Home buying jitters or common sense?
May 7, 2012 11:57 AM   Subscribe

What are the structural components of a solid house, that a layperson could determine?

The house we're buying, or may buy, is lovely but I'm a little concerned about a couple of things the contractor and I talked about when we did a walk through for some estimates. One*, the "overhang" on the outside shingles is 7" when the standard is 4" -- he thought that indicated they were trying to stretch the original building materials. Two, the staircase banister is really wobbly. We'll fix it, but is a staircase banister something that should get to that point or is it a sign it was poorly built? Three, the kitchen seems to have been designed by a dingbat. We can fix it, and we can work with it, but I want to know that these things are not a symptom of the house actually having been built out of Crayola crayons and gum and bad ideas.

Inspectors in my state aren't allowed to tell you much, or won't tell you much, because of liability. We have a good, solid, well-recommended inspector, but I feel like he's looking for whether the septic system is up to code and I want to feel like the house is solidly built. I want to know what I should be looking for that might not come up in inspection.

The house in question is twenty-five years old.

*I'm probably screwing up the details but you get the idea.
posted by A Terrible Llama to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would say to trust your instinct. Something like the wobbly banister is a good example of something that gets touched/used all the time and if they couldn't put in the effort to maintain that, then I would guess any larger (i.e., more expensive) repairs also got overlooked or quickly patched.
posted by Eicats at 12:08 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bannisters get wobbly, they take a lot of strain if say people are using them to pull themselves up or if their are kids in the house and they swing off of them a lot going up and down the stairs. Kitchens are badly designed, or designed to suit how the owner at the time wants them laid out for their quirks and foibles.

If you are worried about the structure of your house you want a structural engineer to come out and look at the property and give you an assessment. They would check the quality of the building and how "solid" it is. I would recommend an engineer for pretty much anyone buying a house. Our inspector missed the fact that major floor joists in our house had been cut to put in ducting, the engineer caught it (amongst a few smaller problems), recommended fixes and we were able to work their repair into the sales contract.

They are not super expensive to hire, ours only cost about $300 all and that included written report and follow up inspection after the repairs where done, we are in the Midwest they might cost comparatively more on the coasts, but then the house prices will be more too so it should be within budget. Whatever their cost if you are having worries about things, they might be worth it for your piece of mind.
posted by wwax at 12:20 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I grew up around residential construction because my father was a general contractor. I'm not a contractor, and the first thing you should probably do is talk to an actual contractor or building engineer about doing an inspection. You will have to pay him for his time.

It seems like you are trying to read the secrets of the house through the signs that are manifest to you, almost as though the house were the results of a personality test of the builder or something. This is not really the best way to go about things. Your doctor may have a messy desk, and maybe it's possible to connect the dots in such a way that the messiness of his desk really does indicate that he's also a cluttered thinker and therefore a bad doctor, but that assumes these things are related in a way that you still have to show.

It's important to separate out the cosmetics of a house from the structure. Think of structure in terms of things like whether the foundation appears to be shifting over time; whether the roof is likely to let in moisture; whether the floors and stairs are well-built and adequately supported. A sound structure will mean that, with ordinary maintenance, the house is not going to fall over or rot away. It does not mean that the house is going to be pleasant to live in, or warm, or safe in other ways.

The shingles concern me, but if you don't know whether they were the original shingles then it's probably not going to tell you whether the original house was built under severe save-on-materials constraints or not. Even if they are the original shingles, it's possible that the roofing subcontractor was a cheat but the builder wasn't. You just don't know, and ultimately don't need to know. What you need to know is: have these shingles let in water in the past, and when are you likely to have to replace them.

The railing on the stairwell has virtually nothing to do with the structure of the house as a whole, and for all you know may have been put in or replaced by the owner at some point. It's also a heavy-use item that little kids love to hang their weight from, so if the place was recently occupied by a young family, it wouldn't surprise me at all that the railing is loose.

The layout of the kitchen will be expensive to change, but probably has very little to do with the quality of the structure as I've defined it. People are weird about designing kitchens, so I wouldn't try to read a lot into

If you want to know whether the house is structural, you will have to look at the structure of the house. Is the sill or foundation shifting? Is the roofline still level? Were the walls built to code? What are the floor joists appropriate to their span? Are there any load-bearing walls, and if so, what do they look like? Is water getting in through the roof or the basement?
posted by gauche at 12:23 PM on May 7, 2012 [9 favorites]

None of this sounds all that unusual.

One*, the "overhang" on the outside shingles is 7" when the standard is 4" -- he thought that indicated they were trying to stretch the original building materials."

Are you referring to cedar shake siding? A 7" reveal for cedar shakes doesn't seem unusual at all. They come in different lengths, too, so the reveal by itself doesn't tell you how much is hidden.

A rickety banister is no big deal. Crap kitchen design is par for the course unless it's recently been redone, and sometimes even then. If you need to redo the kitchen to be happy with it over the long term then factor that into what you're willing to pay for the place.
posted by jon1270 at 12:25 PM on May 7, 2012

Bad kitchen design is not so much of a warning sign of poor construction and repair. I've been doing a ton of research on housing right now and I can tell you many kitchens are put together by people with no idea on what makes kitchen functional and easy to use. Just crazy, baffling things, like a fridge twenty feet from the sink and range, or islands interfering with workflow, or major traffic patterns right through the middle of the kitchen. Oven doors that block access to the pantry or mudroom when open. And many people's large, lovely dream kitchens are the worst offenders. So I'd give a pass on the design of the kitchen, other than considering the expense of making a more functional kitchen.
posted by 6550 at 12:27 PM on May 7, 2012

Three, the kitchen seems to have been designed by a dingbat. We can fix it, and we can work with it...

Is the house on a concrete slab or is the house raised above the grade over a crawlspace or basement? Rearranging plumbing etc. can get very costly if you're talking about moving these utilities in a house built on a slab.
posted by resurrexit at 12:29 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, yeah, if they're cedar shake siding, 7" doesn't sound too bad to me. I thought you were talking about roofing, and -- well, I had a hard time imagining a 7" overhang, but the possibility of shingle siding didn't occur to me.
posted by gauche at 12:32 PM on May 7, 2012

I am real estate investor. I buy beat up properties and repair them.
I am really only concerned about three things: Roof, Walls, and Mechanicals.
(Mechanicals are plumbing, electric, and HVAC.)

Do not even look at anything else. If those three are good, the house is good.
posted by Flood at 12:33 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

A structural engineer is the answer, because building inspectors do not have the knowledge and expertise to give structural advice.

You can have a structural done on only the items that are of concern, or you can have the structural done on the whole residence. If the inspector pointed out other areas of structural concern and noted that further structural evaluation is needed, you should get those items inspected by a structural engineer.

(A side point - the buyers will have to disclose any structural issues that arise through your inspections, even if you walk away from the sale, and that may be a negotiation issue.)
posted by lstanley at 12:33 PM on May 7, 2012

We bought a 50 year old house and our inspector told us it was fine. Every time we opened a wall for something, we'd get socked for some huge expense.

Here's what I'd tell someone in your shoes.

1. If you suspect there's an issue, get a professional to assess it. A roofer for the roof, and HVAC person for the HVAC, etc. In my state your inspection should tell you this stuff, my inspector...not so good.

2. I'd pay to have a plumber run a camera through your pipes, especially the sewer pipe. I wish I did, we had to dig up our freshly, professionally landscaped yard to replace our clay pipe that had completely dessicated under 12 feet of earth. That's $8000 I'll never get back.

3. Be 100%, absolutely certain you want to do something behind a wall, because once it's open you have to deal with what's behind it. A simple tub and shower install turned into a siding and framing debacle, the cost went from $4000 to $14,000 because we brought the tub in through the back of the house. I'm not sure what I could have changed about that, but it brings me to....

4. Have money. Lots of money. Whatever you think you're going to spend, double it. Triple it if you've never done it before, quadruple it if you're getting a 'deal' from a friend of a friend or Brother-in-law or something.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:44 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are places in my condo where you can see very clearly where shortcuts were taken in the construction, but we have not had any major strurctural issues, ever. So, the things you are noticing are not necessarily signs of big problems.

But if the laundry room light switch placement 3 feet inside the door bothers you now, it will bother you 20 years from now.
posted by SLC Mom at 2:00 PM on May 7, 2012

One thing to look at is windows -- have they been replaced yet? If not, they will probably need to be replaced soon. Windows that are starting to go will let moisture into the walls. We replaced just half of the windows on our 20 year old house and it was around $8500.

We've got a wobbly banister, too. It's because we have kids. I really need to figure out how to fix it.
posted by Ostara at 3:47 PM on May 7, 2012

Our last house was really shoddily renovated in the 70s, and it used to really annoy me, having to level windows, fix bulging walls, all that stuff. But still, the house didn't fall down, it remained weatherproof at all times, it didn't cost us any more to fix, it was mostly just a matter of having to stare at crap work all the time. If I was a perfectionist that would have really bugged me.
posted by wilful at 6:01 PM on May 7, 2012

Best answer: I am an engineer(even the right kind of engineer for this), but not your engineer, and I can't tell you good and bad from here, as site inspections are priceless.
What I use to determine the quality of the structure-a level, a heavy steel ball (about a 2 lb ball bearing, but a tennis ball will give you some idea) and a flashlight and being familiar with structural design and residential framing code. The following are things to look at in order.
0. Walk around the house and eyeball looking for rot/sagging roofs/out of plumb windows and doors. If any, might be no big deal, might be a big deal. You need an experts advice. Best two sources for getting started being your own expert are Fine Homebuilding Magazine and any show done by Mike Holmes (on HGTV in the US-its a canadian show).
1. determine the foundation. If concrete you want to dig down on a corner and see how deep the footing is and how the concrete looks. It will be cracked with little hairline cracks-this is ok. Any crack you can stick something like your pinky is a BIG concern. Depending on where you live (colder climates should be deeper)the foundation will have a little bump out at the bottom, this is the footing. It should be between 18" and 36" down. If you can see the bumpout anywhere along the foundation, this is a big concern.
2. If it is wood joist on peirs the peirs should be evenly spaced between 4 and 6 feet apart. If it is something else (unlikely at this age of house) ask your engineer. If you do have a basement/crawlspace to get into you can tell a lot from this without digging the hole in #1. Most wood framed floors have a stemwall around the outside and you can generally tell how deep/condition and such from the inside. Doubly so from basements. Be very wary of finished basements. It can go very,very wrong and be impossible to see without opening up. Go watch some Holmes Inspection on HGTV or youtube, every other show is about a badly done basement.
3. check all the doors and windows for being square, and opening and closing easy. The gap around the closed door and the jamb should be even on all 4 sides.
4. the floors should be level. This is what the ball is for. A little rolling is ok on a wood frame floor, they tend to settle. But if the ball takes off you have a problem, ask your engineer. If the home has a second story are there big open spaces on the first floor? any chance those are big open spaces because someone removed a wall? you might have a problem, ask your engineer.
If the floors are carpet the ball trick doesn't work very well, use a level. This means moving the level all over the place looking for out of plumb floors and walls and checking to see if the floor/walls dip and bulge anywhere.
5. How big is the electrical panel? If you don't know what this means, get an electrician (not an engineer)to look at it. Do the breakers trip and reset easy? same for any gfci plugs.
6. do all the toilets flush good? Do all the sinks/tubs/showers drain good or do they start filling up? if you turn on several water faucets at once is there a big drop in pressure? if so the plumbing might neet to be looked at.
7. get a plug tester (one of these)if it isn't showing green you might have a problem.
This are the big, impossible to fix, burn your house down things. As to how hard it is fix bathrooms/kitchens for functionality can vary wildly. Ask a contractor who does those, and not on estimate or speculation, pay him for his time-he knows shit you don't-he deserves it, that way you both get an honest deal out of it. BTW be very wary of family advice unless they are a qualified professional(not just a handyman). Houses are expensive even if you are a big DIY guy. I am totally rebuilding a bathroom in my house, but one skill set doesn't carry over to other things. Houses are complicated and require a broad range of skills to be really done right. I hired an electrician to redo my electrical panels so my house doesn't burn down-it aint cheap.
posted by bartonlong at 8:37 PM on May 7, 2012 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Just an update, this turned out to be mainly me being super-paranoid. We had an excellent inspector who took almost four hours to go through the house, and while we found some minor things that do need to be fixed before we moved in, including a couple of elements with the boiler and electrical, as well as some not-great maintenance habits on the part of the owners, there is nothing seriously wrong with the structure of the building and nothing major that we have to address immediately.

Our inspector was pretty awesome, very knowledgeable, and I learned more about basic science in four hours with him than in my entire time in high school.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:25 AM on May 13, 2012

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