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Or Can They?

By Bob Mulloy


WOOD/SOIL CONTACT -Is their wood/soil contact, signs of decay, or a potential for decay? We all know that wood in soil contact is an invitation for decay and pest infestation both now or in the future, but one of the first things I try to determine is if the deck has been constructed with treated or untreated lumber. Untreated lumber simply will have a relatively short service life due to the wet environment. Identifying the type of material can be tricky as the deck surface may be painted or stained, so I squat down and look at the underside where the material is unfinished. When I find untreated materials, my inspection antennae goes up and I am on the prowl for expected areas of decay.

Every piece of wood in soil contact that I can reach gets probed regardless of type and decay is noted in my report. Numerous times I have found that my probe goes right through decayed floor joists or decking boards in concentrated locations, causing me to think about the source of all the moisture. Nine times out of ten, the roof drainage is not controlled and water is constantly water falling onto the deck. By the way, outdoor carpeting is wonderful if you like that soggy wood feeling under your feet and plan to replace the deck in a few years.

UNSAFE ITEMS - Are there visible UNSAFE nail pops or splinters in the deck? As part of my routine "show & tell" performance, I briefly educate my client that the deck has two enemies, sunlight & moisture. I explain that even a pressure treated deck needs periodic maintenance with a wood preservative to retard moisture absorption and the drying effects of the sun. As mentioned earlier, deck components directly facing the sun and weather experience greater exposure to the wet/dry cycle, they undergo expansion and contraction, and ultimately suffer from frequent dangerous nail pops and splinters. Imagine a deck full of such hazards that you failed to document resulting in personal injury. My advice is to check the deck surface and rails carefully.

LIFE SAFETY ISSUES - Documenting access & life-safety issues. Home inspection "Standards of Practice" require us to document what was or was not inspected and why. Many times it is not possible to fully inspect a deck because of snow coverage, storage, locked crawl spaces, crawl spaces full of storage or other unforeseen circumstances. In these situations, a little "risk reduction" is needed in the inspection report. For example, I often tell the client that "the snow cover prevented complete analysis of the deck, that true conditions are undetermined, that there could be hidden problems not documented in your report and that a re-inspection is advised when the deck is clear of snow."

ADVICE FOR INSPECTORS - Let me stress again, that a deck inspection should be approached with a practiced methodology. The key points should be evaluated professionally. Most importantly, any defects which, in your opinion, fall into the category of life-safety should be highlighted in your report using CAPS and BOLD type to capture the readers attention. Throughout this article, I have touched on examples of defects that pose a risk of personal injury. I cannot stress enough that all such items be documented, as failure will expose you to monumental liability.

In closing, when you walk around to the rear of the home and encounter a deck, you should automatically be suspicious and remember the thought: "Anyone can build a deck." Ask yourself the pertinent questions and inspect each component with a practiced eye.

PAGES 1, 2, 3

Bob Mulloy is President of Allsafe Home Inspection Service, Inc. in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and a national presenter on the topic of deck failures. He is a licensed Massachusetts home inspector, a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), and Chairman of the Education Committee for the local ASHI NE Chapter. Bob is also a Massachusetts Board approved continuing education provider for home inspectors. He can be reached at 508-378-7170, by email at rmulloy@verizon.net, or via his website at:


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