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What Lurks Below: What Home Inspectors Often Miss

ForSaleByOwner August 29, 2023

Most house hunters know to ask about the age of the roof or the boiler, or whether the schools have a good reputation. Many hire inspectors to check the infrastructure of the building itself. But what you can’t see can hurt you, big time, when you’re buying a house. Investigate these five factors to eliminate nasty surprises.

1. High Water Table – In October 2005, heavy rains flooded basements in the Lake Ronkonkoma area, just north of the Long Island Expressway around Terry Road. Today, homeowners are shocked that they still are pumping their basements almost two years later.

Federal, state and local government officials, including both New York senators – Democrats Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer – are coordinating efforts to help alleviate the problem, but the costs to the homeowners are high. Some, overwhelmed with high electric bills to run the pumps and the persistence of mold growing in areas that remained wet, went into foreclosure after failing to sell their houses. Others are toughing it out, but tell stories of homes that have overflowing cesspools, swampy yards and expensive pumping systems running continuously.

Cathy Wirtenson, 47, a registered nurse, is one such resident. She bought her house, which had been newly constructed, in December 2005. While it was being built, there was water in the basement. The builder put in a trench drainage system around the house called a French drain, but the cost in electric bills – and the worry if the electricity goes out – are constant.

“Who would think this could happen in the middle of the Island?” Wirtenson asks of her Lake Hills neigh-borhood in Ronkonkoma. She wishes now she had investigated more with nearby residents. “You have to speak to neighbors.”

The other way to check is to see if the house sits in a high water table area. Don’t be fooled by its prox-imity to water, say experts. Water table records usually can be found in town planning or building departments.

Basements that have been wet for long periods, even if dry at the moment, can hold mold, an environ-mental hazard. “Mold is the biggest bugaboo,” says John Zito, a home inspector for Deepdale-Atlantic Home Inspection company in Southampton and Queens. “It’s far more important than asbestos.”

2. Contamination Nearby –  Science often points to outside environmental influences when it comes to disease, but most contamination that can affect a family in a home is hard to detect visually. Experts say bad things that may have happened 50 years ago can leave an environmental footprint today.

Ben Cesare, managing director for Environmental Data Resources Inc., a national company based in Milford, Conn., said his company keeps 22 million records on potential environmental hazards, mostly gov-ernmental records, in data-bases. The company sells its reports about the health condition of the property’s surroundings to both home inspectors and the general public. Most of the information is available through government sources, said Cesare, such as with the Department of Evironmental Conservation and federal superfund site Web sites.

The report by Environmental Data Resources includes a 300-foot radius around the home and its prox-imity to landfills, Superfund sites, manufacturing gas plants and known leaking storage tanks or other haz-ardous waste sites. A second report included goes beyond the 300 feet to other hazards.

For example, trichloroethylene, commonly called TCE and used in cleaning solvents, is hazardous to humans in vapor form, causing organ damage. A TCE spill from a nearby dry cleaner or other industrial site can travel underground and seep into basements of homes.

“You may say, ‘I’m on city water,’ but you should still care because of vapor intrusions,” says Cesare. “It can go into basements like radon would. You can’t see it or smell it.”

The company finds about half of 1 percent of its customers come up with something that would require immediate action, but it’s all about peace of mind, he says. “If there is a nearby superfund site, I’d want to know,” Cesare says.

John Zito, also a home inspector with Deepdale-Atlantic Home Inspections, uses the Environmental Data Resources reports, calling them an important aid, but says only about one of 20 home buyers opts to buy them (cost $150). He says he wishes more homeowners would use them. “I’m sold on it,” he says. “I really believe in it. There’s a lot of hidden things you would never think of.”

3. What’s Next Door –  Say there’s an undeveloped piece of land behind the house that serves as a wooded buffer from the busy street on the other side. Six months after you move in, what’s to prevent bulldozers from clearing the land and a sign going up in front of the property announcing a new big box store?

“Do not accept anyone’s word” on buffer zones or unoccupied parcels “anywhere at anytime,” Smithtown chief planner Frank DeRubeis cautions buyers. Even if the land is zoned residential, it can be rezoned by the town board. “Talk to the planning officer or building officer” of the town, says DeRubeis. “Ask, ‘What is the chance of a rezoning?’ … There’s really no such thing as something in perpetuity.”

DeRubeis says that the location of the land matters, too. If it is tucked inside a residential neighborhood, it will have different zoning options than a piece of land that is zoned residential but abuts a major road. “You need to ask, ‘What is the likelihood of change?'”

4. Sewers and Utility Lines –  When Brad and Janine Oblaj bought their West Islip home in Septem-ber 2006, they say they assumed the house was attached to the sewers. However, when workers started digging out the backyard to lay down a new patio, they discovered to the contrary.

“They hit one of the drywells, which tipped us off,” says Brad Oblaj. The house was not hooked up to the sewers available but to an active cesspool system. It cost the Oblajs, they say, $2,500 for the hook-up and delayed the patio installation for weeks.

Brad Oblaj says that when he went to the sewer district to fill out the paperwork, he was told it was not unusual that someone would buy a home assuming they were hooked up. “The guy said that ‘Someone like you comes down here every day with the same story,'” he says.

Smithtown chief planner Frank DeRubeis says to check the property’s tax statement to see if sewer pipes are hooked up to the house and, if not, whether it can be hooked up.

The same for utilities, he says. “You may have cable in the area, but to connect [a main line] just a few feet can be breathtakingly expensive.”

5. Easements – A town’s planning department should be able to tell what government and private entities have taken over a portion of the property for an easement, such as drainage pipes or electrical and gas lines. This is important to know because, if something goes wrong, such as a pipe burst or gas line leak, you could be held responsible for repair costs.

And knowing where gas lines are, for example, is critical if you plan to dig in the yard. Also, ask if you are allowed to put a structure, such as a shed, on the property where the easement is located.

“These things should be on the survey,” says Frank DeRubeis, chief planner for the Town of Smithtown, but sometimes they aren’t. “You need to look at the property records filed with the county. Don’t accept the little description given by the [real estate or seller].”

Spending a little time before a purchase can potentially save a lot of time and money down the line, says John Zito, home inspector and part-owner of Deepdale-Atlantic Home Inspections. “I’ve heard a million horror stories,” he says. “There’s a lot of hidden things you would never think of.”

via Newsday Syndicated with permission. Updated in October 2010 by ForSaleByOwner staff.