BUYING A NEW HOME – PART 1: The Building

by David.

When buying a new home, it is important to know the many elements of the site and building that you’re buying. In this part 1, I’m going to speak to some of the important structural building elements that you’ll want to look into and know about before buying your new home.

FOUNDATION

The foundation is one of the more major structural elements of a home. Replacing or retrofitting a foundation can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so it’s important to know what you’re buying and all foundations are certainly not created equal.

In looking at the foundation, I’m wanting to know whether it’s bolted, what the quality of concrete is like, and whether there’s any cracking as a result of foundation movement. For more in depth information on foundations and what to do with the different kinds you may find, see the following two articles: Inspecting a Foundation and What to do with my Foundation.

FRAMING

Walls are part of what help a building resist the lateral forces of an earthquake. One of the things I’m looking at in a home is where the walls are placed in the weaker portions of the home (usually the shorter dimension of the home). For example, if one whole side of the home is windows with no walls, then this side of the home is laterally deficient.

The actual framing members of the building (floor joists, roof rafters and studs) are usually not exposed as they are hidden behind sheetrock and other finishes. If I could get a look at the framing, I’d want to see that they are in tact and have not been affected by a leak, fire, termites, or other cause.

FROM THE INSIDE

The inside of a home can give you a lot of information about how the structure has performed over time and how well the building has been constructed. For example:

  • If the floors inside are sloped, I’d wonder about what’s happened to the framing below or whether the foundation has settled.
  • If walls are out of plumb or doors/windows are hard to close, it makes me think that one side of the building has settled relative to the other (usually the downhill side is moving). This movement will often continue unless something is done about it and although it is not often a structural issue, it can be an aesthetic nuisance.

In case of an earthquake, it’s important that you have a motion sensitive automatic gas shutoff valve, that the water heater is strapped, and the chimney is reinforced or supported. Some cities, like Berkeley, will even refund you some of their county transfer tax for doing some of this work. See the article on Earthquake Retrofits and Berkeley’s Seismic Retrofit Rebate Policy.

I’d also want to know if any of the additions and remodels on the house were done with a permit or not. Since jobs done without a permit won’t be inspected by city building officials and are less likely to be inspected by the design professionals, the construction is sometimes not up to code and the quality is often inferior. You can gain access to the public records of a building down at most city building departments.

I hope this helps give you an idea of what I’d be looking at as an engineer when buying a new home. For part 2 of this article about the building site and potential hazards, see Buying a Home Part 2: The Site.