The Home Inspection Professionals in Binghamton, New York

Members of the American Society of Home Inspectors. Proudly serving the Southern Tier of NY and Northern Tier of PA since 1989.

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1278 Vestal Avenue
Binghamton, New York   13903

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Serving Broome, Tioga, Chenango, Cortland, Tompkins, Susquehanna and Bradford Counties

Ask The Experts
Interior Finishes

We want to have our hardwood floors professionally sanded but some of the boards are cracked. Can the cracked pieces be replaced without a whole new floor installed?

It all depends. If the cracks are relatively long cracks close to the edge of the strips of hardwood, it is an indication that the floors are already over sanded and complete replacement is necessary. Replacement of a few damaged pieces or "toothing-in" of flooring at former register locations is readily accomplished and should be virtually invisible if professionally done before sanding and refinishing.

We are having our kitchen remodeled and disagree as to whether we should have  post-formed or square edge laminated countertops.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The post formed countertop has the advantage of minimal seams to absorb water or chip or delaminate. However the laminate used for post-forming is typically considerably thinner than that used for square edge work to allow for the sharp bends required. It will therefore be likely to wear out sooner under normal use. There is also much more freedom to conform to unusual jogs and other anomalies in square edge work than with a post-formed type. If the installation is reasonably straightforward however and only normal residential use is expected, post-formed countertops can be an easy, and cost effective solution.

We had ceramic tile installed last year and the contractor had to take out the grout after 3 months around the edges because of cracking, and put tub and tile caulking on, but now that is cracking.

It is very common, and in fact almost inevitable for tile grout to crack when it is installed in corners or against a tub, due to the very natural movement that occurs as temperatures and moisture levels change.  Caulk is a far better choice for such sensitive locations than grout due to its ability to expand and contract with movement.  It is, however, unusual for caulk to crack so soon after its installation.  Assuming that the cracking is fairly uniform and that no evidence of real movement, (such as tiles that are becoming misaligned from one wall to another,) has been observed, the most likely cause is simply poor application of the caulk or a low grade of caulk.  Buy a top line of caulk with good elasticity and good adhesion, and give it another try, per the manufacturer's instructions.

I have a 20 year old addition over a crawlspace.  After a few years I noticed two bulges in the floor, one in the center and one four foot from the outside wall.  What caused the problem and how should I correct it.

You do not indicate whether the bulges are getting worse, so we will presume to begin with that they are not.  Bulges are not uncommon in plywood subfloors.  They are caused by delamination of the plywood, usually related to a manufacturing defect, or possibly to exposure to the elements during a protracted construction period.  They usually show some movement as the thinner laminate layers flex with the weight of occupants or furniture.  Bulges of this type are easily corrected by cutting out the offending section and replacing it, or removing the affected layer only, and applying a floor patching compound.  The other likely cause for bulging is movement of the floor framing.  This is potentially more serious, and will probably require access to the crawlspace for assessment.  The bulge in the center is likely to correspond to a center beam location.  If the uneven floor is stable over time, such movement is relatively normal, and re-leveling may be sufficient for correction.  The subfloor could be removed, the framing shimmed or adjusted to level and new plywood installed.  If the sags and humps are getting worse, all bets are off.  Inadequate framing techniques or materials, or excessively damp conditions could be the problem.  Get professional help and expect a fairly hefty price tag.

I have cracks along the edges of the oak flooring in my living room and dining room, and some of the flooring is really squeaky.  Is there something I can do to correct this?

Most traditional hardwood strip flooring has a tongue or projection along the middle of one edge and a groove along the center of the other edge of each piece.  These are intended to fit together to secure the flooring.  In order to keep the nails hidden, each piece is nailed to the sub-floor along the tongue edge, and then the next piece is installed with the groove fit tightly over the exposed tongue, progressing across the floor in this manner to complete the installation.  As the wood dries and shrinks, small gaps can develop between the strip flooring and the sub-floor.  As we walk on the floor the wood moves up and down on the nail shanks, causing the squeaking that you hear.  This can be very difficult to eliminate in an older house.  If the floor is going to be refinished or covered in carpeting, and the squeaking is not too extensive, it may be re-fastened using finish screws through the surface of the flooring.  It is also sometimes possible to carefully screw the flooring tight from below, if the underside is exposed.  Don't expect complete success with either of these methods however.

Cracking along the edge of individual pieces of wood flooring is more ominous.  What you are seeing is the wood over the groove breaking off.  This is occurring because the wood above the groove is so thin that it can't take the stress of foot traffic.  This cracking is most common in the areas where there is the most traffic.  The cracking indicates that the floor has been over-sanded, resulting in a very little remaining material above the groove, or that the wood flooring was very thin to begin with.  While most of the traditional wood flooring that we see is three quarters of an inch thick, some of the flooring that was popular in the early part of the last century was as thin as three eighths inch or less.  In this case, very little, if any, sanding is possible.  In either case, there is no real cure short of replacement of the flooring, if significant cracking has occurred.

I attempted to paint the ceilings in my house, but the texture started coming off.  I think I ruined the ceiling.  What can I do to salvage the ceiling?

You probably have a “popcorn” ceiling.  This texture has become very popular with builders in the last twenty-five years or so.  “Popcorn” ceilings are normally sprayed over unpainted drywall.  The material is relatively inexpensive, goes on easily, and can mask mediocre drywall finishing.  It has more of the appearance of cottage cheese than popcorn and is a very soft and porous material.  It readily absorbs moisture when it becomes wet and then turns to mush. 

“Popcorn” is difficult to patch, especially for an amateur.  If you prefer to do the work yourself, your best bet is probably to scrape all of the material off and start over.  This is a messy project, but is pretty straight forward.  Since the texture came off accidentally when wet, we can presume that it has not been painted, which would prevent soaking and make removal much more difficult.  Wet the material with a garden sprayer in small areas and let soak for ten minutes.  With only a couple of wettings it should easily scrape off with a 6 inch to 12 inch putty knife.  Once the entire ceiling has been scraped clean, lightly sand the ceiling with a pole sander and sanding screen.  Assuming that the drywall was reasonably well finished, you should be able to then prime and paint.  A note of caution, however, it is possible that the “popcorn” contains asbestos, especially if the house is older than twenty-five years.  Due to the potential hazard, if there is any question about its composition we recommend taking a small sample and sending it to a local lab for a determination.  If it contains asbestos, don't attempt to do the removal yourself. 

If you are contemplating any future attempts to paint “popcorn” ceilings it is always best to spray paint, rather than use a brush or roller.  If spraying is not possible, use a thinned down paint or primer and a roller to quickly and lightly seal the ceiling first and allow to dry thoroughly before attempting to apply a finish coat. 

I am leaving for Florida for the next two months.  If I properly winterize the plumbing system will it be okay to turn the heat off in my house while I'm gone?

Winterizing the house is a good idea.  Turning off the heat is not.  Two problems are likely to occur when you turn off the heat in the winter, even when the house is properly winterized.  Both involve the effects of moisture.  Any moisture that is in the materials in the house is likely to freeze.  When water freezes it expands.  The stresses from repeated freezing and thawing will damage plaster and drywall over time.  More importantly, because cold air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air, any moisture in the air from various sources in the house will condense on the coldest surfaces, even in a home that does not have a discernable moisture problem under normal conditions,.  This moisture will support mold growth during the warmer periods of the winter.  The primary source of this moisture is dampness in the soil below the house.  The moisture rises up through the basement and condenses on surfaces on the upper floors, or at the very least, will condense on the underside of the wood sheathing of the first floor.  We often see large quantities of mold on the underside of the floor as seen from the basement in a home that has been left unheated, since this is the first really cold surface that the moisture contacts. 

Required winterization of the plumbing system if the heat is turned off includes draining all water supply pipes, using a compressor to blow out any remaining water, and adding RV antifreeze to toilets and drain traps to prevent freezing and bursting.  If you leave the heat on, but at a lowered temperature, you will have the option to simply shut off the water supply and open any taps.  This will be sufficient to prevent flooding if any pipes should accidentally freeze and burst.  The best defense against damage includes finding someone to check on the house regularly, plugging in a light wired to a temperature sensor, (set to turn on if the temperature drops below normal, to alert a watchful neighbor), or installing a freeze alarm that will dial your phone number, or your heating contractor's number, if the temperature gets too low. 

We built a family room addition on our house three years ago.  The hardwood flooring is curling up at the edges of the wood strips.  Why is this happening and what can we do to correct it?

Hardwood flooring, being a solid wood product, is susceptible to expansion and contraction and other movement as its environment changes.  Wood products are particularly susceptible to changes in moisture levels.  Properly installed hardwood flooring should be acclimated to the moisture levels in the area where it will be installed before installation occurs for best results.  But the movement that you are seeing is most likely caused by excess moisture coming from below your addition.  The moisture is swelling the underside of the wood, which expands, causing the wood to curl up at the edges.  This is called cupping, and provides an unsightly appearance and uncomfortable footing. 

You don't describe the conditions underneath the floor, but there are two likely scenarios.  If the wood flooring was installed on a concrete floor, it is likely that a vapor barrier was not installed below the concrete, allowing moisture from the soil to move through the concrete.  Correction will be expensive, but if you remove the wood you can install a vapor barrier on top of the concrete before applying a new finished floor.  You may want to install a more moisture resistant flooring like vinyl composition tiles.  The other likely circumstance is that the flooring is installed over an overly damp crawlspace.  If the space below the floor is not accessible it must be made accessible, and the sources of excess moisture should be corrected.  A plastic vapor barrier should be placed on the ground, and any standing water should be prevented by proper grading and proper drainage, both inside the crawlspace and on the exterior of the house.  You want to keep all surface water flowing away from the house, and control any water that still makes it into your crawlspace.  The crawlspace should be open to the basement, or a dehumidifier should be installed as necessary to ensure that it remains dry.

The flooring may be salvageable if the cupping is not too severe.  The wood should be professionally sanded and refinished, and then, with proper moisture control below, it should last a lifetime.

I have been having a problem with soot on the ceilings and walls of my house.  I have had the walls washed and painted twice over the last few years, but the soot has appeared again.  Does this mean that I need a new furnace?

You should probably hire an inspector to check the various systems in the house, including the furnace, since the soot may be symptomatic of a more serious problem, such as carbon monoxide buildup.  However, the most common cause for soot deposits in residences is actually candles.  You may like the atmosphere provided by candles, but you may also be contaminating the atmosphere in your home.  Time and again we have found candles, especially poorly designed or flickering candles, or those types that are housed in glass jars or other containers, to be the culprits.  We have also in some instances found that idling a car in the attached garage can be a source of unusual amounts of soot.  This is a bad practice due to potential carbon monoxide buildup also.

The pattern of soot on the walls and ceilings can be instructive.  Generally, soot will deposit most where the air is moving against a finished surface.  Wherever heat from any source is rising along the walls, you can expect deposits.  The other interesting observation is that on a wall or ceiling with patchy dark areas, those areas of greater soot buildup are indicative of reduced amounts of insulation behind the surface.  Colder surfaces allow more moisture to condense, causing the dust to adhere to those surfaces.  You may be able to find the areas of missing insulation in your walls or ceilings in this way. 

If candles are popular in your house, we have probably found the problem.  If not, we recommend a professional investigation.