While there are many reasons in this world for stress and consternation, there’s plenty of small stuff not worth sweating. Benjamin Meredith, owner of the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County home inspection business Building Knowledge, talks with LiveHB about three common concern-causing things in a home that needn’t be cause for panic and don’t need to derail a home purchase.
1. Small interior cracks
Because cracks suggest weakness and deterioration, it’s understandable that people often interpret them as indication of serious structural problems in a house, Meredith says. The good news, when it comes to small (we’re talking 1/16th of an inch or less, which still can appear plenty big) cracks on interior walls and ceilings, is that that interpretation is generally wrong.
“All houses move,” says Meredith. As wood dries out, it shrinks and shifts, eventually causing small cracks to open in plaster or drywall. The older the house, the more cracks you’re going to see. And as long as they’re small and inside – i.e., not on the foundation itself – you’re looking at a cosmetic, not a structural, issue.
2. Polybutylene water pipes
From the late ‘70s through the mid-‘90s, water pipes made out of inexpensive and easy-to-install polybutylene were installed in millions of American homes. In the ensuing years, some evidence suggested that chlorinated water weakened polybutylene pipes and fittings, eventually leading to failure. After a class action lawsuit won a large settlement from manufacturers, polybutylene gained a bad rap in some homebuyers’ minds. (The success of the lawsuit, Meredith notes, only means that lawyers made a compelling argument, and isn’t proof that the product is defective.)
“It’s not likely to cause a leak in your house any more than any other plumbing [material],” says Meredith, pointing out that polybutylene was and remains very common in local houses.
3. Old electrical wires
A Harrisonburg home that’s 50 or more years old may still be partially or entirely wired with outdated wiring products. Knob and tube wiring was common through the ‘30s, later replaced by ungrounded “rag wire” which was used for the next several decades. If these are in good condition, and if you’re not overloading the wires, Meredith says, there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. As with any household feature, things in degraded condition certainly do need attention, “but do you need to panic over the fact that you have it in your house? No,” Meredith says.
Sometimes insurance can be complicated by the presence of old wiring in a home, although knob and tube and rag wire are both widespread in the area, and a “don’t-ask, don’t tell” policy is often observed between homeowners and insurers. Because Meredith’s inspection reports sometimes point the presence of old wiring, he does not recommend that his clients share their reports with insurance companies. The reports, he says, are written for the use of the client, and are not intended to help insurers assess the risk of a particular policy. As is the case with polybutylene pipes, bear in mind that old wiring is very common, and not a problem in the vast, vast majority of cases.
As applies to any rule of thumb, individual circumstances vary, and caveats may exist. You may want to patch interior cracks for aesthetic reasons. Though polybutylene pipes have served for decades without incident in many, many local homes, you maybe will want to update them, depending on ease of access, future resale plans, budget, etc. –particularly if the fittings are also polybutylene (as opposed to more durable copper ones). Likewise, knob and tube wiring has been keeping the lights on for nearly a century in many local homes – though that doesn’t mean replacement if and as opportunity arises isn’t a good idea.
But the presence of these things in a home, Meredith says, shouldn’t automatically set of an alarm. Be judicious, but not irrational, he says: “Don’t freak out about these things, but don’t ignore the facts.”