Home & Garden Columns
If you get to know anyone well enough, you’ll eventually find out which super-power they have. Most super-powers are fairly innocuous while a few are more apparent and seemingly heroic. My ex-girlfriend could find a parking place in front of coliseum Rock & Roll events. Right smack in front. Stunning. Clearly a super-power. Some people know just when to buy the 24 pack of toilet paper and never run out. For some, this is inconceivable. Some can find the screw they dropped in the grass, while I’ve been forced to leave many behind. Next time you pass some little balding guy on the street, remember, he has a super power. See if you can guess which one he has. It might be a doozy.
My super power works some of the time, sort of like those TV cop-show psychics. I’m getting it. I’m getting it. I see a bolt, a wire. No, it’s gone cold. I’ve lost it. My super power is X-ray vision but, like I said, it’s very spotty. Too bad because I need it in my job and I really needed it the other day.
As has often occurred, I was looking at a house wherein the basement had been fully finished out and there were big questions about the work that been done in the development of the space.
With walls finished off and a fresh coat of paint on the surfaces, it gets very hard to say what’s behind the walls. One tries to peek as much as possible but, often, the views are scant and cryptic. As I’ve previously suggested, a set of photos, digital or otherwise, make all the difference. If you’re doing work of this sort (inaccessible once completed), please take a hundred pictures. Drawings and permits are also useful but they require acceptance of the notion that these are reflective of the what was actually done and this is, too often, not truly the case, even when city inspectors have signed the card.
Let me tell you about what we didn’t know on this particular day:
Basements are places where we often get our best views of plumbing, mechanical (gas piping and appliances), electrical wiring, structural elements and connections including the foundation and damage done by water and pests. I may spend half of an inspection in a basement, they (basements) being so rich in data. So it’s very frustrating when they’ve been occluded in this manner. This particular one also added the concern that comes of a below-ground space having been changed from a storage and utility space into a living space.
Basements sometimes get damp or even a little wet and some get really wet when they’re well below ground level. For the lawn mower or the washing machine, this is probably not a big deal but this doesn’t work out so well for a bedroom or even a home office. The truth is (as they say on TV), your own result may vary. In short, it’s very hard to predict, but if X-ray vision is good for anything, it’s good for telling you where to look with your actual eyes. If you’re suspicious, you pull back the carpet, move the pile of storage and take a close look for whitish precipitates (efflorescence), stains and signs of that the bottoms of things were getting wet. The bottoms of furnaces get rusty and the bottoms of wooden crates will show stains that creep up from the bottom. Sometimes evidence is lean but you take what you’ve got. Sometimes you end up next door asking the neighbor if their basement gets wet.
With electrical and plumbing, it can be very frustrating. You have to look at all the other parts of those system as well as those places where these systems display themselves in the basement in order to make good guesses. See if you can find other contemporary work (was it the same electrician?) and gauge its quality. Often, other parts of the house were remodeled at the same time and these other places can give valuable clues. Sometimes not.
Basement remodels also present a very important set of conundra to those of us in seismically active areas. The way in which walls are bolted and braced between the foundation and the floor above are critical in how houses perform during earthquakes, and when basement get finished out, as I’ve described, these essential views are largely blocked from view. The X-ray views come in all cloudy and green. I grab my head like Kate Blanchet in The Gift. Nothing. But wait. Several small pieces of plywood bracing can be seen in the garage (same level) and the laundry room (opposite end).
The manner of attachment, the thickness of plywood and their placement were, at least partially, visible. These small pieces of information provided critically important information as to the quality of the seismic reinforcement that had been done. Without more information and with so much unseen, we could not draw definitive conclusions but much could be said. We could not know, for example, whether there was enough decay in these “cripple walls” to affect the strength of these walls or whether the framing had been altered in ways that would result in localized failures.
In an effort to capitalize on every square inch of possible living space, many of us have turned attics, basements, laundry rooms and garages into offices, dens and bedrooms.
While this can be done well and in compliance with building standards (not that the codes are the end-all and be-all of sensible construction), it’s important to also think about some of what gets covered up. I’d rather see mistakes made in a place where access could be found for future repairs than in a basement where there is neither access nor the view (but for your X-ray vision) to know that something needs addressing.
If you’re looking at houses, stop and ask yourself what a given space might have been used as or built for in the past (this is, of course, the real X-ray vision). If it is a basement, was this a space that has stayed bone dry? If it is an attic, was the floor framed for human habitation or is it too springy and weak? Is that back bedroom really a laundry room addition that’s sitting on a couple of pier blocks and destined to land in the side yard when the fault-line slips. Using your X-ray vision (deduction) you may be able to, at least, start asking relevant questions. You may end up feeling O.K. about the basement or the attic but you’ll be better off for having gone through this game of questioning.
So if you’re shopping for houses remember to use your super-powers. But be careful and considerate. X-ray vision should not be used on people (unless you’re a doctor) and that thing where you set things on fire? Best not.