Homework with Mitch Kuffa: QUESTION & ANSWER

By Mitch Kuffa

Its’ time for some questions and answers.

QUESTION: We have been living in our 1 story ranch home for years. Recently, we have noticed a musty smell but can’t pinpoint the source. Our house sits on a concrete slab so it can’t be coming from a wet basement.

There are no stains at any of the ceilings so it can’t be a roof leak. What do you think?

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ANSWER: The keyword here is “slab”. Concrete slab floors are typically LOW in reference to the ground level outside. The reason for this condition is that it is difficult and costly to elevate a concrete floor.

So what does this all mean? It means that the top of your floor in the house is closer to the level of the ground outside than if you had a crawl space or full basement. Therefore, it is easier for the outside water to infiltrate the bottoms of the wood wall framing (which is sitting on top of your slab floor), under the floor itself, and in some cases into any ductwork that may be present if you have a gas forced heat system with floor registers.

First, walk around the outside perimeter of your house and see if any flowerbeds have been raised higher than the inside floor level.

Next, take some electrical cover plates off at the outside walls to determine if there are any stains visible or odors coming from within the wall itself. Then walk the interior perimeter of the outside walls with a flashlight and carefully look where the bottom of the outside walls meet the floor. Be sure to look inside any closets that come in contact with the outside walls. Are there any stains on the base molding, floor coverings, or wall surfaces? Finally, turn on your furnace, pull some of the registers off and see if you are getting full and consistent airflow through the ductwork. Any irregular airflow may indicate damage to the ductwork under the floor and possibly blockage. Put your face near the register and determine if any of those musty odors are present. Then, carefully put your hand into the airflow register to determine if the area is wet, soft, or moist.

All of these issues can be dealt with once you determine the source of the problem.

QUESTION: I have been shopping for a house and when I find one that interests me I kind of do my own preliminary quickie inspection. I recently found a house that had the attic area completely spray painted! Why would anyone paint an attic?

ANSWER: Most typically, attics are painted for two reasons.

First of all, there may have been a past fire in the house. Fire repair personnel commonly spray these areas with a “smoke kill” product to alleviate the burnt smell. If there was a fire significant enough to dictate this process then there is a possibility that the repair persons pulled a building permit from the municipality. Call the local building department and see if there is any “history” on file about this possibility.

The second reason attics are painted is to alleviate a past and serious mold/mildew type build-up (possibly from a leaking roof, lack of ventilation, or similar). While inside the attic look to see the condition of the roof sheathing. Is it irregular or distorted? Look at the very lowest part of the roof structure in the attic, closest to the roof overhangs. These are typically affected the quickest and most severely by moisture, mold, etc… Is there any black or water-type stains noticed on any of the roof framings? Look UNDER any insulation present to determine if there was any past dampness or mold or mildew build-up. If this condition was present, I would want to get an evaluation as it relates to the adequacy of the past repair process. Talk to the county health department and/or an approved and reputable mold abatement contractor.

QUESTION: My house sits on a side of a hill, is a 2 story colonial, and has a “walk-out” basement. We have lived here for about 6 years. I don’t know if it is my imagination, but I think the house might be moving. What should I look for?

ANSWER: Remember, when looking for movement, rigid construction materials tell the most tales (brick/concrete/ceramic/plaster/etc.).

All rigid construction materials have the tendency and ability to crack, but these should not be excessive or severe.
Start by looking around the area of the house closest to the bottom of the hill. Any movement would most commonly start here.
If there is brick on the outside walk around and look for cracks. Look where the brick meets other areas (siding/doors/windows, etc.). There should be no abnormal separation

Check the foundation’s interior perimeter. Cracks are common, but they should not be leaking, diagonal or 2 directional in movement. Run your hand over any crack to see if you can determine both separation and back and forth movement.
Are any of the interior concrete floors (basement/garage/porch slabs/etc.) showing excessive or wider than average cracks?

Look over large wall penetrations such as door walls, wide windows, double entrance doors, etc… These are weak points in the framing and are typically susceptible to stress. Open and close doors to see if the rectangular door shape rubs on the door frame or that the doors open/close by themselves

Check ceramic tile. Are there any cracked marble door thresholds or any separation or cracking at corners, where the tile meets the vanity or bathtub, or any ceramic base pulling away from the wall.

Finally, get a strong flashlight, turn it on and place it parallel to a wall so as to “shadow” the surface. This process will tell you if there are any irregularities or if past repairs have been done to camouflage the condition.

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