My Mike Holmes Moment

Well, it finally happened. I had a ‘Mike Holmes moment’ of my very own here at Boo Manor.

You know the drill. Mike Holmes descends on a hapless couple in a helpless house that desperately needs fixing. The small problem that started it all soon leads to larger problems, and then the crowbars come out. Rip down a few walls, and the really big problems emerge. Then Mike Holmes manages a sincere look of sympathy for the camera, and says, “I’d better go talk to the homeowners.” That look is always very, very expensive.

Through much of the renovations, we have in fact been very fortunate. Sure there was the infestation of raccoons in the garage, and the rotted corpses they left behind. And there was the 10-foot wide room that managed to have a floor be three inches off level. And wallpaper was discovered under the paint in the dining room—as we started painting—meaning that the wallpaper needed to be removed, the walls needed to be skim coated and the room had to be repainted. But really, in the grand scheme of things, these are the problems you expect to encounter. Or at least, you should.

Finally, however, I found myself in the basement of the old house having a conversation that will sound very, very familiar to frequent viewers of Home & Garden TV. It started when Jason, the furnace guy (and he actually calls himself the furnace guy) was charging up the cooling system for the wine cellar. He had 15 minutes or so on his hands, and happened to hear our nearly-new furnace sounding a little unhappy, and decided to take a look. That’s when all the trouble started.

In the home inspection, this furnace was particularly singled out as being a fine example of the species. Brand new, two stage, with an awesome motor, it should give us years and years of happy service. Or so we were told. And this is not to fault the home inspection; everything that the inspector said was true, and they are generalists—they don’t specifically know everything there is to know about everything, and certainly aren’t experts in all things furnace.

Jason, however, is that guy. And what he saw concerned him. First, there was a cold-air-return grill directly installed on the ductwork leading to the furnace, which is usually an indication that the furnace is struggling to get enough air. A quick check of the ducting revealed that there were a lot of cold air return grills in the house, and many of them were no longer connected. At all. The intake in the furnace was much smaller than specified in the installation manual. Jumpers that should have been cut based upon our installation weren’t. And while the furnace might be appropriately sized if we were heating the entire house, it was entirely overkill in order to heat the half-side of the house it was responsible for. In fact, it was so overpowered that it was sucking the air filter into the motor.

I’ll stop there. It pains me to go on.

The question, then, was what to do about it. And the answer, apparently, was to keep the furnace but get rid of just about everything else. And so, on Monday of this week, Matt and Josh showed up as scheduled with their Tim Horton’s coffees, a boatload of sheet metal and looks of grim determination on their faces. So ensued two days of banging, crashing, hammering, sawing and more hammering, as our previous ductwork disappeared, and new ductwork took its place.

The furnace needed to be raised eight inches to put in an intake for a larger air filter. Two new cold air returns appeared in our floor. Useless cold air returns were covered up, rather than being gaping holes to the basement. Ducting to the outlets was upgraded to six inches. New outlets were created out of old and not-used cold air returns. And the result, two days later, was a magical transformation of the old basement from something scary and slightly hideous to a new, clean, relatively modern-looking heating system.

A few dip switch settings later, and Jason the furnace guy deemed us good to go. Our super-duty furnace had been dumbed down to a much more moderate heating unit, with appropriately sized ducting and sufficient return air for the furnace not to starve.

The moral of this story is that furnaces need to breathe, just like we do. Smother them, and they’re going to desperately try to suck air as well. If you have heating problems, that doesn’t mean that the problem is your furnace, it may be your ducting. A bigger furnace will not solve the problem, and it will likely fail faster because it has to work harder, ironically, to do the same job as a smaller furnace. You need an appropriately-sized appliance for the ducting that you have, and the ducting will tell you how big the appliance will be.

Which is really good to know, because now we’ve been told that the air conditioner in the old house has finally died as well.

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.