What problems should I look for when buying a house that has been vacant or abandoned?
Thursday, September 13, 2018
It’s amazing how fast a house starts deteriorating when it has been abandoned. A vacant house fares better when the electricity and air conditioning is still on, but shares some of the same problems that plague abandoned homes. Here’s what we look for during an inspection:
•• Water intrusion—such as roof, wall, or plumbing leaks—happens occasionally in any home. But it gets noticed and repaired quickly in an occupied house. The water puddles and spreads in an empty residence, then the carpets and drywall begin absorbing it. Water can also collect in wall cavities, and insulation will suck it upward in a wall. Wood rot and mold begin eating away at the materials within a few days.
Long-term water damage is usually easy to spot. It’s ugly and the smell of mold hits you immediately when you open the door. Smaller leaks, especially roof leaks that don’t work their way down to the ceiling, require examination of the attic to find. Many home inspectors, including us, also use an infrared camera to search for areas of moisture intrusion that may not have created stains yet. It’s also useful for seeing how far the moisture has spread beyond the visible discoloration. See our blog post Why is my roof leaking?
•• Mold can grow in an empty house with no air conditioning, even if there is no water intrusion. It’s typical to find a thin layer of white mold on wood kitchen cabinets and interior doors when the a/c has been off for a while. Also, mold can grow around window openings that have only a minor leak or condensate problem. If the home was still air conditioned, the low humidity would cause the small amount of moisture to evaporate from the interior surfaces. But when the dehumidification that air conditioning provides is gone, the moisture stays and small areas of mold develop.
•• Appliances develop problems when sitting unused for an extended period time. For example, the electronic valves in dishwashers, called solenoids, that open and close to control the flow of water get stuck closed when not run through a cleaning cycle for months. Also, the rubber gasket around the dishwasher door ca harden and leak water onto the floor.
•• Pipes fracture during a hard winter freeze if the water service is left on. Exterior pipes at well equipment and hose faucets are especially vulnerable if not insulated.
•• Electric meter is gone in homes that have been vacant for an extended period of time. The utility company removes it and, in some cases, requires a licensed electrician or an inspector from the local building department to certify that the electrical system is in satisfactory condition before reconnecting service.
•• “THIS HOME HAS BEEN WINTERIZED” sign in the front window means the home has been put in hibernation mode by the bank that owns the foreclosed property. Utilities (electric, water, gas) have been locked off. The main water shut-off, along with the valves under sinks, toilets and at the water heater have been closed. Any deadbolt door locks have been removed and a blank plate installed over the lock hole in the door. In climates that experience severe winters, anti-freeze will also be added to plumbing system.
•• Vandalism and theft may have occurred. Criminals, or the even homeowners themselves, sometimes strip the home of appliances, light fixtures, and even the water heater and air conditioning system.
•• Evidence of squatters or break-ins can be a problem in rural homes or where the house is not visible by neighbors or passers-by. More than once, a homeless person has ran out the back door of a vacant house as we walked in the front. The damage ranges from minor debris and the smell of rotten garbage up to a scorched area and smoke damage from an fire started on the floor for winter heat.
•• Rodent and insect infestation is typical. Any food left behind by the residents will have already been consumed in a long-vacant home, but the cabinets, crawl space and attic are attractive nesting sites. The mud tubes on a wall that are early signs of termites go unnoticed in an abandoned home, and structural damage can be extensive if left untreated for years.
•• Abandoned hazardous materials may be present. Sometimes it’s just a pile of plastic containers of used motor oil in the yard and simple to remediate. But when there are signs that the home was used as a marijuana grow house or meth lab, cleaning up the damage can be expensive and complicated.
•• Tree damage can be caused by limbs dropping on the roof or rubbing back and forth on the roof covering in the wind. Dead trees that have not been removed can fall on the home.
Most vacant homes can be rehabbed. Repair cost increases in tandem with the length of time the house has been abandoned. But we occasionally inspect a home that is past the point where repairing it is financially practical—nicknamed “dozer bait” by construction professionals.
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To learn more strategies for getting the best possible home inspection, here’s a few of our other blog posts:
To read about issues related to homes of particular type or one built in a specific decade, visit one of these blog posts:
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