Knobs & Tubes & Angst. Oh My.

As mentioned in the post about our house inspection, our lovely new home has a minor infestation of knob and tube wiring. Very minor. Hardly noticeable. Negligible, in fact.

Sadly, however, the words ‘knob and tube’ strike fear into an insurer’s heart faster than almost any other words on the planet, save, perhaps “bayou”, “levee”, “Brownie” and “it’s a little breezy today, don’t you think?”

To put what we are dealing with in context. As we’ve already established, we are buying a very old house. Old enough that Canada wasn’t even a country in short pants when it was built. And old enough that electricity was yet a twinkle in Thomas Edison’s eye (or whatever other bodypart first got the twinkle and buzz). So wiring wasn’t something that was ever even considered.

Around the turn of the century, however, it was fashionable to install this new-fangled electric-light-thingy that everyone was going on about. And so plaster was fussed with, wires were run, switches were installed, and people got very stern warnings about what to plug into where. (Even a few decades on, for example, guests of the Empress Hotel in Victoria were encouraged to let the building electrician plug in their hairdryer for them. Honest).

The wiring that was installed was called ‘knob and tube’. Mostly because the wires (copper insulated wires, I might add) were periodically wrapped around ceramic knobs when strung for long distances, and when they had to pass through a beam a ceramic tube was first inserted in the hole and the wire then passed through it. A few other odd conventions were occasionally employed, like fusing the hot and the ground wires, which meant that a blown fuse didn’t mean there wasn’t power to the circuit. But these were early days, and people were still experimenting. As people will do. So we shall forgive them their youthful transgressions.

Of course, back when this wiring was originally installed, people didn’t normally have computers, multiple cell phones, bread makers, fridges and hairdryers all vying for the juice. People eased into their addiction to all things electrical with just a few lights at first. But then, of course, they upped their demands. In time, more and more things with plugs entered the house. And eventually people discovered that if you plug too many things into one circuit then bad things can happen. And so we evolved to our current state of 200 amp panels, plugs every six feet and a well-populated double row of circuit breakers.

Find an old house, however, and chances are there is still some old wiring in it somewhere. And so there is in ours. In one room. On one circuit. We know, because we checked. The light in the dining room is fed by knob and tube wiring. It eventually merges in a junction box in the basement to modern wiring, connected to a shiny new circuit breaker, in an impressively immaculate panel. But that one stretch of the dining room wall and ceiling? Yup. Knob and tube.

Looking at where the switch of the dining room is installed, it is easy to understand why this wasn’t replaced when the rest of the house was rewired. Below the wall in question is the stone foundation of the house, so there is no way into the wall from below. The only way to replace the wiring would be to rip through the plaster of the dining room wall and ceiling, which is not something that is easy to do without the subsequent repairs to the plaster being blindingly obvious. At which point, a small problem would become a very, very large mess indeed. Far easier to just leave that one stretch of wire safely where it is.

So the previous owner clearly thought. So we thought. So the home inspector thought, when it came to that. Our insurer? Our insurer, when we mentioned the fact, had other ideas. Now, you could argue that it would have been better to shut up about the whole thing. But failing to disclose material information can lead to a whole world of other issues I would have preferred to avoid. So yes, we told them. Their first, and least helpful, suggestion was to disconnect the light. And the discussion just proceeded from there.

To provide some perspective, knob and tube wiring is safe. At least, it is not inherently unsafe, provided certain basic (and really rather common sense) provisions are adhered to. In fact, a quick search of the internet reveals that Ontario’s Electrical Safety Authority, whose business it is to fuss about these sorts of things, is quite comfortable about the whole issue of knob and tube wiring. In fact, they’ve gone to some effort to publish a position paper on knob and tube wiring that not only provides clear reassurance that such installations are safe, but also that they meet current code and “…may still be installed to this day.”

So armed, I was fairly confident in negotiating with the insurance company. I had facts and knowledge on my side, and the Electrical Safety Authority at my back. What I didn’t count on, however, was the obstinancy of actuaries armed with large underwriting rule books. Despite my broker putting up a strong and sustained argument on our behalf (for which I am grateful), the closest we got to a compromise was an offer to accept the installation if we promised not to add any more switches or outlets on the line, and we got an inspection from the ESA verifying the installation was safe.

This was a victory of sorts, I suppose, but still required more work on our part (not to mention another day of my time, arranging another inspection with the vendor and a payout of about $266). All to inspect something that is already safe, and that the insurer would probably still get uppity about if there ever was a problem down the road.

And so how did we solve this little challenge? Well, in this particular instance, we simply took the high road and found another insurer. One familiar with rural properties, comfortable with the fact that older homes do have instances of knob and tube and happy to still insure the home in its current state. And, in fact, one who was already insuring the property.

Several weeks on, we finally have insurance. In another five days, the transaction will close. And then, we’ll own a house again. All rather exciting, really.

Inspections, Inspections, Inspections

Today, we had the house inspection. I had no idea what to expect, having never actually experienced one of these in the past. The only other time we have bought a house, we had already lived in it for four years, so we had a pretty good idea of what we were getting in to. Then we built a house, so for that we knew EXACTLY what we were getting into.

This was different. Actually, this was extremely different. This time, we were buying a house that, as near as we could tell, was constructed before Canada was a country. Rather than a house built expressly to our wants, we were buying a house designed to the tastes of someone that hasn’t been walking the planet for a good long while now.

Despite getting home from the airport at midnight the night before, I managed to get myself out to the house early. Really early. An hour early. I left Toronto at 6:45, and I wound up being in Woodstock by 8:00am (mostly because there was absolutely no point going to Innerkip at that time; Innerkip is pretty sparse in terms of services at the best of times, and at 8:00am on a weekday there is pretty much nothing happening at all).

Everyone converged on the house at a few minutes before 9:00am, and we got down to business relatively quickly. Graham, the home inspector, indicated that he figured about 5 hours would be required for the inspection, which would turn out to be a pretty accurate estimate. Joan, the real estate agent, resigned herself to five hours of what could be described as the functional equivalent of watching paint dry. (In her view, the only thing less exciting than inspection day is the day she gets to watch them pump the septic tank).

We started with an overall tour of the exterior of the building. Given that we had managed to pick a rainy day (which, in the final analysis is not actually a bad thing – if nothing else, it helps to find the leaks) this was a fairly damp tour of the perimeter. During it, we discovered many things. For starters, the masonry of the house is of exceptionally high quality. And cedar shakes look fabulous, but aren’t necessarily the most awesome thing to sheath your roof inn. Also, apparently air conditioning units have a life expectancy of about 15 years (which meant the 22 year old example here qualified for pensionable service). And apparently there are such things as carpenter bees, and they’ve decided that two of the boards in our house make for a fine residence.

So starting out, we had some cautions. None were show-stoppers, particularly, but they were useful illustrations that: a) we’re moving to the country; b) the country has wildlife; and c) there is no such thing as a perfect home, there is simply a question of how much imperfection you are prepared to deal with.

Moving inside, we then got to check out the attic spaces, for there is indeed an attic in the old part of the house. An attic which, apparently, was at some point visited by bats. Actually, it was at some point apparently inhabited by bats, given the relative accumulation of guano (more than a one night stand, but not so much that they could be accused of co-dependency or squatting). There were no real signs of bats today, but that’s not to say that they weren’t there. Although any presence has been limited to the attic space, and they have yet to be sighted anywhere else in the house.

The longest time during the inspection was spent in the basement, which is home to most of the mechanical systems. The electrical panel is, for the age of the house, in surprisingly good order – it is virtually brand new. The plumbing is incredibly well designed. One furnace is brand new, while the other is near the end of its useful life and we have a water heater that is perilously close to giving up the ghost. And given that there is also a crack in the exhaust piping, we’re going to have to give the water heater last rites and move on. With luck, this is more a problem of plumbing and less a need for an exorcism.

The rest of the inspection went reasonably well. There are some plumbing leaks in bathrooms that are being renovated anyway, there are a couple of windows that are bafflingly original given that most of the rest of the windows have been replaced. There is also a half door in the dining room in place of wainscotting on one wall. And to be clear, it is literally a half-door; above it (and behind it) there is wall. The door is surreptitiously hidden behind a sideboard at present, and I imagine we will be employing a very similar strategy going forward.

The only other major issues are a minor infestation of knob-and-tube wiring in the dining room, and a major infestation of raccoons in the garage. The knob-and-tube wiring should be manageable without repair. The raccoon infestation, however, will be another problem. Given the damage to drywall, the apparent shifting of insulation and the redolent bouquet of eau-de-vermin, there is going to need to be some fairly extensive work done in the garage much earlier than we intended. Namely, the replacement of about 1,000 square feet of drywall, insulation and vapour barrier on the garage ceiling. The nice thing, of course, is that we have a 1,000 square foot garage; the downside is that it makes for a lot of ceiling to be replacing. I think we just found our first major change request on the renovation.

Overall, the inspection was incredibly worthwhile, and eye-opening into the bargain. I have a much better idea of what we are getting in to, while at the same time being reassured about the state of repair of our new home. We are buying a house that was of above-average quality 150 years ago, had an above-average quality addition some 17 years ago, and has for the most part been maintained and upgraded with care and attention in the intervening years.

Without question, we are indebted to our inspector – Graham Lobban of Lobban Stroud – for an amazing job of going through the house. His attention to detail was impressive, and his understanding of what we were dealing with was exceptional. He did a great job of giving an honest assessment of the condition of various aspects of the house, without being alarmist. There was no building code 150 years ago, so expecting compliance to the code of today is a fantasy. Knowing the quality of what is there relative to what should be expected from a house of this age, however, is a pragmatic necessity.

We now have that, and more; we also have a guide to what will be necessary to maintain the house in its current condition in the years to come. Boo Manor is about to become a reality.

Finding An Inspector

With a conditional offer in hand, our next challenge was lifting said conditions. A rural property is fairly similar to an urban one in terms of offering: they are usually conditional on finance, insurability and an inspection. Additional conditions are added that require the septic to be pumped and testing of the well water, and that pretty much covers things off.

An inspection of a 150 year old property, however, is not the same as the inspection of a new house in a subdivision that was built a few years ago. They didn't have building codes in the 19th century. There were conventions, to be certain, but there have been good builders and bad builders since the dawn of time. And 'caveat emptor' has been a commonplace expression since Latin was in regular use.

Given that we were making a significant investment in a building that had aspects constructed in several different periods, I wanted someone that knew what they were doing. Finding that someone, however, is much easier said then done.

Home inspections is an industry that is rife with abuses. Not that this is exactly a unique situation, mind you. But pretty much anyone can put out there shingle and call themselves a home inspector. And many apparently do. This, in fact, is one of the reasons for the popularity of the show 'Holmes Inspection' on HGTV. We get to watch episode after episode of disasters uncovered post-inspection, inevitably followed by Mike Holmes' crew gleefully ripping down drywall.

The problem if qualifications is apparently particularly rife in Ontario, where the provincial association responsible for the development of standards was pretty much ignoring this responsibility. A good summary of the issue is summarized in this article. While there is now a national certification body, however, and an active provincial organization, distinguishing the really good from the merely competent is a struggle.

Early in my research I found one inspector that I really, really wanted to inspect the house. Cam Allen has a great deal of experience in inspections, particularly in terms of heritage properties, and writes a regular column on the subject for the Kingston Whig Standard. Sadly, he's based in Kingston, and our house isn't; hiring him for the job wasn't going to happen, but he does provide a huge array of resources in his columns and web site for anyone looking to buy a heritage property.

Following on the success of the television program, Mike Holmes actually has his own inspection company, Mike Holmes Inspections. If you watch his show, he reinforces time and again the importance of checking qualifications. Making sure the person you hire is experienced. Checking references. Great advice that I would reinforce to anyone hiring a professional, regardless of discipline.

Given the apparent credibility (and the significant premium his company charges) I decided to check them out. And I have to say that while the show is great, and Holmes has written a really solid book on home inspections that I would recommend to anyone, I am less than impressed with the company and their approach to customer service. Calling for more information, I first got a recording that said to wait on the line to book an inspection, and otherwise go to their website for more information. For someone who had read the web site and had more questions, there wasn't another option offered.

Waiting anyway, I got a call centre agent that was happy to book an inspection, but had minimal information by which to qualify who the person would be that would do our inspection if we chose to proceed with them. Inspectors aren't assigned until after an inspection is booked. While there are general qualifications for their inspectors, they don't share individual names, qualifications or references. Do they have inspectors qualified in the inspection of heritage properties? No. Right, then. Time to keep looking.

I did call around, and talked to several different people. Questions I recommend asking: What is your experience? What are your qualifications? What is your professional background prior to becoming a home inspector? What is your process for conducting an inspection? What tools do you use? What is your experience in inspecting heritage properties? Can I have references for inspections that you have done in the past at heritage properties? The range of detail, and the range of willingness to even answer the questions, was telling unto itself.

A big point of dissension currently is the use of thermographic imaging. Anyone who has seen an inspection on Holmes Inspection has seen Mike pull out his trusty camera, and show an area with massively varying levels of surface temperature. Which is exactly what (and only what) these devices measure. I talked to inspectors that dismissed their use as irrelevant (and didn't have them, relying on their eyes, nose, screwdriver and ladder to do the job). I talked to inspectors that didn't have them, but were certified in their use, and were willing to subcontract someone to do a thermographic inspection if that is what I wanted (and that planned on getting a camera eventually, when prices came down a bit more, provided customers would pay more for its use). I talked to inspectors that said that they had value, in specific contexts, to probe for more information where the presence and source of a problem wasn't obvious.

I finally talked to one company (after calling nearly 10) that exuded confidence and competence. And, probably as a result, was booked for at least a week solid. The partners had done nearly 10,000 inspections each. Both were engineers. They had significant experience in heritage homes. They don't try to compare heritage homes to current building standards; they ask whether the property was in the condition that it should be for when and how it was actually built. They call a spade a spade, and aren't afraid to highlight a major problem if they find one. They have a thermographic camera, they use it in situations where it is required, and they don't charge extra for bringing one along.

And so, finally, we had a house inspector. Unfortunately, their availability and mine meant that our appointment isn't for another week, and it will only give us a few days afterwards to satisfy any concerns about the property. But I would rather wait longer for a good inspection, rather than getting a shoddy one done quickly. We'll see where we are in another week.