The home inspector does not just have to move through a home with purpose and experience but has to manage the varied expectations of all those present in the transaction. One of the most difficult aspects of the process is dealing with the expectation of life expectancy.
Whether the home inspection is being performed in a State with regulation or the Standard of Practice is established by a trade organization, no standard talks about condemning a system or component because of age. If something is functioning as intended it is deemed to be satisfactory. As true as this statement is, the client still needs to understand their component or system is aged and may fail at any point. This is the fine line and dance every home inspector has performed during every home inspection.
This article will look at all of the major systems and components and discuss the life expectancies of those items with the goals as establishing a standard for all inspectors to follow.
Appliances are not just in the kitchen and laundry but located throughout the home. Most standards of practices exclude the direct inspection of appliances as most define them as personal items. As an inspector we may not know if the appliance is staying with the home as part of the purchase or being moved with the current homeowner.
There is no better opportunity to set the stage and expectations of the client than when discussing appliances. If you are going to be the inspector who operates all of the appliances through full cycles then explain what you are doing to the client. If you are the inspector who just performs a visual review of the appliance then explain that as well.
A simple method of inspection and expectational conversation between the client and the home inspector is…”the hots will get hot and the colds will get cold and what is wet does not leak on the floor…” The nice expectation of this is that it informs the client that you will operate the appliances but you are not going to make sure the oven is properly calibrated to an exact temperature and you are not going to place dirty clothes in the wash machine or dishes in the dishwasher.
Before there are any conversations about operation and inspection one has to understand the new design and product construction process will not provide the same life expectancies and they did twenty years ago. Products are now designed for planned obsolescence and frequent replacement. You are likely not going to find a twenty year old avocado or harvest gold appliance in a kitchen and if you do you should inform the client about the expectation of future replacement.
Dishwasher- The modern dishwasher is designed for a 9 year life expectancy. These appliances have designed with electronic mother boards which fail, plastic connections and tubing to clog and motors which are not as strong and reliable those used a decade ago. If an appliance is observed to be around the nine year mark it should be listed on the report as aged. The operational testing of the unit should include observing the interior to see if there are missing components. Then testing the operation can include turning the unit on and running it through a “quick wash” cycle. If there is not a “quick wash” cycle than a normal cycle with the opportunity to cancel partially through the operation. Always make sure the unit can be safely operated prior to turning it on.
Oven / Range- The modern range is designed for a 12 – 15 year life expectancy. These appliances have designed with to be safe and reliable but the systems and components begin to fail and become problematic anytime after ten years. If an appliance is observed to be around the ten year mark it should be listed on the report as aged. The operational testing should include the igniting or operation of all of the burners, the operation and igniting of the all of the ovens. If the unit is electric most inspectors will operate the entire system at once so that if there is a failed electric element the breaker or overcorrect device might trip and indicate the failure.
Refrigerator- The modern refrigerator may live well past its twentieth birthday but around fifteen years the unit will no longer be efficient or operate as well as it did when it was newer. This is why the life expectancy of the units is published to be 13 – 15 years. One of the biggest challenges and seldom observed issues is the lack of cleaning and maintenance. The rear of the units is seldom cleaned and the dust and debris will build up and cause the unit to not operate as well as it should. This is why this appliance should be called aged at ten years. The refrigerator examination should include the review of the both the freezer and the cold box as well as observations of the door gaskets and the lights. If there is an ice maker or water chiller present on the unit the inspector should verify a water source as well as the operation of those features.
Disposals- The disposal is not only difficult to age but has so many extenuating circumstances to the operation determining the life expectancy is very difficult. This includes the amount of use the appliance sees, the water quality and the products placed in the unit. Disposals just fail! They can rust through the sides and spontaneously leak. This is why the published life is around 12 years. The best way to verify the operation of the disposal is through the direct initiation of the electric switch. Water should be operating during this testing. The electric under the unit should also be inspected. This electric is often incorrect or loose.
Laundry- The laundry might be the most misunderstood and seldom operated room in the home yet, it is the room and the source of appliances home owners use just as often as the rest of the home.
Wash Machine – There are front loading and top loading wash machines. There are wash machines that stand alone and units which both clean and dry in the same appliance. The inspector is not expected to be the expert and each brand or style but they should be able to observe some very basic operational features.
First, if the unit located on any level of the home which is not the basement or the ground level the unit has to be located in an emergency drip pan. This pan should be plumbed to a drain and free of any cracking or damage. Regardless of whether there is a pan or not a second floor comment should be made on the report. Next, the water supply lines should be observed. Ideally, these water lines should be braided stainless steel but if they are rubber or vinyl they should be free of marks, kinks or deformities. If the unit is a front loading type there is a gasket to keep the water and clothes contained. This gasket should be free of issue and without any mold or other issues. Sometimes all an inspector has to do is smell the gasket to discover the issue.
When approaching the appliance the inspector has to look inside prior to operational testing. Often, these appliances are found to have clothes on the inside of them. Do not operate the unit if there are clothes resting on the inside.
The statistical life expectancy of the wash machine is 10 years.
Clothes Dryer – The clothes dryers are found in both gas and electric. Regardless of the heating medium the life expectancy is 13 years. When observing the dryer the inspector needs to identify the ultimate discharge point of the exhaust. This unit has too exhaust to the exterior of the home and not into the living space, attic, basement or crawl space. The only exception might be the smaller apartment sized units which exhaust through a designed lint trap system.
When looking at the exhaust pipe it must be the proper materials. This should ideally be smooth metal and not corrugated. It should never be fastened together with screws and only connected with tape and slip connections. If there is a corrugated pipe it must be listed materials not foil or plastic materials.
The length of the pipe must exit the home within 25 feet. If there are any elbows or bends in the pipe the length will be decreased by 4 feet for every elbow. Elbows, bends and screws will all contribute to lint obstructions and potentials of fires.
If the unit is gas the pipe needs to be properly supported and the appropriate materials. Do not operate the unit if there are clothes on the interior.
The Major Appliances
Water Heater- There are two basic domestic water heater concepts. These are the tanked and the tankless. The tanked unit unit has the ability to deteriorate and leak causing water damage and failures. The tankless unit does not have hold tank but the same opportunity for failure. The tanked gas and electric water heaters have a life cycle of around 12 years. This depends partially on the quality of the water as well as a great deal of luck. The tankless unit statistically lasts over 20 years. These are newer to the market and have not shown the historically data as the tanked units.
If a tanked unit is located on any level of a home which is not the first or the basement a drained drip pan should be placed under the unit.
Forced Air Furnace – There are now two different types of forced air furnaces. The high efficiency and the medium efficiency. The difference is typically the use of the recuperative heat exchanger and the method of flue pipe and discharge. These are often called condensing furnaces. The result in this design as well as the types of metals used creates the life expectancy of 15 years.
Warm Water and Steam Boiler – These are some of the oldest styled heating appliances and have not appreciably changed through the years. This steady design provides a design life expectancy of at least 20 years. There could be components which may fail or require maintenance but the boiler component should last several years.
Water Distribution – Galvanized water pipes were designed for only about 45 years of life in a home. These pipes not only leak but can become constricted and the reduction of water flow can be very disappointing to the consumers.
Copper, CPVC and Pex when properly supported and connected can have a much longer life expectancy.
DWV – The drain waste and vent pipes can be PVC, Cast Iron, Galvanized and or lead. These are all designed to be reliable and long lasting. Most of these materials are designed to last in a home as much as 100 years.