Can You House Hunt Like a Home Inspector? The Electrical System
In the introductory post of this series, “Can You House Hunt Like a Home Inspector?”, I talked about three levels of Inspection: 1) An inspection by a keen eyed House Hunter 2) A technical but still limited inspection by a Home Inspector and 3) A more detailed technical inspection by a licensed tradesperson.
I’ll continue that theme in this installment, focussing on the home’s electrical system. But before I do, a word of caution. Be very careful when dealing with electricity. It can kill you. It’s not something to take lightly and if you are not sure about what you’re doing, leave it to someone who is.
There are some fairly obvious things a House Hunter can look for when touring a home. Turn the lights on and off. Look for light switches and receptacle (outlet) covers missing or damaged. Look for junction boxes (where wiring connections are made) without covers. Look for wires that are hanging unsupported below unfinished ceilings, or disconnected wires hanging loose. Or if you know what knob and tube wiring looks like, look for it in older homes. Look for the absence of GFCI receptacles in wet areas - near the kitchen or bathroom sinks. These are issues that Home Inspectors will look for as well. They might have easy fixes, or be signs of something more serious. They can certainly be signs of an electrical system that is outdated, in disrepair, or wiring installed by DIYers. Any of these situations should get your spidey-senses tingling. If there are a number of small issues, you should be prepared to have the whole electrical system assessed by a licensed electrician.
Another place you can get a feel for the condition of the electrical system is the main fuse or breaker panel. I won’t go into a lot of technical detail of what the Home Inspector will look for, but how it looks can be important. Are there visible signs of rust, damage, open gaps, or does it just look old? If you’re looking at breakers, do they line up evenly side by side or do they fit haphazardly? The panel may have some issues that should be investigated.
If you want to take it a step beyond a visual inspection there are a couple of inexpensive tools that you can carry with you. Home Inspectors don’t go anywhere without them. For a disconnected wire hanging down, don’t touch it! Never assume that a wire is dead, just because there is nothing connected to it. But you can check to see if it is a live wire using a simple voltage detector. This simple device that looks similar to a pen, can be purchased for as little as $15 at a home improvement store and can save your life. Hold it near the wire where there is no exposed metal wire. If it is live, the detector will light up and chirp repeatedly. I think every home owner should have one of these detectors.
Another device in the same price range is a simple circuit tester. It’s a required tool for a Home Inspector. It will detect some incorrect wiring conditions at the receptacle. Simply plug it into the receptacle and see which of the tester lights illuminate. There is usually a handy guide on the device to tell you what the indicator lights mean. If you feel comfortable testing the electrical receptacles while checking out a potential new home, you can have this tool in your pocket. One word of caution. Most circuit testers also have a GFCI testing function. Don’t be tempted to use it, or the test button on the receptacle itself. You never know what else is on the circuit that you will interrupt when you trip the circuit.
I won’t go into a detailed discussion of the implications of outdated, damaged or deteriorating wiring, poorly installed wiring, or damaged or missing cover plates. They range from cosmetic, to the inconvenience of an appliance not working, to personal safety, and risk of overheating and fire. And while it’s important to take note of these details and address them when and if you buy the home, a House Hunter probably won’t see enough to affect their decision whether or not to buy. But when you see a number of issues in the same home, it raises questions about the parts of the electrical system that you’re not seeing.
Although I’ve described a number of things a House Hunter can look for, most of the issues with an electrical system will usually be beyond your field of view. Wiring in walls, connections inside receptacles, switches and junction boxes, and the inside of the distribution panel won’t be seen by most House Hunters. A Home Inspector will take the inspection to a more technical level with what can be seen, and will go into areas that the House Hunter shouldn’t.
Starting outside the home, the Home Inspector will look the wires coming from the municipality to see if they are in good condition and configured in a way that is properly supported, secured, and appropriately sized for the home. Safe clearances from the ground and buildings must be maintained. Inside the home, the Home Inspector will assess how the electrical service is connected to the main disconnect, the condition and configuration of the main service box and the condition and configuration of the breakers or fuses to ensure that they adequately protect the circuits that they serve. To perform an electrical inspection, the Home Inspector has to open the electrical panel. DON’T DO THIS unless you have electrical training.
Without going into all the details, the Home Inspector will be looking for wiring that is showing signs of not performing adequately, has been damaged or deteriorated, or is unsafe. They will give an opinion whether there is adequate power for a modern lifestyle and whether the major appliances are served sufficiently. They will also get a feel for whether the wiring was done by a professional or not. Although a Home Inspector does not assess whether the home meets current codes, a good Home Inspector will often give an indication of when the electrical configuration is “not to current standards”. But as I indicated in the introductory post in this series, a good Home Inspector knows their limits.
When a Home Inspector sees non-standard configurations or wiring that is old, outdated, or blatantly wrong they will usually recommend evaluation by a licensed electrician. This is not simply passing the buck. When a licensed electrician evaluates a system they bring a level of detail and knowledge that a Home Inspector can’t provide during a limited general inspection. They have instruments that are specific to their role that can provide them with more information than a Home Inspector will typically have. The electrical codes have changed over the years and the electrician will have better knowledge of the code than a Home Inspector can. The specific details about what is required and what works best are obtained after years of training and experience. And finally, an electrician may have to investigate what is happening inside the wall and use destructive measures to make a full assessment of a circuit. A Home Inspector can’t do that.
The electrical system can be a very daunting, scary and sometimes expensive system to deal with. A House Hunter can learn a lot about the condition of the electrical system in their initial view of the house. Following these basic procedures will help you shift your focus from how the home works for your lifestyle to how the home performs as a group of systems.