theInspecting crawlspaces is typically not the what most home inspectors would consider their favorite part of an inspection. But inspecting the crawlspace is one of the most important parts of a inspection and is one area of the home the clients and agents don’t normally explore prior to closing. They are paying you, as the home inspector, for your expertise to crawl under the home and find defects that they can’t see just by doing a standard walk-through.
Inspectors are not required to enter any crawlspace that is not safe and/or accessible so you do want to exercise the appropriate amount of caution to make sure you aren’t running the risk of personal injury. Always make sure you have safe access and proper clearance. You do not want to put yourself in danger or get injured in a crawlspace. If for any reason that you do not inspect the crawlspace make sure that you document the reasons that it was not safe or the reasons that it was not accessible and include this in your report. It is critical that this is detailed in written format accompanied by photographic documentation. Typically, a home inspector will not move personal belongings out of the way but if the personal item or obstruction has a very low risk of being damaged by moving it to the side, it may make more sense to move the item rather than not inspecting the space. (Just think of the complaint you may receive if we excluded a crawlspace because a folding chair was obstructing the entrance.) This will need to be a judgement call on the part of the inspector. Another good practice if/when a particular space is not accessible during the home inspection is to contact the appropriate real estate agent and make them aware of the reason(s) you are not able to inspect the space. Given enough time, they may be able to have the obstruction removed or grant permission to move certain objects. This can also help set the expectation that there will be a charge applied if a request is made to come back and re-inspect the space. The same would apply for access to any other system or space in the home. The agent can call the homeowner and they can arrive at the inspection and move items that may be blocking access or provide access to any locked space (like a utility closet, garage, electrical panel, etc.). Know that when we enter the crawlspace for an inspection we want to make sure that we have a good flashlight (700-900 lumens) that throws a beam all the way across the crawlspace and allows you to fully inspect all walls and components in the space. It is best practice for a home inspector to walk/crawl the entire perimeter of the crawlspace to make sure that we can see from corner to corner, all areas of the crawlspace along with any center supporting walls, beams or columns. If for any reason you do not have proper access or components are blocked from you by insulation or vapor barrier, make sure to document these items very clearly and explain in your report that you didn’t have full access or that certain components were not visible at the time of the inspection and could not be fully evaluated. It’s also critical to include language in the report if an area/system/component could not be fully inspected and that a qualified contractor should fully evaluate and repair and replace any items that were in accessible or not visible at the time of the inspection prior to the inspection objection deadline.
So what are some common issues, mistakes and misses related to crawlspace inspections? First and foremost, make sure to look up! It is natural to focus on the ground, especially in a confined space as many crawlspaces tend to be. Many potential defects are often located between the floor joists, on structural components, around plumbing or otherwise located above the inspector. Rot, potential mold growth, water staining and improper joist notches/cuts are among some defects that can be easily missed by not paying attention to what is above your head.
Second, save the crawlspace until the end of the inspection. Many inspectors (especially those who are not a fan of crawlspaces) may opt to get this out of the way near the beginning of the inspection. There are several reasons this is opening you up to a litany of potential issues, complaints and liability. It is best practice to start your interior inspection at the highest level and work your way down to the lowest level, making sure to test all water sources as you work your way down. This includes all bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. Performing the evaluation in this order will help ensure that you have the best shot at detecting any leaks or water-related issues during the home inspection. After all, water flows downhill. You may never catch the leaking drain in the crawlspace if you test the responsible bathroom AFTER the crawlspace evaluation is complete.
Now we want to make sure that we use our flashlight and look at all of the accessible plumbing lines in the crawlspace. Since we’ve already inspected the bathrooms and kitchens we know approximately where they should relate on the floor plan and we want to make sure to get under these areas and thoroughly inspect the plumbing for leaks, proper configuration, damage or signs of previous leaks. You also want to look very closely around any plumbing fittings at the point where they pass through the sub floor of the home. Any signs of previous/current water damage, mold like substances or other defect should be thoroughly documented in your inspection report. If water staining or possible leaks are detected, we want to make sure to take a reading with your moisture meter on that location and determine if it is an active leak at the time of the inspection or if it was dry at the time of the inspection. Again, make sure to document the defect and include a picture in your report.
Don’t forget to thoroughly evaluate any gas lines present in the crawlspace as well. These can be easily missed due to their typically dark color. Make sure to use a reliable gas detector and include a picture of your meter in your inspection report. This can and will help prevent missed leaks and future customer complaints.
Next, make sure to inspect all (safe/accessible) areas of the foundation wall and document any cracks, even if they’re small curing or hairline cracks. You will want to make sure to put ALL of the cracks in the report and explain to the client if they are common/typical issues or if it is something potentially serious and should be further evaluated by a qualified contractor and/or a structural engineer. It’s very important to put all cracks in the report– it is a common issue to have a client locate cracks other than those called out in the inspection report and make the claim that they would have hired an engineer IF they were aware about the crack(s) that were not included in the report. This can be avoided by documenting all cracks discovered in your inspection. Remember, it’s not the home inspector’s role to determine it how serious the crack is or how it may be impacting the structural stability of the building. Our role is to locate the defects and include it in the report. The determination of whether or not to engage a qualified contractor or engineer based on the inspector’s recommendation is for the client/agent to determine.
Water damage is the among the most serious (and common) defects we are looking for in a crawlspace. This includes efflorescence on the walls, signs of active or past leaks, moisture on the soil/floor/vapor barrier, potential mold growth, mineralization, rust stains on any furnaces, water heaters or steel structural members.
Finally, you always want to document whether there is ventilation present in the written report, especially if we see high levels of moisture in the crawlspace with no way for that moisture to escape. There are a lot of theories of new ways of sealing crawl spaces with or without ventilation but that is a topic for a later article. Vapor barrier is one of the recommendations to help prevent unwanted moisture intrusion from the ground into a crawlspace.
In summary, make sure the space is safe and accessible. If you encounter an issue preventing you from accessing, make every reasonable attempt to gain access while communicating with your client. Inspect the entire space making sure to pay particular attention to all corners and look above you. Save the crawlspace until you have inspected all plumbing, bathrooms, laundry and kitchen areas and document all defects in your report along with the relevant photographs. Being mindful of these common pitfalls, you should be able to prevent many avoidable issues while generating referral business from your satisfied clients and agent partners.