Thursday, October 31, 2013

Squirming White Nasties

The other day was inspecting a place in our wet coastal environment. In the tight crawl space wondering what fun animal I'd encounter and have to exercise my Rodent Kung Fu (RKF) skills. (Which means assessing the threat and carrying on with huge-eyeball-watchfulness or else just getting out as fast as possible! For Call-of-the-Wildman I am not!) The understructure was a mixture of old construction with "Uncle Jed" additions and bolsterings over the years. Rot new and old. Mildew galore. Weird supports and blockings and jackings with whatever material was at hand. A lot of wood-to-ground contact, which is like telling carpenter ants and termites to come in and see what's in the fridge. 
Anyway, saw a pile of sawdust looking stuff with pellets outside this one beam -- classic termite excrement the books tell us. So I hammered on the beam for a full 20-30 seconds. Finally it just collapsed into this squirming mass of squiggling white termite worker bodies. Kind of cool to see as long as they don't fall into my shirt pocket. 

Like the Matrix movie, the apparent was not the reality. A beam that looked like a beam on the outside but that was corrupt on the inside and would be worthless to hold, support anything. Because alien invaders had gotten in and ruined it. This beam only pretended to be a beam. 

An ancient writing says the same thing about humans who have a veneer of goodness and religiousity and piety on the outside but are hard and mean on the interior. The look is one way and the inner character is another. 

It's funny how we humans try to conceal or present ourselves in certain ways. Sometimes we do something wrong and hide it. Or do something good and put it on our sleeves for everybody to see and pat us on our keen little backs. Or put on makeup in whatever form to enhance the look.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The "Conflict of Interest" Tightrope that Home Inspectors Walk

When approaching real estate companies to consider including my business card among their collection of home inspectors, one local realtor emphatically counseled: [As a home inspector who expects to be successful], “you CANNOT be a ‘deal killer’!”

A "deal killer" is an inspector who finds faults in a property to the extent that the purchaser backs away from buying a property.

Real Estate purchasers almost always have a Real Estate agent. These agents spend significant amounts of time striving to match the purchaser with an available and appropriate property. Realtors have a significant time and financial stake in their clients finding a suitable property. No sale; no pay.

Some clients purchasing a property want to know in greater depth the condition of their considered property. Home inspectors are mostly hired by people seeking to purchase homes. Like anybody buying something, potential purchasers want to know what is up with the property so they do not get swindled into paying lots of money for something of bad quality.

Enter the process of how clients find home inspectors. Most inspectors are found and used by clients by the direct or indirect recommendation of a realtor.

Some realtors will not recommend a single home inspector; they will encourage their clients to choose from a range of home inspectors. The burden is on the clients to call inspectors, try to sift the good from the bad from the ugly. Factors that usually come to the fore are cost, availability, integrity, competence, the ability to see what is going on with a property and to tell the truth even if it hurts. Each client prioritizes these and other factors. This process is at best time consuming and somewhat like playing Russian Roulette with ubiquitous claims of competence and/or experience. At worst the process (like what happened to us personally) lands the property purchaser with an incompetent inspector who fails to find significant issues that end up costing considerable money to repair.

Other realtors often suggest a single inspector that s/he has worked with in the past and who is appreciated for whatever reason. These inspectors can be good or not. But this latter process puts inspectors in an inclined position of advantage or disadvantage depending on whether or not they are the recommended.

One local well-established inspector/inspection company has (after inspections but before the report was written) told at least two realtors that he will “write the report any way that the realtor needs it to read.” The implication is that the report will be worded in such a way so as to facilitate the sale. [Writing is truly a malleable craft!] Some realtors may appreciate this type of inspection work and reporting because it brings them the sale and more money. Others will not because they want their clients to know and understand the objective condition and implications of issues that exist in any given property. They want their clients to walk into a property with their eyes wide open.

Trying to get established as a home inspector has its interesting tensions. . . On the one hand, from the pathos of the realtor who brought the inspector his or her business, the inspector does not want to "kill the deal." On the other, from the perspective of the client [who happens to be paying the inspector's fee!], the inspector wants to see and speak the plain truth without bias or over-dramatization. 

The solution: "just the facts ma'am!" Seek to see the property as it exists and report on that condition. And if this brings business or not, then come what may! 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Balusters Then and Now

An ancient writing (~8th century B.C.E. in a 3-2nd  century B.C.E. translation) says that a leader, “fell through his lattice of the second storey and became ill.” Another version of this passage says he fell through his baluster and became ill.

What on earth is a baluster? This is a word for the vertical pole(s) underneath the hand railings (=balustrade) that block stairs or balconies from persons falling through.

Today there are very specific rules for how big these poles must be and how much spacing there must be between them. Most codes say that the distance between balusters must be 4” on a horizontal surface, slightly more for stair steps.

I remember one time doing an inspection for a HUD low income recipient. She had a front porch that was four to five feet off the ground with a horizontal railing but no protective balusters. She also had two children. This ancient writing came to my mind. While the person anciently who fell through his lattice or railing assembly was probably much higher than 4-5 feet, the principle still stood that balusters can save health if not life. (The ancient person who fell through eventually died from his injuries, the narrative records.) When told that her landlord must install balusters for her family’s health and safety, in fairly common fashion this mother became defiant and then enraged. How dare I come into her home (though with rent paid for with government tax dollars) and expect there to be standards of safety that threaten to cut off her funding if not remediated? Ugh. (Which brings up another para-related issue not to be discussed: fraud among HUD housing recipients. . .)

The components that make up your house have a long history. To me, running into an ancient writing dealing with something so trivial (!) as weak balusters and then dealing with such things in real life in the present is fascinating. History comes alive in such moments. Inspecting homes is fulfilling when seeing something that has a "storied" history in architecture and construction through the ages.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Domus v. Tenement

The vast majority of urban residents in ancient Rome and Roman cities dwelled in insulae, or tenements. (On this word, think “insulation” or that which is separated or that which separates. The old Roman word insula also meant island or isle – something separated from the main land. [E.g., English peninsula.]) Only the wealthy dwelled in separate dwellings sort of similar to what is known today. The word domus, from which we get the English words domicile, domestic, etc., was the dwelling of the wealthy elite. By the imperial period of Roman history (post 31 BC), multi-storey (4-5 levels) tenement blocks were the norm in Rome and other big cities. Some were low quality; some not. Many had stores and storefronts on the first level; apartments existed in upper levels – similar to many buildings in cities and towns throughout North America today.

There were little to no glass windows. Window apertures were closed by shutters. Heat and light were continual problem in colder months; people shut themselves in and stayed either in the dark or within the small circles of light afforded by oil lamps. “People [in the cities] wore overcoats indoors and went to bed fully clothed. . . But inside city homes braziers burned. Incapable of heating whole rooms, they at least offered comforting warmth to anyone who drew near.” [P. Veyne in Ariès, A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium]. Latrines were communal; rooms were largely empty of furnishings, crude beds were used for sleeping and eating; furniture resembled our lawn furniture of today more than furniture inside modern homes.

A minor slave owner in ancient Paestum [Mod. Pesto, SE of Naples It.] lived in about a 1,000 ft2 domus. There were three rooms, with a wide open interior patio taking most of the space. A visitor would have knocked on the front door by kicking the base of the door, which was the custom, and upon entry, known by the large patio that the owner was not a commoner. In the very center of the structure was a tiny sanctum sanctorum [think Judaism – a holy place in the midst of the holy places, only here meaning more the center of the structure] where the owner would have sat in his special seat. (Perhaps on a precursor of the Lazy Boy seat!)

All condensed from, Hornblower, et. al., The Oxford Classical Dictionary 3rd. ed.; Andrews, The Latin English Lexicon; Ariès, et. al., A History of Private Life Vol 1; Adkins et. al., Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Domuspect: The Name

On Domuspect

* Sought a name that was not otherwise used. 

* Had to learn to read Latin back in the schoolyard days. 

* Love history. 

* Love "etymological" history: the use of words historically and how uses have evolved to the present. 

Hence. . .

Domus, old Latin for home, house

Specto, old Latin for to search, examine

domuspect (a conflation of these two words) was not used anciently; it is my way of bringing two words together into one with a meaning unique to inspecting structures. 

More later on different forms of homes / houses / housing --in some parts of the ancient world.