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Five home inspections you would rather not flunk

By Davison Cheney

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 21 2012 12:48 p.m. MST

In this May 23, 2011 photo, a home is shown for sale in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

Amy Sancetta, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

The first thing a high school girl does when getting in a vehicle is to check her makeup in the mirror and adjust the radio stations.

By the same token, most homebuyers are just as superficial when looking at a house to buy — checking the neighborhood for big dogs and garage bands or good lighting and perennials — the homeowners' equivalent to makeup and radio.

With a few simple tests and inspections before buying a house suggested by the Environmental Protection Agency, Home inspectors, and Utah Realtors, home owner wannabes can be home free — with minimal cost and effort — in a family-safe environment of their choosing.

Before getting to the list, here is a quick mention of methamphetamine. Tests for meth production are not necessary for most houses and are not required by most local law enforcement unless there were reports made to police. If a report was made it will be logged with the city, and the real estate agent is required to disclose that information to you.

Just in case, it doesn’t hurt to ask around the neighborhood.

No. 1: Naturally occurring Radon gas has been identified as the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. It is first on most lists of things to check when moving into a previously owned house. It usually enters the home through cracks in the foundation.

“The prevailing source of radon affecting most of Utah is naturally occurring uranium found in the geology of the Rocky Mountains” states The Department of Environmental Quality.

The EPA estimates that one in 15 homes in the United States has a high level of radon. Real estate agents, contractors and home inspectors can help you test for radon, and short-term tests for homeowner use are available at local home improvement stores.

"Open communication with neighbors and an Internet search will help you glean much helpful information as radon is often a problem consistent from property to property in a given area," said Doug Seal of James L. Hacking Construction in Orem. “If you hear that the house you are interested in is in a trouble spot, there are Maps of Utah showing high radon areas on the Internet and learn what can be done."

Options may be as simple as sealing the basement floor or installing simple ventilation.

No. 2: Cracked foundations are second on the list for two reasons. Left unaddressed, they can be a nightmare in addition to admitting radon. Cement and cinder blocks crack over time, especially if they weren't sealed on the exterior side — which hasn’t been standard procedure until the last few years. Leaking water can lead to both structural threats — rot and termites — and health issues — mold and mildew.

Though there are a number of sealants that can be applied from the inside, having a lot of hydrostatic pressure from the outside of the foundation will render any special coatings meaningless.

Previous water damage is not necessarily a black ball for the house. There are things that can be done to steer water away and into new drainage, and some well-planned landscaping can do the same. But moisture in the house spells trouble, and a thorough walk around may save you time and trouble in foundation repairs, replaced carpets and wall coverings, as well as mold damage.

Home mold tests check for dangerous black mold, but bear in mind that keeping a nose out is the best defense.

No. 3: Lead pipes and paint are third. Lead pipes were replaced in the late 1940s, and then the earliest galvanized steel pipes which came next still contained lead for a few years until manufactures changed over to zinc. Much of the material used to join copper pipes as recently as the mid-1980s contained lead as well.

The easiest way to take care of water in lead pipes is with a filtration system, and the easiest way to test for lead in the water is to grab a simple test.

Vintage homes, ones built before 1978, will have lead-based paint. Whether on interior or exterior surfaces, it’s not harmful unless the paint is ingested, but those eating walls or chewing on window sills are generally children.

The danger is when cured lead paint flakes, peels or is chewed off of outside surfaces, where particles can be ingested or contaminate a vegetable garden. The interior paint has probably been painted over more than a few times and is well encapsulated in a Latex-based product.

When remodeling, contractors generally prefer to simply remove lead paint-covered exteriors rather than attempting to strip layers of lead.

A simple paint chip can reveal the nature of the paint.

No. 4: Asbestos is fourth. Asbestos was commonly used as insulation for boilers, furnaces, and water pipes leading from radiators. It was also used in vinyl flooring, cement-and-fiber siding, and composite roofing materials.

The health threat from Asbestos comes from the softer form found in insulation. When it is disturbed, it sends up a cloud of dust toxic when inhaled. When you see a white cloth covering ductwork, it is safe to assume that it’s asbestos and is not safe to remove without a licensed professional. A quick check of the home's construction and a talk with neighbors can help you confirm the presence of Asbestos, and a realtor worth his/her salt can as well.

No. 5: Thermal inspections dramatically illustrate the differences between electrical wiring in a new home and an older home by use of colorful photos. Older home wiring was not typically grounded — easy to tell as older meant two prongs and newer means three.

Also, the electrical box in you grandpa's house, or an older one you are wishing to purchase had either 60 or 100 amps, where modern homes have 200 — the new standard.

Grandpa’s house was probably not fitted with a Ground Fault Interrupter circuit, which is responsible for cutting the power if anything plugged into the current contacts water — important for bathrooms and kitchens.

A simple infrared scan can point out hotspots where the power is overloaded before anyone gets burned.

More information for the state of Utah can be found at http://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/region8.html.

Cheney writes, often humorously, at davisoncheneymegadad.blogspot.com

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