Saturday, October 2, 2010

Mountains or Mole Hills


This article is significantly edited (if you can believe it) from my May 3, 2003 Newsletter. This was one of my most popular articles.

Have you heard this? “I don’t care for that inspector; he tends to make mountains out of mole hills.” Why do you think that is said? A Home Inspector tends to view a home with an attempt toward x-ray vision determining issues which may not be readily evident. Here are Two examples of hidden damage difficult to discern from visible evidence:

Leaking Window?

A good example of this came up while inspecting, what the Realtor referred to as, “such a happy home.” A repair contractor was replacing wood flooring below a window. To the “happy home” listing agent, end of issue, mole hill resolved. I asked, what had caused the problem and where was the material he removed? He stated that water had come through the window; he had re-caulked it and disposed of the damaged wood.

Walking outside I observed no overhang on the roof and gutters hung directly to the exterior wall. Had he been on the roof? No. I observed, from the crawl space, that the floor repair was extensive. Climbing on the roof I found the mountain. A leaf guard had been installed on the gutter incorrectly sloping toward the house. Water, for an extended period, had been running behind the gutter down through the wall around the window to the crawl space below severely damaging the floor system. How much damage was hidden at the roof below the shingles and inside of the exterior wall?

Unfortunately, this was only one of numerous unhappy home issues causing the buyers mother to frown throughout the inspection, an unhappy buyer, and ultimately unhappy Realtors. With a new Realtor aboard I inspected the next, far more “Happy Home” as was clearly evidenced by the mother's beautiful smile. Now that I recall, after seven years, that first Realtor has never called again. Must be because she cares so much for her clients.

The Thing in the Closet

This had nothing to do with a home inspection. My experience with “The Thing” began with an e-mail from a Realtor, whom I had never met, stating:
Dear Chris: I am calling on you for some professional services for myself. I need to have a mold test conducted. Please contact me at: --- Look forward to hearing from you.
Maybe this Realtor was having visions of a mountain in her own home. Unfortunately, the mountain she envisioned was not the same I envisioned. I responded that I do not perform mold tests, due to their being no official protocol established. Being a Home Inspector, who just loves making mountains out of mole hills, I asked her for additional details.
Our home is 2 ½ years old. About Christmas time, we noticed a white tubular plant with some type of leaves growing in our foyer coat closet. It came up between the floor and the baseboard. I am sending you some pictures of the plant & it's location in my home. We have not bothered the plant at all. It is exactly where it has always been. The floor & lower wall have both a dusty white & black substance--didn't touch the plant. The floor is hardwood--underneath, I am not sure. The 2 closets are on each side of the front door & the whole area is "bumped out" -- see exterior picture. Closet is on an outside wall. Grade is close -- see pictures--not sure if this goes all the way down to the basement. This house is only 2 1/2 years old & we never saw this before Christmas. Could have been growing the whole 2 years up from the ground. We have called the builder & he has not yet called us back. Look forward to hearing from you.

Among the pictures she sent was this intriguing picture at the right, which definitely garnered my interest (Click on it for a larger version):
I believe most “Happy Home” Realtors, had this not been in their own home, would have jerked up the little plant, threw it in the backyard cleaned up the floor and walked away. Mole hill solved. Not me, I like mountains. Later I found out that the husband and daughter had contracted a rash which a dermatologist decided came from “The Thing.”

My e-mail response:
Dad and I have been doing a little research into your little plant. I actually have seen pictures of this type growth before, have personally seen it in forests and in old unoccupied rotting homes, but have not encountered one in an occupied home other than in damp crawl spaces. Based on the information I have so far, it appears that it is what I call a flowering fungus. What appears as flowers is actually know as fruit. It prefers to grow on damp wood in dark damp places. The dust on the floor is spores it produces in its attempt to populate your home. This type of fungus is usually found growing on rotted wood in damp areas. It is not unusual to find these in homes, but it is unusual to find one growing in an occupied area of a home without damp rotting wood. What I am concerned about with yours is not particularly the fact that it exists or how it got there, but where it is getting its needed moisture from which could be an indication of a problem, which may need to be addressed. I am interested in coming to look at it closer.

With visions of a mountain, I conducted an inspection of the subject property limited to issues related to the growth of what appeared to be a fungus in the left front foyer coat closet. (Click on photo for a larger version):

Warping and dampness was noted in the wood floor adjacent to the growth. The moisture readings of the wood flooring, in the area of the warping and dampness, peaked out a moisture meter indicating the wood flooring to be extremely wet. The homeowners were so enamored by the growth that they had not even noticed that the wood flooring was wet and warped. What is the old saying “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” It is generally accepted that this type of fungus must have moisture to survive and grow. Therefore, its very presence is indicative of a moisture problem, which needs attention. Visions of a mountain were traipsing through my head.

Without destructive inspection it was impossible to determine positively what was causing the moisture problem. Based on experience and training it was possible to conjecture what may be causing the problem, which has resulted in the wet warped wood flooring and fungus growth.

My original article goes into great detail about my findings conjectures and recommendations. I will save you suffering through the details by simply stating that I instructed her to have the wet areas ripped out and not to stop until the cause of the moisture was found and repaired in both closets, even though the other closet had no evidence of an issue.

It is very difficult to determine the exact cause of the very evident moisture problem without the use of destructive investigation, which is beyond the scope of a home inspection. This type of inspection is best to be performed by a reputable repair contractor as part of the repair process.

Showing his responsibility, but making it very clear that he didn’t think it was a big deal, the builder agreed to remove the wood flooring. It was clear that was all he intended to do and that he was going to dry out the sub flooring and replace the finished flooring. Fortunately, the homeowner observed the process, how very wet and rotten the sub flooring was, and demanded that it be removed to observe what was underneath, as I had recommended. To their surprise the flooring band below this floor and supporting the two story exterior wall was dripping wet and so rotten that it could be ripped apart and removed with bare hands (click on the picture at the right for an enlarged version). The floor in the second closet to the opposite side of the front door was removed, although there was not evidence of an issue, and the same condition was discovered below that floor. Maybe I do have x-ray vision. Immediately attitudes changed and the homeowner and builder began to treat me differently. Disdain began to change to trust and respect as the contractor ripped out, repaired the damage and installed foundation vents.

What was the cause? Below these closets was a closed un-vented masonry cavity extending from the first floor to below the basement floor probably ten feet deep (click on the picture at the right for an enlarged version). The chimney effect of this shaft was drawing the moisture out the ground below and depositing it on the wood floor system destroying it in the process. Remember, this is a 2 ½ year old home!

What about “The Thing?” Not being a fungus expert, I did an Internet search and made contact with Professor Tom Volk of the University of Wisconsin La Crosse Department of Botany. Here is his response (click on the links, you will not regret it!):
Hi Chris, Greetings from Wisconsin. Thanks for the interesting article. It is interesting to see that fungus indoors. I can give you further information on it. It appears to be a Pleurotus species, commonly known as Oyster Mushrooms.
They are a delicious edible mushroom. However they are well known for their prolific white rot of wood. There are very few health problems associated with it, although some workers in farms where these are grown become allergic to the spores after constantly being exposed to them for several months. However I don't think that could happen in this case because there would not be enough spores. Hope this helps. ---Tom
My conclusion, following contact with the expert? Wood-eating monster from outer space which causes severe incurable rash in humans. I recommend leaving the premises, burning it to the ground to stop the spread of its spoors. Remember, I must make mountains out of mole hills I am a Home Inspector. Don’t you hope I am available when this dastardly little creature attacks your new home? You would think, after doing all of this without charge, that this Realtor would be calling me constantly for her inspections? Not, I don't think that I have heard from her again in the seven years since this happened. Such is the lonely life of a Home Inspector. The better the job the less the Realtors will call.

1 comment:

  1. I'd much rather have an inspector who makes mountains out of molehills than one who doesn't do a thourough inspection! My first home was inspected very quickly and problems only began to reveal themselves to us as we lived there, but my second home was much better inspected and we were able to get the extensive electrical problems repaired before moving in. Interesting article about the moisture problem and unusual fungus.


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