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Mon, Oct. 21

Common sense, safety trump 'letter of the law'

I had a seller upset with me a few weeks ago. That's not too unusual. What was unusual was he actually got ahold of a code book and was technically correct.

I had reported that the door between the garage and home should be fire-resistant and have weatherstripping and a self-closer. The weatherstripping and self-closer prevents toxic car exhaust fumes from entering the home. In our area, the self-closer is usually one or two spring-loaded hinges.

His home was built in 2009, in compliance with the 2006 International Residential Code (IRC). The 2006 IRC did require a "20-minute" (fire-resistant) door between a garage and home, but for some reason left out the self-closing part (section R309.1). Previous additions of the IRC required the self-closers, and the 2009 IRC again requires the self-closers. Interestingly, the 2006 International Building Code (IBC) did require the self-closers (section 406.1.4). But there were a few years when IRC did not require self-closers on garage/home doors.

So the owner was correct, but only regarding the self-closers. The German-shepherd-sized pet door he had installed through the door was still a problem, because the door was certainly no longer fire-resistant.

The seller then stated that I should only report on code violations that apply to that age home in that jurisdiction. I explained that a home inspection is not a code inspection. Using his criteria, I could not inspect homes outside the city limits built before 1988, because there were no Yavapai County building inspections prior to 1988.

This is the same thing I tell my clients: My inspections are based partly on code, partly on performance, and partly on common sense. (I have no authority; I cannot make or require anyone to do anything. I've been married for 30 years, so I'm used to that.) Something may meet code, but I can still recommend improvement, such as self-closers on a garage/home door on a 2009 house. Something may not meet code, but I won't recommend improvement. One example that comes to mind is the openings in deck railings. If the openings are just a little larger than normal, but the deck is not high off the ground and is over a soft lawn, I may not recommend improvement. I will describe the components and condition and state "improvement is discretionary" in my report.

Another example is bedroom windows, which have specific size and location requirements to serve as an emergency ingress/egress. I often find the windows just an inch or two higher off the floor than required. In this case I will state "improvement may not be practical or cost-effective." I may recommend other improvements to compensate for the condition. With the bedroom windows example I will strongly recommend that the client install smoke detectors in all bedrooms and test them regularly.

As far as performance, even if something was well built and complied with all code requirements when it was installed, it could be unsafe due to age, moisture damage, alterations, etc. If a component is not functioning as intended, or creates an unsafe condition for any reason, a home inspector will recommend improvement even if it meets code.

It was actually fun discussing that situation with that seller. He was well informed and was technically correct, but he understood my reasoning and eventually agreed with my report. It is more common for sellers to get upset and call the home inspectors names. Recently, I inspected a home in which the owner had installed a 240-volt outlet under the electrical panel. This is perfectly legal. He then labeled the breaker "generator - emergency use only." The seller must have made a cord with two male plugs that he plugged into a generator and the outlet under the panel. In case of a power failure by APS (Arizona Public Service, our electric provider), he would plug the cord into a generator and the outlet under the panel, and would of course turn off the main breaker to shut off the APS power.

In my report, I stated APS would never allow a generator to be connected to a panel in this manner. They require a switch

that can only be in the "APS" or "generator" mode, to ensure that the generator and APS power could never be on at

the same time. My recommendation was simply to change the labeling and call the breaker an outlet instead of a generator connection, an improvement that would cost nothing and take 30 seconds.

The seller wrote a letter to the real estate agent stating that "I have to question this guy's competence" and "this guy does not know what he is looking at." He was referring to me and my comments regarding the electrical panel.

I sent the seller a reply. I told him I just called APS and described the installation. The gentleman I spoke with stated APS would never approve this installation, nor would Prescott or Yavapai County inspectors. I asked him what would happen if the APS power and generator power were on at the same time. He said he wasn't sure, but he was sure he didn't want to be near the panel when it happened.

He then said, "This is very easy to correct. There is nothing wrong with the installation, just the labeling. All I have to do is change the labeling from 'generator' to 'outlet'."

Why didn't I think of that?

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