It’s not often in the normal routine of my daily home inspections that I stumble across a condition that is literally a matter of life & death. Please excuse the melodrama, if that’s what it is, but I still shutter at the thought at what might have happened if I had overlooked this one particular deficiency during the course of my recent inspection of a home in Fayetteville.
Mind you, I consider myself nothing if not thorough. Of the 30 or so brokers who regularly refer their real estate buyers to OZ Home Inspections, LLC, that’s the most common adjective that gets back to me from my clients as the justification for their broker’s recommendation. Any other licensed home inspector would think I’d lost my mind spending 5-6 hours or more performing an inspection. Never mind the additional half-hour to hour I commonly spend with the client afterward, performing a walk-through and preliminary review of my findings. I do one inspection per day, while most of my peers in the home inspection trade try to squeeze in two, or even three. By contrast, I take my time. The synonym one broker used to describe me is apropos: he called me “deliberate.” That’s a nice, southern, way to say I’m careful, to a fault.
So, I like to think a deficiency of this import would not, could not, have escaped my notice. But humans being humans, there’s always that chance.
Redundant Safeguards & Good Habits
That’s why imposing certain disciplines upon one’s self is helpful in reducing human error. I use a piece of reporting software called “InspectIT” from the American Home Inspectors Training Institute (AHIT) that requires me to tick off boxes as I go through my inspection to assure I don’t neglect to report on one or another of the many state-required components that are included in a North Carolina home inspection. The software compartmentalizes the inspection in a way I find useful, and also provides sufficient overlap so that if I were to miss a clue while completing one section, there’s still a good chance I’d connect the dots during one of the subsequent, related, sections.
I also depend on conditioned habits that have proven, over time, to make sense to me. I don’t normally go on a roof, for example, before first inspecting the underside of the roof deck from inside the attic. This is pure self-preservation or risk avoidance, on my part, since I do not want to step through a roof with weakened, deteriorated sheathing that might be hidden by newer shingles. Sometimes roofers cut corners, and lay down new shingles on sheathing that should have been torn off and replaced.
I save crawlspaces till last, partly because I don’t want to get filthy too early, but also because it’s important to operate all the plumbing fixtures beforehand, so that if there are any drainage leaks, there’ll be evidence waiting for me when I go under the house. For the same reason, I like to run the plumbing fixtures upstairs in a two-story home before I inspect the rooms on the main floor, below them. Fresh ceiling stains are known to materialize that way from their hiding place behind a new coat of paint.
The routine I follow, though, can also delay a finding till later in the inspection, and deprive me of some of the redundant safeguards that my reporting software affords. Such was the case with my self-described “life & death” home inspection, during which I had completed my inspection of the attic and roof without encountering any visible evidence of a dangerous condition that would become obvious when I finally got around to my inspection of the interior.
My belated discovery happened when I finally turned my scrutiny to the wood-burning fireplace in the living room.
What looked at first like coals and ash in the firebox was, on close inspection, coals, ash, and a little bit of loose insulation. “What’s that doing in there?” I asked myself. Then I shined my flashlight up the metal flue and saw not daylight, but OSB sheathing – the underside of the roof deck! The roofer, in changing out the shingles, had truncated the chimney chase so that it stopped at the ceiling joists in the attic. I’m not sure whether he was laying new sheathing and forgot to cut a new hole for the chase, or what. None of this had been visible from the attic, because the chimney chase was all the way out by the eaves; and the insulation at the eaves (as viewed from the attic) was too deep to see the chase. There wasn’t any light leak from downstairs, either, because the damper in the fireplace was closed.
I might have noticed earlier that there was no chimney protruding from the roof near the eaves over the living room, but at that early phase in my inspection, I hadn’t yet made a mental note that the fireplace was wood-burning or where the chimney chase for it should protrude. The house had natural gas, and natural gas fireplaces are quite often unvented. I hadn’t made the proper observations yet to recognize the deficiency / safety issue. (Note to self: check where the interior appliances and plumbing fixtures are located – before going in the attic or on the roof – to ascertain where there should be vents.)
I tend not to overuse the summary section of my report titled “Major Concerns” for the same reason Chicken Little ought not to have cried, “The sky is falling.” But in this instance, I reported the fireplace as a major concern:
“Do not use wood fireplace under *any* circumstances!” it read. “Metal flue of fireplace exhausts into attic. Kindling a wood fire would likely result in a structure fire. Recommend this condition be corrected by qualified contractor.”
The client was crushed, because the fireplace was her favorite feature of the living room. She had planned to kindle fires in it at first opportunity. I told her I thought the neighbors would see flames coming out of her gable vents before she realized herself that the house was on fire.
I can’t say whether a due diligence request was subsequently made to the seller, or the buyer simply rescinded her offer, but before long, I was engaged again to perform another inspection for the same client. And her agent continues to recommend me, despite the deal I probably killed for her.
For me, the goal is always to make sure the client feels well served. I believe that that naturally reflects well on the agent who recommended me, whatever the outcome.