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Real Estate Q&A: Home inspections spot more than just underground grow rooms and bunkers

Posted on December 26th, 2023 By: Alison Paoli

When purchasing a home, it is common practice to get a home inspection shortly after the offer is accepted. The findings of the inspection help buyers decide whether or not to move forward with the purchase of the property or back out of the deal entirely. Aside from finding out what may or may not be wrong with the home, inspections often provide the buyer with an additional layer of confidence with their purchase.

However, throughout the COVID-era frenzy in real estate when multiple offers were more common than not, many buyers sought to make a more competitive offer on a home by either waiving the inspection (i.e., saying the purchase of the home was not contingent on the findings of an inspection) or getting a pre-inspection before submitting their offer.

With today’s historically low number of homes for sale and an increasing number of buyers due to lowering mortgage rates, I believe it is quite possible that we could soon be back to multiple offers becoming commonplace. With that in mind, I interviewed a local inspector, Todd Obergfell, with Immaculate Home Inspection to shed light on the importance of a home inspection and even found out some of the most interesting things he’s found within the walls of “secret rooms.”

Gig Harbor Now: What is the purpose of a home inspection, and what do you look for?

Todd Obergfell: At a high level, a good home inspection will thoroughly inform the buyer of the overall condition of the home, provide basic education on how the main systems of the home operate, and give a detailed report of findings and recommendations that should be addressed.

During the inspection, there are many things that we look for, including safety concerns, hazards, system and component failures/issues, deterioration, weathering, aging, wear and tear, improper installation, and potential future problems, just to name a few.

Todd Obergfell of Immaculate Home Inspection

Once the home inspection has been performed, the potential buyers will have a better idea of whether or not the house would be a good fit for them. Should the buyer continue to pursue the home, the findings will provide some support for the buyer or “ammunition,” as I say, when it comes time to head back to the transaction table.

GHN: What are the most common pitfalls you see when a home has been updated via DIY by the homeowners?

TO: I’ve seen beautiful work as well as scary and sometimes downright comical work done by homeowners. I am all for DIY when the homeowners performing the work know how to do it properly. However, many times, that’s not the case.

The major pitfall I see, other than the work looking a little shabby, is when internal systems are not installed or repaired properly (e.g., plumbing, wiring, structure, foundation) and then covered up. So, while it may look great visually, on the inside, the home is often worse off than it was before the work began.

GHN: Do you ever advise a buyer not to buy a property?

TO: People pay me for my expert opinion, and it is my responsibility to help them make a well-informed decision. If someone asks, “Would you buy this house?” and it is in extremely poor condition and needs major structural, foundation, electrical, plumbing, roof, and siding repairs, I tell them that unless they are willing to do a tremendous amount of work and spend a whole lot of money, they might want to keep on looking for something that is less of a project.

On the flip side, it is equally as important for inspectors NOT to scare people away from what could be a good house.

GHN: How concerned should a buyer be about buying a home with popcorn ceilings with the possibility of asbestos?

TO: Textured ceilings, also known as popcorn ceilings, were a popular building trend from the 1940s to 1990s because they provided acoustic insulation, were fire-resistant, and covered up imperfections. In some cases, the material contained the cancer-causing mineral, asbestos.

When I inspect a home with popcorn ceilings, I tell people that if they plan to scrape it off and dispose of it, they should have it tested first for asbestos by a qualified company. If they do not intend to do anything to it, I let them know that as long as it has been properly encapsulated (properly sealed and well painted) and there is no loose material, the risk for asbestos poisoning is usually very low.

GHN: What are the top five things that concern you most if found during an inspection?

TO: 1) Electrical problems or violations that could cause shock, fire, or electrocution.

2) Structural deterioration with elevated decks, steps, handrails, etc.

3) Carbon monoxide issues with faulty gas appliances or venting.

4) Any type of excessive mold-like substances found in the house.

5) When it comes to expense, the major concerns can be things like a failing roof, major wood-destroying insect damage and/or structural decay in crawlspaces and basements, cracked and shifted foundations, failed siding that needs a complete replacement, and old galvanized and/or cast iron, concrete or Orangeburg plumbing that needs to be completely replaced.

GHN: Is there anything you don’t inspect during a home inspection?

TO: As an inspector, it is important that I inform my clients of what I do and do not report on during a home inspection.

Cosmetic things, such as common wear and tear, small scratches, nicks, dings, paint colors, etc., are not generally included in the scope of a home inspection unless they are extreme.

Inspectors are not permitted to move or “dig through” the private masses of contents in occupied homes to see what may be buried underneath. This includes moving large desks, beds, couches and major appliances.

Although we test the smoke and monoxide detectors, we cannot test home security systems, wifi, coax cable, phone systems, or computer wiring. Finally, we do not inspect septic tanks, drain fields, or private well excavations, but we do recommend that these systems be inspected by licensed septic and well companies.

GHN: Finally, tell us the most interesting stuff you’ve found in a home inspection.

TO: Going into the attic and the substructure crawlspace under the house is almost always the least favorite part of the job for home inspectors. However, it is also where we usually find the most unusual things, including many things in these areas that teenagers did not want their parents to find and vice versa!

One time, in a crawlspace under a house built in the late 1800s, I found a large round concrete cover on the ground under the plastic vapor barrier. When I moved the cover to the side, I discovered an old well. Intrigued, I quickly shined my extremely bright flashlight into it, and I could not see the bottom. The house was vacant, and at the time of the inspection, no one was there but me. If that cover had collapsed, I would have been on a special edition of Unsolved Mysteries!

I’ve also found many “secret rooms” including marijuana grow rooms built underground by excavating the crawlspace and building walls, rooms hidden behind bookcases, removable shelves, or secret trap doors that lead to man caves, wine cellars, or other prohibition-era hiding places. I once even found a bunker hidden behind a wine cellar, complete with a full kitchen and bathroom and a long secret escape tunnel that surfaced on the other side of an embankment.

Over the past 25 years, I have found many interesting things. I often tell people that I wish I would’ve kept a journal – I could’ve written a book! I would’ve called it: “My Life in the Crawl.”

Who do you want to hear from next?

Do you have a real estate-related topic you’d like me to cover, or do you know someone you think may make an interesting person to interview? Drop me a line at [email protected]. Read one of my previous Q&A pieces, about estate planning and real estate, here.