About that converted garage …

by ERIC SCHULT
OZ Home Inspections, LLC
Fayetteville, NC

I have a “Spidey Sense” for converted garages. When I encounter one, a little radar screen flashes on the inside of my skull, providing me a roadmap to some very predictable deficiencies I’m likely to find hiding there.

You don’t have to be a licensed home inspector, of course, to recognize these converted living spaces. Even if the former overhead garage door has been handsomely redesigned with siding that matches the house; even if it’s been embellished with a stone fireplace, french doors, or a bay window; the driveway is usually a dead giveaway. See if you can spot the converted garage among the accompanying photographs …

If you recognized that all three have converted garages,  then I hereby deputize you an honorary home inspector.

But why should a prospective homeowner and his or her buyer’s agent care if the home they are negotiating to buy has a family room, den, or bedroom that was once a garage? True, nothing is intrinsically wrong about adding to a home’s living space by banishing the family car to the driveway. The previous owners may well have needed the elbow room for their growing family, and perhaps they found converting the garage a more practical alternative for them than building out or up. Maybe trading in their starter home for that shiny, new subdivision down the road wasn’t within their financial reach, at the time.

But the devil’s in the details, right? If there were shortcuts taken when the garage was upgraded to a living space, you’d want to know about them. That’s why you hire a home inspector like me: to make sure you understand thoroughly what it is you’re buying before you take possession of it. Who knows? My report findings may help your agent negotiate concessions from the seller that you wouldn’t have otherwise known to ask for.

Take, for example, a cute-as-a-button little ranch on a flat lot,  with french doors where the overhead garage bay used to be. The house was otherwise all on one level, over a crawl space, but the converted family room was three steps down onto the original slab of the garage. The room was carpeted and finished with wallboard and wood trim from floor to ceiling.

My only real concern about that was that is that it limited my ability as an inspector to see what might have been done – or not done – to limit moisture intrusion below the raised sill plate of the original garage. One of my trusty inspector tools is a pinless moisture meter that can “see” moisture lurking beneath the surface of a wall, floor, or ceiling. A reading of 20% or more would raise concerns that the underlying components – wood studs, sill plate, insulation, wall board, etc. – would be subject to moisture deterioration and possible termite damage or/and fungal growth. Indeed, my readings on the exterior walls below 12-18″ off the floor ranged from 30-90% moisture. A pest inspector that was brought in to confirm or repudiate my findings also found the readings elevated, and when we removed a cable junction box to reveal the underlying wall, the brick foundation was literally dripping wet on its hidden interior side. It should be noted that there was no visible evidence of any of this; it was a hunch on my part that a converted garage without a raised floor might present moisture issues.

The seller subsequently agreed, at the request of the buyer and her agent, to remove the drywall and trim, dry out the moistened components with a portable, gas-fired heat cannon, and reinstall the drywall and trim. To prevent recurrence, he also installed a sealant on the exterior brick siding of the house.

I’d also noted that the water heater – enclosed in the original garage space and part of the conversion – had no containment tray or overflow drain as safeguards in the event the tank ever sprung a leak. In an unfinished garage, those components wouldn’t be necessary, but since the laundry/utility room had been finished with a vinyl floor, and the family room had been carpeted, the absence of those safeguards was a deficiency that could potentially result in property damage. The seller fixed that issue, too.

And the sale eventually proceeded to close – a gratifying outcome for all parties concerned.

conv_garage_6

FIBERBOARD flooring, with 15% moisture content, is soft, under-supported, and deflecting underfooot.

More recently, I encountered a converted garage with a raised floor that had been installed over the slab. My first indication, there, that I might find deficiencies was in the material used for the exposed subfloor. Usually, 3/4-inch plywood or OSB (oriented strand board) would be used for sub-flooring, but in this case, the property owner or contractor had used MDF (medium density fiberboard). A composite material made basically of sawdust and binders, it’s not normally used as a flooring material. The product is very absorbent, so it’s not very stable if exposed to moisture; one would have to paint it with an oil-based paint, on both sides and on its edges, for it to withstand conditions of high humidity or moisture intrusion. In this case, it wasn’t painted, and the floor surface was starting to flake off in high traffic areas. When I put my meter on it, the moisture content was at about 15%. Basically, it was sopping up humidity from the crawlspace. Worse, it was being supported by floor joists 24-inches apart, and I could feel the flooring sag under my weight if I stepped between the joists.

2017-02-08-16-06-44

RAISED FLOOR of family room over garage slab. Note the cinderblocks are stacked without being affixed in place.

When I proceeded to my inspection of the crawl space, I found more reason for concern. The joists were supported by cinderblocks that were stacked upon one another without mortar holding them in place. I’m not a code enforcement officer, and don’t as a rule quote building codes to my clients; that’s not what home inspectors do. But I had to note in my report that the support structure under the family room appeared to have been constructed without regard to generally accepted building methods and materials.

As of this writing, I don’t know whether the client will proceed to close, but she has all the necessary information she needs to make a decision that’s right for her. It’s not mine to advise for or against the purchase of any home, based on my findings. It’s for the buyer and her agent to discuss how the reported deficiencies may affect her interests, and up to their negotiations with the seller to determine the outcome of the transaction.

If she enters into the purchase with her eyes wide open, I’ve done my job.

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About Eric Schult

I am a licensed, professional Home Inspector (NC LIC.# 3579) - doing business as OZ Home Inspections, LLC - in the greater Fort Bragg region of south central North Carolina.
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