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Basement and Lower Level
Lower Level photos: P 91-P 102, P 208
Before a house is built, the builder and any engineers and architects will consult books that list the correct size beams and support posts needed. They will also check these books for the correct spacing needed for the beams and support posts. The sizes and spacing are based upon a particular weight factor in the construction of the building. This is why an architect has to sign off on the blueprint plans before obtaining town approvals. Anyone can use these published books but architects and engineers are more experienced at using them.
Some houses are built on a concrete slab and therefore there's no lower level to inspect. In northern climate areas, if a house has a basement or crawl space then the foundation footing must be below the frost line. The footing refers to the base of the foundation walls. The frost line is the depth of the soil where the ground moisture freezes in the winter time. When the water in the soil freezes it expands. If the footings are not installed deeper than the frost line, then the foundation walls can heave and crack when the ground freezes. How deep the frost line is will depend upon how cold it gets in the winter time.
Check the lower level steps and any exterior entrances for the lower level to make sure they're in good condition and safe. All stairs need to have handrails and evenly spaced steps for safety. This will help prevent any tripping hazards. When you're inspecting the basement area move in a clockwise or counter clockwise direction so you make sure you don't miss anything.
Some lower level areas will be finished with rugs on the floors and sheetrock on the walls and ceilings and you can't view behind these finished coverings. Finished lower level areas add more value in price to a home but they make inspections more difficult for home inspectors and appraisers. Some lower level areas will be inaccessible due to personal items of the seller put there for storage. Just tell the client that you don't have X-ray vision and you'll try to evaluate as much as possible. Any inaccessible areas can't be evaluated. So just do the best you can.
Check the construction materials used for the foundation walls. The foundation will be made of poured concrete in newer construction. Concrete block foundation walls are also common to find. Concrete block walls should be filled with concrete at the top section or have a cap plate at the top. This will help prevent termites and radon gas from coming into the house. The termites and radon won't be able to travel through the voids inside the concrete blocks.
Brick construction and stone construction walls are usually found in older houses. Due to the cost of construction today, you probably won't find brick or stone foundation walls in newer houses.
The floor of the lower level should have a concrete covering. The vast majority of the time the floor will be covered with concrete. If there is a dirt floor, you should recommend that a concrete covering be installed. This will help prevent water, termite and radon entry in the house. Covering a dirt floor with concrete can be expensive, so tell the client to obtain an estimate before closing on the house.
I'll give you some background on the definitions of cement, concrete, concrete blocks, cinder blocks and mortar. You probably won't need to know this for most home inspections but it might help you in case a client asks some in‑depth questions.
Cement is in a powder form without sand and water added to it.
Concrete is a ready-mix product that contains cement and sand so all that's needed is to add water to this mix and set it and wait for it to harden.
Concrete blocks are used in newer construction. Concrete blocks have a gray color.
Cinder blocks are found in older houses. They appear more porous and are usually only found on interior walls and not for foundations because they're not as strong as concrete blocks. Cinder blocks can have a blackish color to them because they've aged.
Mortar is used as an adhesive to hold stones, bricks or blocks together. Mortar is made of cement, sand, and lime with water added. The lime is added because it acts as an adhesive. You don't need to add lime to the concrete for walls and floors. The reason for this is, you're not as interested in the adhesive qualities in these areas as you are with the rigidity of walls and floors. Lime gives the cement an adhesive quality, but at the same time it weakens the rigidity. As a result, it's not used in walls and floors.