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Smart Choices: Assessing Your Dream Home Wisely

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Prior to Purchase, Evaluating A Residential Property

In our previous article Should You Hire an Architect Before You Buy a Property? we introduced a set of Review Variables. If you have not read this important introduction to site selection, please access it here.

As a brief refresher, these “Review Variables” are the following: 

  • Client Needs & Design Potential 
  • Structural Review
  • Sustainable Design Opportunities
  • Soil Composition & Geotech 
  • Water Quality & Testing 
  • Water Infrastructure 
  • Sewer System Evaluation 
  • Electrical Service 
  • Building Construction 
  • Building Code Review (NFPA/IEBC/IRC)

As you can see, there is little more to a residential real estate purchase than just picturing yourself in the Jacuzzi drinking a bottle of your favorite red. To get to that point, it takes careful preparation and evaluation.

Let’s take a look at how the Review Variables affect purchasing an existing Residential Property.

Existing Homes

Now more than ever, there is value in purchasing an existing home. Not only are you purchasing installed infrastructure and materials that can give you a cost advantage over building new, but you are also purchasing a functional building where it is very likely that several of the “Review Variables” are in good standing.

Water Quality & Testing

That is, the drinking water (either well water or municipal potable water) is usually, well, drinkable. This may seem to be a silly notion but it not always is. Just ask the residents of Flint, Michigan. Both well water and municipal water can have harmful levels of contaminants that can affect the health of those drinking it. Specific contaminants in drinking water can vary depending on the water source and treatment processes. Some of the potentially harmful chemicals and pathogens that may be present in drinking water include:

  • Bacteria and Viruses
  • Parasites
  • Chemical Pollutants (such as Heavy Metals, Pesticides/Herbicides, Industrial Chemicals)
  • Disinfection By-Products
  • Nitrates
  • Radionuclides

It’s important to note that water treatment plants are designed to remove or reduce these contaminants to safe levels but they aren’t always successful. Drinkable well water, though likely once pure, can suddenly become contaminated without apparent evidence or forewarning. Regular water quality testing and monitoring are critical to ensuring that drinking water meets safety standards. If you have concerns about the quality of your drinking water, you can contact your local water utility for information on water testing results and treatment processes.

To err on the side of caution, it is critically important to have any drinking water rigorously tested prior to purchase.

Water Infrastructure

In addition to having the water tested, the water conveyance system should be reviewed. That is, what is going on with the pumping, piping, and pressure? That is, the conditions with which water is brought into your home should be reviewed.  

  • What is the age of the piping?  
  • What is piping made of?  
  • What is the diameter of the piping? 
  • What is the existing pressure (psi) of your water supply?
  • Do you need to add a pump to increase pressure?—so you can enjoy that massage shower head?  
  • Is there on-site filtration?  
  • Are there any surrounding site variables?—nearby construction, agricultural use, etc.—that might compromise the effectiveness of the system or the quality of the water in the future?  

Sewer System Evaluation

Existing homes also suggest the presence of a functional sewer system (either septic or municipal sanitary sewer). Similar to our segment Water Infrastructure, the sewage conveyance, and treatment system should be reviewed. That is the conditions with which sewage leaves your potential home should be reviewed.  

  • What is the age of the piping?  
  • What is piping made of?  
  • What is the diameter of the piping? 
  • What is the capacity of the service?
  • Is there on-site treatment such as a septic system and leach field, or is this municipal sewer in a more suburban area?  

Please keep in mind, that it is more common in commercial construction that existing sewer is undersized but it is worth reviewing on the residential side as well. If the house has a septic tank, the health and size of the tank should also be thoroughly evaluated. If additional fixtures such as toilets or sinks are to be added as part of a likely future renovation, you must take a look at the capacities of the piping to accommodate these increases in black water and gray water flow.

Soil Composition and Geotech

When we say “Soil Composition” we aren’t talking about looking at the presence of boron, magnesium, nitrogen, calcium, and other minerals in your soil so you can grow a record pumpkin at the Commonground Fair. We are talking about whether your soil can be used as a leach field, has structural components (rubble, rocks) to support additional foundations, and most importantly, is there significant bedrock in the form of shale or granite that would impede the dreams of a sunroom, primary bedroom suite, or children’s playroom at the outset of construction.

The presence of bedrock is very important to establish and may be largely ignored as existing homes may offer assurance in the presence of existing basements. However, these basements may have overcome costly geotech hurdles that you are oblivious to when exploring the idea of building an addition. An architect will absolutely require a better understanding of the subsurface conditions when generating a design, but at that point, you own the home, and you own what is under the earth. Costly (and tricky) excavation (and even blasting) next to the home may have to occur. And just like that, the next three vacations have to be put on hold to pay for the bedrock removal.  

So, it is important to ask for any evidence of soil conditions encountered in case the intent is to add to the existing structure. There are ways to design around the presence of a ledge but could be a disappointing realization if the intent is to add a basement and/or frost walls. 

An added benefit of testing subsurface soil conditions is getting an early read on the presence of granite which produces radon and may affect air quality within the house as well as the quality of the drinking water. And so you see, these site conditions are often inextricably linked to others.

Building Construction

As alluded to earlier, not only are you purchasing installed infrastructure and materials that can give you a cost advantage over building new, existing homes also contain embodied value if you have a discerning eye that can value construction quality and building systems effectively. Construction techniques, materials used, and building systems all need to be evaluated prior to purchase. The age and state of these items are of the utmost importance to inspect and evaluate using an Architect.

Here are a few of the necessary areas of building construction that need to be reviewed:

  • The structural integrity of the building—member sizes and condition
  • The thermal envelope—R-value of the insulation in the walls
  • The waterproofing envelope
  • The age and efficiency of HVAC+P (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning + Plumbing)
  • The age of the windows and efficiency
  • Electrical wiring 

Of particular importance is the evaluation of air quality in the home. With incidences of mold exposure on the rise, it is critically important that rigorous mold testing is done. The eye and air tests are effective enough. Surfaces need to be wiped and tested! Additionally, if the house has a basement, the home must have adequate waterproofing on the exterior of the foundation. If the exterior of the foundation has not been waterproofed that would be a dealbreaker for us and we would advise against purchase. Yes, that includes the majority of older homes. Sorry folks.

Electrical Service

For seasoned commercial developers, there is usually a line item called “electrical service upgrade” but for residential buyers, one of the most costly misses in evaluating a home is not fully understanding the size of the electrical service. With people working, hosting, and recreating more and more at their own homes, existing electrical services rarely suit the needs of 21st-century homeowners.  

Given this reality, it is quite rare that a 200 amp electrical service meets the needs of inhabitants. Especially if they are a growing family of any size. Current and future electrical needs need to be evaluated prior to purchase. New equipment that is electrical load heavy needs to be sorted. The future growth of existing homes needs to be fully understood. Is there going to be a workshop added? A garage expansion? An in-law apartment? A man-cave? Are you swapping out gas appliances to electrical? Coordination with local utility companies, the city/town, and review of lead times on panels all must be reviewed to temper client expectations. That is, all of these items need to be better understood prior to purchase.  

Structural Review

Residential load criteria are relatively new and it depends on the township or municipality as to whether it is being enforced, or has even been implemented that matter.

What does this mean? Well, it might be a bit shocking, but you need to take stock of the sizes, conditions, and species of all structural members in your home. That is you need to take a look at the wall, floor, roof, and foundation dimensions of all wood, CMU block, and rebar, & steel members (though less common in residential construction).  

These are important distinctions that affect the strength of these members and the “work” these members are doing. Once this information is collected, the building can be more accurately evaluated for current structural integrity and the ability of these members to accomplish existing work and future growth.

The same can be said for the home’s foundation. Is it made of stone? Or concrete? CMU (Concrete Masonry Unit) block? ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms)? What is the thickness of the foundation wall? And if known, what is the thickness of the bearing footer for that wall (this item can be tricky to discern unless there are drawings of the home’s construction)?  

And lastly, what is the state of these structural components? Meaning, have they degraded, aged, or become compromised over time? Or are they in suitable shape? Is there any indication of splitting, rot, cracking, or corrosion of the structural members that could compromise their ability to support their loads?  

It is worth noting that most structural members can be reinforced, repaired, or replaced. However, cracking evident in a foundation indicates potentially serious problems. Most foundations crack, even initially after construction, however, the size, angle, and location of the cracking need to be evaluated. This could indicate inadequate bearing capacity of the soil, shallow footings that are being hammered by frost, inadequate concrete mixes, hydrostatic pressure, differential settlement, and a host of other problems that may be extremely costly to fix.  

Sustainable Design Opportunities

Climate change and the impending climate crisis are of serious concern but relative to a client’s climate location, sense of environmental stewardship, and unfortunately, political beliefs. However, regardless of these factors, all humans like to be comfortable and to save money for future opportunities. Smart design accomplishes both while helping the greater environment. And the last thing you want is to be thermally uncomfortable in your home with costly expenditures intended to reverse this reality.

There are a few very easy items that a potential homeowner should review regardless of climate that will help assess the quality of the home, operation costs, and the human experience within.  

It is critically important to understand how the home will operate on day one, and what, if anything, can be done to improve in the future. You must evaluate the “solar view” of the home, the R-value of both walls and roof systems, the current amount and location of thermal mass, the presence of deciduous and evergreen vegetation on site as it relates to seasonal shading of the home, and the current building systems and how they relate to energy consumption. Solutions need to be better understood to improve existing deficiencies.  

It is critically important to understand these factors so new homeowners aren’t faced with large energy costs and poor thermal comfort.

Client Needs & Design Potential

It is an Architect’s job to evaluate potential. Oddly enough, most architects aren’t very good at it. Most architects repeat standard design tropes, and speak to the same old tired concepts with a vigor that suggests what they are saying is somehow profoundly unique.

So when evaluating your architect, take a look at the body of work. And don’t get seduced by a photo or two that you see online that you happen to enjoy. Photographers make bad architects look good! Take a long time trying to understand the functionality of the spaces they create and whether they are unique spaces with clever design solutions. Or are they just more of the same? Take your time in this evaluation process and proceed cautiously! 

A big part of habitation is making this existing home, personalized and refreshed. So the specific needs of the client need to be probed and fully understood, then applied to an existing home with creativity and optimism.  

Sadly, too often we are brought in after the fact to redesign the layout of an existing home. And it just doesn’t work without significant additional cost. And in some cases, no amount of money can salvage the design. It’s difficult to latch onto things that will improve the lives of the inhabitants. Too often it is just a reshuffling of programmatic elements where the new homeowners are confronted with the same problems that the previous homeowners faced. They tolerate the reality of the home for a period of time, then move on. Living in the house should be easy and expansive. Not difficult and unsettling. This refresh and reconstitution of the home should be realized somewhat easily. Hiring an architect to evaluate these factors before a purchase is absolutely essential. 

Building Code Review (NFPA/IEBC/IRC)

This Review Variable is perhaps the most unexpected in the residential sector but residential code standards are becoming more and more widespread with local authorities adopting them to limit injury and save lives. While the intention is to protect the public, the enforcement of these code requirements can overstep traditional norms producing costly retrofits limiting design potential in existing homes. This is especially true if you plan on remodeling any inch of the home which could trigger compliance with otherwise grandfathered conditions. This is where any reputable Architect will thrive and a complete code analysis should always be conducted prior to purchase.

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