Updated: Oct 12
There are a wide variety of construction problems to be aware of when considering a home purchase. Some of these issues are unique to the location, some are unique to the year or over a certain longer time period, & some are unique to the building materials used. In this blog I'll just be going over a small sampling of the possibilities that are common. Keep in mind that the time that a home is built is important, but that an issue that started 50 years after a home was built can still be a problem if replacements occurred during the time of the issue. For instance, polybutylene pipes in sections of homes older than 1978 due to replacements is more prevalent than you would think.
Polybutylene Pipes (1978-1995)
Polybutylene pipes, especially 1st generation with polybutylene fittings, were discontinued after it was discovered that they wore down relatively quickly to become brittle compared to other kinds of pipes.
My managing broker pulled a section defining material adverse facts, which need to be disclosed by agents when selling a home, in an email to me in November 2019 when I was asking about disclosure of material adverse facts (& not specifically asking about poly pipes). The example given within the definition that she pulled was specifically polybutylene pipes that didn’t leak. Often, however, it won't be disclosed on the listing.
Polybutylene pipes aren't the only ones that you need to be concerned about. Galvanized aluminum is another example of pipes that often don't last long. It's a good idea to look for signs of corrosion on pipes & signs of polybutylene pipes when looking in a crawlspace of a home at the time of the initial walk through inspection if the home is on a crawl space or basement.
Reviewing the following web sites for more information is recommended: www.pbpipe.com and www.polybutylene.com .” The website he referenced states:
“FACT: A home inspection cannot determine if poly is about to leak simply by looking at the outside of the pipe. Pipes deteriorate from the inside, and they can split under pressure.
FACT: Polybutylene pipes can leak anytime without warning - destroying furniture, family heirlooms, and even causing structural damage.
FACT: Homes with polybutylene plumbing sell for less.
FACT: Homes with polybutylene plumbing take longer to sell.”
Insurance is another issue with polybutylene pipes. It can impact what insurance companies will insure the home, limitations of coverage, and annual premiums. Does the seller’s insurance (if they have insurance if they own the home in $) know that the home has 1st generation polybutylene pipes? If so, are the pipes covered? If they are covered, did that increase their premiums?
"Chinese" drywall (2001-2009)
"Chinese" drywall appears to have been mostly identified & removed by now, but there are some locations that might still have it. For a time, drywall, especially from locations including China, had poor quality materials used including toxic elements. It impacted the health & the electrical appliances of those who had it until it was completely removed from the home and replaced with typical drywall. Here's how to identify it.
Asbestos (early 1900s to nationwide ban in 1989)
Asbestos, if covered with other material, will sometimes be harmless, but if left uncovered, as it breaks over time and gets airborne, it can cause significant health problems. A number of lawsuits have resulted from it & it’s no longer used nearly as much as it used to be before regulations restricted much of the use of asbestos due to health problems it caused. Asbestos also hurts resale compared to similar materials that don't have a federal ban of any kind.
#1 states something that I don’t necessarily support or deny in light of my lack of expertise, but it is important to consider the possible bias of the author who wants more lawsuits regarding asbestos “Use of an asbestos dust mask won’t matter, there is no safe level of exposure.”
EIFS (Exterior Insulation & Finishing System, aka Synthetic Stucco)
Hurts resale value
Is expensive to repair
Is important to repair immediately if you see a sign of a crack to prevent the damage from quickly spreading
Older Homes & Insulation
Older homes typically come with a set of unique challenges if there haven't been extensive improvements/renovations/maintenance since when they were first built.
If a home is insulated with vermiculite, it's likely contaminated with asbestos if the vermiculite was sold between 1919 to 1990.
For instance, the standards of insulation in attics have grown over time. Some homes' insulation may have deteriorated/fallen down over time and never been replaced. If you are looking at an older home, it's especially important to look in the attic & crawlspace if possible. Most agents don't have a ladder at every showing available when the only access to an attic is via a scuttle hatch, and don't have a surface temperature reader. Those are 2 tools that are important elements of my options when representing buyers.
A powerful flashlight is critical for looking into the crawlspace of a home, including eyeing the insulation of it, especially if you are not going to crawl around. I carry a "mighty mouse" flashlight in my pocket during every showing I do, the most powerful flashlight of its size, and I also like to carry the most powerful flashlight sold in my car when that flashlight is insufficient or when I know it will be beneficial (i.e. a night time showing or large home with a crawlspace).
I've been to a home before that had multiple contracts that had already fallen through, my buyer wanted to make an offer, but changed their mind after they saw the pictures I took of the attic, which looked much worse than the rest of the home and appeared to have been completely neglected. The listing agent wasn't disclosing the home inspection reports (or any details about why they fell through despite request from me) from the home inspections that had occurred, and many agents will refuse to provide it even if the buyer's agent requests it like they did in that case. I noticed the attic in part because I had access to it that other agents didn't since I carry a ladder. It's so rare for an agent to bring a ladder that I've been confused for a contractor before while carrying one to/from a home. The attic for this particular home had a high volume of mouse/rat feces, terrible insulation with much need for improvement, and old knob & tube wiring. The buyer was able to save time, stress, and money simply by me looking into the attic.
Flood Zones & Construction
Older homes located within a flood zone tend to not be built as high compared to newer construction, tend to have higher flood insurance premiums, and tend to be more problematic when it comes to actual flooding of the home. Ideally if within a flood zone, a home will be built up high according to how low the ground is based on a flood elevation certificate, and will have flood vents installed.
Whenever you see signs of significant settling, like stair step cracks (especially large gaps between bricks like I saw at a home today), sloped flooring, etc. it's important to consider what might be causing the settling. The older the home is, the more likely that there will be signs of settling. In some cases, homeowners do DIY repairs that can do more harm than good. When the work has been done by specialists who are well rated, there isn't so much to worry about. When nothing has previously been done, if left unabated, settlement will continue.
For newer homes, if there is major settling within the 1st 10 years, check your home warranty. In VA, you will likely see that foundation items should be covered by warranty from the builder for at least the 1st 5 years. (See section F)
I remember an occasion when a buyer I was working with had a home under contract from the 19th century. I noticed signs of settling and encouraged the buyer to get a foundation inspection, termite/moisture inspection of their own, and home inspection. The seller was trying to provide a "clear" termite & moisture letter from the seller's company. I strongly encouraged the buyer that we should get our own. I was glad we did. While our home inspector & foundation inspector failed to do what was necessary to see under the home, the termite/moisture inspector made a second appointment after his first to come back and dig, with seller permission, to get underneath the house. He was a particularly skinny termite/moisture inspector, and for a narrow crawlspace, that can be very helpful. What he found was 10's of thousands of dollars worth of damage.
Some soil is better than others for settling. Here is a resource to check the soil quality of an area.
Electrical problems on older homes
Be on the lookout for knob & tube wiring in attics, old fuse boxes, aluminum wiring, ungrounded outlets, & other electrical issues that can be present in older homes.
""The Carpenter Brothers sold lots to whoever wanted to build,'' Langston said. "Some were good houses. Some weren't so good.'' Some that weren't so good were built on the old landfill. The land settled and the houses virtually split apart."
Cobblestone Chase Condominiums
As shared by leadership at GRP, "There is an ongoing study to determine the severity of structural defects found in chimneys of the existing condominiums. It is entirely possible that extensive repairs may ensue which could result in increased condominium association dues or a large assessment for current and future home owners."