Without Fools, There Would be no Wisdom...

a.k.a. "Why skimping on or foregoing a home inspection is rarely a bargain"

It pains us to have to be the bearer of bad news, yet we seem to be doing a lot more of it lately.  With YouTube and the plethora of "DIY" reality shows available, it would seem that the sky is the limit when it comes to doing things that a "professional" normally does--saving the cost of hiring them in the process.  At a minimum, the Internet can provide enough information to enable hiring a service provider or tradesman totally based upon the cost/price for their services.  Well, why that may be true to a degree, what is often overlooked are the more nuanced or non-routine conditions that may be encountered by the newly endowed DIYer or inexperienced  inspector sent out by the Realtor's referred franchise (many of whom are unlicensed and relatively untrained).  Unfortunately, it is in situations like these where the extra money paid for a professional inspection is more than worth it--especially if it prevents the purchase of a money pit or identifies a significant, extremely expensive defect.  Here are some examples from projects we've worked in the last year...

 

Don't worry, some bleach will fix it...

The new tenants noticed musty odors in the upstairs master bedroom and reported it to the property manager. Upon investigation, we discovered significant accumulations of mold in the attic--ultimately resulting in an extensive remediation project and insulation replacement.  The cause?  The landlord had hired "some guys standing in front of Home Depot" to put on a new asphalt shingle roof after noticing water staining upstairs.  They did it all right.  We counted three layers of shingles on the roof.  Coupled with the lack of ventilation and the exhausting of both the bathroom vent fans and the clothes dryer into the attic, the extra "blanket" of shingles made the attic a virtual petri dish.  I noted that the inspector the landlord used prior to the purchase of this property should be reported to the state, but, alas, there was no inspection done prior to settlement.  Put it this way, just the cost of putting his tenants up in the hotel exceeded the price of even the most expensive home inspector.  $400ish or $15,000+???  Seems abundantly clear in hindsight, doesn't it?

IMG 0376

Screw those guys! I found someone much cheaper on Craigslist...

We were called in to evaluate and remediate a moldy basement by a REO asset manager.  Upon inspection and sampling, we found several varieties of mold--a virtual cornucopia of fungus--growing wild and freely within.  The manager was furious!  Turns out he had hired another "mold inspector and remediation contractor" to do the same thing at that address and the problem apparently returned within 90 days.  He called us because (you guessed it) the previous guys were not to be found.  I asked him about the initial treatment mold test results from the previous job.  He stated that the "contractor" performed the testing and assured him that a proper remediation was completed.  He added that the photos supplied with the invoicing seemed convincing.  However, when I asked him if he verified the license and IAC2 certification or other credentials of his previous hire, he reluctantly admitted that he found the guy on Craigslist and went with him because there wasn't much time and this guy was way more cheaper than others he contacted at the time.  Our remediation status for that project is a year and counting w/o a reoccurrence.  However, you might say that our $10,000 invoice, coupled with the cost of the former "mystery contractor," certainly bears out the old adage of throwing good money after bad...

 

Does it seem cold in here to you?

Following the death of the homeowner, the executor asked us to "spruce up the place and prepare it for sale." Our standard practice is to perform a home inspection to inform and to properly scope the work in cases like this.   The executor informed us that she would not pay for an inspection as the deceased always kept the place up and, although it might be a bit dated, it was well maintained.  We told her the inspection was inclusive as part of our service agreement and she agreed.  It seemed initially that she might have been right until we went into the attic.  Turns out that the elderly, wheelchair bound homeowner had hired a "weatherization contractor" to insulate and seal the air gaps in his attic a few years ago.  We found the fiberglass batt insulation still neatly bundled and stacked in the attic--dusty and undisturbed.  The executor showed us the virtually illegible handwritten receipt, but the total dollar figure was plainly visible--$3,800...

 

What do you mean the deal is off?!?

A frustrated seller called us out to evaluate a derogatory home inspection report from the buyer's home inspector.  The buyers were threatening to cancel the purchase agreement if all identified defects were not corrected prior to closing, and the report listed over 20 items...  The seller had purchased the newly constructed house just three years previously and was understandably upset.  We found that all but two minor defects (hard to operate windows and a racked interior door frame) were bogus--including an "inoperable" garage door opener.  We produced and delivered the report to our client, who then refused to correct the imaginary defects. The buyers played hardball and demanded their earnest money back, and the house was sold to the contingency buyer.  The initial buyers were angry that they missed out, so they threatened to sue us.  What they should have done is sue their Realtor.  Under Maryland law, ANY referrals made by a Realtor to any party in the transaction MUST include the VERIFICATION of the referral's CURRENT license.  What an unfortunate waste of time and emotional energy: they would have been much better off if only they had hired an experienced, DLLR licensed inspector instead of their Realtor's bargain priced friend... 

 

Tenant Manipulation--What Landlords Need to Know

Customer complaints against contractors and landlords are legion, but what about those who are impossible to please or those who would lie, cheat, or steal to get even the slightest additional concession.  There's no "Yelp!" to warn about these people and many are adroit at hiding any issues of slow or no payment using aliases, frequently moving, and other tactics ad-infinitum.  Although not by any means all-inclusive, here are a few personalities that we've dealt with and continue to run across in our daily business operations...

I work hard for my money, and you don't... This individual is ticked off at the world because they have to get off the couch and go to work.  Typically the result of misplaced entitlement, this tenant believes that every rent check to their "fat cat" landlord should also come with a list of demands for new/upgraded appliances, alleged--frequently imaginary--required repairs, and the like.  It also frequently manifests itself in the form of late rent payments.  Left unaddressed, this behavior becomes so routine/ingrained that the property owner dreads the end of every month (and the inevitable drama associated with collecting their rent).  The best defense is a good offense--don't forget to check on their landlord or property management references BEFORE agreeing to the lease.  If it's too late for that, we've found that precise, through documentation is the only suitable strategy.  Never, ever waive the rent or the late fee if applicable--except in all but the most exigent, verified circumstances.  Once the lease expires or comes up for renewal, exercise your right as property owner to provide the statuatory notice and have them move out.  A word of caution, be aware that these individuals will fight tooth and nail for their security deposit--no matter how much damage they have done.  Arm yourself with a post tenancy inspection report from a qualified, licensed home inspector/general contractor.

I'll sue you for everything you have...  This is the more aggressive form of the behavior we just discussed.  Here, the individual is attempting to use FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) tactics to manipulate the landlord into meeting their demands.  By far the tactic we've seen most frequently involve alleged health effects caused by mold.  Frequently, the tenant will complain about mold (even creating conditions to cause it themselves) for the purpose of creating leverage against the property owner.  These complaints inevitably turn into threats and, in some cases, litigation or termination of rent payments.  Once again, the landlord's best defense is to hire a IAC2 (Indoor Air Quality Consultant) certified mold evaluator to conduct an appropriate test.  This action demonstrates that the alleged warranty of habilitability concerns are being taken seriously and that actions are being taken to address any problems.  Remember, mold inspections can be done legally by any licensed home improvement contractor--be sure to evaluate the bonafides of any firm you select to conduct these tests and/or remediation.  If it goes to litigation, you'll be glad you selected a professional firm with good credentials (vs. "Chuck in a truck").  The second trend in allegations are the usage of paints/chemicals containing VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds).  This is especially prevalent in cases involving repair work done within an occupied unit.  Our advice is to discuss any required repairs with the tenant beforehand, and, if there's even the slightest concern related to VOCs, insist all repair work use low or zero-VOC materials.  These typically cost more, but the headaches (literally and figuratively) can cost much, much more.  Be sure the contractor/handyman you select is aware of and can demonstrate evidence (pictures and/or receipts) of using low or zero VOC materials during the repair work.

So what if you're the property owner.  The only thing that matters is what I want... Although this behavior is oft-times more subtle, it is by far the most prevalent that we encounter.  Typically using some pretext or excuse, such as "I couldn't reach you," these individuals will call out service providers, such as heating and air conditioning repairmen, and expect the landlord to pick up the tab w/o question or complaint.  Some are just irresponsible--bringing in pets without permission or subletting a bedroom to one of their friends "just until they get on their feet." We've even seen appliances and property damaged simply because the tenant wanted a newer one or one of a different design or color.  Above ground swimming pools, collections of derilict vehicles, chicken coops, rabbit hutches, dog kennels, the list is endless.  Moreover, the post-tenancy clean up or remediation of these tenant alterations can be extremely costly.  The best defense is to visit your property frequently and be on the look out for symptoms of unusual or suspect activities.  Be sensitive to the complaints of neighbors as well.  Frequently, they will be eager to alert the property owner of "things going on."

I'm entitled to live here for free if I feel I need to... Unlawfully detained property is emotionally gut wrenching and a property owner would do well to waive off on any applicant that has a history of rental judgments.  There is no excuse or story good enough to warrant a second/third/fourth, etc. chance--letting these individuals take possession of your property is fraught with peril.  So the best defense is good, effective tenant screening.  Sometimes, one will slip through or the individual will suddenly change due to one or more life circumstances.  In these extreme cases, we highly recommend extensive, rigorous documentation and/or consultation with counsel experienced in these matters.  Not just any attorney will do, we encourage you to select one that has experience in tenancy and eviction issues.  Once the inevitable eviction action begins, the problem tenant will frequently "self evict" before going through the entire process.  It is important to continue with the litigation however because it hinders their ability to pull off another "free stay" at the cost of yet another property owner.  A final word of caution.  Never, never, never include utilities in your rental lease agreement.  Problem tenants know all about the "constructive termination" rules and will gleefully run up the utilities knowing full well that the landlord will be the one paying them whilst being powerless to have them disconnected.

 

Image result for public domain images problem tenants

  Oh, but they were such nice people when they moved in!

 

Maryland Sale Threatened by Adverse Inspection Remarks?!? Fight Back!

I received a frantic phone call yesterday from a homeowner selling their new construction home in Annapolis (it was just two years old).  It seems the unlicensed home inspector sent out by the realtor referred franchise had called out a significant defect related to the compressors on the split system, high-efficiency HVAC units.  The exact veribiage used was "Low improper running load amp detected when tested.  The running load amp (RLA) is 12.8, and the measured amperage is 3.9."  The buyer was understandably upset that there could be something apparantly so significantly wrong with their "turn key" home, and the seller was concerned that the contract would be broken due to the inspection contingency clause.  My task, evaluate the HVAC system and the summary report to determine what, if anything, was wrong...  What follows is an excerpt from my narrative to the homeowner:

 

"The HVAC system ran properly using normal controls. There were no observable defects during operation, nor were there any observable defects in the system installation on day of evaluation. The filters and registers are moderately dirty and in need of routine replacement and cleaning. Reasoning behind “defects” cited in summary report are questionable. For example, COMAR does not require measurement of amperage as part of a home inspection evaluation of an HVAC system. There are actually good reasons for this. In this particular case, the inspector evaluating a two year old high efficiency unit is particularly misguided/wrong. RLA: is actually the acronym for "rated load amps--the maximum current a compressor should draw under any operating conditions.” Often mistakenly called running load amps which leads people to believe, incorrectly, that the compressor should always pull these amps. You should never use the listed RLA to determine if the compressor is running properly or to condemn a compressor. The running amps of a compressor are determined by the evaporator temperature, condensing temperature and the line voltage, and RLA has no bearing on the reading taken at any point in the HVAC unit’s operational cycle. RLA is only supposed to be used to properly size the components of the supporting branch circuit, not for a technician to use for evaluation of its running characteristics. Not only that, but figure the astronomically high odds of both compressors failing at the exact same time –not likely indeed."

  

The COMAR clearly states what is expected in a home inspection, and inspectors who depart from these requirements do so at their own peril.  For example, there were other "defects" that were mentioned, such as the unsafe garage door openers, but the "inspector" failed to test them properly and they worked just fine.  In total, there were two out of a dozen alleged defects that were legitimate--a whopping 17% accuracy rate...  Would you willingly pay $200-400 for an inspection with less than a 20 percent accuracy rate?!?  Of course not, but when you hire any inspector referred by a realtor or who works for a franchise, that's what you're getting oft times.  Be a smart consumer and hire your own professional...

 
For the other guy who called me yesterday wanting me to cut my inspection rate in half; ya'll keep hiring these $200 inspectors.  I love reading their made-up doo-doo, and their inability to get up on a roof or enter a crawl space is laughable as well.  If you find yourself in a "bufoon generated sales crisis" or a similar situation, give me a call.  No deal should be needlessly jeapordized by a bloviating, arrogant "inspector" who obviously lacks proper training and/or experience (much less licensure)!

"Deal Killer" Inspection Report? What Maryland, Virginia, and DC Home Sellers and Listing Agents Need to Know

It's every listing agent or home seller's nightmare.  Just weeks or days from closing, the buyer attempts to obtain a release from the purchasing contract and is demanding back their earnest money.  The reason?  Typically, it's an "unacceptable" home inspection report.  If this is your situation, don't be so quick to react or comply, you may have better alternatives...

 Alarmist home inspection report AKA "deal killer"

First, were you honest in representing the home?  "As is" doesn't excuse fraud.  If you failed to properly disclose defects--deliberately hiding or fiegning ignorance of them--then you broke the law, you're patently dishonest, and you got what you deserved.  If you were encouraged to do this by anyone, then you need to stop listening to, or better yet, fire them and get another advisor/representative prior to relisting and, of course, letting your potential swindling victim (AKA current buyer) off the hook.  If you believe the deal can still be salvaged, I suppose you can try that too.

For the rest of you who thought their house was good to go, the deal was in the bag, and are now suffering from this bolt out of the blue, read on.

The number one culprit behind "deal killer" inspection reports is buyer's remorse.  Once ratified, most purchasing contracts leave little options for those with cold feet to back out of a deal.  In these cases, the home inspection contingency may appear as an attractive (sometimes the only) way out of the purchase w/o losing earnest money, etc.  Maybe they've found another home they like better after they made the agreement or they've decided they really want to move elsewhere for any number of reasons--they want out of the contract.  Now, since the buyer is the only one in most contracts that can select and pay for their home inspector, the selection criteria dramatically changes.  If they're looking to get out of a deal, they will typically want someone who is fast and cheap.  Any number of Internet referral sites will bring lowest bidder quotes right to their in-box.  Here's one: A typical lowest bidder referral site.  If they even make a feeble attempt at negotiating, they can likely get someone who doesn't have (or just obtained) the required license and who doesn't mind helping them out.  Once they've got their guy, there is no "mandatory" inspection report criteria.  Sure, there's a code of ethics and the Maryland COMAR requirements, but a report can say just about anything and make mountains out of even the tinest of mole hills.  If, as a seller or listing agent you suspect you're dealing with (or might encounter) this type of situation, what can you do? 

  • Option One: Prevention.  Getting a reputable, licensed home inspector to prepare a report prior to listing is not only an effective marketing tool, but it can identify potential problems that are, or could potentialy become, late in the game deal killers.  It is also a excellent way to mitigate a good deal of the risk of improper disclosure.  Even if the buyer gets an independent inspection following ratification, the probability of there being much daylight between the reports is greatly reduced and the deal remains unthreatened.  Spend the money up front or possibly lose a good deal of money, time, and effort later--your call to make, but we think this is the most sane approach.
  • Option Two: Rebuttal.  MD, WV, and DE require licensure to conduct home inspections; VA recommends but doesn't require board certification; PA and DC have little or no competency requirements.  There essentially is no reciprocity.  If the report's author isn't licensed in Maryland, the practice is illegal and the report is invalid.  Here's the link to research licensure MD DLLR's License Lookup Page and here's a link to the complaint form if you need it MD DLLR REAHI Complaint Forms Site.  If the report author is licensed, or if the property is located in a state that doesn't require licensure, the next course of action is to get a second opinion or inspection.  Having the report reviewed by a building trades or home inspection instructor at your local community college is a good idea, and so is getting a second inspection.  If you haven't a clue of where to find a reputable inspector, we recommend using a home inspector association referral Web site such as INACHI's Home Inspector Referral Site.

Above all, keep a level head and maintain your rationality!  Berating the other side with "as is" statements typically is counterproductive and does nothing to assuage potentially legitimate concerns regarding the property.  Having a building trades contractor or home inspector explain the defect (real or imagined) goes a long way in improving understanding--particularly with first time home buyers who may have become overly fixated on a scary photo or phrase used in their inspection report.  If the defect is legitimate and needs to be fixed, it probably makes sense to offset the sales price to address it.  Even if you refuse, a collapsed deal will require relisting AND statement of the now known and documented defect on the disclosure paperwork.  Failure to do so is dishonest and a violation of the law--just don't do it.  If you do reach an agreement, remember that it ain't over until it's over on closing day.  Good luck!

 

 

Primary Causes of Mold in Maryland, DC and Virginia Homes & Rental Property

The mold that ate Annapolis

We've been making an increasing number of mold-related service calls and inspections, and with them come the questions.  "How big of a problem is this?  "What caused it and what can be done to fix it?  "How much longer are we going to live now that we've found "toxic black mold" in our home!?!?"  "Can I sue my landlord?"  "What about the children?!? Won't somebody think of the children?!?!"  My response is usually something along the lines of "it was already here and will remain here long after our lives are etched as a dash mark between two dates."  So, with our current mortality in mind, let's take a deep breath of this killer mold infested air and calm down whilst we discuss a few things.

In the beginning

Around the time that God created the Earth, mold also came into being.  This cuddly fungi has been with us before there was an us and it will likely outlast us too.  That having been said, mold has contributed to some of our great calmities:

  • The mold that has ravaged day old bread and woebegotten cheese since the dawn of time.  bread
  • Penicillin. Sure it was a useful medicine since the 30's, but now we have superbugs--thanks a lot Alexander Fleming! Alexander Fleming

 

  • The Salem witch trials--few things inspire signs of witchcraft like moldy bread!    witch
  • Famines worldwide due to ruined crops/food stores.
  • Sickness, death, etc. -- quite possibly the basis for the Zombie Apocalypse to come...

Although the CDC and others have summarized mold as aggravating respiratory problems in sensitive individuals, there has yet to be a single documented case of a death caused by "toxic black" or any other type of household mold. The materials sometimes used to treat/clean the mold affected areas though have killed scores of stupid people (for example, chlorine has been used as a weapon of war and it WILL kill you if it is improperly used).

CDC's Mold Home Page

Problem or Symptom?

Mold isn't a problem, it's a fungi.  It's spores are all around us.  Yes, we're surrounded and there's nothing we can do about it!  However, I've learned to make peace with the black death, and you can too.  First, mold isn't lazy, but--from transportation to the essentials of life--it has to rely on other environmental influences to get what it needs to survive and thrive in your home.  We can make this as complicated as we'd like.  For example, I'm frequently asked "what type of mold is this?"... Does it really matter?  It's in the house and we don't want it there.  It's as simple as figuring out why it is homesteading in your basement/attic/crawl space/bathroom/bedroom; fixing what created the attractive environment; and remediating the area.  Mold is simple too.  It just needs moisture, something to eat, and shelter from ultraviolet light.  Find the areas of your home where there's excessive moisture/humidity, organic material, and darkness, and you'll find the mold setting up claim to your living space.  In summary, mold isn't the problem.  It's just establishing itself where moisture shouldn't be.  Find and correct the problem that is bringing the moisture and humidity into the home, or cozy up to your new, very stubborn room mate.  If you try to kill or remediate the mold without correcting the moisture problem, get ready to repeat your efforts sooner rather than later.  It might even come back with a greater vengance than before!

What We're Seeing

  1. Mold in finished/unfinished basements.  The primary causes are external hydrostatic pressure/seepage into foundation walls; lack of ventilation; air temp/humidity imbalances; leaking plumbing fixtures; downspouts w/o proper diverters; and defective sump pump installations.  Finished basements are much harder to diagnose because of the aversion of most homeowners to tearing up flooring/paneling/drywall during the required discovery phase.  The repair expenses can be quite high, but most of the significant damage we're seeing could have been prevented by replacing the sump pump every five years and properly routing stormwater runoff and downspout discharges.
  2. Mold in attics.  The primary causes are inadequate ventilation and roof leaks/water infiltration.  Multiple roof layers, discharging of bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans into the attic; over insulating/covering of vents, poor installations or repairs, and roof penetration flashing deterioration are the most common defects.  A good home inspection will call out these defects for repair/remediation BEFORE mold can establish a foothold.  Once it does, the costs will be much higher.
  3. Interior mold.  The primary causes are HVAC imbalances or inadequate ventilation, condensation, plumbing leaks, water infiltration.  Common areas to find mold include under sinks/showers/tubs; behind toilet water tanks and underneath seating flanges; behind refrigerators with ice makers; behind washers/dishwashers; near water heaters or well pump components.  We've seen all kinds of contributing factors--from DIY installations gone bad to a supply line puncture caused by a tenant hanging a picture on a basement bathroom wall. 

paneling    

 

Now What?

  1. Have a licensed inspector or contractor find the problems causing the excessive moisture and humidity in the home.  Once the diagnosis of the problem is done, obtain a proposal for the cost of the repairs.  Please note that I did not say estimate.  Estimates are always free because they are typically "guesstomates" that rarely, if ever, wind up being accurate.  These are often obtained by homeowners seeking the lowest bidder and it frequently backfires AFTER they're committed to using a particular contractor.  To make matters worse, it can result in unbelievable delays and extra charges that ultimately erode any perceived savings the homeowner initially thought they were getting.  An accurate, written proposal should cost a nominal fee because it takes the contractor a good deal of time and effort to prepare.  Additionally, it is a commitment to do the work for a set, agreed upon price within a specific period of time.  It can change due to unforeseen circumstances, but it rarely does.  Most of the time, the proposal fee is applied as a credit to the total invoice if the contractor is selected/hired (be sure to ask).  What about "free" proposals?  All I can say is that you get what you pay for.  If it's free, it didn't cost much in terms of time/effort to prepare and is probably not much better than the "free estimate" that could've been obtained from a legion of unlicensed and licensed amatuers and professionals alike.  Dealing with mold in the home is stressful enough, paying a $100 or so for a professionally prepared repair proposal is one way to get it handled with a whole lot less stress.  A word about referral services.  If it's free to you as a member, that means the "professional" is paying to obtain the referral and "reviews" can be suspect.  You might want to keep that in mind the next time you're tempted to go to Thumbtack, et al to find a firm to do this work.  The best referrals come from others who have had a successful remediation or an established property management company.
  2. Once the problem is fixed, the clean up tasks will depend on the level of severity.  Most of the time, the fix is as easy as following the cleaning tips given on the EPA Web site.  Occassionally, particularly when the mold is present throughout the home, professional remediation services are needed.  You do not need anything more than a MHIC license to perform remediation services in our state.  So, the level of service and performance can vary widely.  We recommend consuting an indoor air quality specialist for a inspection report (many licensed home inspectors can produce this report if they are certified by their association to do so).  Once you have the report, you have the information needed to find the appropriate professionals to do the work.  In many cases, the inspector can also help with referrals and verification of a firm's license and liability insurance status.  A final word on selecting an inspector, make sure they have current Errors and Omissions (E&O) coverage.  This is not a state requirement, but this type of work needs this optional coverage as the general contractor liability coverage most home inspectors have WILL NOT cover losses caused by significant mistakes or errors.

EPA Guide to Mold Removal in the Home

  • For additional peace of mind, have the air sampled/tested following remediation.  The inspector can typically make a professional referral or you can find a firm through research on the Internet.  Make sure they are licensed and insured and ask to see a sample report before making your decision.

 

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