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Troubled Houses - The Home Owner's Resourcesm - Structure

We see many interesting adverse conditions during our inspections, partly because of the unlimited number of ways people can mess up a house, but also because we do a thorough inspection to reveal these adverse conditions. We hope these stories and illustrations help home owners avoid these costly conditions by learning about causes, preventions, and remedies. A home purchase can create opportunities for the new owner to improve the home, possibly increasing its value, durability, and usefulness.

NOTICE TO BUYERS & SELLERS: This site does NOT encourage or discourage the purchase of any individual house, or style, age, location, or condition of house.  Conditions shown and/or described in the following articles may have been remedied at the house where these conditions were found.  These conditions typically can be remedied by qualified contractors. The presence of these conditions in any house is comparable to any other real estate consideration such as price, size, or location.  Consult a qualified home inspector before purchasing any house, and consult a qualified real estate agent for more information on how to handle a real estate transaction where adverse conditions are reported in a home inspection.   This site does not describe any house by address or knowingly show a readily identifiable exterior image.  Further, no home actively listed for sale  will be described on these pages at the time the article is posted.

THANK YOU for visiting   Learn more about our services, which now include IR Thermography, radon testing, and carbon monoxide tests. All photos copyright Roger Hankey. All rights reserved. Licenses to use these copyrighted images can be arranged by contacting

"Troubled Houses - The Home Owner's Resource" is a SERVICE MARK of Hankey & Brown Inspection Service Inc.  List of topics and all articles in this resource.

TOPICS in this Structure page:            
    "Sawzall" School of Plumbing
    Watch Your Step
    Watch for incomplete repairs on lender owned properties
    The most common improper modification in attached garages
    The "open look" in stairs increases the potential for falls
    Wood column (post) decay and repair 
    Crawl space surprises! Humans & insects create structural weakness.
    Fire Separation issues in attached garages

                            "Sawzall" School of Plumbing

      Cut floor joist Troubled Houses Photo (C) Roger Hankey, ASHI Certified Inspector in Winter Park, CO

A careless plumber cut through a floor joist when installing a new toilet in this recently remodeled house.  Not only did this weaken the floor, it left a large hole in a return air duct which had been formed by enclosing the joist space with sheet metal. Any hole in the return air duct reduces the effectiveness of the heating and air conditioning.  Our report recommended correction by a qualified carpenter and heating technician.  Click here to see what our customers say about our service. 

Watch Your Step

      Open basement stairs Troubled Houses Photo (C) 2011  Roger Hankey, ASHI Certified Inspector in Winter Park, CO       Wood stair tread separating from notched stringer Minnesota Home Inspection. Troubled Houses photo (C) 2011  Roger Hankey, ASHI Certified Inspector in Winter Park, CO

The stairs shown have multiple adverse conditions including: lack of guardrails, but the most important condition is the bowing - separation of the stringers (stair frame) which is causing the treads to lose support where they bear on notches cut into the stringers.  Immediate attention was recommended to repair the stairs to reduce the potential for stair tread collapse and possible severe injury. Click here for an ASHI® Reporter article on steps and stairs by Roger Hankey.  

Watch for incomplete repairs on lender owned properties

Partially rebuilt deck on bank owned house. (C) 2011 ASHI Certified Inspectors, Winter Park, CO

At first glance this deck may seem typical, but notice that portions of the railing are new and a few of the deck boards have been replaced.  A closer look revealed many adverse conditions which warrant immediate correction to reduce the potential for deck collapse.
Ledger attachment on a partially rebuilt deck on bank owned house. (C) 2011 ASHI Certified Inspectors, Winter Park, CO
The deck ledger is fastened to the siding panels which cover foam plastic wall sheathing, therefore the deck is not attached to the building structure.  Further, there is no flashing to convey water over the ledger, so the siding is decayed from water penetration behind the ledger, so any strength provided by the siding is also lost.
 Stains on deck door trim at unflashed ledger attachment on a partially rebuilt deck on bank owned house. (C) 2011 ASHI Certified Inspectors, Winter Park, CO
The stains on the door trim of the recently replaced deck door are consistent with water entry from the unflashed ledger.  Similar conditions were found at the door to the patio, below the deck.

Shifted lower tier of a deck at notched column on a partially rebuilt deck on bank owned house. (C) 2011 ASHI Certified Inspectors, Winter Park, CO
The outer edge of the deck also was poorly constructed, decayed, shifted and damaged. Note the detail where the lower level of the deck has nearly slipped off the notched column intended to support this portion of the deck. Not shown, at the left end of this level, was extensive decay in the deck frame and outer column.  Our recommendations were for a qualified carpenter to remove the existing deck, ledger, and siding and start over with a properly designed structure. 
Click here to read another story of a partial repair and HIDDEN water damage in a bank owned home. (Scroll down to Partial Repair

The most common improper attached garage modification

 Garage attic folding stairs. Troubled Houses-The Home Owner's Resource. (C) 2011 ASHI Certified Inspectors in Winter Park, CO
The typical folding stairs installed by home owners seeking to create a storage area over a garage ceiling usually has a hatch made of a panel of 1/4" plywood.  The garage ceiling typically is 5/8" type X fire resistive gypsum wallboard (aka sheetrock) or if built after 2001, 1/2" standard gypsum wallboard.  The purpose of gypsum wallboard on the house side wall and/or ceiling of an attached garage, is to be a fire barrier between the house and garage. Obviously, cutting a large hole in the ceiling penetrates the fire barrier (unless the garage attic is separated from the house by gypsum wallboard.)

Fire rated folding stairs ARE available, but the cost more and are typically not in stock at home improvement centers.  Further, the clerks at the home improvement centers may not ask if the folding stair is being used in an ATTACHED garage. 

The alternative to installing the more expensive fire rated folding stair is to make an attic access out of the same material as the ceiling; a drywall panel supported on vertical strips of drywall, and use a portable ladder for the occasional entry to the attic.  Also, be aware that most garage roof trusses are NOT suitable for heavy storage.  Further, be aware that items stored in the garage attic are subject to both freezing and hot conditions.  Also the attic typically is not floored.  Garage attic insulation if any, and the truss webs may limit what can be done for storage platforms. 

The thing to remember before cutting a hole in the garage ceiling, is that the ceiling is intended to help contain a garage fire for a few minutes to reduce the potential for spread of a graage fire into the house.

The "open look" in stairs increases the potential for falls

 Two sets of stairs without railings. Increased potential for falls. (C) 2011  Certified ASHI inspector in Winter Park, CO  This photo dedicated to the memory of M. T. Brown

The most frequent home injury is falls.  The most frequent place for falls is on stairs.  We knew the victim of a recent fall which lead to a fatal brain injury.  (not on these stairs) This set of stairs has multiple adverse conditions which increase the potential for falls:

        No handrails (both flights)
        No guardrail at floor which meets the lower stairs
        No guardrail on the partial wall between the stairs
        No light near the base of the lower stairs

The report for this inspection recommended immediate corrections by a qualified carpenter to reduce the potential for falls.

                                     Wood column (post) decay & repair 
The structural components in most homes tend to function well for many decades with little or no maintenance.  This is equally true for older homes, but there are a few typical concerns which can develop with age and/or exposure to damp conditions.  One of the most common concerns is decay at the base of wood columns beneath the interior support beams.  Typically these 6"x6" or 8"x8" columns were set on stone or concrete footings during the early phase of construction.  The concrete floor was placed in the basement in later phases of construction.  Therefore, if the soil beneath the basement floor becomes damp the base of the wood column is trapped in a damp environment. 

After 50 years or more, the column can wick moisture up from the stone or concrete footing.  If enough moisture enters the column base, the wood will wick begins to decay.  Decayed base of an old wood column.   (C) 2012 ASHI Certified Inspectors in Winter Park, CO

Frequent dampening of the column increases the rate of decay. Sometimes the column can decay enough that it compresses and slightly lowers the beam and floor frame that rests atop the column.  Inspectors identify decayed column bases by stains, probing with sharp tools, and sometime by examining the joint between the ends of beams which bear upon the columns.  Unlevel floors and out of square doors are often indicators of decayed columns.

 V shaped gap at beam end over wood column.   (C) 2012 ASHI Certified Inspectors in Winter Park, CO
A "V" or inverted "V" shape in the joint can indicate which column has compressed and lowered the beam.  In the case shown above, the base of the column beneath the beam joint was dry and solid, but the column to the right had decayed.   The typical repair for decayed columns involves installing temporary supports while the existing column is removed, the bottom cut, and a solid concrete base is inserted in the floor so that the bottom end of the cut column will  above the floor line when it bears on the concrete base.  Qualified carpenters with experience in old homes would consider this a common repair. 

The drawing below shows a more complete repair where the footing was also replaced. (Typically not needed)  Click here for a full discussion of the repair project in a Family Handyman article from 2001.  


                      Fire Separation issues in attached garages.

The photo shown below has at least 4 conditions that increase the potential for a fire in the garage to spread to the house. Can you locate all 4?

  (C) 2013 Garage wall with 4 fire separation issues.  Photo by Roger Hankey ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 80482



The typical contents of an attached garage include: vehicles containing fuel and many flammable plastics and tires, extra motor fuel in storage cans as well as gasoline powered equipment such as lawn mowers with fuel in their tanks, paint thinner or other solvent, other stored combustibles such as firewood, plastic trash and recycling bins and their contents, and many other combustibles.


Given the large quantity of combustibles in a typical garage and the nearly certain presence of gasoline or other motor fuels, building codes typically require a fire barrier or fire separation between the house and the attached garage. For several decades prior to 2000, the generally accepted practice was to build with the goal of a one hour fire rating for the barrier between the house and garage. After 2000 the International Residential Code reduced the requirement to a 20 minute fire rating. The goal is to have any garage fire be CONTAINED within the garage until fire fighters arrive and extinguish the blaze BEFORE it spreads smoke and fire into the house. The key components of the fire separation are: the wall between the house and garage, the garage ceiling (if the house-garage wall does not extend to the roof), and the door between the house and garage. Prior to 2000 the house – garage door was required to have a self closing device or spring hinges. The post 2000 rules have dropped this requirement. (We still recommend self closers, since an open fire door won’t stop a fire.


So here are some of the conditions in the above case which increase the potential for fire spread from the garage to the house.


  1. The white plastic pipe low on the wall is the sump pump discharge. PVC and other plastic pipes will melt during a fire. A fire collar is needed to fill the wall penetration with a fire resistive material when plastic pipe penetrates a fire rated wall.

                  (C) 2013  Fire rated collar at radon vent.  Photo by Roger Hankey ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 80482



  1. The fire rated door has lost its rating because it has been cut to accommodate a plastic pet door.

  (C) 2013  Fire rated door with pet door cut into it .  Photo by Roger Hankey ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 80482


  1. The self closer at the top of the door no longer functions.

  (C) 2013  Fire rated door with failed closer.  Photo by Roger Hankey ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 80482



  1. Finally, there are large gaps in the drywall joints and a sagging joint at the wall ceiling corner left of the Mohammed Ali poster.


The goal is to create a fire resistive assembly the can help protect the house and its occupants in the event of a garage fire.

  (C) 2013  Fire separation drawing for attached garage.  Photo by Roger Hankey ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 80482

          Crawl space surprises: Humans & insects create structural weaknesses!

Inspecting the floor frame of houses built on crawl spaces is occasionally quite difficult and often presents surprises to the owners and buyers.  This lakeside home in rural Wright county was no exception and had a particularly difficult accessibility since the underfloor space was divided into several different areas each with its own access hatch.  The soil beneath the house was not covered with a plastic vapor barrier and water from the soil was condensing and dripping off the uninsulated cold water pipes running just below the floor frame.  The evaporation - condensation cycle  helped maintain the overall damp environment in the crawl space.  

 (C) 2014  Condensation dripping from cold water pipes over exposed soil in a crawl space.  Photo by Roger Hankey ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 80482

The center beams had unusual supports, concrete blocks turned on end. (The intended and strong axis for blocks is with the cores vertical, NOT horizontal.) A proper installation would have used TWO blocks stacked atop each other!

 (C) 2014  Concrete block turned on end, used as support under a beam.  Photo by Roger Hankey ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 80482

 Another structural weakness was that the wood floor joists bore directly atop the block foundation wall.  There was no wood frame sill plate atop the blocks. One consequence of the lack of sill is that the floor frame is not secured to the foundation.  This can become a significant issue in the event of extreme winds.  Also the rim spaces between the joists ends were not insulated.

 (C) 2014  Wood floor joists bear directly on concrete blocks without benefit of a sill.  Photo by Roger Hankey ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 80482

The biggest surprise was visible when I entered the shallower crawl space on the west side of the house. This crawl space was not excavated out uninformly and access was very limited, but it was clear that there was recent insect activity in the wood.  Fine tan wood powder was visible on the sides of the joists, in the spider's webs, atop the beams, and on the large drain pipes.

 (C) 2014  Wood floor beam in crawl space with Powder Post Beetle dust.  Photo by Roger Hankey ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 80482  (C) 2014  Powder Post Beetle dust atop a white plastic PVC drain pipe.  Photo by Roger Hankey ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 80482

A closer look at the dust on the wood revealed exit holes about 1/16" inch in diameter.  I'd seen this condition before and recognized this as an infestation of powder post beetles!
  (C) 2014  Powder Post Beetle dust in webs and on joists, with exit holes. Over a damp crawl space.  Photo by Roger Hankey ASHI Certified Inspector, Winter Park, CO 80482
Our report on this house recommend corrections by a qualified excavator, pest exterminator, plumber, carpenter, mason, and insulation firm. Recommended corrections were for uniform excavation beneath the house, improved crawl space access, improved beam supports, attachment of the floor frame to the foundation, extermination of the Powder Post Beetles, sleeving the exposed water pipes, installation of a vapor barrier on the soil, and insulation of the rim and foundation.  Click here for more information on Powder Post Beetles.


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