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Lots and Grounds

If the general terrain around your home is inclined, is it a gentle, sloping incline or a steeply sloped incline, and in which direction does surface water flow? A primary point of concern is the possibility of surface water movement towards the house and eventual penetration into the below grade areas. If your land slopes downward from the street to the house, your house may encounter serious drainage problems. The surface water, if not properly diverted or controlled may accumulate around the foundation, or it may collect or pond on the lawn.

The actual soil conditions around the home are a major concern. Soil erosion, ponding water and grades that slope towards the house can lead to water in the basement or crawl space areas. The basic principal for preventing or minimizing erosion is to have the ground covered as much as possible with vegetation, such as grass, trees, shrubs, etc. As the homes are landscaped, the shrubs and trees are often intentionally planted very close to one another to produce an immediate, pleasing cosmetic effect. In most cases, the plants are not placed with the future appearance in mind. Consequently, as the shrubs and trees grow and fill out, they tend to crowd one another. They also tend to be too close to the house.

More importantly, they begin to impact the exterior surfaces of the residence. Damp conditions are conducive to the growth of fungus and mildew that lead to the decay of the wooden structural components. In general, shrubs should be trimmed at least 12 to 16 inches away from the walls to prevent damage by abrasion when high winds blow, and to allow the siding and other building materials to dry out.

English Ivy makes a good ground cover, but on structural elements, its tendrils probe every opening. Often, you may find the ivy tendrils inside the basement area where they have found openings along the sills, windows, etc. and have grown through. Ivy that climbs a downspout or telephone wire can tear away the supports. Ivy that gets behind siding, shingles and clapboard can, as it gets thicker, force the material away from the structural components of the residence. Ivy produces claw-like anchors to support its own weight. The claws puncture the wood shingles and the paint layers on the clapboard and wood siding, leaving openings through which water can penetrate. The best way to remove them is to cut them off at the roots and wait 1 to 2 weeks for them to weaken and dry before pulling them off. Do not wait too long, because they will become too dry and fragile and you may find yourself removing them 1 inch at a time.

Dead trees are vulnerable to insect damage and decay, and they are a potential safety hazard when they fall, especially if they are located near the residence. In the fall and winter months, it is somewhat difficult to determine whether a tree is dead or has any dead branches. However, if you see limbs with bark peeling off, you can assume that these branches are dead and should be removed. Depending upon the size and location of the tree, its removal can be costly. A professional who is skilled and insured should perform this type of work. In addition to dead branches, all limbs that are overhanging or resting on a roof of the residence should be pruned back. These branches, especially in periods of high wind or when covered with snow, can damage the roofing surface.

Landings, Stoops and Steps

Landings, stoops and steps can be made of masonry, such as brick or concrete, or metal or wood. All stoops/landings and steps with a total rise of more than 24 inches above the floor or grade area are required to have guard rails. The guardrail is required to have a height of 36 inches for porches, balconies, or raised floor surfaces, and 34 inches for the open sides of the stairs. The area of the guardrail is required to have spacing no greater than 4 inches.

Landings are required on each side of all egress or exit doors, except at an interior door where the direction of the door swing is not over a stairwell. A minimum of 3′ x 3′ landing is required on each side of the egress door. The floor or landing should not be more than 1-1/4″ lower than the top of the threshold, if the door swings out over top of the landing. In cases where the door swings so that it is over top of the stairs, or at the landing at the exterior doorway, there should be no more than an 8-1/4″ drop from the top of the threshold to the landing.

Stairways should not be less than 36 inches in width at all points above the permitted hand rail height and below the required head room height. The minimum width at and below the handrail height should not be less than 32 inches where the hand rail is installed on one side, and 28 inches where hand rails are installed on both sides of the stairway.

The maximum riser height should not exceed 8-1/4 inches, and the minimum tread width should be a 10 inches. The riser height is measured vertically between the leading edges of the adjacent treads. The tread depth is measured horizontally between the vertical planes of the foremost projection of the adjacent treads, and at the right angle of the tread’s leading edge. The walking surface of the treads and landings of all stairways should be sloped greater than one unit vertical in 48 inches (2% slope). The maximum riser height of any riser in a flight of stairs should not exceed the smallest height by more than 3/8 of an inch.

The minimum head room on all parts of the stairway should not be less than 6’8″ measured vertically from the slope plane of the adjoining tread nosing, or from the floor surface of the landing and platform areas.

When inspecting the steps, look specifically for cracked, broken, rotted, chipped or loose sections. The treads should be level (within a 2% slope). Uneven sections are considered tripping hazards. If the steps and landing areas are of concrete masonry construction, look at the steps and foundation walls for cracked, broken, or chipped sections. If the steps and landing are of wood construction, there should be masonry pads and footings. Check the base of the wooden stringers for deterioration by probing the area with a screwdriver. If the screwdriver penetrates the wood easily, the stringer should be reinforced or replaced.


A balcony is a platform attached to the house, but is not typically supported from the ground. Balconies may be built on the joists that extend from the floor joist system of the house, or they may be extensions of the interior floor joists that are cantilevered over the exterior foundation wall. It is important that a complete evaluation of the balconies be conducted, to ensure that they are structurally safe. Balconies can fail if their support, joists or fasteners deteriorate because of weather and lack of maintenance.

The flooring of the balcony area is vulnerable to deterioration, especially if it has been used to support plants that are frequently watered and seldom moved, or are located on the north side of the structure. As with the decks and landings, the balcony area should be properly secured with hand rails and guard rail sections. Evaluate the point where the cantilevered joist or flooring supports rest upon the foundation walls. Check for cracking of the foundation structure, as well as for sag, deterioration and other signs of failure in the structural supporting members of the balcony.


A porch is an extension with a roof on the exterior of the residence.  Porches differ in design and purpose from decks and landings. Railings, posts and other decorative elements provide character to a house, but they should be examined to ensure that they are free from deterioration and will provide the necessary structural support.

Porches that are open to the weather should have floors that slope away from the residence. The slope should be incorporated into the design so that water drains easily off of the porch. Entry must be gained underneath the porch area to examine the supporting structure and to be sure that the posts and columns are acceptable. Wood elements should have a separation from the ground or soil area. Brick and masonry components should be plumb, with their mortar joints in good condition.

Porches may also be an entrance to the residence. Wood stairways leading from the ground to the porch should be examined from underneath as well as from the top to ensure that the stringers and other supporting members are not deteriorating. Handrails should be examined to ensure that they are properly fastened to the supporting structures. If the stairway is masonry or concrete, examine it for cracking, settling, or tripping hazards.


There are probably as many different types and styles of decks as there are houses. However, from an inspection point of view, your main concern should be safety rather than appearance. When inspecting a deck, you should begin with the supporting members underneath the deck area. If the deck is more than a few feet above the ground, it will typically be supported by wood or metal columns, on appropriate piers or footings. When the deck is closer to the ground, and does not have a roof structure, it may be installed on shallow pads or footings.

Treated lumber should be used when wood will be in contact with soil. Dampness normally associated with this soil will promote deterioration in wood. Supporting columns should not be installed in a situation where they could absorb water into the bottom of the posts. Concrete that does not collect water is acceptable. Cast aluminum standoffs, called plinths, are usually used to raise the columns above a moist condition. Posts, columns, pads and footings should be plumb, secured properly at the top and bottom, without deterioration or cracking that may impact the integrity of the deck structure.

Most decks are supported or attached to the house on one side, without any vertical supporting posts. The most common method of deck attachment is to attach the stringer joist or ledger board to the structural components of the residence with through bolts and large washers or lag bolts. It is important that the through bolts or lag bolts are long enough to penetrate into the floor framing of the residence, or completely through the foundation walls. Supporting of the ledger to the band joists of the house with nails, either through the ledger and into the ends of the joists or toenailing is not sufficient. Any movement of the ledger away from the band joists severely weakens the load-bearing capacity of the deck.

It is important that the joists be properly supported, either by metal joist hangers fastened to the band joist, or is placed on a cleat or ledger strip. The metal joist hangers or stirrups are the preferred method of attachment. When evaluating the attachment, it is important that nails be placed in all holes in the joist hangers.

There should be approximately 1/4-inch space between the decking. This space allows rainwater and melting snow to drain away from the deck and helps to prevent deterioration. If steps lead to the deck, the treads, stringers and handrails should meet typical stair requirements. The stringers for the steps and support posts should rest on a concrete pad, rather than being placed on or in the soil. When the deck is more than 30 inches above grade level, a guard rail should be installed around the perimeter for safety. The balusters in the guard rail must meet the 4-inch maximum spacing requirements. The guardrail, as well as the hand rails to the stairs, should withstand a 200-pound load applied at any point and from any direction to the railing.

Today, most decks are built with pressure-treated wood. This wood is treated with an arsenic compound to render the wood resistant to wood-destroying insects and deterioration. There are 3 levels of treated lumber. Foundation grade (FDN) can be used in the ground. Ground Contact (GRD CNT) can be used in contact with soil. Custom grade is treated lumber, however, it has minimal protection characteristics.

The pressure treating of the wood does not increase its weather resistance. In fact, unless the pressure-treated material is appropriately sealed, the material will usually crack and splinter very rapidly. Most manufacturers suggest that the treated wood be finished with a semi-transparent stain rather than with paints. Water-repellant treatments are also good. To identify pressure-treated lumber, look for the green tinted stain. Pressure treated lumber is properly stamped or end-labeled. If the labels are not accessible or visible, then the material should be reported as standard grade lumber or at least qualified.

Standard grade lumber is also used for the construction of decks. This material should be treated or coated, either with paint or stain, to prevent water damage or deterioration. The material is also susceptible to wood destroying insect infestation. It is important to keep in mind that materials such as cedar and redwood are not pressure-treated lumbers and are standard grade material. Although cedar and redwood, to some extent, are naturally resistant to wood destroying insects, they are prone to water damage and deterioration.


The driveway from the street to the garage, carport or parking pad of the residence may be dirt, gravel or paved with a hard, solid surface, such as concrete or macadam. Solid surfaces should be sloped slightly to one side, so that water will be directed away from house and foundation area. Some cracking in driveways can be expected, however, they should not cause a tripping hazard, erosion or in any way negatively impact the house.

Asphalt bituminous or macadam surfaces are common driveway surfaces. This type of material develops surface cracks as it ages. Cracks that go through the entire thickness of the material are the result of heavy loads or an inadequate base. Through cracks cannot be repaired without removing that section of the asphalt driveway and repairing and compacting the subsoil underneath. Filling or re-coating the surface can repair minor cracking from aging of the asphalt surface.

Concrete is an excellent driveway surface. Concrete is prone to cracking as a result of normal expansion and contraction, frost heaving or an inadequate base. Heaving may occur if water gets under the concrete and freezes, forcing the surface up. Improperly mixed concrete and concrete that has not been properly cured, may deteriorate very rapidly.

Be sure that the driveway is not sloped towards the house. If the residence is situated lower than the street level, it is important that a “catch basin” or “drainage area” be incorporated in the driveway prior to the drive reaching the residence or garage. This type of drain should be free flowing, so that the water is not discharged near the structure.

The minimum width of a driveway area is 8 feet, although 9 feet is preferred. If the driveway is used both for cars and a walkway, it should be at least 10 feet wide.

Retaining Walls

Retaining walls are used for stabilizing and controlling erosion of steeply sloped areas of the lot. In some cases, retaining walls are used in conjunction with terracing to provide a level area for recreational purposes. In either case, they should be designed to withstand the lateral pressures being exerted on them, by the soil and the hydrostatic pressures from behind the wall.

Retaining walls may be built with concrete, construction timbers, railroad ties, stone, concrete or concrete blocks. Some concrete and concrete block walls have stone or brick veneer facings. On occasion, you may find a retaining wall of steel baskets filled with stones. This is referred to as a “gabion” retaining wall. As the gabions age, the steel baskets tend to corrode and deteriorate, especially on the side facing the embankment. Over the years, the stone inside may begin to move.

The design of the retaining wall should incorporate provisions for drainage of water that normally accumulates behind the wall. Otherwise, the hydrostatic pressures built up will cause structural failure of the wall. Drainage may be provided by installing continuous perforated drain lines at the lower portion of the wall, and backfilling the areas with stone and gravel. In concrete retaining walls, the perforated pipe is replaced by weep holes in the bottom of the walls that allow the water to exit through the front of the wall. The grade or soil at the base of the drainage system behind the wall should direct any water that accumulates to the weep holes. Unfortunately, retaining walls are often built with inadequate drainage provisions. The gravel backfill or the drain line may be omitted, or the weep holes may be too few or too small to be effective. The weep holes should be kept clear so that the water behind the wall can adequately drain.

A retaining wall built with construction timbers or railroad ties should be anchored to the hillside to provide resistance to the lateral forces. If the wall is not tied back into the earth, it can bow, buckle or heave and eventually collapse. Anchoring the wall is achieved by using tiebacks or deadmen. A tie back is a construction timber that is placed perpendicular to the wall. The front end is flush with the wall and is fastened to the wall itself with large spikes. The rear end is fastened to a deadman or a small section of lumber perpendicular to the tieback and parallel to the wall itself. Because the construction timbers and railroad ties have open spaces between the members, weep holes may not be necessary.

Many railroad tie and timber retaining walls are not constructed with anchors. You can tell whether anchors were used by looking at the wall. If tiebacks were used, end sections will be visible in the face of the wall. However, from a visual inspection you cannot determine the length of the tie back or whether deadmen were, in fact, installed. All retaining walls should be vertical or inclined slightly towards the embankment. They should not be leaning forward or away from the embankment. When you encounter a retaining wall that is leaning, it is an indication that the wall has not withstood the lateral forces that have been exerted. Once the wall begins to lean, crack and heave, the pressure that caused its condition should be relieved.


The construction of piers may take several forms, wooden driven piles, metal framing, masonry and/or rubble construction. Metal constructed piers are generally found in commercial applications, and rarely found in residential usage. The cost of installation of the metal, coupled with the cost of maintenance, especially in salt water, is extremely high. A metal pier is much stronger than the wooden pier. It is well suited for many commercial activities because of its load-bearing capacities. However, these requirements are not typically found in residential applications.

Masonry and rubble construction is more expensive than that of the wood-driven piers. However, construction does provide low maintenance costs. Masonry and rubble construction of piers is rarely found because of the problems associated with using the pier for boating. As with the metal piers, masonry and rubble are rarely found in residential applications.

The most common pier for residential properties is constructed with wood-driven piles. A crane-mounted, diesel air-powered hammer drives piles into the earthen surface, tip first. Unlike a post or column, which receives its entire load-bearing support from the footer at the base, pilings resist loads with surface frictions along the sides of the pier. The depth necessary to resist vertical uplift and horizontal loads, as well as potential for erosion, determines the length of the piling. It is often possible to need a bearing depth of 20 to 25 feet of embedding to reach the appropriate load-bearing strengths. As the piles are driven, complications begin because pilings are rarely perfectly straight, and underground obstructions may divert the piling from a true vertical path. A general specification is that the centers of the tops of all of the pilings be within 3 to 6 inches of their alignment locations.

Once the pilings have been driven, girders or crossbeams are attached to the pilings with galvanized bolts. The pilings should be notched deep enough to provide a shelf for the girder or crossbeam to bear upon. If the pilings are not notched, steel straps are often used to assist in securing the girders or crossbeams to the piling.

Once the girders or crossbeams have been properly secured and aligned, stringers or joists are then installed on the girder system to form a walkway. The size and thickness of the joist is determined utilizing the same procedures as used in determining load-bearing capacities for floor joists on the interior of a building. Like the girders or cross beams, the joists are attached to the piers with galvanized bolts or lag screws.

Once the stringers or joists are in position, decking can be applied. Generally, the decking is a 2 x 6 or 2 x 8 dimensional lumber that is secured to the stringers or joists. A minimum of 1/4-inch spacing is left between the decking members to allow water to drain off of the pier.

Wooden piers are generally constructed with pressure treated marine grade material. This material is clearly stamped and identified for water contact. In the past, wooden components were treated with a creosote material, which is essentially an oil-based tar residue that is saturated in the material. This material, over time, may deteriorate and require replacement.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the waterways in the United States, have for the past several years resisted permitting the use of creosote material. The pressure-treated material releases pollutants into the water, is more available to the general public, and has a much longer life expectancy for these usages. Standard grade lumber should never be used for pier applications. Standard material deteriorates very rapidly. Due to the need of using a treated material, such as pressure-treated pilings, girders, stringers and decking, the cost of installation of a pier is rather high. A general rule of thumb for the cost of pilings is $10 per linear foot of the pile. This does not include the cost of notching the pilings or setting the girders, or the cost of the girders themselves. Typically, two girders are required per pair of piles. The average cost of the girders is approximately $4 per linear foot, with the average cost of pressure-treated stringers or joists also approximated at $4 per foot. The average cost of 2 x 6 pressure-treated decking is $3.50 per linear foot.

The life expectancy of a properly installed pressure-treated pier is 20-30 years with annual maintenance. The normal life expectancy of a creosote structure is approximately 12-18 years.

Many piers may also have electrical and water supply. It is important to remember that the wiring be sunlight resistant and/or UF cable. All of the electrical junction boxes, light fixtures, etc. should be in waterproof-approved fixtures, and the entire system should be protected with Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) devices. Extreme caution should be used in evaluating and checking the electrical system around any wet location, especially in a pier or waterfront. The hose bibs located at the pier area should be properly secured and should be the approved type that would allow proper draining.


Bulkheads are very similar in design and construction as standard retaining walls. The primary difference in definition between a bulkhead and retaining wall is that a bulkhead is retaining earth on one side, and is partially surrounded by water on the other. Materials used in the construction of bulkheads vary, but generally are the same as those used for the construction of the piers. Timber construction generally uses a pressure-treated marine grade material. A creosote material was used for some years, but it has been discouraged lately. Creosote grade material does not last as long, deteriorates and needs constant maintenance and replacement.

Masonry is often used as a bulkhead material. Masonry can take the form of brick, block, or poured concrete. This type of construction, unlike the piers, should rest upon a footer that carries the weight of the wall. Provisions should also be incorporated in the masonry wall to provide tiebacks up into the earth. Masonry bulkheads, much like retaining walls, generally have a granular backfill and a drainage system that would allow water that accumulates and drains from behind the wall. Brick and block masonry walls are used in residential applications; they require considerable maintenance and generally have a very short life expectancy. Displacement of the brick or block and the lateral pressures being exerted from the earth behind the wall cause breaking of the mortar joints. Tiebacks can be installed through the faces of the brick and block areas utilizing steel channels or wooden planks secured back through the earth with tie rods. This method, at best, is temporary.

Riprap or rubble is often used as a bulkhead system where the height of the bulkhead does not have to be above 2 or 3 feet. Riprap, by definition, is simply the “haphazard arrangement of loose, irregularly sized or broken stones used as protection from erosion along the shoreline of a lake, stream, or waterfront.” The material can be installed in low-lying applications to retain the earthen surface and prevent erosion. However, the applications are limited to low-lying applications, due to the inability to stack this material to a sufficient height and depth to prevent movement from lateral forces.

The construction of wooden bulkheads is much the same as that of any other retaining wall system. On the waterways, the supporting structures could be driven piles, which are sometimes referred to as “tie piles.” Attached to the earthen side of the piles is a horizontal-supporting member referred to as a “whale.” These horizontal members are also called “rangers” or “whalers.” The whalers are attached to the piers with galvanized fasteners, generally in 3 to 4 locations, depending upon the height of the retaining system. The size of the whalers depend upon the spacing between the piers and the amount of earth retained behind the bulkhead. Attached to the horizontal whalers is a sheathing material, generally of dimensional pressure-treated lumber. This dimensional lumber can range from 2 x 6 to 2 x 8 and are attached to the whalers. Gravel backfill should be installed behind the bulkhead system with a geotextile fabric that permits dirt from accumulating into the granular backfill. This provides a weeping system so that the water and moisture that accumulates at the rear of the bulkhead can drain away.

The largest problem with the bulkhead systems is erosion of the backfill area. As the backfill begins to erode, the granular surface is affected, as is the drainage. The increase in hydrostatic pressure, coupled with the lateral forces of the earth itself, tend to push the units over.

Wave and water action on the front side of the bulkhead area also creates a number of problems. It is important that the structural material be constructed of a marine grade pressure-treated lumber, or creosote material; as pieces begin to deteriorate, break, etc., they should be replaced promptly. Damage and rot to the sheathing boards and whalers is time-consuming and fairly expensive, since the entire earthen surface and granular backfill behind it will need to be removed. In general, the cost of repair or replacement of an existing bulkhead system utilizing pressure-treated lumber is approximately $80-$120 per linear foot of bulkhead, depending upon the height of the bulkhead system. As with retaining walls, the bulkhead system should not be displaced, leaning, cracked or broken. The earthen surface on the retaining side of the bulkhead system should be to the top of the bulkhead so that surface water runs down over the top of the bulkhead and does not accumulate behind the wall.


Storage sheds are usually constructed either of metal or wood. Observe for rust at the bottom of the shed where it is closest to the soils. The shed should be properly secured to prevent movement by wind loads. Wooden sheds should be evaluated for wood deterioration along the base.


Wooden fences should be evaluated for broken, loose, cracked or missing sections. In addition, they should be checked for moisture deterioration or wood destroying insect infestation and damage. The gates for the fence should be checked for cracked, loose or broken sections, and ease of operation. Wood gates often sag with age. They can be stabilized with a turnbuckle or X bracing.

Metal fences should be inspected for rusting, and loose and deteriorating sections. Rusted sections should be scraped, primed and painted. Chainlink fences are generally constructed of galvanized steel. Galvanized (zinc) coating protects the steel against rusting, and is usually applied by hot dipping or electroplating. The hot dip process produces a heavy zinc coating that is very effective and protects the fence from the elements.

Chainlink fences that have not been galvanized have a tendency to rust. Some chainlike fences have vinyl coatings to protect the material against rust; this is an effective material.

Fences around pools should have properly operating self-closing and latching hardware.

Common Defects

  • Trim/Fascias/Soffits: deterioration; insect damage; loose; stained; peeling paint
  • Decks/Balconies: support post deteriorated/rotted; displaced or undersized; inadequate or unsafe railing; rot in decking or joist; not bolted to house; steps broken, deteriorated or loose
  • Fence: deterioration; broken or displaced post; rusted; not secured to post
  • Gate: broken hinges/latches; deterioration; rusted
  • Shrubs/Trees: overgrown; touching house; ivy on house; dead tree; trees overhanging roof; roots close to foundation
  • Works/Stoops: settled and displaced; sloping toward house; stair spalled, split or loose
  • Porch: deterioration or insect damage; tripping hazard; no railing; steps loose or diverted
  • Patio: slopes toward house; cracked and displaced, loose bricks; tripping hazard
  • Retaining Walls: leaning; settled; cracked; deteriorated; drains blocked
  • Sheds: rusted; rot; insect damage; deteriorated roof
  • Outside Grill: not secured; unprotected gas line; rust; holes in grill base