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On older houses . . .


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Okay, so I've been burned a couple of times during the past year--once several months ago, the second time much more recently--and I was wondering how others handle similar situations that I've found myself in. Not the aftermath, 'cause I don't mind confrontation and I have no problem with shyness when it comes to explaining my position on something.

Old houses--in my area, typically seventy-five to one-hundred years old (Don't laugh, Bill. I realize these guys are youngsters to you)--are not built the way newer houses are. Simple fact. But what do you say when you encounter a seventy-five year old house with 2" x 4" rafters? I looked at one several months ago, situated in a twenty block area of similar houses with similar roof structures, and explained to my client that while not considered acceptable by modern standards, the roof was structurally sound.

Good enough? Well, but no. That client had a pal who was a structural engineer look at the house after I did, and the engineer pretty much said the roof structure was unsafe due to undersized framing members and that it should be torn off and replaced. Of course the client called and pretty much wanted to know if I was on the pipe when I looked at the house and why didn't I tell him the roof was close to collapsing? I explained that there were a few hundred similar roof structures in close proximity, and that to my knowledge, none of them had collapsed and none had been rebuilt. The conversation was much longer and more involved, which you can imagine, but you've had the same conversations so I won't bore you with the details.

More recently. Eighty-five year old house with 6" x 6" piers in the basement with minor vertical fissures and locust-stump piers in the crawlspace. Again, I recommended replacing the crawlspace piers at some point in the future, and reinforcing the 6" x 6"s and thought life was good. Slam cut to a few days later. Another structural engineer came in behind me and summarily condemned the floor structure while saying rebuilding the bloody thing would cost between twenty and thirty K. Oh, and did I mention the two or three unsupported, spliced rafters lurking in the attic? That was gonna cost another several thousand to remedy.

So how do others handle the same kind of situations? I mean, as you look at the house and describe it and make recommendations to your clients? I don't mean CYA or anything like that, but how do you find ways to be fair to the buyer, the seller, and event the gestalt of the older house? The things have been standing for decades, and in the absence of any egregious flub obviously in need of repair, is it really appropriate to recommend wholesale reconstruction? Clearly I don't think so. Am I wrong?

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Hmmm, it's a tough call.

Old houses with 2x4 rafters had real 2x4 rafters, clear or nearly clear of knots, cut out of trees that may have been alive when Columbus came.

That's significantly better than a 1-7/16 x 3-3/8 knotted stick with wane on two corners. The old roofs were typically steeper pitches and shorter horizontal spans. If the roof wasn't sagging and things were straight and true after 100 years then the engineer should reconsider his/ her analysis.

Older structures did lack (do) lack engineering and they did really dumb stuff like cutting tenons on floor joists to fit mortises in the beams. The fact is the materials saved them from the mistakes. Old growth locust will certainly last as well as almost any treated lumber. I've seen fence posts that are 50 years old and still firm.

Anyway, do what you do. Report what you know. There will always be someone that'll love to look smart by trying to make you look not as smart.

My experience is electricians and plumbers love to try and make me look like an idiot. I now prepare my clients for this possibility.

The big picture of the whole old house thing for me is to report exactly what they are, tell the client that houses are dynamic and change. The client needs to understand that they mustlove the house the way it is now as well as the dream they have of how it will be. I love old houses, admire the men that built them and have a reverence for the skill and effort they lent to the home but I pull no punches when reporting.

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I'm sure others from around here will agree - there are plenty of houses that fit your rafter description that are doing just fine. When you look at the structure of a home, you analyze both the manner in which it was built, and the degree to which it has performed. About a month ago, I did a 1904 house, original cedar shingles plus 3 layers of ashpalt shingles, 2x4 rafters, 24" on center. Not a steep pitch. Not a bit of sag, no cracks in the rafters, no bounce. It always brings a smile to my face, literally, kneeling in an attic like that and looking around.

I report on the methods of construction. No recommendations necessary. I'd love to hear from others on this.

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"the roof was structurally sound."

In my state you would need to be a PE to make this statement.

While not considered acceptable by modern standards, my experience and knowledge of other like homes in the area leads me to believe you can expect the framing to continue to perform as intended.

Recommending a PE offer suggestions on how to improve the framing is also prudent.

IMNTBHO

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A few phrases I use.....

That's the way they built them. It's different now. If analyzed by current standards, it's severely undersized. Expect any contractor or engineer to tell you it should be rebuilt; that's their job. Whether or not it really needs rebuilding is a complex analysis, w/several considerations (which I list....)

Understand, every engineer that looks at this is going to tell you it's a disaster; while they may be able to support their statements w/calculations, there's always the proof of eating the pudding. The house has been in place for >100 years, and there's no (sag, defect, whatever). This tends to support the idea that maybe the structure is OK after all.

Since these things are often in the eye of the beholder, you should have an architect or PE look @ it and get another opinion; call me when you have it to discuss, etc.....

Also, the "vertical fissures" are probably checking, a normal function of wood when drying out.

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John,

I had to deal with stuff like that a handful of times in the early years. I always requested a meeting with the engineer and the client. I always enjoyed it. I felt that the clients came away with a better understanding, and appreciation for, the early building materials and traditional construction techniques and saw that there’s no sense in trying to apply today’s rules to the old (proven) methods. BTW, this only occurred with clients that did not attend the inspection and had no experience with old homes.

I know and respect several engineers. Some of their responsibilities and knowledge are beyond my comprehension. Most understand that what I do is completely outside of their education and field of experience and there are no black and white reference sources to make the right calls. There seems to be a few that don’t get it. There’s some that are livid that HIs are evaluating and giving opinions about structures of any age .

My job requires judgements based on research and extensive field experience. You can’t measure the span and dimensions of a 100 year old rafter, look at a chart and claim it to be undersized and unsafe.

- Did he even identify the species?

- Does he know the grade of the lumber? Around here, most lumber that age would be graded as “select structuralâ€

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Wood is not a perfect material and flawed wood does make it thru inspections to the lumber yard. I have seen properly sized and graded lumber not performing as expected.

If a client asked me "Is it structurally sound?" I would be sure to reinterate that my opinion is not based on an engineering analysis yada yada yada and if they want or need to know that the house is structurally sound by engineering measures then they would need to consult with the appropriate engineer.

By the way I have not been very impressed with some of the engineers I have met so far that clients and realtors get to look at stuff.

You got to point them in the right direction. Very few seem to know how to inspect.

So how do others handle the same kind of situations? I mean, as you look at the house and describe it and make recommendations to your clients? I don't mean CYA or anything like that, but how do you find ways to be fair to the buyer, the seller, and event the gestalt of the older house? The things have been standing for decades, and in the absence of any egregious flub obviously in need of repair, is it really appropriate to recommend wholesale reconstruction?

I felt the same way so I took a course in engineering called "Engineering for inspectors" and then I spent a lot of time considering the structures that I typically see along with their sags and slopes until I developed a pretty good sense of which ones were of consequence and which ones were not.

Chris, Oregon

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Thanks for the responses, everyone. It's gratifying to hear that I'm not completely off base on this one. I think I'll continue using the pragmatic approach when evaluating older houses and consider the Inspector v. Engineer battles as yet another aspect of the job.

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Originally posted by inspecthistoric

More recently, I've been called upon a few times to contest experts' claims that some historic structures need complete ground-up reconstruction to meet today's standards, because they were built wrong.

That's what I hear. "It was built wrong".

When I respond w/ "well, what would building it right mean back then?" , there's usually a smile, and an acknowledgement that stuff is what it is.

Non-aligned bearing walls, undersized members, and all manner of "wrong" building methods were used all the time. The common result is sagging somewhere or another.

Of all the "wrong" stuff I see in old buildings, honestly, sagging has the least harmful effects of anything.

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Hi,

It doesn't sound, to me anyway, like that engineer is very familiar with the area he's working in. Where I grew up, it wasn't unusual to get 40 - 50 inches of snow per winter. Rafter size and spacing there is substantially larger and closer than I see here in the Puget Sound region where we only get the occasional snowstorm.

About 50% of the inspections I do are on older homes. Bill, for this purpose, I'm referring to stuff that's older than 40 years and hasn't got engineered trusses in the roof system. About 98% of those have 2 by 4 rafters and ceiling joists and 99.9% have rafters that are 2ft. on center. Probably 50% of these are craftsman era bungalows with 4:12 roofs that have no crib or pony walls supporting their rafters at mid span. If we're lucky, they have 1 by 6 rafter (collar) ties nailed in place (in the wrong place near the ridge) and a 1 by 6 or 1 by 8 ridge board, but a lot of the time they're just mitered and butted together at the ridge. Most are sagging under the combined weight of the original cedar shingle roof and additional layers of comp - sometimes 2 or 3, but I remember one 1910 house with 6 layers of comp.

I have a spool of carpenter's line in my bag. I used to string it from eaves to ridge, in order to demonstrate to the clients how much the rafters have sagged over the past 50 - 100 years. No more. What's the point? It'd be like telling them that it rains in Seattle.

Yeah, after the occasional heavy snow we'll have a few roofs with one or two split rafters, but generally they hold up well, and you'd be surprised at how springy they can be when a chubbette like myself walks across them.

If an engineer started following home inspectors around Seattle and began condemning the old housing stock as being underbuilt, he'd be a laughing stock, 'cuz everyone knows that it's underbuilt.

Oh, by the way, yesterday's 1926 bungalow was done for a client who is a structural engineer. Wanna guess what size and spacing the rafters were?

ONE TEAM - ONE FIGHT!!!

Mike

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Of all the "wrong" stuff I see in old buildings, honestly, sagging has the least harmful effects of anything

Well thats just it. In cases where I am confortable that the structural deformities that I am seeing don't of them selves have really any structual consequence, how far should we go in reporting on them?

The average first time home buyer assumes all houses are equal and trying to explain how an old home is different from a new one is a converation that doesn't usually go well.

If you note a sag the client invaribly wants to know if it should be corrected. We know that the sag is consistent with its type of construction and that the loads it has so far seen have been adequately resisted but then we also know that if we perform an engineering analysis with loads that we have to design to today that that portion of the structure is going to come up short.

The client wants a yes or no answer. How do you give him or her one?

Chris, Oregon

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Hi,

You tell them that for many things in a home there is no single yes or no answer, that houses aren't mathematical equations with only one correct answer, and that not all perform the same way.

That's when you point out that he/she has hired you for your experience, that you'll do your best to give them as thorough an inspection, and provide them with as accurate report as you can, but there are some things where they're just going to have to trust your judgment, because there won't be a playbook for those things.

ONE TEAM - ONE FIGHT!!!

Mike

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