Home Inspection

A web log for homeowners, prospective homeowners and home sellers in the subject of Home Inspections, presented by I. G. "Zack" Lilienfeld, PE, Licensed New Jersey Home Inspector and Consulting Engineer


Reporting Structural Defects

Home inspectors are generalists, and as such, are usually not equipped to report on the nuances of the many types of structural defects except to note areas of concern and, perhaps some detail when the defect is obvious. So, as a home buyer or seller, you may be told that a structural defect was found, and that an "engineer should be consulted to evaluate and make recommendations". Mind you, this is not a cop-out by the home inspector, its just that they are not specialists and indeed, there are structural issues that do require an engineer to give the final word. However, because many a real estate deal has hit the wall because of a simple statement like "consult with a structural engineer", I thought it appropriate to elaborate on my somewhat unique perspective as a licensed NJ home inspector and professional engineer.

Lets start with the definition of a "defect". In New Jersey, inspectors are required to report on "material defects". While there is some disagreement among inspectors as to the precise definition of this phrase in the real world, I interpret it to be "something wrong that a buyer might want to know about". Some of my clients are the type who obsess over the smallest detail, others tell me that they don't care except if its "major". So, I report the insignificant to the major defects, but educate my clients on which is which. In particular, I consider what the NEXT home inspector will say when the home is re-sold a few years down the road. They may not be so precise in their description of the issue.

Now, on to structural "defects". As I stated earlier, many real estate deals have died a painful death because the home inspector called out a defect and recommended a consulting engineer. Some of these were no doubt legitimate, however some were the result of inexperience or poor wording of the report by the inspector. Myself, I avoid inflamatory words/phrases like "severe", hazard", and "structural failure" in my reporting, preferring to use these only when the home is indeed falling over. In which case, I would not be inside doing the inspection out of my own desire for self-preservation. Rather, I give the condition a thoughtful reflection, and report honestly and fairly on what I see. I can do this, because my goal is not to perform the fastest home inspection possible, but rather to give the most value for my client's hard-earned money. Perhaps being an engineer gives me a better perspective on the issues. However, I too refer out to a consulting engineer on occasion, because I do not do specialist inspections when performing a New Jersey Standards of Practice home inspection.

Now, on to the conditions when recommending an engineer makes sense. If the foundation wall is cracked or bowing, or showing signs of structural deformation or differential settlement, I may recommend that a consulting engineer be consulted, depending on the extent. Minor vertical cracks are not structurally significant, and if cracks are less than 1/4" and not rotated (bigger on one end than the other), these are due to either normal settlement or shrinkage (poured concrete walls in particular), and I usually note them but not as structurally significant. On the other hand, a foundation wall that is pushing in more than 1" in 4' of height is a concern worthy of a specialist, because repairs will likely be required. Likewise, I note structural roof issues that cause the ridge to sag excessively, and the walls to be pushed out where the rafters meet the wall, these too are structural concerns requiring a specialist. And, if I find support issues like lack of a column or pier under a point where one should be, these suggest that an engineer be consulted. Basically, if a repair will require a professional evaluation and design of a solution, I refer out.

When don't I call for an engineering evaluation? If it's wood framing issues related to water intrusion or termite damage, or things like wood support posts in contact with the soil, I think these can be adequately handled by a qualified framing contractor. Replacing damaged wood does not require an engineer to come in. When I find a joist or rafter cracked or delaminated, or a notched-out joist to run a plumbing drain, this is a framer's domain. However, I have seen these simple issues made needlessly scary, time and again in other inspection reports, because an inspector was quick to say an engineer was needed. I can't think of a bigger waste of money and valuable real estate transaction time than waiting for a professional engineer to visit the home for a consult, to look at a damaged sill plate and say it needs to be replaced. By that time, a framing contractor could have already made the proper repair.

Now, what do you do when a home inspector says an engineer needs to be consulted? The question is usually "who pays for this additional service"? Is it part of the home buyer's due diligence? Most buyers don't want to pay for an engineer when its possible the deal will never happen. The seller is usually obligated to repair any structural defects, but what if the problem is not substantial and does not need a professionally designed solution? Can't a framing contractor jut come out and fix the issue? In my opinion, if its a conventional framing issue, let the seller get a contractor in to repair the defect. If its related to the masonry foundation wall or is an issue that will require new underpinning such as a column or pier, or replacement of a beam that is sagging due to a long span, then the seller should get the engineer in who will specify the proper repairs. Note that if there is a structural issue requiring a municipal permit upon repair, an engineer will likely be needed to sign off on the repair anyway.