One of the most prevalent issues home inspectors find are problems and modifications to the house electrical systems. Homeowners seem to find it necessary to make changes and add wiring where it does not currently exist. It amazes me that we do not hear of more electrocutions. I am going to explain how to safely inspect your own electrical systems and share what the red flags are when the home inspector comes to call.
If you are not a licensed electrician or electrical contractor, do not try to repair or replace any electrical fixtures, outlets, switches or wiring.
It still baffles me that with electrical wiring issues that more people are not injured from attempting home repair electrical jobs and alterations.
You should not do any repair work on electrical items unless you are qualified, however, you can check the operation of your electrical fixtures, outlets and switches.
From the macro point of view jot down any electrical items that you are aware of like fixtures, outlets and switches that are giving you trouble.
Let’s stay on course and check out all electrical issues starting at the front door. Does your doorbell work?
Do all of the exterior lights work?
An issue that always drove me nuts was trying to figure out what switch was for what light. There is nothing more frustrating for the home inspector than trying to figure out what the various switches in a building do. It is nearly impossible if the bulbs are burned out.
Home inspectors do not have the time to install a light bulb to make sure a light fixture is working. Bulbs that are burned out will create an automatic note in the inspection report.
In the Remedies and Solutions section below you will find this recommendation:
REPLACE ANY AND ALL BURNED OUT LIGHT BULBS
I am stating it here in advance to make sure you get the message.
How difficult is it to install a few bulbs? I guarantee you will eliminate a report note for every bulb you replace. This is one area where the homeowner has more control than they realize. It alludes to comments home inspectors make about how easy it is for a homeowner to lower the negative impact of the home inspection report if they will just take a few minutes to fix the common issues.
When a report says: “Note: The fixture did not illuminate. The bulb may be burned out,” the buyer will wonder, “Is it the bulb or is it the wiring?”
The home inspector certainly doesn’t know, so he disclaims the switch, the wiring and the fixture. Now the report has created a question in the buyer’s mind rather than a answer.
I always said my real job was turning questions about the building into facts. Facts can be managed. Questions generate more doubts.
You, the homeowner, can very easily lower the chance of your buyer running for the hills in terror by doing the easy, simple stuff.
If you really, REALLY, want to impress the home inspector, you can temporarily label any switches whose operation is not obvious. Such as switches for interior plugs, exterior lighting and accessories like pumps, ponds, attic fans and so forth.
Anything you do to help the inspector get the job done easily and quickly will influence the final report. Make them smile and make them wonder, “Does a home inspector live here?”
You will need an outlet tester for this next section. You can pick one up on the Internet or your local hardware store. A good tool is the Gardner Bender GFI-501A Ground Fault Receptacle Tester and Circuit Analyzer.
Take the outlet tester and check every outlet in the house. Don’t forget the switched outlet under the kitchen sink for the dishwasher and disposal.
If there is a water leak or spills under the sink, have them repaired or cleaned before testing the outlet.
As you test each outlet, the tester will indicate if an outlet is dead, has reverse polarity, has ground and neutral reversed, etc. Read the instructions so you know how to use the tester and take readings.
While plugged in the outlet wiggle the tester a little to see if the indicator lights blink on and off. This may indicate loose wiring or a worn receptacle.
An outlet may not be dead if turning on a switch activates it.
The tester will check to see if the G.F.C.I. (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlets are functioning properly. Pressing the test and reset buttons on the face of the outlet can also test G.F.C.I. outlets.
G.F.C.I. protected outlets rule of thumb
The following (unofficial) list is an approximation of the proper locations of G.F.C.I. receptacles or G.F.C.I. breakers that serve those locations. This is a complex issue with several variations. The list is a good basis to determine where the device is required based on the year construction permits were pulled.
1971: Receptacles within 15 feet of interior pool walls; all equipment with storable pools; pool lights (where a G.F.C.I. receptacle or breaker was one method of protection.)
1973: Outdoor receptacles
1975: Bathrooms; pool lights; fountain equipment
1978: Garages; spas; hydro massage tubs (whirlpool tubs)
1987: Kitchen countertop receptacles within 6 feet of the sink; unfinished basements
1990: Crawl spaces
1993: Wet bar counter top receptacles within 6 feet of a sink
1996: Unfinished accessory buildings accessible from grade; all receptacles serving kitchen counter tops.
It is recommended that G.F.C.I. protected outlets be installed in all of these locations regardless of the year built. Some home inspectors will make such a recommendation in their reports.
A whirlpool/spa tub in a bathroom must be plugged into a G.F.C.I. outlet and access to the outlet must be provided.
Another common finding was “open ground” receptacles in older homes where the old two slot outlets have been replaced with newer three slot “grounded outlets.” If the outlet looks like a grounded oulet, it should be grounded.
Once you have checked the outlets, check all the switches in the house and see if they work properly. Check the operation of any rheostats.
Check all ceiling fans including any built-in fans in the bathrooms and laundry room. Make note of any ceiling fan that wobbles and built-in fans that are noisy or do not operate.
Check all electric heaters including ceiling heaters and baseboard heaters for proper operation.
Check for loose, cracked or missing cover plates on the switches and outlets. Missing light fixture lenses will be noted in the home inspection report.
Note any junction boxes that do not fit properly in the wall.
Another very common problem that is always written up is exposed wiring. When a report note says: “Note: Exposed wiring was noted at…” it is an automatic concern for your buyer.
Household wiring used inside the walls is not armored. That means the outer covering was not designed to withstand an impact that could cut into the outer covering and expose the wire and electricity.
Any wiring that is visible in any area that is habitable, including garages and basements, is supposed to be installed inside a wall or within a conduit or raceway that IS designed to withstand an impact.
Garages are notorious for exposed wiring. The cabinet over the stove exhaust fan hood is an area where exposed wiring shows up over and over again.
Another common error is the use of extension cords as permanent wiring. This is often found in garages and workshops where people wanted more light and more plugs.
These cords, commonly referred to as “zip cords”, are not proper and should be removed before the home inspector arrives. This also includes the heavy orange and yellow cords.
Homemade extension cords of “Romex” house wiring material are not proper and should be removed.
You will need to record any wire splices that are not contained within a fixed junction box.
Be sure to record any deficiencies and the locations of the lighting, outlets and switches on your worksheets.
Being able to tell the electrical contractor where the problems are will save you time and money. That way he won’t have to charge you for the time it takes to look for them.
ELECTRICAL FINDINGS: REMEDIES AND SOLUTIONS
REPLACE ANY AND ALL BURNED OUT LIGHT BULBS
There. I said it again. Replace missing light fixture lens covers as well.
Lights that don’t work may only need a new bulb. If that doesn’t work it may be a wiring problem. This should be noted for your electrical contractor to evaluate and repair. An electrical contractor should also check out any outlet or switch that does not seem to be operating properly.
Junction box cover plates are inexpensive and you should be able to replace them yourself. However, be careful. When you remove a switch or outlet plate you expose HOT wires.
Remove all extension cords and zip cords being used for permanent wiring. Remove all homemade extension cords made from house wiring material. These are not proper for use and will get you more negative notes in your home inspection report.
Most people are afraid of electricity. Electrical issues will raise flags and could crush your deal. Follow the simple guidelines I have given and the number of findings in your home will be greatly reduced if not eliminated completely.