Snap, Crackle, Pop

When I do an inspection, I explain to clients that I will be making a “limited visual inspection” of the house in the condition it is in on the day of the inspection. Sometimes, this language about an inspection being limited raises some eyebrows – with good reason. How would you feel if you ordered a pizza and the delivery person decided to limit you by two or three slices?

Hold that thought.

If you’ve read this blog before you know that Caroline and I recently purchased our first house. It is wonderful but (ahem) needs a bit of work.

Just after closing, I took a peak at the electrical panel and noticed a breaker that wouldn’t reset. The panel has some water related damage (a forthcoming post), so this wasn’t a surprise. By the process of elimination, it was determined that the circuit was feeding the baseboard heaters in the master bedroom. Since cold nights have arrived, my dad was kind enough to pick up a replacement breaker and we set about replacing the damaged one. Everything went well. Our shiny new Square D breaker in place, dad went to the master bedroom and on his count I threw the new breaker.

For once we planned well and as I stood at the bottom of the stairs, I quickly heard a loud, “Shut it off!” One of the baseboard heaters had started sparking, hissing, and even flaming as soon as it was juiced. By splitting up and being cautious, dad and I were able to shut down the circuit before any harm or damage could be done.

This energizing (forgive the pun) episode, however, is a perfect example of why home inspections are a limited visual exercise.  

The limited in “limited visual inspection” means that I assess everything that can be seen within reason. For instance, I’ve been to a house where the crawlspace entrance was only a foot high. Yeah. Slight, I am not. That crawlspace had to be inspected from the hatch. And no, I couldn’t see the entire space. I made a note of this limitation in the report.

It is entirely possible that something like the baseboard heater issue might not get reported by a home inspector. Do I test baseboard heaters? I do. However, if a breaker in the panel is off, I’m not going to turn it on. There was a reason it was turned off, and I don’t know what that reason was. It might be something benign like an A/C outlet that gets turned off in the winter. However, the possibility also exists that the breaker was turned off for safety reasons. The risk of causing damage outweighs the benefit of figuring out what is on a given circuit and if it is working properly. If I were to encounter this scenario in a house, I’d recommend a qualified electrician check it out. His or her expertise is the best way to address an unknown electrical issue.

When Dad and I removed the heater we were able to see that the insulation around one of the wires had failed. Without taking the unit out, I wouldn’t have been able to see this. Getting a home inspection is like going to a general practitioner. Home inspectors look at the whole picture; we don’t perform exploratory surgery. If we did, home inspections would take a week instead of a couple hours.

A limited visual inspection doesn’t mean you are somehow getting less. It is a home inspector’s way of acknowledging that, returning to the earlier analogy, we didn’t cook the pizza. So for all the looking and temperature taking in the world, we can’t always be 100% sure there isn’t something weird under the cheese.