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Mike Holmes helps you make sure it's right

Thinking about buying a home? Did you hire a house inspector? Mike Holmes has a few choice words about this profession, and the real estate agents who resent good inspectors for doing "too good" a job, causing a deal to be abandoned.

Some buyers don't really want to believe the ugly truth about their dream homes. They'd prefer to stick their heads in the sand, and are receptive when an agent minimizes the problems.

But you need to listen to your home inspector, especially when he gives you bad news. Don't fall for a lipstick-and-mascara cover-up of a house that looks good but is rotten underneath. Your home inspector isn't trying to scare you, he is educating you. And you need to listen.

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A home inspection isn't just some game or a strategy to reduce the house price. This is your chance to learn about your home: what's good, what's bad, what needs repair now and what can wait a while.

Mike Holmes was online earlier to answer your questions about home inspections, renovations and repairs.

Mike's new book The Holmes Inspection is available at bookstores now.

Mike Holmes is the host of Holmes on Homes on HGTV. E-mail Mike at mikeholmes@holmesonhomes.com or go to www.holmesonhomes.com

Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question. Questions may be edited for length, clarity or relevance. HTML is not allowed. We will not publish questions that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Danielle Boudreau, globeandmail.com writes: Hi Mike, we've got a lot of reader questions for you, so let's get right to it.

Tara Tracy from Toronto Canada writes: We recently lost a 'dream house' because we didn't have time to complete an inspection. While touring the house (which wasn't 'lipsticked' or staged) we were most nervous about signs of structural problems- including a crack in the basement wall and slight crumbling of the wall surface, the addition of support beams, and a slight kilter to the upstairs floors. We love old houses and we know we'll face this question again. Do these structure-related problems mean 'walk away'? Or can they ever be fixed at some reasonable cost? (Note: this house was priced under average for location/size, and sold for $35K under asking). Thanks Mike!

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Mike Holmes writes: Hi Tara. I'm not sure what you mean that you didn't 'have time' -- do you mean the seller wasn't willing to give you the time to get an inspector? That's never a good sign.

And, if you were able to see all of the problems you describe on just a walk through (I'm assuming you're not professionals), then just think what you'd have found with a thorough inspection. That house doesn't sound like a 'dream'--more like a nightmare!! I'm glad you woke up. And, there's probably a reason it was priced and sold for under asking...right?

To answer your question, yes, sometimes structure can be fixed, at sometimes at a 'reasonable cost', but it always depends on the situation. And, what do you mean by 'reasonable'? You can never make these kind of assessments without a professional checking it out.

Structural problems don't necessarily mean 'walk away', but don't be blind to the fact that they will cost money and will need to be fixed professionally.


Peter Scott from Canada writes: Mike, one of the kids has just bought a 1911 house that passed inspection. They have gone ahead and got an assessment done on the home's insulation to see if they qualify for grants and they do. Some outside walls do not have insulation and it is recommended that they get some blown in through holes drilled between the studs outside. Are there any drawbacks to this and if not which type of blow in would you recommend or, are there no choices? Thanks and keep up the great work.

Mike Holmes writes: Hi Peter. That's great that your kids qualify for a grant--it will help out a lot.

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Blow-in cellulose insulation is absolutely the right application for the situation you describe. It is usually comprised primarily of recycled newspaper, wood by-products and fire retardant chemicals.

But, the installation can be quite dusty so tell the kids they should cover any household items.

Blown in cellulose is the least invasive option to achieve additional energy efficiency. But, the problem is that you don't know if the wall cavities in old homes are "open" to allow the insulation to fill the cavity between the studs; this may result in "cold" spots where something in the wall blocks the insulation. You would only be able to see this if you took down the drywall or plaster and lath and fully exposed the exterior walls--which is a big, messy job.

You would be able to clearly see any cold spots with a thermographic camera but many companies don't use this technology yet. (It's pretty expensive.)


A good Canadian from Canada writes: Mike, The stairway that runs from my 6-ft high back deck to back yard is rotten and I am looking to replace it. I am thinking about making the new stairs wider than the old, 5-6 ft wide. What is the required-by-code length/depth of each stair and what do you recommend as the ideal pressure treated plank size for those stringers and stairs?

Mike Holmes writes: Hi Fellow Good Canadian

The answer to your question depends on where you are writing from. You absolutely must contact your local municipal building department to inquire about any by-laws that may apply to your specific application and location. Period.

In general, the minimum code (and you know how I feel about minimum code) for Ontario says:

The terminology for the stair is "rise" [vertical height]and "run" [tread depth]

  • Max. rise is: 7 7/8"; min. rise is: 4 7/8"
  • Max. run is: 14"; min. run is: 8 1/4"

I like a rise of 7-1/2 inches and a run of 10 inches; these are the most common and what our feet are most used to. With a span of 5-6 feet wide; you should ensure to include a stringer at mid-support to prevent sagging; A deck over 5'11" above ground requires a higher guard rail of 42 inches; the handrail is measured from the nosing of the stair and must be between 2' 7" and 3' 2".

Remember to check with your local building authority.


Kathryn from Toronto, Canada writes: How is the financing handled for the renovation work shown on your TV program? Does the homeowner pay for it, or does your company carry the costs? You do have the homeowners talk about how much they paid their initial contractor, but why is there no final tally at the end of the show to give viewers an idea of what it really cost to "make it right?"

Mike Holmes writes: Hi Kathryn,

Both are true--it depends on the situation.

Part of the costs associated with any renos we do on the show are covered by the production, and part are paid by the homeowners, if they have any money left. But, often they have been left broke and can't contribute.

We have many generous sponsors who donate their product and time, which helps out a lot.

We made the choice to not say what it cost to fix the problems in each episode because so much is covered by donations, and costs vary from region to region or country to country (and the show is seen around the world).

Also, since we're in repeats for years, prices change.


HK SJ from Saint John Canada writes: We have recently found what we thought was our first new home, however upon inspection we discovered the house has aluminum wiring. The current home owners have replaced the wiring to copper for all main appliances. The remaining aluminum wiring is too difficult to get at (without tearing out the walls) so they have replaced switches to ones rated for aluminum, pigtailed copper wiring onto any outlets, switches and fixtures that are not rated for aluminum wiring. They have also had an electrician in to inspect all outlets, fixtures and switches. Everything is now up to code.

My question is regarding insurance, our usual insurance company will not touch a house with aluminum wiring. We have found some that do. However is their a trend that is occuring that more and more companies will not insure a house with aluminum wiring? In a few years would the remaining wiring have to be replaced? I would appreciate your thoughts.

Mike Holmes writes: I'm glad to hear you've had your wiring inspected by a qualified licensed electrician--that should give you some peace of mind. I'm not surprised to hear about the insurance problem, however. The same thing happened with knob and tube--insurance companies want to limit their liability so they either don't insure or they charge a lot more to the homeowner.

I can't predict the future, but I wouldn't be surprised if you will need to change over your wiring so it's all copper at some point. Maybe that's something you can budget for.


J Liem from Ottawa Canada writes: How do you find a good home inspector? I hear that anyone who wants to be a 'home inspector' needs only to take a few courses at a community college... that scares me to hear that it's this easy.

Mike Holmes writes: Yes, that's true. You can call yourself a 'home inspector' after just a few courses at a college, or even online, or weekend seminars. Hell, you can call yourself an inspector after none of the above, if you've got the balls!

It should scare you--you don't know what you are getting at face value, because there is no licensing of home inspectors.

There are several organizations that exist in North America, but they are all voluntary, and many people I've talked to--including home inspectors--think of them as 'marketing', rather than maintaining standards.

To belong to them there is usually some sort of testing, and requirement to do courses and update training regularly, which is better than nothing I guess.

Your best bet is to get references and check them. Did the inspector do a good job? Was the report thorough and accurate? Did anything show up after the house was purchased that was a surprise? Would you hire them again?


Moe Jisri from Mississauga Canada writes: How do I tell if it is time to re-do the roof? Any signs? how do I check the roof age and when it needs to fix/replace? Thanks.

Mike Holmes writes: Hi Moe. How long have you been in the house? Do you have any idea when the roof may have been installed? It's not just a matter of age of roof--it's exposure, as well as quality of installation and quality of shingles. Some are better than others.

You don't say what your roof is made of, so I'm going to assume it's asphalt shingle since that's the most common. Typical signs that tell you the roof needs re-doing are missing or torn shingles, shingles that curl up at the edges and bottoms, and shingles that have lost the grainy texture through exposure and wear. You may find signs of this 'gravelly' stuff when you clean your eavestroughs. And, do you have one layer or two of shingles on their already?

(I don't suppose I need to tell you that if you have a leak there might be a problem...;-)

It doesn't hurt to have a professional roofer out for an inspection. Many people are afraid they are just 'trying to sell', but it's a good idea.


Bill Sachlas from Montreal Canada writes: We have been struggling with a persistent water leak in our custom-built home since we moved in on October 15, 2004. The contractor has returned numerous time to try and rectify the problem, to no avail. There was a piece of plywood where it's been leaking, and after being soaked after each rainfall since 2004, finally sprouted a fungus the size of a plate (inside the house). They've since removed it, along with a sizable chunk of concrete surrounding the plywood. Is this dangerous to our health? Now he says he might have to remove and re-install the stone on the facade of the house. An independent engineer wasn't much better at identifying the problem. We're at our wits' end. What can we do?

Mike Holmes writes: Hi Bill. Any time water is able to penetrate the building envelope and get to interior wood or structure there is the possibility of mould growth. It's good it was removed, but the key is to trace where it's getting in and repair the problem so no more grows. You can always have the mould tested to see if it's dangerous--but don't panic. There are thousand of different types of mould in every house, and not all of them are as toxic as others. If you are worried, get it tested.

I'm guessing from the sound of it that your contractor thinks the water is getting behind the stone façade somehow. Maybe this fix will work. But, it sounds like he's trying---a nice change from some of the guys I've come across who just abandon the job.


Lynn Norbury from Calgary Canada writes: Hi Mike, I watch your show as often as possible and have learned a lot about what to watch for when hiring someone to do work on your house. It is great because I am a single woman and sometimes it seems like when we go looking for a contractor they would like to take advantage of our perceived lack of knowledge of the construction industry. Today in this article you spoke of home inspections so I wanted to ask this question. I am currently building a new home with a large well respected builder in Calgary and was wondering if I need to do a home inspection on my new home when I take possession? Thanks for your help, Lynn

Mike Holmes writes: Hi Lynn. My feeling is that it's always a good idea to have someone who knows what they are looking at along on your PDI, if that's possible.

Your builder may be very good and very respected, and your house might be perfect but you won't know, will you? Most homeowners see only the surface finishes--not the code or structure, and certainly not what's behind the walls.

In fact, if your builder will allow it (and many won't) why not have an inspection at various stages of the house, before it's all closed in with drywall and you can't see the wiring or structure? Yes, it will cost you money, but to me that peace of mind is worth every penny.


Dan Fox from toronto Canada writes: Hi Mike... love your show, you are starting to become the guy people reference around construction sites... such as '... do you think Mike Holmes would do it that way?'

So my question/comment about the home inspection field is as follows: I have experience in the home inspection industry, I have taken all of the courses offered by Humber College in Toronto.

I was coached that one way to ensure business was to 'cultivate' a relationship with a real estate agent whereby I would pay them a small commission for every referral the gave me. It was obvious that if I did not give favourable inspections of the property then I would not be called for the next inspection.

Another problem I encountered was from a legal aspect. One of the larger home inspection organizations prefers to send a team of lawyers to litigate any claims of negligence against it's inspectors (paid for by membership dues), regardless of guilt. The idea is to make it so expensive for people to sue an inspector that people will simply give up. I value my integrity more than this, and as a result I never became an inspector. Have you seen this practice in action?

Mike Holmes writes: Wow. I've never personally seen it in action, but I've heard stories.

That is exactly the kind of problem that makes me and many many others mistrust home inspectors. I personally have a problem with the conflict of interest that exists when home inspectors get too cosy with home inspectors.

Both are professionals who work for the homeowners, and both should have integrity to do the job right, and not sell out for a commission or a kickback.

As far as the legal aspect you mention--that's another, bigger story. Home inspectors generally aren't insured at all for errors and omissions. At best all a homeowner will get in a settlement is their fee of a few hundred dollars back--not a lot considering how much a huge renovation or repair they weren't anticipating can set them back. Having home inspectors contribute to a fund that helps them with liability and coverage makes sense--a lot of professionals have similar insurance set ups. But, to have you put it the way you did--that the hope is to bleed the homeowner dry so they can't afford to pursue legal action any longer makes me sick. Say it isn't so Dan.

Danielle Boudreau, globeandmail.com writes: That's all the time we have for today. Thanks for your valuable insight on home inspections, Mike. Your expertise is well known and appreciated in Canada.

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