System and Component Descriptions
Introduction SoPs usually require that the home inspector describe certain systems and components in the inspection report. One reason for descriptions is to inform the client about the nature of important systems and components. Another reason is to demonstrate that the home inspector observed the systems and components.
The home inspector must accurately describe systems and components. In almost all cases, clients do not care about descriptions. If questions arise about the inspection, all aspects of the inspection and report can come under intense scrutiny. Description errors can be used against the home inspector.
Many houses have more than one type of system or component that the home inspector is required to describe. The home inspector should describe each type of system or component that are present at the property.
Definition of Describe All required system and component descriptions should be in the inspection report. Descriptions need not be long, but they should be accurate and in sufficient detail so that the reader can distinguish the system or component from similar systems and components. For example, describing hardboard lap siding as wood siding is not an acceptable description. There are many types and styles of wood-based siding.
Some components can be difficult to distinguish from similar components. Some components are often fully or partially concealed, such as wall structural components and floor structural components at the second story of a two-story house. The home inspector may speculate about the likely structural component type and material, but the home inspector should report that the components were concealed and that the nature and condition of the concealed components could not be confirmed. The home inspector should report any uncertainty about the type of component. The home inspector should recommend inquiry and evaluation if the client wants additional information about the nature and condition of concealed components, and about the nature and type of components about which the home inspector is uncertain.
Structural Component Description SoPs usually require that the home inspector describe the structural components of the house including the foundation, and the floor, wall, ceiling and roof structure. Refer to the Structural Components chapter for more about structural components.
The foundation description includes the foundation type and materials. Typical foundation types include slab on grade, slab on stem wall, crawl space, and basement. Typical foundation materials include concrete masonry units, concrete, bricks, stone, and wood.
The floor, ceiling and roof system descriptions include materials used. Typical materials include dimensional lumber, wood I-joists, and wood trusses. Typical floor and roof sheathing materials include wood, plywood, and oriented strand board (OSB). Some home inspectors describe the size of materials used, such as 2×10 floor joists, 2×8 ceiling joists, and 2×6 rafters. Describing floor, ceiling, and roof material size is optional.
The wall system description applies to above grade walls; below grade walls and walls that are partially below grade are described with the foundation. Typical wall system materials include dimensional lumber, concrete masonry units, and bricks. Wall system components are usually concealed. Describing wall material size is optional.
Exterior Wall Covering Description SoPs usually require that the home inspector describe the exterior wall coverings of the house. Refer to the Wall Coverings and Related Trim section in the Exterior Components chapter for more about typical wall coverings.
The home inspector should accurately describe wall covering materials. Some houses do not have a wall covering material, such as houses made using structural brick and concrete masonry units. These houses may be painted; paint is a coating, not a wall covering material. Some wall coverings can be difficult to distinguish from other wall coverings. EIFS versus stucco is a common example. Adhered artificial stone veneer versus adhered natural stone veneer is a less common example. The home inspector may wish to recommend evaluation of EIFS for moisture intrusion, especially for houses built before 2000.
Roof Covering Description SoPs usually require that the home inspector describe the roof coverings of the house. Refer to the Roof Components chapter for more about typical roof coverings.
The home inspector should accurately describe roof coverings. Some roof coverings can be difficult to distinguish from other roof coverings. Modified bitumen versus roll mineral is a common example.
Plumbing Descriptions SoPs usually require that the home inspector describe the interior water distribution pipes and DWV pipes of the house, domestic hot water equipment including the energy source of the equipment, and the location of the main water supply and fuel supply shut off valves. The water service pipe and the building sewer pipe are almost always buried, so describing them is not required. Refer to the Plumbing System chapter for more about plumbing components.
Descriptions should be accurate and in sufficient detail to distinguish between similar materials and equipment. Plastic plumbing pipe should be described by the specific type such as PVC, ABS, CPVC, polybutylene, and PEX. Domestic hot water equipment should be described by the specific type such as storage tank, demand (often called tankless), and tankless coil. Energy source is usually electric, gas, or oil. Distinguishing between natural and propane gas is a good idea, but this is not specifically required.
The location of the main water shutoff valves and fuel shutoff valves should be in sufficient detail so the client can find them without unreasonable difficulty. Some home inspectors attach tags to these valves. This is a good idea, but it is not required and does not change the requirement to report the location of these valves. General directions such as left, right, center, front, and rear of the house combined with general locations such as crawl space, basement, and exterior are usually sufficient. The appropriate level of detail will vary by common practices in the home inspector’s area. For example, if the main water shutoff valve is often located in an interior closet, the home inspector should identify the location and general purpose of the closet (foyer coat closet, kitchen pantry, etc.).
Water shutoff valves and fuel shutoff valves are sometimes concealed by plants, occupant belongings, and other materials. The home inspector should report if a shutoff valve was not located and recommend inquiry about the location. Home inspectors are not required to, and usually should not, operate shutoff valves. They could leak or become stuck in one position.
Electrical System Descriptions SoPs usually require that the home inspector describe the electrical service current of the house, the predominant branch circuit wiring method, the presence or absence of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms, the location of the main electrical service disconnect equipment (the service equipment), and the location of all subpanels. Refer to the Electrical System chapter for more about electrical components.
Determining the service current can be difficult if there is no one labeled main service disconnect. A split bus panelboard is an example of when there is no single main service disconnect. The home inspector can sometimes estimate the service current rating by determining the lowest rated component among the service entrance conductors, the electric meter, or the service equipment panelboard. Situations exist when the service entrance conductors are not visible or the label has been removed from the service equipment panelboard cabinet. The home inspector should report if he/she estimates the service current, and if he/she cannot determine the service current. The home inspector should recommend evaluation if the client wants assurance about the service current.
Branch circuit wiring method descriptions should be accurate and in sufficient detail to distinguish between similar wiring methods. Typical branch circuit wiring methods include nonmetallic sheathed cable (NM), armored cable (AC), underground feeder cable (UF), intermediate metallic conduit (IMC), and liquidtight flexible conduit (LFC). The home inspector should not use brand names (such as Romex and BX) to describe wiring methods.
Most SoPs require only that the home inspector report whether or not a smoke alarm and a carbon monoxide alarm are installed in the house. The home inspector usually is not usually required to inspect the alarms to determine if the alarms are functional, properly installed, and installed where currently recommended. The home inspector is not required to determine the smoke alarm type and the smoke alarm and carbon monoxide alarm age. Some home inspectors perform some of these out-of-scope services.
The location of the main electrical service disconnect equipment and subpanels should be in sufficient detail so the client can find them without unreasonable difficulty. The location descriptions are the same as for the water shutoff valves and fuel shutoff valves.
Heating and Cooling System Descriptions SoPs usually require that the home inspector describe the heating and cooling systems of the house, including their energy source. Refer to the Heating System chapter and the Cooling System chapter for more about these components.
Heating systems should be described by the specific type such as gas-fired or oil-fired forced-air furnace, gas-fired or oil-fired hot water boiler, gas-fired or oil-fired steam boiler, and electric baseboard heater. Most cooling systems and heat pumps should be described as split systems with an air-source condenser outside and an evaporator coil inside. Package heating and cooling systems are usually described as gas packs, if gas-fired, or as package heat pumps. The home inspector should report if package systems supply both heating and cooling (they usually do). Through-wall units may provide heating, cooling, or both. The home inspector should report which functions the through-wall unit performs.
Insulation and Vapor Retarder Descriptions SoPs usually require that the home inspector describe the visible insulation and vapor retarders in unfinished areas, and report the absence of insulation at conditioned spaces. The requirement to describe insulation, vapor retarders, and to report the absence of insulation includes unfinished attics, crawl spaces, and basements. This also includes slab foundations; however, the requirement to insulate slab foundations is recent and has not been adopted in all jurisdictions. The home inspector should use good judgment when reporting the absence of insulation around slab foundations at older houses and in jurisdictions where this requirement has not been adopted. Refer to the Insulation and Ventilation chapter for more about these components. Most SoPs do not require that the home inspector disturb insulation to observe the vapor retarder and to observe components concealed by the insulation.
Insulation should be described by the general type such as loose-fill fiberglass, loose-fill cellulose, spray foam insulation, sheet insulation, and fiberglass batts. Measuring the insulation or estimating its R-value is not required; however, many home inspectors perform this service. The vapor retarder should be described by the general type such as Kraft paper, foil, and polyethylene sheeting.
Fireplace and Fuel-Burning Appliance Descriptions SoPs usually require that the home inspector describe masonry and prefabricated fireplaces, fuel-burning appliances and accessories installed in fireplaces, and installed fuel-burning appliances such as decorative gas fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. Some SoPs require that the home inspector describe chimneys. Refer to the Heating System chapter and Fireplaces and Chimneys chapter for information about these components.
A fireplace should be described as a masonry or prefabricated fireplace that is designed to burn wood. A masonry and prefabricated fireplace that was designed to burn wood, but has been converted to use vented or unvented gas logs, should be described using these terms. The home inspector should report if a gas log lighter has been installed.
A fireplace insert or a wood-burning stove should be described using these terms and by its fuel type. Typical fuel types include gas, wood logs, and wood pellets.
A vented fireplace that is designed to burn only gas or oil should be described as a decorative gas (or oil) fireplace or as a decorative gas (or oil) appliance. Describing the vent system is a good idea because these appliances have several different types of vent systems, but a vent system description is not required. An unvented gas or oil “fireplace” should be described as being unvented or vent-free.
A chimney should be described as a masonry chimney or a prefabricated metal chimney. The home inspector should report if the chimney has been converted to allow only gas-burning appliances, or if the chimney may still accommodate a wood fire.
Attic, Crawl Space, and Roof Inspection Method Description SoPs usually require that the home inspector describe the methods used to inspect the attic, crawl space, and roof coverings. This is probably the most important description because it informs the client about inspection limitations that are often encountered when inspecting these areas.
Attic inspections usually consist of one or more of the following methods. Some roof systems (such as low slope roofs and vaulted ceilings) have no accessible attic, so there is no attic to inspect. The home inspector should report this fact even though it seems obvious. Some home inspectors perform a head-and-shoulders attic inspection in which the home inspector views the attic from the access opening without entering the attic. This is a limited inspection that will not allow observation of most attic areas. Some home inspectors inspect the attic from the equipment service platform (if any) or from the access opening by entering the attic and standing above the access opening. This is a limited inspection that will not allow observation of many attic areas. Some home inspectors inspect the attic by traversing as much of the attic as they believe is safe. This is a full attic inspection, but even full inspections usually have limitations. Home inspectors are not required to traverse attic structural members that are obscured by insulation or other materials.
Almost all attic inspections have some limitations regarding the areas that are accessible. Access is usually restricted by low headroom height, especially near the eaves. Obstructions such as HVAC ducts, truss webs, and ceiling height changes can limit access. The home inspector should report to the client about which attic areas were inaccessible or that were inspected from a distance. The home inspector should be as specific as possible in describing the inaccessible areas and the reasons that they were inaccessible.
Crawl space inspections are similar to attic inspections. Some crawl spaces are inaccessible. Some are inspected using the head-and-shoulders technique and some are entered partially or fully depending on whether the home inspector believes it is safe to do so. Most SoPs do not require that home inspectors enter crawl space areas that have an opening smaller than 16×24 inches or that have a vertical distance between the crawl space floor and an obstruction of less than 24 inches.
Many home inspectors enter crawl space areas that do not comply with the minimum accessibility guidelines; however, the home inspector should be aware that crawl spaces can be dangerous areas and that home inspectors are not required to enter areas that the home inspector believes are not safe to enter because of the risk of personal injury or property damage. Crawl space dangers include toxic or poisonous plants and animals, raw sewage, energized and exposed electrical wires, and fall and entrapment hazards such as wells and cisterns. The home inspector should assess the risks of entering a crawl space and report to the client about specific crawl space areas that were not inspected, and the reasons they were not inspected.
Roof covering inspections usually consist of one or more of the following methods. The best roof covering inspection is performed by walking on the roof; this is the best way to observe deficiencies and the only way to observe some deficiencies. Some home inspectors perform roof covering inspections from a ladder placed against the eaves at several accessible locations around the house. This is a good way to inspect roof coverings if walking on the roof is not safe or prudent. Some home inspectors perform roof coverings from the ground using binoculars. This is a limited inspection that may not allow observation of many deficiencies.
Many home inspectors walk on roofs if the roof is accessible and if the home inspector believes it is safe and prudent to do so; however, walking on the roof is not required. Some roofs, especially second story roofs, are too high to safely reach with ladders carried by many home inspectors. Some home inspectors reach second story roofs by setting up the ladder on a low slope roof below the second story roof; this is not required. Some roofs are too steep to safely walk on; what constitutes too steep is a decision that the home inspector must make at each inspection. Roofs that are wet should not be walked on. Some roof coverings, such as clay tiles and slate, are too fragile to safely walk on. Some roof coverings, such as metal and glazed concrete tiles, are often too slippery to walk on.
It is common to use multiple inspection methods when inspecting roof coverings. Some roof areas may be accessible and other roof areas may be inaccessible. The home inspector should be specific when reporting which roof areas were accessible and inaccessible, and should be specific when reporting roof areas, if any, that were not inspected using any methods.