Radon and Radon Testing

Radon is a naturally-occurring soil gas that mostly occurs in rocky soil.  It rises into buildings through small cracks in the lowest level floor – usually through the floor of the basement or crawl space, or through the ground floor if the building is built atop a slab.  Long-term exposure to radon has been linked to lung cancer.  Although the EPA New York State radon map shows that the NYC metro area is the lowest-incidence area, radon testing is universally recommended by real estate professionals, as pockets of elevated radon levels do exist.

The most common and simplest radon test involves leaving one or more testing canisters set up in a sealed room (no running fans of any sort and all windows/doors closed) at the lowest level in the building undisturbed for at least 48 hours (follow manufacturer’s instructions).  They can be purchased in a hardware store or found by typing “radon test kit” into a search engine.  They are usually $15-$25 each, which includes the lab analysis. After 48 hours, they must be collected and sent to the lab. These short-term tests have two shortcomings:

First, performing a radon test in a building you don’t own can be challenging, as the test must be left undisturbed in a sealed room. When you don’t have control over that environment, tampering could occur, unbeknownst to you.

Second, the 48-hour test is a snapshot, which may not provide the full picture, because radon levels can fluctuate over the course of the year.  Negative results from a single test of this type cannot be relied upon as a final assurance that the house is radon-free.   Therefore, multiple canister tests should be done during different times of year, or a continuous data logger should be set up to monitor radon levels over a longer time period.

If you perform a radon test yourself, be sure to use testing devices that are NEHA- or HRSB-approved.  The EPA action level for radon measurements is 4 picocuries per liter (pC/l), although some studies recommend action at levels between 2 and 3 pC/l.  Such action would take the form of a properly designed radon mitigation system.  Mitigation systems do not involve complicated equipment and are generally not prohibitively expensive.

Read more on what the EPA says about radon here:  http://www.epa.gov/radon/

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Energy efficiency upgrades for houses

Energy costs are a consideration these days but most houses in the New York metropolitan region were built during a time when energy costs were not a concern. Thus, they were not built with energy efficiency and conservation in mind. Following are some common energy upgrades that you may consider.

Attic insulation
All exterior surfaces of a building lose heat to the outside, even the basement floor, but warm air rises and so the most heat is lost through the top ceiling. Adding insulation above the top ceiling is a relatively inexpensive measure that has a good return on investment, as well as improved comfort. Most houses we see average around 5 – 6 inches of fiberglass (R19), whereas the newly released New York State building codes require 16 inches (R49) for new construction. Use caution, however, as insulating the top ceiling makes the roof deck colder and more prone to condensation of moist air that makes its way into the attic. If you have insulation added, the top ceiling should be air-sealed as well to minimize air movement from the conditioned space to the attic.

Wall insulation
Insulating walls from the interior is invasive and has a limited return on investment. It is best done during a gut renovation, when walls will be open anyway. You can use spray foam, which is more expensive, but it does a superior job of air sealing the building shell. If you are replacing exterior siding on a wood-framed house, wall insulation can be applied from the outside in two ways – by blowing insulation into wall cavities from outside and/or applying foam insulation boards to the exterior walls behind the siding. Use of foam boards is a good approach, because it provides some measure of air sealing and also prevents thermal bridging through walls studs, which readily causes heat loss though the walls to the outside.

Simple Air Sealing
This is a simple DIY measure that anyone with a caulking gun can do. Common construction techniques leave gaps around trimmed areas in exterior walls where air can blow through. Seal all window / door trim pieces together and to the wall and seal base trim to the wall and floor. This can be done with latex caulking, which is paintable. Air tends to blow through outlet and switch boxes. There are gaskets available to go under the cover plates that can cut back on the air flow.



New Windows
Replacing old windows does not have a good return on investment with regard to energy savings, given their cost. Windows should only be replaced if you are unhappy with how they perform — are they drafty, broken, difficult to operate? It’s hard to put a price on family comfort!




Air conditioning
If you would like to make the jump from window and wall A/C units to a central cooling system, you can either go ducted or ductless.

Installing ducts in a house is very invasive and often results in ducts and cooling equipment located in the hottest place in the house — the attic. Sound counterintuitive? It is, and usually results in severe energy losses. Someday this practice will be prohibited by building codes, but now it’s standard procedure. It is best to avoid using the attic for cooling equipment, tempting though it may be.

If you want to avoid the hassles of ducts, you could go ductless. Ductless equipment, also known as mini-splits, is hitting its stride in the HVAC market and has many advantages. Mini-split equipment is quieter and has a less invasive installation. Also, it is far more energy efficient than common ducted systems, mainly because it avoids altogether the transmission losses that occur through ductwork in unconditioned spaces like attics and inside walls, etc. Moreover, the equipment itself better utilizes the energy input through variable refrigerant flow and variable fan speeds. The wall units don’t need to be on outside walls like wall A/Cs do and a few strategically placed units can cool down an entire floor in short order. The outside condensers can drive up to 8 or more wall units. This equipment has computer controls and is quite complex, so you need to have an installer who is well-versed in installation and servicing. Mini-splits can also come with optional heating mode, which can serve as a supplemental heat source or even a backup in the event of heating equipment failure.

In terms of costs, there are probably similarities between ductless and ducted systems, though one could go higher than the other in consideration of the specifics of a given house.

Heating upgrades
The highest return on investment is switching from an old oil-fired boiler to a high-efficiency condensing gas boiler. The typical payback period can be 5 – 8 years in heating savings. The return is two-fold: Oil right now costs more than gas and the increase in equipment efficiency means that more of the energy in the fuel is utilized, rather than going up the chimney as waste heat. Two other savings that can occur in such an upgrade is the lack of need to restore an old chimney and rebates that are offered by the utility (contact them for details). Even though installation of high-efficiency equipment is more expensive than an in-kind replacement of your existing boiler, the long-term investment makes good sense. Even if you already have gas heat, but your boiler or furnace is nearing the end of its life, switching to condensing equipment makes sense. Condensing units rip so much energy out of the gas, that the exhaust is much cooler and gets vented through a plastic pipe. Brick chimneys are used for conventional heating equipment because the exhaust gases are so hot. This is known as waste heat! Again, condensing equipment is complex, so be sure to work with an installer who understands proper installation of this equipment and is capable of providing future service.

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Water leak into apartment from outside

I have a client who is purchasing an apartment in the Bronx.  In my inspection, I identified a wet spot on the living room wall next to a window.  Now I don’t like to make trouble unless its absolutely necessary, and when dealing with water leakage, I use a methodology, which includes a moisture meter and infrared camera, to make the call as to whether a suspect area is wet or dry.  In this case, the suspect area had blistered paint and tested “wet” with the moisture meter.  In such cases, building maintenance will often deny that there’s a leak problem, as it is in their own best interrest that there is no leak.   Even sometimes, as was the case here, the super shows up with his moisture meter to “prove” that there is no leak.  Of course, I chase leaks in buildings on a daily basis, so once the buyer’s attorney presented my methodology to building management, they surprisingly relented and stated that there was in fact some Local Law 11 work that needed to be done on the exterior facade right outside the subject apartment.  The client was satisfied and moved forward with the purchase.

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9 Things to Do During Outside Spring Cleanup

Following is a short to-do list of items that you can check during spring cleaning to help maintain your home.

Gutters and downspouts

Your roof rainwater management system helps preserve the building by preventing splashback damage to the lower walls and avoids water entry into below-ground areas. Remove any leaves and debris from gutters/leaders that have accumulated since the fall cleaning. Strainers should be used at gutter drains to prevent leaf/debris buildup in leaders. Reattach gutters/leaders that have disconnected so they’re ready for spring rains. Seal any leaks that you observed during a rain storm by caulking gutters from inside after they’re clean and dry.


Clean siding using a broomstick brush with soap and water. Rinse with a garden hose sprayer. Use of a pressure washer should be minimized or avoided, as it can drive water into walls where latent vulnerabilities exist. Painted surfaces can be touched up by filling, sanding and painting where needed.

Exterior caulking

Replace caulking where cracked or deteriorated. Remove old caulk prior to recaulking.

Window and door screens

Clean insect screens by removing and hosing down. Check for holes. Local hardware stores and glazing shops can replace torn screens inexpensively.


Inspect roof surface and flashings for damages. Even if the roof is not walking-friendly, you can see everything you need to see while standing on the ladder at the edge of the roof (while always observing the rules of ladder safety!). Renew cracked tar, if any. Check chimney for masonry cracks that could allow water entry into the chimney and repair as needed. Contact a roofer if needed repairs are outside your comfort level.


Check deck floorboards and railings for deterioration. Small areas of rot can be hollowed, filled and sanded. Larger areas should be replaced. Uncovered decks typically should be treated every 4-6 years, depending on how much exposure they get to sun and rain. Test all guards rails and hand rails for tightness and tighten any that are loose.


Prune back vegetation where needed and maintain a gap of 6 – 12 inches between all foliage and the house. Spring is a good time of year to prune overhanging trees. Hire a landscaper (who has appropriate insurance!) for branch pruning that is beyond your comfort level, or where property damage could occur from falling branches.

Lawn Irrigation Sprinklers

Sprinkler service companies can optimize your system to ensure full coverage with minimum usage of water.

Air Conditioning

Cooling season will be upon us quickly enough. Check your exterior condensing units for buildup of leaves inside and make sure that side coils are free of debris blockage. Clean them as needed. Trim back any foliage encroaching upon them, as that can affect cooling performance. Make sure that gutter-bound condensate drains pipes (from air handlers in the attic) are not blocked and can drain freely. Many HVAC companies offer a spring startup service in lieu of doing it yourself.

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9 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Home Inspector

Sorting through the hype

When it comes time to hire a home inspector, it can be difficult to differentiate among all the home inspection advertising, to determine who will provide the service that will best meet your needs.  Everyone would agree that they would want to hire someone who does a thorough inspection and knows what they’re doing.  But how do we separate the wheat from the chaff?   Here we have provided an unbiased list of questions that you should ask of a home / building inspection company prior to hiring the person that you expect to provide critical information about the largest purchase you probably will ever make.

What is the fee?

Although this is often the first question we hear, the price should not have the most bearing on whom you hire.  Inspection companies that market themselves with low prices usually do so because they are new in the business (read: inexperienced) and, being unable or unwilling to distinguish themselves with high quality service, they fall back on low prices.  We are continually astounded by buyers who try to cut corners on this one critical aspect of the discovery process of the property they’re looking to buy. It is a mistake to hire a company simply because they have the lowest price — you will end up with the lowest quality service and you could end up really regretting it.  When you are shopping for a comparable item, such as a DVD player, you can decide which model you want and then price shop for the lowest price.  With home inspectors, it’s different.  There is no comparable item. Prices will generally reflect experience level and the quality of service you will receive.  It is the same with contractor — the lowest priced contractor is the one who knows how to cut the most corners.   Ask these other questions to get a better idea of the service you will receive because inspectors all provide different levels of service and cannot be price-shopped.

How long have you been doing this work?

After licensing for home inspectors was made law in New York State in 2006, inspector schools sprung up and tripled the amount of home inspectors across the state by providing a course specifically tailored to meet home inspector licensing requirements, which right now are not very stringent.  As a result, there are now far more “weekend warriors” out there than full-time, competent, experienced inspectors.  As with any type of school, there is rudimentary training, but graduates are by no means qualified to go out and start giving you advice on the biggest purchase you probably will ever make.  Inspectors can and must take training before entering the field, but all the training in the world is no substitute for experience. (Hint: Those who advertise their training may not have the experience you should be looking for.) The bottom line is…you want to make sure you get an inspector who has the experience to provide you the information you need.

What is your methodology?

Even though there is a home inspection Standard of Practice in New York State, it is very limited in scope. Therefore, someone providing service that minimally adheres to the State standard is not providing much. The better inspectors will exceed that standard (as well as any other standards, such as the ASHI one). Anyone you hire should be able to give you a detailed explanation of their inspection process, whether verbally or in writing.

Is a sample report available?

Many inspection companies provide a sample report on their web sites.  If they don’t, you should ask for one.  This is where you get to see the level of quality provided by a given house and building inspection service.  Is the report clear and easy to understand?  Are there photos? If so, are they large enough to see the pertinent details and clearly annotated?  Does the report look like it explains issues in enough detail or will you continually have to call back to get clarification? Are there cost estimates?  Perusing a sample report is a must!

Although many companies will have a sample report available for download at their web sites, other companies have not bothered to make sample reports available. A refusal to this request should be regarded with suspicion.  I have seen many home inspection reports on other company web sites, and aside from obvious spelling mistakes and poor grammar, many of these reports are really hard to read — being jammed with redundant disclaimers and vague sentence fragments, leaving very little useful information. I saw one report where the text said that everything about the electric panel was OK, but the picture next to it showed an immediate fire hazard.

When do I receive the written report?

When purchasing a property, once you have an offer accepted, you have a limited amount of time to sign a sales contract. In many cases, the seller wants to move things along as quickly as possible. Since a property inspection plays a major role in helping you determine if and how to move forward, you need to have the written report as soon as possible after the site inspection. Most companies will provide it within a few days via mail or email. Ask this question to make sure you will be able move along in a timely manner. Beware of “checklist” reports that are given on-site, as they are generally an inferior product, that forces you to navigate large areas of irrelevant text and short handwritten sentence fragments.

Is a termite certificate included in the fee? (for financed purchases)

Most lenders will require a termite certificate in order to underwrite a house.  A separate termite inspection from a pest control company can cost anywhere from $75 to $150. Many building inspection companies include them with their reports but some don’t.  If you must choose between having the certificate provided by the house inspector or a pest control technician, remember: home inspectors do not sell treatments (and are therefore not motivated to “find” a problem).

Do you access the roof with a ladder?

Buildings with pitched roofs (and even some with flat roofs) do not have roof access from inside.  From experience, I can say that the only way to fully evaluate the condition and quality of installation of the roofing material is to see it up close. The only way to see it up close is with a ladder.  Most inspectors will not access a 2-story roof with a ladder, so this is an important question to ask.  Even if the roof is new, it does not mean that it was installed correctly.  Some inspectors use contraptions, such as camera poles and even drones.  But there are details that even the best of these contraptions will miss.  For example, no contraption can tell how many layers of roofing are present.  For that, you have to physically lift the bottom course to check.  This can determine whether roof replacement will be double the cost because of having to remove the old shingles prior to reroofing.

Do you open all electric panels?

Perhaps the most important thing an inspector can do when visiting a property is to remove covers from electric panels to check for unsafe wiring.  There is no limit to what homeowners and amateur “electricians” can do with wiring to create potential fire hazards.   Yet there are a few companies, including a prominent “engineering” firm that we know of, that do not provide this critical service.  Every now and then I have opened an electrical panel to find overheated and melted wires – a fire waiting to happen.

What do you do to assess water entry or leakage?

Even a small amount of water leakage can cause big problems in building, if it is undiscovered for a long period of time.  Concealed mold could grow and cause health problems for sensitive occupants.  Other than looking for visible signs of leakage, such as water staining, water damage or visible mold growth, there is more that can be done to determine if a given house or building has water leakage problems.

Many, but not all, inspectors use moisture meters, which can determine if and how wet a water stain is.  If a stain is wet, you have a genuine issue that you can bring to the table in a property purchase.  Many sales contracts stipulate that a building will be delivered “leak-free”, and therefore any wet stain, whether it comes from inside or outside is, in most cases, an active leak.

A few inspectors use infrared (IR) cameras during inspections.  While these devices are useful in identifying missing insulation and electrical overheating, they are also really great at locating areas where leakage occurs, but where no visible staining is present.

Every so often the infrared camera locates leaks around windows.  This typically happens in buildings where new windows were recently installed.  Such an installer clearly had no understanding of proper window installation, and therefore all of the windows he installed are suspect, whether they show signs of leakage or not.  This cannot be fixed with caulking.  The windows would need to be removed and correctly reinstalled or else they will always leak.  The repair would involve removal, reflashing, and reinstallation of windows and could run upwards of $1000 per window.  We find conditions like this over and over again in buildings…

Of course any inspector needs to be trained in using the IR camera, which does not see moisture, only temperature differences on surfaces, therefore the “stain” in the above photo would need to be tested with a moisture meter to determine if it is wet. To be fair, moisture meters and IR cameras can only be effective in identifying conditions when they exist.  For example, many roof leaks do not leak every time it rains, perhaps only during a really heavy rainstorm that only occurs every few months.  Therefore, water stains can dry over time and the moisture would not then show up under IR.  So while we can’t expect usage of a moisture meter and IR to locate every possible and potential water leak, a good inspector will be able to learn a lot more using these tools, than someone who only does a visual inspection.  This is a worthwhile conversation to have when looking to hire an inspector, because as we’ve learned through years of using an IR camera, houses and buildings leak more than you might think.

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Buying a flip in Bed-Stuy

This article is based upon one that I published on Brownstoner in 2013.  The article specifically referred to renovated houses in that neighborhood, but it really could apply to any flipped house anywhere.  Things in that neighborhood have gotten a little more above-board in since then, but this article is still relevant.  The ideas here tend to be especially prevalent in “up and coming” neighborhoods, where profit margins for builders are pretty tight, which highly encourages corner-cutting.

“Flips” are buildings purchased by an investor, substantially renovated (often with new plumbing, heating and electrical), and flipped (resold in short order).

For some people, the prospect of purchasing a renovated flip is probably better than purchasing an old house that needs a lot of work, because of time and resource constraints.  By and large, it may end up being a better deal in the long run.  But you should still set some money aside for repairing stuff that the seller has no interest or ability to repair.

Perhaps it’s useful to outline the real estate investing business for those who are not familiar with it.  The seller is often a general contractor or an investor who oversees a general contractor (GC).  It is the job of the GC to coordinate the various trades that do work in the building.  Trades are fairly specialized and as many as 10 to 20 different trades may be involved in any project, such as heating technicians, plumbers, electricians, tile setters, flooring installers, roofers…to name a few.  The GC hires each of these trades to do their part and they are known as collectively as subcontractors, or subs.  Since profit is the main motivating factor, subs are often hired based upon the lowest bid and, as we know, the guy who charges the lowest price knows how to cut the most corners.  Never mind that the construction field is rife with unlicensed amateurs – the people who inhabit the lowest rungs of the bidding ladder.  Oftentimes the wallboard hanger who “knows electricity and plumbing” will run pipes and wires even though he’s nowhere near qualified to do it.

In flips, the most attention to detail will usually go into bathrooms, kitchens, and floors — areas that catch the eye of most buyers immediately, and less attention to detail goes into other areas, especially areas to which many laypeople are oblivious, such as roofing, plumbing, electrical, chimneys, heating, and insulation.

The main thing I have observed in these flips is that they are far from perfect, but they are being sold as perfect.   I routinely find water leakage, electrical problems, heating problems, amateur work, and the list goes on.

So who is responsible for rectifying elements that were installed incompetently or deficiently?  Of course, in my opinion, and in the opinion of most buyers, it would be the seller.  But some sellers have been known to disagree with that position.  Ultimately, buyers and sellers arrive at the table voluntarily, so it’s a negotiation.  In other words, you don’t have to buy the building and the seller doesn’t have to sell it to you.  And in a hot real estate market, buyers tend to be less discriminating…

A Certificate of Occupancy (C/O) essentially states that a finished building complies with prevailing building codes and is legally habitable.  The main thing I see over and over again is that the seller is trying to sell a substantially renovated building without a C/O, by standing on the idea that because it’s an old building, it doesn’t require a C/O.  This could not be farther from the truth.  Building codes provide a minimum standard for building occupant safety.  If an investor is replacing the electrical system in a building, for example, it MUST conform to modern-day building codes and be verified as such through visits by municipal building inspectors.  The same holds true for new plumbing and HVAC systems, as well as structural modifications, additions to the the building, etc.  The certification process most importantly includes these inspections prior to finished walls being installed.  Post-construction, pre-purchase inspections that are provided by people like me cannot verify full adherence to building codes because the walls conceal too much.  Therefore, if the construction is largely finished and no municipal inspections have been done, there is a problem.  Verification of building code compliance could involve opening up walls.  If you’re interested in a place in New York City, you can see for yourself what, if any, permits and violations are on file for any building by entering the address into the NYC Department of Buildings website:  http://www.nyc.gov/html/dob/html/home/home.shtml

In these types of purchases, I often hear that the seller will discount the house if the buyer agrees to purchase without a C/O.  Purchase of the building without the C/O involves considerable risk, because it is often impossible to determine what the City will need (i.e. what it will cost) to confer a final Certificate on that building.  Let’s say that the seller offers a $20,000 discount, but what if it costs $50,000 to bring the house into compliance?  Most (but not all) attorneys will strongly advise against a buyer client closing on a building without a C/O.  I once saw a new 6-family apartment building in the Bronx many years ago that the buyer had purchased without a C/O, due to poor advice from her attorney.  The building had serious problems and 6 families living there, technically illegally.  I was retained after the closing, so the buyer was in a greatly weakened negotiating position.  Of course, your ability to negotiate is strongest prior to signing a sales contract and that is an important conversation to have with your attorney.

This is usually what unfolds: As part of my inspection report (aside from recommending the seller provide a final C/O), I provide a list of items that, in my very humble opinion, the seller might be responsible for correcting, i.e. anything they installed or replaced.  The list could contain anything from a sticking door or window to roof leaks or non-functional heating equipment.  If my list contains 30 items (not uncommon), the seller might agree to correct 10 or 15.  When I am sometimes hired to return to the property after “repairs” are rendered, I often find that only half the items on the agreed list were actually addressed.

The thing to consider is, if the GC or his subs couldn’t do something correctly to begin with, is there wisdom in having them perform the fixes?  It depends upon the thing being fixed.   A sticking door should be no problem, but maybe not so much with improper electrical wiring.  So there are cases where it is probably better for you to hire your own people (licensed professionals) to render these repairs and corrections.  In these cases, some of the sale proceeds could  be left in an escrow account to pay your own contractors directly.  Once the work has been completed, the remaining funds go to the seller.  This way the seller only pays exactly what repairs cost.  Of course, the seller’s own cost for doing repairs himself would always be substantially lower to him because he already has subs on call.  Therefore, this arrangement would be highly subject to negotiation.  Seller corrections to items that were done wrong to begin with would then absolutely have to be verified as correct by a third party if you as a buyer did not have the expertise to assure that work was performed correctly.

In closing, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway:  No old building, whether in vintage condition, new, or newly renovated, should be purchased without a thorough building inspection prior to signing a sales contract.

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