Richard Perri on Home Inspections

Are you considering purchasing a frame house in Brooklyn? I’m taking a break from history for a moment to focus on the more practical side of that decision. Today’s expert opinion comes from Richard Perri of Professional Home Inspections, a licensed professional home inspector, structural and civic engineer, and recognized authority on New York City townhouses. Richard has performed thousands of home inspections throughout the city, and can walk you through the ins and outs of ensuring your frame house is in good condition. Luckily for us, he’s agreed to lend some advice to The Wooden House Project!

For how long have you been performing home inspections?
My father was a Professional Engineer and began a Home Inspection Company in 1964. I remember he’d take me to inspections when I was just a kid – 10, maybe 11 years old. I loved going through the older houses with him. He’d give me little jobs to do, like count the outlets in a room or open and close the windows. So it seems like I’ve been doing Inspections all my life. But I’ve only been licensed since 1992. So 19 years.

You’ve inspected a number of houses in Brooklyn, which has both frame and masonry buildings. What are some issues/concerns that are unique to frame houses that you don’t find with masonry?
Frame houses require much closer attention than brick, brownstone, or limestone houses. Especially the older ones. I just inspected a frame house in Brooklyn Heights that dated back to 1822. Termites and water rot to the framing are what I am always looking for. Funny story- a perspective client called me up one day because he was worried the townhouse he wanted to purchase had termite damage. He said the house was built in 1899. I told him to stop worrying, it has termite damage. I could almost assure you that a house 100+ years old has had a termite or two come visit. As long as it’s superficial, I’m okay. The problem is most of the framing is concealed. Wood framing is beneath the sheetrock, beneath the plaster, behind the walls. I probe like crazy. Sill plates, studs, the girder. If it’s made of wood, I am jabbing it with my screw driver. Looking for buckles, bulges, deformations. The cellar and garden floor are so important!

Does Brooklyn’s geography, density and/or history create unique maintenance issues for frame houses here as compared to those you’d find outside the city?
Brooklyn is unique because of its extremely high ground water table and aquifers. In so many houses, if i gave you a shovel, took you down into the cellar and told you to start digging, you wouldn’t get 12 inches before you hit water. Well, the life of a termite is very simple- they come up to eat the food (i.e. your house) and go down to drink the water. The closer the water is to the food, the more they love you. Well, they love most of the houses in Brooklyn. It’s specific to New York City, since it is a series of islands.

Many frame houses in Brooklyn have been covered for decades in stucco, vinyl or aluminum siding. Have you ever seen a case in which this had negatively impacted the structure?
The fact that many frame houses have multiple layers of siding: wood clapboard; cedar shake; asbestos shingle; vinyl; aluminum; stucco; etc. may actually be a good thing. Water entry through the siding to the framing is a common problem that has countless structural implications. Multiple layers of siding can actually aid to stop water from getting to the framing. It’s like putting on multiple rain coats. If the outer one tears a bit, the second one will keep you from getting wet. Unfortunately, sometimes it is just time to tear all the layers off and start from scratch. This can prove to be very expensive. Oh, and I hate, hate, hate Exterior Insulated Finishing Systems (EIF Systems). I cannot advise someone to buy (or not to buy) a home. After all, I don’t know what the sale price is. The house may be in lousy condition but is going for a song and may be worth buying. But if I see a wood frame house with an EIF System, I do everything I have to do to encourage them to comprehensively re-side immediately. It is so problematic.

Is there any special advice you’d give to someone considering purchasing a wood-frame house in Brooklyn?
Wood frame houses are not for the faint of heart. They are beautiful but can prove more costly and time consuming to maintain than brick, brownstone, or limestone houses. But give me a wood frame house with a wood clapboard siding and I’m feeling like a king. A brick house requires pointing once every 50 years or so. Brownstone requires restoration after 100 years. Limestone can look almost perfect for 100′s of years. But you have to paint a wood clapboard covered building every 5-10 years.