and process it 24 hours later, we’ll actually get a result saying it is or it isn’t and that probably 40 or 50 % of inspections where there’s vermiculite I will do the test for the customer. We charge a small fee for it but it’s a great service.
Mark: So what about, this one’s probably a lot hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for or you don’t have the proper equipment to check for; what about oil tanks.
David: Oil tanks, yeah, a huge one. I put this under the safety category and I’ll explain why. They a safety hazard but not necessarily to the inhabitants of the home so I think in past Hangouts we’ve talked about oil tanks and their sort of effect on property so just a short introduction, you’ve got in the olden days you were going to heat your home with heating oil, right, we’re going to have oil fired furnace and boiler and we’re going to have either an above ground oil tank or buried oil tank and a truck will come by and refill the oil and that was before natural gas came to the lower mainland. So in certain areas you see a lot of them, East Vancouver there’s quite a few, quite a few on the North Shore, very few in Richmond, you won’t see any, hardly at all, it’s so marshy that you can’t put an oil tank in the ground, they keep on sinking and in some areas it’s not really a risk. What can happen is as they get abandoned, the owner of the house gets natural gas service and just kind of abandon it and either they fill it with sand or with cement in some cases and they just kind of forget about it, sits out in the yard and if there’s oil in the bottom of the tank that hasn’t been used and that thing rusts all of a sudden you’ve got soil contamination so that oil is leaching into the actual soil and ground water and it can actually be a huge problem. Let’s say you decide to build a shed out back or a garage and you’re digging and all of a sudden you find this oil tank, well you know what you are going to test the soil and say we’ve actually got contamination here, we need an environmental company to come start cleaning up the soil and removing soil and replacing it and you can imagine that gets extremely expensive. So with every home inspection you should always have a qualified, like an actual professional full time oil tank removal company come an scan the property and they will issue a certificate to you saying there is a tank or we don’t think there’s a tank here and I recommend almost every time you buy a home past a certain date especially in some high risk areas and so it’s more of a financial safety than a safety for the home but it can be environmental problems.
Mark: Alright and the last one on our list here is what about pests, how can they be a safety issue.
David: Yeah so pests, no surprise, we live in a rain forest and we have a lot of; racoons, we’ve got squirrels, mice, rats, bees, ants, you know I could probably sit here all day and name different animals that I’ve found in houses. But from a safety stand point there’s a couple of different reasons that pests are really important to check for and if you were to go to maybe a hundred houses you would actually find in about 20 to 30 houses, you’d find a good deal of maybe a mice infestation or maybe racoon activity or ants, you know, sometimes carpenter ants but safety concerns are with droppings and disease, so if you go up to an attic or crawlspace and you got a big rat problem there, rats eventually die and rats bodies rot and smell bad and they attract other vermin, right and then you’ve got droppings, they’ll urinate and they’ll actually sit in your insulation and it could be a pretty big safety concern and it mice and rats should never be in contact with people because they carry diseases and it’s also unpleasant, it’s unclean, it’s a hygiene thing. You don’t want rats running around your attic so this is the kind of thing we’re always checking for and there’s a few different trademarks we’re looking for especially with mice in attics, they’ll actually carve little paths through the insulation so if you go to an attic and you see a bunch of fibre glass insulation up there and there’s pathways, but no droppings, you don’t see the droppings but you see little pathways and that’s usually a pretty good sign something’s been running around up there, whether it’s a chipmunk, mouse or rat and we always recommend calling a qualified pest control company to check it out before you go out and move in. If you’re moving your family in you want to make sure it’s safe.
Mark: So that’s the core safety issues in older homes, pretty much in North America, let alone Vancouver, is there anything else you would like to include or finish off with?
David: No, I can’t recommend strongly enough is to hire somebody who has experience in older homes, you get it inspected every time, if you’re getting a great deal from your uncle and you’re buying his house, it doesn’t matter, you should always get a home inspection done by somebody who is familiar with these issues because you can save a lot more than inspection costs. If you spend $500 on a home inspection and you save $10,000 on fumigating the attic and removing asbestos somewhere, that’s a pretty good return, right? So always hire a qualified home inspector and the last thing I’ll say is please give us a call for your next home inspection. My number is at the bottom of the screen.
Mark: So folks, we’ve been talking with David Fairbairn, he’s a certified home inspector in Vancouver and he deals with the whole metro Vancouver area from Coquitlam right to West Van, Richmond, Surrey you name it, he goes there so he’s a good guy and he knows his stuff. David Fairbairn at FairbairnInspections.com. Give him a call 604-395-2795. Thanks David.
David: Thanks Mark, talk to you later.
In the lower mainland, there are thousands of homes within viewing distance (and directly beside) High-Voltage transmission lines and towers. Such transmission arrangements are called “rights of way” (ROW) by BC Hydro. There are over 74,000 Kms of Power Lines in BC.
There is a large amount of controversy surrounding these ROWs, most notably due to the EMF (Electromagnetic Field) Radiation they create. Let’s take a look at some facts:
Due to the great distances the electricity must be transmitted, a ROW will be between 69,000 to 500,000 Volts. At the high end, (250-500 Kilovolts), an audible buzzing and/or crackling sound may be noted. These voltages are obviously extremely dangerous and great care should be taken not to go anywhere near them.
Power lines may sway as much as 4 meters vertically during windy/bad weather. A fallen transmission line is disastrous, but luckily rarely occurs. If the home buyer is looking at a house directly beside a tower, this is a risk that they should take into consideration before purchasing the home.
Homes, Buildings, and even foundations may not be constructed on a ROW, or within 10 meters of one. However, golf courses (such as one in Surrey), sheds, roads, fences, and parking can be constructed with permission from BC Hydro.
EMF is a very real, physical field that is present around all electronic devices and the equipment powering them. EMF is everywhere electricity flows. However, some groups/individuals believe that EMF causes negative health effects in humans – most notably from Power Lines and “Smart Meters”, about which there has been much media coverage. There have been a number of studies performed, particularly one early study that linked childhood leukemia to EMF. Later, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) performed a study that failed to establish a link between elevated EMF levels and leukemia. Only several, long-term studies have been performed, and all have failed to establish a link between EMF and cancer.
Another suggested health effect is Hormonal disruption – there is a large amount of anecdotal evidence of Hormone-related problems in people living near power lines, however as of this article’s writing we are not aware of any conclusive studies linking the two.
The most real, empirical danger involved with overhead power lines is in the risk of contact with High-Voltage equipment, either from collapse or from accidental contact with the equipment (kites, ladders, trees, etc.)
EMF Radiation has been proven to drop dramatically over short distances, and is already present in areas without overhead power lines (such as near cell towers, microwaves, cell phones, TVs, etc). There is also (so far) no conclusive link between EMF and serious health issues. However, if you feel uncomfortable with power lines nearby you should investigate/research the issue carefully before proceeding.
A quality home inspection is a thorough visual inspection of the major systems of the home, such as Roof, Exterior, Electrical, Heating, Insulation, and Plumbing. A home inspection will not include evaluation of EMF Radiation, and you should call a specialist if you have any concerns about the property.
We inspected this property in Port Coquitlam, BC recently. It had an illegal suite, and we found a number of dangerous electrical problems from the home owner’s “DIY” project…
The sub-panel was badly corroded and had no identifying stickers or information. We can see (photo below) that it was probably salvaged from another building where is was exposed to water. Corroded or water-damaged panels are always a safety hazard, as rusted metal can overhead or arc, causing a fire.
Next, we see a corroded lug. A quick surface temperature measurement showed it was overheating.
A double tap is an illegal repair whereupon two conductors (wires) share the same breaker. It’s usually done when there are no spare locations to add another breaker. The problem? The breaker is only designed to carry one wire. If you add a second wire the connection becomes loose and the wires make poor contact. The result is overheating, and the breaker may also not perform properly. (Tripping early or late).
Below we see the real double-tap at the red arrow. Fixing a double-tap is easy – but in this case replacing the sub panel with a larger one was the best option.
The buyers purchased the property and the electrical safety upgrades are currently under way.
Marijuana grow op (MGOs) are common in the BC lower mainland, however this crime has diminished in popularity lately (most occurred in the 1990’s). They are incredibly destructive – a home may be filled with mold and hazardous wiring. If you’re buying a property in BC, this is must-read information… buying into a grow op home could spell financial disaster.
Here are a few things to look for:
Marijuana cultivation generates an enormous amount of hot, humid air, and the growers will look for the easiest way to vent it. Closet ceilings provide a discrete passage for ductwork. Look for circular/square patches in ceilings:
A great trick: Take a flashlight and lay it sideways on a wall or ceiling – this casts a shadow on any imperfections and allows you to see past repairs. I have used this technique in thousands of homes and it works very well for seeing the wall’s history.
Growing plants indoors requires a huge amount of power – and the operators don’t want anyone to notice. Look for evidence of tampering next to the electrical meter. Also look for high-amperage breakers (in the main panel) that don’t appear to have a purpose. If you see several 40-amp breakers, and there’s only one kitchen in the home, be careful.
At one inspection in Surrey we noticed 4-5 high voltage (240V) range type receptacles in the basement ceiling. There are not many reasons to have that much power running to a basement! (4 ovens, perhaps?)
Look for evidence of tampering with fireplaces – these provide an excellent exhaust option and are often rusty, damaged or have broken glass or missing fire logs. There may be tuck-tape or duct-tape around the flue. In some renovated grow-ops the fireplaces have been completely drywalled over to hide the damage.
Look for staining and signs of moisture in the attic. Attics usually suffer badly – black mold and, in many cases, rotting wood, can be found. If an attic has been remediated (mold removed professionally by a contractor), there are usually still signs visible. Remediation usually leaves a white or green residue that is easily seen.
Extreme mold will show up as branch-like marks, even on the trusses. Thin, winding patterns on 2x4s and plywood indicate extreme moisture conditions.
In a particularly bad ex grow op the plywood or OSB sheathing may have been damaged to the point of collapse. In one building we inspected in East Vancouver, there were mushrooms growing out of the remnants of the attic sheathing!
Check the attic and roof for added ventilation. A few roof vents or a turbine vent is normal; six turbine vents is not. Also, check for staining around the exterior soffits. In many grow homes there is rust-colored staining on the soffits due to the metal in the roofing nails “bleeding” through the eaves. As part of our home inspections we check the soffits carefully. Ventilation issues and condensation can usually be predicted before even entering the attic area.
Look for electrical tape, ducting, masks, gloves, loose wiring and bags of insulation, particularly in the attic and crawlspace. Several times, we have found trash bags full of ducting and soil still in the garage. Criminals can be just like the rest of us – forgetful!
Grow-Operations were originally more likely to be on dead-end streets, cul-de-sacs, and forested areas with a lot of privacy. However, newer operations can occur anywhere, even in condos and townhomes with close neighbours.
Check the front door for signs of forced entry – the police may have broken down the door to get in.
Look for unusually high amounts of security such as bars on windows, security cameras and triple-locked doors.
While it’s true that there is a section on the form requiring the sellers of a property to disclose any latent defects or important history of the home, there are a few problems with relying on this form for accurate information:
Have a quality, professional home inspection performed, every time you purchase a home. Your professional inspector is trained in finding problems, and can save you from potentially expensive mistakes. While an inspection can’t guarantee an MGO will be uncovered, and most SOPs (Standards of Practice) do not require reporting mold conditions, the inspector may notice signs of faulty wiring or unsafe tampering with heating equipment, for example.
Updated July 12/2016
Added more information on attic remediation residue, as well as information on drywall side-lighting tricks. Added detail to smaller sections.
Update: grow op Chart added:
We were called to inspect a unit in this condo in Central Burnaby, BC. The building was constructed in 1979 and had recently undergone a number of upgrades such as new windows, re-piping, roof, and boiler / hot water tanks.
As part of our standard inspection process, the main panel cover was removed and the wiring carefully checked. Immediately it was apparent that the neutral service conductor was scorched and overheating.
Closer investigation revealed a lack of antioxidant paste at the terminal. When an aluminium conductor is connected, an anti-oxidant paste should always be used. This is likely the cause of the failure.
Thermal Imaging of the conductor confirmed that the connection was extremely hot (the temperature in Celsius is marked below):
This connection posed a very real fire hazard, and the buyer arranged for an electrician to correct the issue right away.
This week’s inspection is duplex property in Horseshoe Bay village, in West Vancouver. The home was built in 1985.
We started out the rear deck inspection and immediately noted problems. The deck appeared to be pulling away from the side of the home:
The guardrails were poorly designed. During our inspections, we follow the 4″ rule – a ball with a diameter of 4″ should not fit through any gaps in the rails. In the photo we can see that a small child or pet may fall through:
Here we can see below the deck, and the major problem; it’s not connected to the home. To be fair, one section was connected, but the walkway section was completely free-standing.
Looking at the supports, we can see major racking of the deck structure. This poorly built deck was not only pulling away from the home, but collapse will likely occur if repairs aren’t made.
A contractor was called and they are currently rebuilding/repairing the failed deck areas.
During my home inspections, I always make a point of walking every square foot of the attic, if possible. More often than not, I’ll find something that another inspector might miss. What I usually find is a leaking roof, missing insulation, or an animal or two.
The worst hazard I have ever found was from this home in East Vancouver. It was an old-timer and the price was very good, which attracted by client to it.
Entering the attic, I followed the usual routine – checking for leaks, asbestos, and bad wiring.
One thing we can usually find in an attic is the presence of knob and tube wiring in the home. Knob and Tube is an old wiring method that is considered extremely hazardous and obsolete by today’s standards. Here’s a photo of the old wiring peeking out from below the insulation – a bad idea which is a possible fire hazard:
At the bottom you can see the old ceramic knob – using an AC Volt Pen I was able to confirm that the wiring was live. This could be a potentially huge cost to the buyer if the insurance company will not insure the house until it gets re-wired.
When I turned around, I saw this:
Old wires, stretched across the length of the attic. At either end of them were glass Coke bottle necks, anchoring and insulating the wires from the wood rafters.
Volt testing confirmed these were live – not only that, but they were bare and exposed in sections:
Someone touching these lines would get quite a shock – and the attic was dark, which made it hard to see. This “electric fence” in the attic made this house a complete safety hazard. We called in a professional electrician to evaluate the system, and the home needed thousands of dollars of electrical work.
Asbestos has been around for millions of years, and its use by humans dates as far back as the ancient Greeks. It’s fireproof, insulates wonderfully, and was readily accessible.
However, since asbestos has been linked to respiratory diseases and cancer, it has been outlawed for use in home construction for years. Although still used in certain applications (mostly industrial), it can be a potentially serious safety risk in homes. Here’s a guide to identifying asbestos in a home, and what your home inspector may find.
First, let’s look at the terms that inspectors use to describe asbestos:
ACM is an industry term for any material that contains (even small) amounts of asbestos. If your Home Inspector refers to “Possible ACM”, it is probably one of the below listed types. Note: A good Home Inspector will always refer to asbestos as Possible Asbestos – the only true way to determine the percentage and danger is by testing the material in a lab.
Friable is a state of asbestos – if something is Friable, its is damaged, chipped or otherwise deteriorated, and the fibers of the product can enter the air and be breathed in. Non-Friable asbestos is generally safe, however you should always consult with a qualified asbestos contractor to determine safety concerns.
Duct wrap is common in older homes – it was used to increase the efficiency of forced-air heating systems by insulating the metal ducts, thereby reducing heat loss. The problem is, by now most of the insulation has sagged, collapsed or is friable. It looks and feels like dense cardboard. Most duct wrap that is still around today should be removed.
Duct tape, or joint sealant tape, is white and looks like a mix of cloth and plaster around the joints of the ductwork. I often find this material in good shape. However, if it becomes friable (ripped or torn), it will need to be fixed or removed.
Vermiculite Insulation is a type of wall and attic insulation that often contains asbestos fibers. It looks like tiny granite-colored stones, and is usually seen in attics. It’s generally safe, however if you disturb it (renovations, demolition, repair work), it can become airborne and is unsafe. Testing should be done with vermiculite, as not all of it contains asbestos fibers.
Old 9″ floor tiles often contain asbestos. It’s best not to disturb them – they’re not usually harmful unless disturbed / removed. If you decide to remove them, an Asbestos Abatement Company should be called.
Textured (or Popcorn) ceilings are unique – up until the late ’90’s there is a chance they may contain asbestos. If you are considering removing the texture, don’t do it yourself unless you know what you are dealing with. Take it in for testing, or have a contractor remove it professionally. My customers are constantly surprised that a home built in 1989 would have asbestos, but it’s a possibility.
If you don’t disturb a popcorn ceiling, it is not a safety issue.
The most important thing about buying a home with asbestos in it is to find out ahead of time. Hiring a professional Home Inspector to evaluate your home and identify any possible risks, is the first step in determining if the home of your dreams might be hiding any surprises. You may be able to negotiate a reduction in the price from the seller, or at very least you can budget for any removal or repairs.