The primary function of the exterior of a house is to act as an envelope to keep out water. When looking at the exterior we need to make sure that ground and roof water management are appropriate to allow the exterior to do it's job and to make sure that we haven't left openings and voids in the exterior to allow water and pests to enter. It is also important to take a hard look to make sure that water and pests have not already done damage in the form of moisture deterioration, rot or other material degradation.
GUTTER AND DOWNSPOUTS
These are very important because they control the enormous amount of water that runs off the roof. They must be kept free of debris and leaves at all times. We strongly recommend screening them and cutting trees back so that they don't overhang the roof. All gutters must be mounted so they they have a slope towards the downspouts to facilitate the flow of water in that direction and to make sure they empty themselves of water thereby eliminating pools of water that can become breeding grounds for mosquitos. Watch for areas where roof valleys concentrate too much water for the gutters to handle. You may need to consider the addition of baffles to handle the load. All downspouts should be extended to discharge water at least 4'-6' away from the foundation of the house (see also Wet Basement section) to avoid dumping roof runoff where it's most like to cause a wet basement. Be wary of underground drains - if you can't see the discharge you can't tell if there's a problem. The other issue with dry wells underground is that they tend to continually erode themselves creating a low spot in the yard over them ( this is the voice of experience talking now--we have to remove the sod and replace dirt to level our own yard at regular intervals). The drains need to run to daylight.
Inspect caulking spring and fall, and touch up whenever needed. Cracks can allow moisture or insects to get in so they must be sealed. Be especially thorough at the ends of boards and wherever dissimilar materials meet.
Watch especially for signs of softness in the lower corners of window and door framing (especially bay windows). Small pockets can be repaired using special epoxy compounds--large areas call for replacement. Houses built after the early 1980's are more at risk, since some effective chemical preservatives were withdrawn (penta) from use for environmental reasons. If trim is replacing damaged woodwork, prime and paint all surfaces of the new wood before installing it to give added protection. Remember that the tops of the windows, doors and entryways get wet too. Out of sight should not mean out of mind (especially flat areas where water can collect). Paint white if you possibly can - white is less likely to fade and bleach than colors, and this means it can sometimes be touched up instead of repainted. For paint and caulk, use the best you can afford. It takes no longer to apply than cheap material, and it lasts longer.
If the trim is covered with aluminum or other cladding such as vinyl be sure that no water or pests can get inside where damage will not be visible.
There are pros and cons with all materials. vinyl can be damaged by excessive heat (such as from a BBQ grill placed too close to the house) and can become brittle in the extreme cold. Aluminum is more prone to "chalking" of the finish and if struck it can be permanently dented. Both materials expand and contract in heat and cold and this sometimes causes popping sounds if the siding is too tightly fastened to the house. This is usually harmless. All cut edges (especially where wire or tubing pass through the siding) should be well caulked or sealed to help prevent moisture or insects from getting into the house. It also helps to protect the wire or tube from the cut edges of the siding. Wood siding can require an enormous amount of maintenance as can hardboard siding so you need to decide how much you are willing to do to take care of it to maximize its appearance and its life. It is also important to keep "things" from growing on siding. We have all seen the lovely pictures of stately old homes that look even more stately in the photograph because of the ivy covering the brick. The bad news is that the ivy is probably doing extensive damage to the mortar as it works it's finger-like tendrils into it to hold on to the side of the building. Removal of ivy from any siding is difficult, labor intensive and the siding generally looks terrible once the ivy has been removed. Don't let romantic pictures sway your judgment...ivy belongs on the ground...period. The following is a list of the more common sidings that we see in this area.
Wood products are generally most affected by the movement of moisture into or out of the material. Water moving in can cause swelling, warping, mildew and rot. Water moving out can cause shrinkage, warping, splitting and cracking. While protective coatings are needed on all exposed wood surfaces, the most critical areas are the ends of boards because the end grain is like a sponge and soaks up moisture much faster than the sides. This means that even though it may not show, coating or caulking the ends of all wooden materials (this includes tops and bottoms too) is especially critical. Look for moisture barriers at any points of direct contact between wood and masonry--esp. end grain wood such as the bottoms of columns or the ends of beams. If barriers are not used moisture can wick from the porous masonry into the wood, accelerating deterioration.
This is a generally durable siding that holds paint well. Even though asbestos can be a health hazard if breathed, this application is generally not a problem as long as you avoid disturbing it or powdering it by sanding, drilling, scraping and so on. These shingles are getting harder to find and they are brittle and will sometimes break so if you can find any you are well advised to keep a few on hand for repairs.
This class of sidings includes hardboard, press board and the various wafer boards. These are not usually as durable as other materials and are especially damaged by water. Vigilant maintenance and the use of top quality paints and caulking are essential to maximize its life.
Be vigilant for cracks, fissures or any areas where water can enter. This material is very vulnerable to freeze damage like all masonry products.
The James Hardie Company makes fiber-cement planking and shingles that are relative newcomers to the cladding market. They are reputed to be as fire-resistant as brick, they don't dent like aluminum or melt like vinyl and they carry a 50 year manufacturer's warranty. They can be painted any color and the paint on their pre-painted sidings has a 15 year warranty. Under all circumstances they are reputed to hold paint 3-4 times longer than wood. This is a GREAT PRODUCT.
This siding is one of a number of relatively new synthetic stucco materials referred to generically as EIFS (Exterior Insulation and Finishing Systems). These materials are enormously attractive and make some striking architectural and aesthetic detailing possible. The material itself is virtually waterproof and can afford good protection if properly applied. Methods for installing or working with EIFS are quite different than those of most other exterior claddings however, and thorough familiarity with the material is crucial for weather-tight work. Questions have been raised about this material due to problems with either materials or workmanship that have allowed moisture to penetrate the membrane at flashings, nail penetrations, window and door openings, etc,. and to then cause rot or moisture deterioration within the wall. A number of window and door manufacturers refuse to honor the warranties on their materials if they are surrounded with EIFS. Due to the virtual water tightness of the material, once water has been allowed in it cannot readily escape and in addition to the damage caused by the moisture, a great garden for molds is created. To compound the issue further, even if the original EIFS installation work was good, subsequent work by deck installers, electricians, plumbers, homeowners, or others unfamiliar with the the special requirements of these materials provides numerous opportunities for potentially significant error. The first state to ban it was North Carolina and since then a number of jurisdictions have, or are discussing controlling or banning the use of this material. There have been neighborhoods where the builder, most notably Toll Brothers, has gone back, post-settlement, and re-clad the houses of those who wanted them redone in response to EIFS concerns. Today, there are systems being installed with drainage systems and these do not appear to be nearly as problematic as the original installations. We are happy to look at the cladding for you and can make specific recommendations but a full EIFS inspection requires specialized equipment and an additional 1/2 day or more of time so we strongly recommend that you consult an EIFS specialist if you have concerns.
Grading at the foundation is very important. Since the construction trench around the foundation was backfilled with disturbed soil, it is usually less dense than the surrounding soil and frequently has settled to create a shallow recess that can hold surface water against the foundation. Roof runoff and ground water can also soak down into this soil and build up against the masonry wall causing a wet basement or putting hydrostatic pressure on the foundation wall. If this pressure becomes great enough the foundation walls can bow and break under the load. Consider regrading this area by banking the soil so it slopes away from the house, dropping 1" per foot for 4 or 5 feet out from the wall. Covering this soil with black plastic sheeting (with holes torn at strategic places to allow root water for plants) and then using a coarse mulch as a ground cover can be quite effective as a water shed. If there are planter curbs, timbers or other water-retaining garden edgings, the best option is to remove them. If you must keep them, try to regrade them flush with the top so water will waterfall outside rather than being trapped inside like a basin. Drainage holes in the edging can also help water escape. NOTE: Evaluate your situation carefully before taking action! Sometimes conventional regrading can lead to the burial of wooden elements such as trim or wooden window or door components, cover the base of the air conditioner compressor, or facilitate insect infestation. This can lead to simply exchanging one problem for another. Watch out for these pitfalls!
If the slope of your yard (or your neighbors' yard) is toward your house, be especially cautious. Sometimes good foundation grading can serve as an earthen berm to channel water around the house. More extreme conditions may call for regrading of the yard or the use of swales and other external ditches or channels to keep water away.
WALKS, DRIVES AND WALLS
If these are masonry, guard against freezing damage by filling any cracks as they occur. Cracks are very common where horizontal and vertical surfaces meet. Cracks can also be caused by shrinkage in the masonry itself or by settlement of the soil underneath. Wrought iron railings frequently are set in concrete and if there are "pockets" in the concrete, water can collect and contribute to premature rustout of the posts. Consider using concrete patching compounds to mound these pockets up to shed water. Water repellant coatings are sometimes recommended to reduce the potential for water being absorbed by porous masonry (especially if it's too coarse). Others feel that they can do more harm than good by interfering with the escape of water if it does get in. If asphalt is present, coatings are available that range from just a black "paint", to containing aggregate that will fill small cracks and on up to rubberized coatings that will help shed water. Use the best materials you can afford.
Retaining walls must have drainage holes in them to provide an escape for water which otherwise can build up behind the wall, exerting fierce pressure and eventually causing the wall to fail.
DECKS, PATIOS AND GARAGES
Decks are frequently "do-it-yourself" projects so the quality of work can vary widely. Most decks are pressure treated to protect them against rot and insect damage but this does not make them maintenance free. Pressure treating makes wood even more prone to warping, swelling, splitting and other moisture related dimension changes than non-treated wood because so much water is used in the treating process. Use of high quality repellents is well worth the time and expense. The most common structural problems usually involve undersized or improperly spaced bolts, and undersized joist hangers. (This is often because the hardware store was out of the proper sizes and the homeowner bought the next best thing to avoid delays). If accessible, these issues can be fairly simple to redress. All of the local jurisdictions require that decks be built under permit--this is for good reason--every year someone has a party and the deck collapses causing serious injury and sometimes even death. The rules are there to protect so please follow them when you build it so you don't have to do rework when someone like a home inspector comes along and sees the non-permit work when you go to sell the property. Also, a deck that is safely constructed for a party or every day use is probably not structured to carry the load of a hot tub. If you decide to add a hot tub you must add the appropriate additional support underneath. Remember water weighs 8 lbs per gallon plus the weight of the people in the tub and the weight of the tub itself --- and all of this is concentrated on a relatively small spot. Safety should always be your first consideration!
Patios should slope away from the house so they don't channel water toward it and add to the water management problems. Again, freeze damage is a big enemy--maintain the surface carefully.
Garage doors are prone to water damage where the wooden panels are set into the cross-members. Keep these well painted and caulked. Many manufacturer's warranties are voided if the garage door panels are not painted on both sides and on all edges. Make sure the bottom of the door is not sitting directly against the concrete or in a damp area to avoid rot. The bottom of the door should also have a good sweep installed to help keep rodents, insects and water from intruding into the garage itself. Be sure the auto opener reverses properly by testing it occasionally. This is a safety issue.
If you have outside faucets, be sure they have anti-siphon protection to avoid drawing water from your hose (perhaps containing liquid fertilizer or lawn chemicals!) back into your drinking water supply. In the winter, be sure to shut off these faucets at the indoor valve and then open them outside to drain so they won't freeze. Disconnect the garden hoses. There may also be a small drain cap on the interior shutoff valve that may require manual release as may the backflow preventer. Failure to do this may leave water trapped in the pipes to freeze. Be careful!
Both sump pump and air conditioner drains can discharge water outside the foundation. Extend these water sources away from the house with splash blocks, extended tubing, etc.
Window wells can trap a great deal of water that can either soak down against the foundation or be held against the window opening. Clear plastic covers can help shed this water outside the well and should be used whenever possible. If these windows are the only egress from a basement bedroom be sure they can be thrown off and removed quickly from underneath if someone needs to exit quickly in the event of fire. Outside basement stair wells require particular attention. The drain must remain clear of leaves and other debris and must drain properly to avoid water backup that can quickly reach the threshold of the door and soak the basement. Screens, slatted covers and other devices can help.
Store firewood as far away from the house as possible. This may be inconvenient on a cold, wet night but any insects living in the wood such as termites, carpenter ants and other wood destroying organisms are less likely to get into the house if they are further away.