Before you buy that house, watch how a home inspection can save you.

 Summary of Private Property video transcription

Discussion between Zamantungwa Khumalo (ZK) host of the Private Property Podcast and John Graham (JG) – of HouseCheck

ZK: Good evening and welcome to episode 308 of the private property podcast. I’m your host.  If you’re joining us for the first time, welcome to the ODI daily properties show in South Africa, make sure that you go to our Facebook or our YouTube page to catch up.

We are talking about house inspections with John Graham, a property inspection manager at HouseCheck.  

 When we talk about inspections, what exactly are we referring to, John? 

 JG: Okay. So a home inspection is basically a condition assessment of the condition of the property that you are buying. And if you think that for most people, whether they’re spending a million Rand or ten million Rand on a house, that purchase is probably one of the biggest that you will ever make.

 And a house is quite a complex thing. Parts of the house include hot water geysers, roofing systems, waterproofing systems and so on. Stormwater must be managed  so that the water doesn’t flood in your door. And a house must be compliant so that there won’t be problems if you should have to claim under your homeowners insurance policy.  

 Unlike a life insurance company, a homeowners insurance company only really underwrites the risk at claim stage. So when you buy a property, you take a bond. And part of the bond is they say, you must ensure your house in case it burns down. And then a couple of years later, there’s a hail storm and a portion of the roof collapses or whatever.

 At that stage, the insurance company sends an assessor to have a look. How much is the damage and is the claim valid or is it going to be repudiated? And quite often people will find that the claim is repudiated because the house was not compliant. The hot water geyser was not compliant, or the roof was not  compliant with the national building regulations. 

 The home inspector must be knowledgeable regarding the national building  regulations and standards in order to ensure that that house is compliant.

 The home inspector must also ensure that people know what they’re buying – that damp is not being hidden away under  a fresh coat of paint,  Paint can temporarily disguise  a whole lot of things that you really should know about.

 Consumer protection is incredibly important in South Africa, but probably the home buying consumer is the most vulnerable of all consumers, because most properties are still sold voetstoots – which means that the house is sold “as is”. 

 A home inspector can protect buyers, and sellers and can make the entire property transaction a lot more transparent and trustworthy for all parties concerned. 

 ZK: So when you’re going into a property, what are some of the key things that you are looking at as you do your home inspection?

 JG: Yes…I think the first thing to ask your viewers is: Would they buy a second hand car without getting the AA to check it out?   Yet people often spend much more on a house without any inspection of the condition of the property.

Once you’ve inspected a few hundred houses you can mostly see, as you climb out of your car, what’s likely to be wrong with that house. The first things to look at as you walk onto the property are the roof covering and what the groundwater management looks like. 

But one of the biggest problems is a hot water geyser in South Africa. Most hot water geysers are located in the roof cavity and very few people willingly climb into a South African roof cavity – because it’s hot and uncomfortable and dirty.  Suppose that the geyser sits above your child’s bedroom. It’s under pressure but maybe none has ever checked the installation…maybe the plumber didn’t climb into the cavity but rather sent unqualified labour to do the installation.

There are between 20 and 25 critical points of installation of a hot water pressure geyser…ranging from the electrical connections to the plumbing connections, to the relief valves, to the overflow trays.  You physically have to get into the roof space to see if the geyser has been properly and safely installed.  

And then while you’re in the roof space, you will also look at the structural timbers.  Are they straight? Has the roof been properly anchored down? Is there insulation in place? Can you, can you see roof leaks; are there paint tins in the roof to catch the rain water? 

Inside the house, you’re looking at damp penetration through the seals of the windows. 

You’re looking at, whether there is safe glazing, whether the glass is thin 3mm glass,  or in areas where there’s likely to be human impact, safety glass has been installed, in order to protect human life.  The National Building Regulations requires this.

In the bathroom, the home inspector will typically notice things like a tiled shower.  Because  the shower has been tiled, the inspector can’t tell whether the wall has been waterproofed before the tiles were installed. In this case the inspector may go into the next door room and open the cupboard and see if there’s evidence of damp in there.   He will use a moisture meter to check for leaking pipes  which are inside the wall.

Although the inspector is not an electrician, he will still look for obviously dangerous situations with electrical wiring. He will look at the plumbing. He will look at the roof covering. The home inspector should look literally everywhere. 

And one of the things that they’ve noticed internationally is how buyers react when they observe wall cracks. Wall cracks are a bugbear for people buying a house and also for people selling houses, because you get a great many wall cracks, which are minor cosmetic cracks or settlement cracks.  Settlement cracks often occur in the first couple of years as the load of the house settles down into the earth. And then it stabilizes. 

So if I’m buying a house and I don’t know much about houses and I walk in and I see there’s a crack in the entrance hall, I say to myself: It might be structural. Although it might actually only cost a thousand Rand to repair and redecorate, I’m going to offer maybe a hundred thousand Rand less because I don’t know what’s involved here. 

Whereas a home inspector will be able to look and say it is serious – there seems to have been foundation failure and an engineer must investigate, or it’s simply a minor cosmetic crack, easily repaired and nothing to be worried about. 

It’s the same with damp.  You get rising damp, you get black mould in the bathroom and in the bedrooms – sometimes simply because people sleep with their windows closed.   You may suspect there’s a serious damp issue when in reality it’s easily resolved.

So it’s all of these sorts of things for a home inspector to check.  There’s nothing that a good home inspector won’t look at.

I would say a good analogy is to use the medical profession. If you feel sick, you normally go to your GP, your general practitioner, and you say, I’m not feeling well, I’m running a temperature and I’ve got a bit of a runny nose or whatever. 

And in the pre-COVID days, at least he would look down your throat and take your temperature and feel your glands. And he would say: “Take two aspirin and go to bed for a couple of days. And you’ll feel fine”. 

Alternatively, he might look down your throat and say, “Uh! Oh! There’s a problem here. I suggest you go and see an ear nose and throat specialist, or a cancer specialist, or a lung specialist or whatever, because there’s something here that I’m worried about.”

Now a home inspector should be a bit like the GP – a generalist in the overall built environment, not a specialist in one particular aspect of building.

The home inspector is not a specialist, he’s not a structural engineer. He’s not an electrician. He’s not a plumber. He’s not a roofer. But he needs to know something about every aspect of a South African home.  The inspector also needs to know what the law says about all aspects of building compliance..

He needs to know how insurance companies will view that property in the event of a claim. He needs to know what the buyer, what the seller might be covering up.The inspector needs to be able to tell the buyer, how much is it going to cost to fix this house? 

How much needs to be spent urgently.  And how much should you budget for maintenance over the next three, four years? 

This information from a home inspector enables buyers and sellers to make informed decisions. 

ZK: I am this evening in conversation with John Graham of HouseCheck and looking at home inspections.What are some of the key things that typically get picked up during a home inspection …typically things that need to be fixed?  And the second question is: What are some of the mistakes that homeowners make in the  maintenance, or lack thereof, of their properties? 

JG: OK Zama, the roof is probably the major area for finding maintenance problems.  Especially the roof drainage system, which is typically the gutters and the downpipes. And if you have trees growing too close to a house and  if  leaves and debris and branches fall onto that roof, particularly if it’s a metal roof, you will start getting rust and you will also see the gutters blocked.

Overloading of the blocked gutters will see gutters starting to leak at the joints. And that’s a maintenance issue that is very often totally neglected until the gutter starts overflowing with pouring water. And it’s waking you up at night because it’s so loud and yet it’s something that’s really easy to fix. 

Typically it’s only when a home inspector gets out his ladder and comes on the roof and takes a few photographs that people realize what the state of the roof actually is. The inspection shows that the roof should have been painted four or five years ago. The roof screws should have been resealed. 

If you’ve got a concrete tile roof, often the ridge capping mortar cement will be cracked and you start getting water penetration along the ridges of the roof. This might be because the ridging was put on, on a very hot day and the mortar has dried out too quickly and cracked away from the concrete roof tiles.

Home inspectors will often find that some sort of acrylic membrane has been used to patch roofing. Now, there is acrylic membrane and there is acrylic membrane. Some of it is SABS approved…but a lot of it is cheap imports into South Africa.

And with the harsh South African sun, if you use the wrong sort of patching material, it won’t last…and you’ll need to recoat it every year. 

So that’s a typical sort of roof defect which home inspectors identify.

Let’s stay with the roof drainage. You have the water running from your roof, into the gutters and down the downpipes. But what happens to the water when it comes out of the downpipe? It should be channeled away from this structure – either with an impervious apron or with the concrete channel. But very often you will find that downpipe finishing at the base of the wall and discharging onto unprotected soil.

And if you look there, what a home inspector will suspect, as soon as he sees this situation, is that the foundation, over the years, will have been undermined as the water seeps under the foundations, washes out the fine particles of soil and the foundation begins to collapse.

Such foundation collapse will result in cracks on the inside of the building.  So the home inspector will look at the outside situation and say, there’s probably a crack on the inside.

Another common situation which causes problems is when the finished floor level inside the house is less than 150mm higher than the finished ground level outside. 150mm differential is the minimum requirement in South Africa.

What often happens is that people build a house and only put in paving later. And then the paving is about the same height as the floor level. And so you have a flooding potential through the doorways.  But you also have a compromised damp proof course.  A damp proof course or DPC is an impervious layer of plastic or malthoid that stops the water seeping up from the ground, into the rooms and causing efflorescence and all sorts of ugly damp damage.

But if your finished ground level over the years has been raised up with landscaping or paving or whatever you might find that outside level is actually higher than the DPC. 

ZK: What are other things that would get snagged during a home inspection?

JG:  OK, let’s take ceramic floor tiles. If you’re putting in ceramic tiles,  there’s thermal expansion to consider. This means that when it gets hot, the tiles expand slightly.  And when it’s, when it gets cold, they contract.

Therefore you need to have an expansion joint in a typical room. And that’s normally built under the skirting board. If that doesn’t happen, the tiles will push against each other, then tend to tent upwards and might crack. 

But coming back to the damp issue, some builders do install a DPC, but they don’t install it right through so that it extends under the plaster. In other words, a bricklayer builds the wall flush with the edge of the DPC, but there’s another 20mm going onto the outside of the wall with the plaster. And the plaster goes straight into the ground bypassing the DPC.  Thiseans that the moisture can wick-up from the ground into the wall above the DPC through the plaster. 

And you wonder why you’ve got a damp issue.

Not all damp is rising damp caused by a lacking or faulty DPC.  It’s possible that the roof is leaking and that the water is finding a path along a rafter and into the top of the wall and down through the cavity and then manifesting as damp when it reaches the floor slab at the bottom of the wall.

So there needs to be a lot of training and experience to make a good home inspector.  Remember though that a home inspector should  be the GP of the South African building world.

A home inspector needs to be able to identify things that are wrong and the inspection must know when to recommend a specialist investigation. The inspector should be able to tell the buyer what is wrong, what is easy to fix and what is likely to be more expensive and complicated, so that the buyer can shape the offer accordingly.

One of the things that we recommended at HouseCheck is that no one should put an offer to purchase without making it conditional on a satisfactory home inspection. And generally speaking, the home inspection will be paid for by the buyer. But, sometimes the seller or the real estate agent will pay for it.

But at HouseCheck, probably 95% of our inspections are funded by the buyer. You could say the buyer has most to lose if there’s a problem. 

So the buyer would typically say, I want to buy this house. I’m going to offer 2.2 million Rand subject to a satisfactory home inspection. 

And then, if the buyer is wise, the buyer should also make the offer subject to the approved plans of the house being made available.  If you are buying a sectional title property,  you should also make your offer subject to having sight of the financials of the body corporate and subject to having sight of the 10 year maintenance plan, which is required by the Sectional Title Schemes Management Act.

ZK: So there are a lot of things that buyers can do to protect themselves. But the average buyer is a school teacher or clerk or whatever they might be.  So what are some of the low hanging fruits that we as homeowners  can do?

JG:  We should regularly maintain our properties.  Probably the main thing is to maintain your roof, because your roof is the most vulnerable part of the house.

The old story, a stitch in time saves nine. That’s what my grandmother taught me. Preventative maintenance on a regular basis costs a lot less than emergency maintenance. 

You know, we spoke about the leaves in the gutter. Cleaning the leaves out of the gutter once a month Is a whole lot cheaper than waiting for the gutter to collapse and then having to replace it. 

Managing water away from your foundations is another one. 

Making sure that that geyser is in good shape that the overflow pipes are properly connected. 

I know we’re running out of time, but boundary walls are a huge problem in South Africa. And, and the reason for that is a boundary is technically what is called a freestanding wall. A freestanding wall means that it’s not as strong as the cellular walls in a structure where the walls brace each other.

 A free-standing boundary is inherently unstable.. So you need supporting piers. You cannot put in a damp proof course under a free-standing wall, because then you’ve got no grip onto the foundation. And the law says, if it’s over 2.1 meters, there must be approved plans. And the municipality won’t approve the plans for walls over 2.1 meters unless the foundation and the wall has been designed by a structural engineer.

So these are the sorts of things that one needs to look at: Is your property legal? Is your property well-maintained? Just like it makes sense to ensure that your car gets regularly serviced, it also makes sense to make sure that you are servicing the biggest investment – your home.  

The Property Practitioners Act is going to be a game changer because sellers are then going to have to make it a written decoration of the condition of the property. And the estate agent is going to be required by law to provide the seller’s written declaration to every prospective purchaser. And that then becomes part of the legal agreement of sale.

Now, the easiest way is for the seller to decide, let’s get a home inspector in first and let’s do full disclosure. We probably get a better price because the purchase will trust us. It shows we’re not hiding anything. We have an independent inspection and we can negotiate realistically, and nothing’s going to come back and bite us in the backside.

But the Property Practitioner’s Act was passed in 2019. The draft regulations for this new law were published last year before lockdown. Last year the regulations were republished after lockdown. The draft regulations closed for comment in November last year.  We are now sitting in July 2021. And still nothing. And so property purchasers remain vulnerable and must protect themselves.

Perhaps even after the Property Practitioners Act comes into operation, property buyers will still have to protect themselves. Because it’s one thing, having a law, but it’s another thing to enforce the law. In South Africa we have great laws, but our enforcement is not so great. Home inspection will remain critical for home buyers.


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