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A Day of Two Crawlspace Extremes

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According to the realtor on the transaction, this morning's job was the cheapest house listed in the Seattle multiple.

It showed, I saw the rot at the base of the exterior walls before I even walked onto the property. I stepped up onto the deck at the back and right there, next to the back entry, was a hole gnawed through the wall and sole plate that couldn't have been done by anything less than a rat. I poked my head in the door and there was black mold on the ceilings and the stench of cat urine.

I made one pass around the exterior, during which I found carpenter ants trailing into the siding at one location, moisture ants at another and found the foundation skirt (It's a 1926 post on pier with a wood skirt around the perimeter) riddled with rot, termite galleries and frass (excrement) from both Pacific dampwood termites and subterranean termites. At one point, I reached through a gap in the skirt, grabbed a support post and broke off a wet chunk in my hand and wrung the water out of it.

"Tell you what," I said to the client, "I'm going to make one pass through the interior with a moisture meter and then crawl through the crawlspace to see what's what down there. Let's see what I come up with and you stop me if you think you won't want me to finish."

I found 22%+ moisture in the walls around most of the northern half of the east side, the north wall and part of the west wall. Lots of dank odor and clear signs that the place had been neglected for decades. As if that wasn't bad enough, it turned out that this 600sf gem started out as a 300sf 'cabin' built on post and piers. The "piers" were square blocks of concrete sitting directly on the ground. The "posts' were quartered logs with the bark stripped off and the center support girder was a Douglas fir log about 8 inches in diameter with the bark still on. On top of that, a floor platform of DF 2 by 8's on 36-inch centers sheathed with DF T & G.

The DF girder and floor framing was the best thing about it. The skirt was half buried in dirt, as were the bottoms of more than half of the posts, and termites and annobiids are having a field day with everything except the DF. There were two subsequent additions - each worse than the first platform - until the foundation under the last was concrete blocks supporting 2 by 4 posts with several 2 by 4 cutoffs piled atop the posts as shims. The whole think looked like the vibration from a 16-wheeler going by was going to dislodge it any minute.

Critter excrement everywhere - everything from rats, to opossum and raccoons and what could have been dog or coyote and a whole lot of cat crap. Water pipes dripping like an irrigation system and wiring going willy-nilly every which way. I probed a couple of those posts and, for the first time in about 10 years, said a little prayer, "Oh please don't f****ng collapse on my raggedy ass while I'm down here."

Crawled back out to daylight. "How was it," the client asked. "Have you got any running shoes," I asked. "Yeah, why?" "Cuz you'd better run from this one as fast as you can," I said. "You can't even begin to think about doing anything with this house until you put it up on cribbing, demolish everything below floor level and put a new foundation, mudsill and rims under there, and that's only going to scratch the surface of this house. Do you want me to keep going?" "Hell no!" he said. I collected a check and left.

On the way home, I stopped by a former client's house. His crawl had been a nightmare of unused galvanized pipe hanging down, rat-ruined insulation, trashed vapor barrier and all manner of other crap about two months ago. I'd recommended he clean out the crawlspace, seal it against rats and then do a good job putting down a new barrier. I'd even sent him a copy of one of Jeff Tooley's articles about sealing crawls from JLC - just to give him an idea of how a properly done crawl should look - but frankly hadn't expected that he'd ever do anything about it. Most don't.

Well, about three weeks ago, I got a call from the proprietor of a pest control company. He'd been approached by the client to do the work in that crawl. He'd read my report and had been intrigued by the Jeff Tooley articles and was thinking of bidding on the job. I'd explained it to him and he'd hung up. About two weeks later, I got another call from him. He thanked me for explaining the process to him and said that he was going ahead with the job. If it worked out, he informed me, he intended to make it a side line of his pest control business.

The other day, I got a call from the client. He'd hired the guy to clean out that crawl and put down a new barrier - would I mind stopping by to take a look at it before he cut the check? "Sure," I said, "Why not?" Well, it was a thing of beauty. I could look completely through it from one end to the other and see nothing but a nice flat barrier that resembled a black swimming pool liner, with my field of view broken up only by a few insulation wrapped heating ducts.

He'd gone right up the walls with the barrier and had adhered it in place with latex mastic. He's also sealed the barrier to the base of every pier and at all overlaps. All of the nasty insulation had been removed, new insulation had been put in and he'd wrapped all of the pipes with insulation and had installed runners for the few cables that criss-crossed the space here and there. He'd put all new mesh on every vent, had installed galvanized vent wells to keep yard debris from blocking the vents and had closed any hole bigger than a dime - anywhere - with galvanized mesh, so critters couldn't get in. The hatch fit like a glove.

In contrast to the 20 - 25 minutes it had taken me to struggle through that mess two months ago, this time it took me about 3 minutes. I just stretched out and rolled like a log to wherever I wanted to stop, looked around with my light and continued on. It was clean. So clean that the only dirt in there was probably what I dragged in on the soles of my shoes, and, in addition to the mastic, he'd used sod stakes to secure the barrier in place, so it didn't try to follow me around like they so often do, getting hung up on everything.

I came out of there smiling. Man! If we could just get the danged builders to do that with all of them, this gig would be so much easier than it is.

I told him he ought to charge admission for other homeowners to come and look at that, in order to get an idea of how things can look under a house when they're done correctly.

It was kind of cool seeing one my past clients actually seriously follow up on a recommendation for a change, instead of nodding like a bobble-head doll, saying they understood and then not doing anything. I'm feeling kind of proud of that guy.



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This guy charged them $3500 to clean out a couple of truckloads of debris, cut out all of the old galvanized pipe that was left in place, reinsulate the underside of the floors, insulate all the ducting and plumbing, seal all access points and get rid of all nesting rodents, install vent wells and new mesh on all vents and then install the barrier. I understand the barrier was only about $1300 of that.

Compared to the cost of fixing rot and insect issues found in some of these holes, that's not that bad. Jeff Tooley has started a cottage industry and even franchised the process. I have no idea what he gets to do this back in N.C.

OT - OF!!!


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Believe me, Steven, there isn't a lot that can be done for that morning house. It's priced at about what a lot goes for in the city. He wanted to gut it, rebuild it and turn it for a profit. If I were him, I'd bulldoze it, put in a foundation, bring in a modular shell with the plumbing and electric roughed in, and then I'd finish the interior myself and then sell the sucker. There'd probably be less profit but a whole lot less potential liability.

OT - OF!!!


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