What the Inspectors Inspect: Part 2 Grounds
Many of the items inspected under the Grounds part of the inspection are not actually part of the house but can be a major problem source. Grades and soils can shift causing water to be drawn toward the house instead of away from it. Poor construction or deferred maintenance can render decks unsafe. Neglected repairs can result in expensive costs and damage to the house and grounds. The type of material used must be identified, the condition of the component or item being inspected described and any recommended further action, if any, specified.
Driveways and walkways and patios can crack, move, redirect water towards foundations, cause soil erosion and be trip hazards. Poor soil compaction, tree roots and soil erosion can cause serious damage to all these components. Steep driveways are of particular concern because surface water can enter cracks at the top of the driveway and flow downhill under the concrete taking soil with it. This unseen soil erosion can cause voids under the concrete resulting in serious concrete damage. Although the inspector can point out these issues to the prospective buyer, if the concrete has not failed, the information is only a heads up for the buyer.
Ground cover and vegetation play an important role in soil erosion control, shade and the general appearance of the property. If not properly maintained however, shrubs, trees and other landscaping can become a detriment to the house and in some cases a safety issue. Unpruned shrubs that grow too close to siding can abrade the paint and wood surfaces and reduce air flow so the siding does not dry properly. This is usually manifested as mildew on the sides of homes. Vegetation should always be trimmed back away from air conditioning units to facilitate air flow. Vines can grow under trim and siding and also deteriorate siding surfaces. Trees that are planted or grow too close to the property can damage foundations. Tree limbs approaching or over-hanging the roof can damage shingles and provide accesses points for squirrels and other pest to get on the roof and finally into the attic. Dead trees and tree limbs will eventually break off and cause damage to roofs or property. Falling tree limbs also threaten the safety of people on the ground.
Retaining walls, as the name implies, are used to hold the soil. In residential construction they are used to expand the buildable or finished surface area of a sloped lot. Sometimes they actually hold back slopes that have been cut into to expand the lot or the retailing walls are built and then back-filled with dirt to again expand the usable area of the lot. Insufficient footings under the retaining wall can cause it to shift and settle. Poor consideration for surface water or too few drain holes in the bottom of the wall can cause water to saturate the soil behind the retaining wall. The added weight or hydrostatic pressure can cause walls to bow, lean or fail. Rail road tie walls rot and require maintenance. Walls that allow water to pass through them may also allow soils to flow through the wall with the water causing the grades behind the walls to sink and fail. The inspector must be able to tell the difference between a typical crack in a concrete wall and a crack that signals possible continued movement and failure. Repairs to damaged or failed retaining walls can be very costly. Proposed repairs should be evaluated by qualified engineers.
The control of surface water around a house with our types of soils is paramount to the integrity of foundations, footings and supports. Water saturated soil does not have the weight bearing capacity of soil with a normal moisture content. If the moisture content in our soils becomes high enough, mud, the soil has no ability to support any weight. It is because of our soil characteristics that grading and surface drainage are so important to the weight bearing supports of the house. Properly sloped grades, underground drains, gutters and gutter downspout extensions all have to work correctly to direct water away from the foundation of the house. Poor exterior water control and improper site grades can result in the following problems; ponding water, settled footings resulting in cracked brick veneer, settled porch and deck supports, cracked or damaged retaining walls and soil erosion. Remember, water in basements or crawlspaces is usually the result of poor grading or poor exterior surface water control.
Grades next to the house can build up over time or may not have been established properly when the house was built. Soils cannot be allowed above the top of the foundation or slab. Moisture in the soil can penetrate siding, even brick and rot out wood sheathing and framing.
Porches either open or screened have to be maintained like the rest of the exterior but also have components that require attention. Porch roofs and roof supports have to be inspected. Support columns can settle and actually cause the roof to sag. The inspector has to be able to tell the difference between a porch that was sloped during construction to move water away from the house and a porch that has settled since construction. Handrails and guardrails have to be of the proper height, size and protective of small children. The steps and stoops at entrances can be accident locations so particular attention must be given to their condition. Improper soil compaction or under sized footings will cause brick or concrete steps to settle. This condition can be a costly repair so accurate information is important.
Decks and to some extent balconies have received much attention because of their publicized failures and resultant injuries. Decks are subjected to the same kinds of loads as the interior floors. Unfortunately, deck construction is often substandard and the components are also exposed to the effects of the weather. The proper inspection of the entire deck is one of the most important parts of a home inspection. The type and condition of the materials must be assessed and home owner repairs evaluated. The attachment to the house, flashing, support posts and any footings have to be inspected and their condition determined. Deck framing, railings and guardrails have to be inspected for adequacy and condition. Stair handrails, attachment and overall safety are inspected. Lastly, like all parts of the inspection, our standards require the inspector’s recommendation to correct all discovered deficiencies.
If the house has a swimming pool, the perimeter fence is walked. The fence type and condition are noted and fence gates are inspected for adequacy. The home owner can be held liable if the neighbor’s child is injured at the pool even if the home owner is not at home. It is well to advise the home buyer to check with their home owner’s insurance provider to determine what is required to protect his/her swimming pool from uninvited guests.
There is some debate over whether outbuildings should be inspected. Edifice will inspect outbuildings with electricity. Amateurish or damaged wiring can always pose a fire or safety hazard. Some old storage sheds may contain materials that are difficult to dispose of. If those kinds of material are found, it is much better to get the seller to dispose of them than to have your customer inherit them.
I hope the reader has found this first installment helpful. As with any future articles, your questions and input is welcome.
The next article will cover the Roof.