By Mitch Kuffa
Crawl space foundation areas are typically neglected, not frequented and give merit to the old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.” It is amazing what we often discover in these areas. It is not uncommon to find crawl spaces that are very wet, flooded, have deteriorated wood framing, odors, plumbing leaks, show duct work sitting down in the dirt separated, have things living within, full of debris, have strange things growing, etc., etc..
If you have a crawl space or are thinking of buying a house with one, remember that someone has to check it periodically.
Here are some of the things to look for:
- How accessible is the area? Many times the crawl space openings are so restricted that only a child could enter. Often the access doors are grown over with vegetation or are located in inconvenient areas. Most accesses are outside and often buried in snow, are funneling water into the crawl space, etc..
- The area must be vented and the vents should be operable to open/close with the seasons. These vents should have “bug screens” and be located so as to provide cross ventilation inside.
- The dirt floor should have a sheet of 6-9 mil plastic “visqueen” vapor barrier spread over the top from wall to wall. These vapor barriers are very functional to help keep the area dry, reduce odors, minimize venting requirements and discourage infestation.
- How much clearance is inside the crawl space? There should be at least 21-24” and preferably 30-36” between the bottom of the wood framing and dirt floor.
- Are there any plumbing leaks? You want to look under any bathrooms and the kitchen. Many times there are old undetected leaks that have caused damage. Look for old water stains on the bottom of the sub-floor or floor joist. Also, are there provisions to protect the plumbing water lines from freezing? The lines should be wrapped in insulation or have a heat source. Often, the interior surfaces of the outside foundation walls are covered with Styrofoam sheets of insulation to help keep the area warmer.
- Are there any electrical wires loose or hanging down (especially a concern if there is sitting water). Any electrical box should have a proper protective cover and there should be no taped up splices or exposed wire nuts. All of the electrical in the crawl should be kept up in the wood floor joist.
- What is the condition of the wood framing? Has any of it been affected by moisture? Are there any dark stains? Use a sharp instrument (screwdriver or ice pick) to see if the area is soft and/or deteriorating. This type of condition is more prevalent in very old crawl spaces or where the house sits in a shaded environment where the sun is not allowed to penetrate to dry things out. Do you see any cracked, sagging or crowned members?
- Check the condition of the foundation walls inside and out. They should show minimal cracks and be supportive. Also look at the center supports or piers which should be straight, sitting on some type of footing and mortared together (if they are masonry block).
- The area around the exterior perimeter of the crawl space should be pitching water away from the area and the dirt floor within should not be at a level below the outside grade or should have some type of interior drainage system. Water runs downhill and if there is no provision to intercept it, the water will infiltrate. If there is a sump pump, has it been installed in a professional manner and does it work? We commonly find pumps sitting in the mud which hasn’t worked for a long time or are not plugged in. Sump pumps should always discharge any water distant from the house and to an area that runs away.
- There should be no indications of insects. If there is any damage, nests, mold, fungus, etc., then a professional exterminator may be needed. Typically, a simple “smoke bomb” helps this condition so as to clear the area of pests, although you may still need professional help afterward.
- If there is a furnace in the crawl space, is it and the ductwork sitting above the dirt floor? Many times we see the chassis or sheet metal ductwork rusting. The biggest problem with the furnace in this area is that it is difficult to service and often difficult to replace. It is not uncommon to find crawl spaces that do not have access openings large enough for a new furnace to slide in (or the old one is too large to be removed).
- The area should be free of debris, stored items and hazardous materials such as; glass, nails, rotten boards, old wet insulation, etc..
Always keep in mind that the crawl space is structural to the house and must be observed regularly. The environment within the crawl space can change with the weather and problems can occur that can go undetected unless a specific attempt is made to properly check the space.
Mitchell J. Kuffa Jr. has been in the construction industry since 1967. In that time, he was worked as a construction superintendent, general superintendent and construction manager for several large developers in the state of Michigan.
He has been a licensed Michigan residential builder since 1977, was an incorporated general contractor for 11 years and has built and/or run the construction of approx. 3,500 residential houses, apartments, commercial structures and/or light industrial buildings.
In 1981 he started the first private home inspection agency in Michigan and to date has personally performed approx. 16,000 inspections for a fee.
Since 1981, Mr. Kuffa, inspects properties and acts as a construction consultant for the Michigan Department of Mental Health (group homes), UAW Legal Services, numerous lenders, several non-profit organizations and for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Mr. Kuffa is a federal housing fee inspector and FHA 203K mortgage loan consultant, works with several attorney’s as an “expert witness”, has been appointed by the Michigan circuit court system to act as a Receiver in several cases concerning construction litigation and teaches a series of construction classes (for misc. school districts, community colleges. Michigan state housing authority, etc.).
Mr. Kuffa has been a member of the National Association of Home Inspectors, in good standing, since 1983.
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