Magazine article USA TODAY

Is Your House a Time Bomb?

Magazine article USA TODAY

Is Your House a Time Bomb?

Article excerpt

Serious defects in various systems of a house, whether hidden or visible, are present in 40% of resale homes, according to Ken Austin, chairman of HouseMaster, a home inspection company headquartered in Bound Brook, N.J. It studied 1,000 resale homes that were inspected during a given spring season to determine the most common defects, defined as evidence of a condition or conditions that would cost $500 or more to correct.

"Relatively few of the major deficiencies found in resale homes are life-threatening, as a carbon monoxide leak would be, for example. However, they are `wallet threatening' such as in the case of needing a new roof," Austin points out. "Potentially dangerous problems do exist in many homes, though, and they need to be addressed before a tragedy arises." These include cracked heat exchangers, blocked flues, improperly installed hot water heater relief valves, lead paint. and electrical system inadequacies.

"Deficiencies in the electrical system of a house are rarely visible to the layperson, yet they are the major cause of home fires. Some symptoms we look for include inadequate or faulty wiring." Even something as simple as an insufficient number of electrical outlets can lead to an overload of existing outlets, which ultimately can become a fire hazard.

Today's homes need 240-volt service and at least 100 amps with a disconnect at the panel box. "The disconnect is key, since it allows you to immediately cut the power should a fire ever occur. And, of course, you want to rule out any potentially dangerous electrical situations, such as overfused wiring, improperly wired outlets, and exposed connections, which can cause shocks as well as fires."

While homeowners think the worst situation that can arise with a water heater may be a flooded basement, 20% of the homes surveyed by HouseMaster had a water heater that literally was a time bomb waiting to go off. "This situation arises due to a very inexpensive item -- the $15 relief valve," Austin explains. "If the valve is not installed properly, should the system malfunction, pressure and/or temperature could build up in the unit, reaching excessive levels." The net result is that the water heater could explode if the relief valve is unable to discharge the built-up pressure.

While many of the serious defects in the home are hidden to a person not experienced with wiring or water heaters, environmental hazards -- such as carbon monoxide and radon -- are invisible, since their presence emits no smell, taste, or color. While carbon monoxide detectors and radon-measuring canisters are available in stores, it is important to have a professional find out the source of the leak and suggest corrections.

"Oftentimes, a cracked heat exchanger on a furnace or a blocked flue of a fireplace or wood stove can cause carbon monoxide to leak into the home," Austin points out. "This is why we tend to see more carbon monoxide problems in the wintertime, when windows are shut tight and furnaces and fireplaces are cranking."

Most homes built before 1978 contained and still contain lead-based paint. The use of lead in paint was banned that year, although some homes built after that also may be contaminated, especially on areas like woodwork, window frames, and doors. …

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