Learning the Lessons You Don’t Want to Learn

Funny thing about being a home inspector: you can never be 100% certain what’s going to happen on an inspection. Just when you think it’s shaping up to be a perfectly normal day, and you’re looking forward to a relaxing weekend; BAM! You get blindsided by a hay-maker. And you’re down for the count.

That’s exactly what happened to me on a recent home inspection.

blindsided on a home inspection

The house, which I was inspecting for the potential buyer, was about 5000 square feet, 2 story, raised with two HVAC units and an inground pool with a spa. I knew that this one was going to take a while, so I came prepared. I had my water bottle, a protein bar and some cold iced tea with me. I was ready for whatever this day had to throw at me. It was Friday, and this was my only inspection on the schedule. No matter what happened, this was going be a good day.

I could almost taste the weekend!

The agent had told me that the home was vacant, so I was able to schedule an early 8am start. Hoping to get home a little early on a Friday evening, I arrived ready for work. I got started on the exterior of the house at 7:45 a.m. It was a very nice day, particularly by New Orleans standards, with the temperature around 60 degrees under overcast skies.

Things were going well, and I was making very good time. I hoped to have all the exterior finished by the time the agents showed up at 9:00 a.m. After inspecting the pool, which was only 1 year old and had been very well maintained, I walked toward the detached building. It was approximately 400 square feet, with a half bathroom that served the pool area. The bathroom entry door was on the left side of the building, with the bathroom separated from the other room in the building. This other room, which I called the “storage room” in my inspection report, had a roll-up style garage door. From the exterior it looked big enough to store lawn equipment or possibly a pair of motorcycles.

As I looked around the building, I discovered that the only means of access to the storage room was through the garage door itself. There was a touchpad, but I hadn’t been supplied with the code for testing. The agent would be showing up in about 30 minutes, and then I could look for the garage door opener inside the house. If not, someone could reach the seller for the keypad code.

I was going to keep inspecting the outside while I still had the house to myself.

I approached the left exterior side of the building. The exterior door to the half bathroom was unlocked, so I started inside. As I was inspecting the half bath, going through my normal bathroom inspection routine, I plugged my outlet tester into the receptacle to verify that it was correctly wired (which it was.) Out of habit, I pushed the button on my outlet tester, attempting to verify that the receptacle was protected by an upstream GFCI. The lights went out on my tester as well as in the bathroom, and I heard the GFCI outlet trip on the opposite wall, inside the storage room.

It was strangely quiet now, as the bath exhaust fan was also installed on the GFCI circuit. I was frustrated. I had been making very good time on this inspection, and this was going to throw a monkey-wrench in the works.

Now, I’ll have to wait another 30 minutes for the agent to show up to get in the storage room. Hopefully, the garage door opener is in the house. I can get in later to reset the GFCI and finish this portion of my inspection.

inspecting a gfci outlet

I don’t want to say that I’m old and set in my ways, but I do hate it when I get thrown off my inspection routine.

My client’s agent showed up a little bit early, just as I was getting off the roof, and we went inside the house. To my surprise, it wasn’t vacant at all, but was fully furnished. Now I started to worry a bit. I could easily see, by his personal belongings in the home, that the homeowner was a hunter.

I hope that he doesn’t have a freezer or two full of meat in the exterior storage building. What if I shut off the power to those things?

I quickly started looking for the garage door remote. As the house appeared to be occupied, I didn’t want to nose around too much, so I looked in all the visible spots where a garage door remote would normally be stored. No such luck.

My next thought was to get in touch with the listing agent to ask about the remote controller. My client’s agent phoned the listing agent, who happened to be pulling up in the driveway right at that very moment. She was a nice older lady who happened to be good friends with the seller. Turns out that the seller had already moved out of state for his new job and was having his belongings shipped to him once the act of sale got closer. So technically, the house was vacant, even though it was fully furnished.

She quickly located the remote, which was hidden inside one of the kitchen cabinets. I grabbed my tool bag and made my way toward the storage building. As I approached the building, I hit the button on the remote to open the garage door. Nothing. I hit it a few more times as I walked up to the building. Nothing.

Could it be the garage door opener batteries?

I looked at the remote, to see the indicator light shining brightly as I pushed the buttons. Great. The garage door opener was plugged into the GFCI protected circuit. Now what? I walked around the detached building, starting to get a bit more anxious. No exterior man-door to walk through, just a roll-up door.

Brilliant.

As I walked around the exterior, I did notice that there were two small ventilation panels about 6 inches off the ground, which looked to be about 12 inches high and 18 inches across.

I’m a slender guy, I can certainly fit through there, reset the GFCI and get on with this inspection.

I got down on the ground at the side of the building, pulled out my electric screwdriver and proceeded to remove the two deck screws holding on the vent’s plastic lattice cover.

Glad they put these vents here. Man, the neighbor’s got a clear view of me breaking into this building… I hope they don’t call the cops.

I should’ve known then what kind of day I was in for, as my electric screwdriver battery died halfway through the first 2 ½ inch deck screw. After I finally got both screws out (who the hell puts 2 ½ inch screws in plastic latticework, anyway?), I was met with quite a sight. The finish carpenter was nice enough to beautifully trim out the ventilation holes, and each one was about 6 inches high and 10 inches across.

Wow, I’m slender but that looks really small.

At this point, I didn’t have many options for getting inside that building that didn’t involve me spending a whole lot of money.

What the hell; I’ll get in there!

I laid on the concrete sidewalk and started on my doomed mission. I was able to get my head through the opening, and a bit of one arm, but that was about it.

OK, time to reevaluate the mission.

I stood up and walked around again, assessing the situation.

  • Stand-alone structure
  • Divided into bathroom and storage room
  • No direct access between the two rooms
  • No windows in the structure (save the ones at the top of the garage door)
  • Two vents, both too small for me to fit through
  • No way into the storage room except through the roll-up garage door
  • Garage door opener now has no power

At this point, I didn’t have too many low-cost options for getting into the building. This was a higher end subdivision, so I’m sure higher end contractors would be involved in fixing what the home inspector broke. That won’t be cheap.

OK, maybe I can break one of the garage door windows and pull the release cord on the opener. Then I could open the door by hand from the exterior.

(Yes, I know that I probably wouldn’t have been able to reach the release cord, but hey, at least I’m trying here.)

The garage door had windows, but they were installed in the top panel of the 9-foot tall garage door. The building slab was a bit higher than the driveway, so I really couldn’t see through the windows to get a view inside the room. I grabbed my ladder, set it up next to the garage door and looked inside. Boxes, lawn equipment, hunting and sports equipment. I couldn’t see any GFCI outlets, but I could see that there was a separate side room that backed up to the bathroom.

That’s probably where the GFCI is, and probably where any fridge would be too.

Maybe I could break through the drywall from the bath into that room?

I wonder which is cheaper to fix: breaking a garage door window or busting through sheetrock?

What the hell was I doing?

Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be looking for the garage door pull cord.

I turned to look where the pull-cord typically is located, but there was nothing there. No cord, no track, no motor. Of course, in keeping with the theme of the day’s festivities, it couldn’t be a regular garage door opener like everyone else has. No, it was one of the new openers with the motor (and pull cord) on the side of the door.

(By the way, they are called jackshaft garage door openers. They’re pretty cool and getting more popular. Look them up.)

inspecting a garage door opener

Standing on the ladder, I couldn’t see if the opener was installed to the left or right of the door. I went back to the vent and stuck my head in again, hoping to get a look at the opener. It was on the far side of the door. I think I could see the release cord, but I couldn’t get my head at an angle high enough to confirm it.

Man, if only I was a little bit smaller, I could fit in here enough to see the opener.

I’ll bet one of our termite techs could fit in here.

Wait a minute; that’s actually a good idea!

A few of those guys are young, small and may possibly be able to squeeze through here.

I called my office and explained the situation as best I could. The office said that they could get one of the techs that handles the tight crawlspaces to help me, but he wouldn’t get there until the afternoon. Since I still had a whole house to inspect and wasn’t taking the 1 ½ hour drive back home until this was resolved, that was fine with me.

Surprisingly, the home inspection went fairly well.  The house was not quite one year old and was in very good condition. It was obvious that the home’s current owner didn’t have a home inspection done when he bought it from the builder. I found quite a few electrical and plumbing issues on the inspection. Mostly things like missing GFCIs and p-traps. Stuff that would have been caught by a home inspector on a pre-purchase inspection.

Couldn’t be missing GFCIs at the storage building, though, could they…

In Louisiana, there is a one year, state-mandated new home warranty. Builders are responsible for repairs on almost everything in the home for the first year after the sale. My client ended up getting all the deficiencies that I found corrected and appears to be very happy with his decision to buy the house.

Once I was finished everything (except for the detached building), the termite tech was still about 2 hours away from getting there. The listing agent, who was very professional and understanding throughout the whole ordeal, ended up living less than 5 minutes from the inspection property. I told her that we would probably be back at the house around 3pm. and I would let her know as soon as I had a definitive time.

I drove to a nearby coffee shop to work on my inspection report, while I enjoyed a cup of hot coffee. Before too long, my termite guy had texted to let me know that he would arrive right at 3pm. I notified the agent, wrapped up my report and coffee and headed back to the property.

It was a valiant attempt, but he just couldn’t fit. It was tight. Too tight. It was going to take a really small kid to get through that opening. And even if I could find one, would they even be able to grasp what they had to do to get the garage door open?

Alright, I see visions of dollar signs dancing in my head.

home inspection money

The agent and I sat there, discussing our options: cut through the wall somewhere; force the door open.

Maybe I can get my reciprocating saw and cut out the finish trim work at the vent.

Give me a little more space and I’ll squeeze through there.

Man, I wish we knew a kid small enough and smart enough to open this garage door.

Then, suddenly, the listing agent starts talking about her 10-year-old grandson. He’s slender, brave and very smart. Maybe he can get in there. She called his mother, and they happened to be close by, on their way home from school. They could be there in 5 minutes.

I didn’t want to get too hopeful, as this was a tall task for a 10-year-old.

They arrived a few minutes later, and after exchanging pleasantries (and hugs with Grandma), he was ready to get to work. I took him inside the house to show him what he was looking for and how to reset a GFCI outlet. No problem, he said.

We went outside and looked at the vent opening. This little guy was thin, but man, that opening was really small. His first attempt turned bad really quickly. He went in head first and got stuck at his shoulders. He started to panick. I though I was about to lose him. I went into full psychotherapist mode.

Where do you go to school?

What grade are you in?

Do you play Fortnite?

Wouldn’t this make a cool story to tell your friends at school?

He calmed down pretty quickly and was determined to get in there. He flipped around to try going in feet first. It was working well, but his belt was getting stuck. He ripped off his belt and disappeared through the vent. He was in!

child crawling through a wall opening during a home inspection
The agent’s grandson saving my butt!

I stuck my head into the hole to talk him through it and gave him my flashlight so he could see what he was doing. He looked all around the first room, but no GFCI outlets were visible. He went into the second room, and there it was, the GFCI that we were looking for. Unfortunately, try as he could, he couldn’t get it to reset.

Damn new style GFCIs!

OK, time to move on to plan B.

I flipped around the other direction so that I could see the garage door opener. I directed him to the opener, and he pulled the release cord. I hurried to the front of the building, ecstatic that this whole ordeal was about to be over. I was still going to get home at a reasonable hour on a Friday night!

Pushing on the garage door, I obviously expected it to roll right up. Nope. Didn’t budge.

Of course, what else would I expect to happen today?

I went back around the building and stuck my head through the vent again. I asked him if it felt like it clicked when he pulled it. He said no, it didn’t. I was starting to stress. I haven’t inspected too many of the new jackshaft-style garage door openers, but I knew that the disconnect pull cord doesn’t operate like the ones on traditional track-mounted garage door opener. With a traditional opener, pulling down on the cord physically releases the bracket that engages the opener trolley with its chain, belt or screw-drive. With this style there is not a traditional bracket to release, so the pull on the cord is less about strength and more about touch.

But then again, I certainly wasn’t in the position to evaluate my assistant’s strength at the moment. I told him to let go of the pull cord and then to try again. He pulled with all his might, shouting out that he heard something click. I rushed to the front and threw the garage door open. He had the biggest grin on his face and gave me a high-five on the way out.

I slipped him twenty bucks.

smiling after helping a home inspector

I was so relieved. I could finally start wrapping things up. While they celebrated and talked about their plans for the evening, I hurriedly started inspecting. Check all accessible outlets to be sure they are tripped; reset the GFCI; check the outlets to be sure they were all working correctly; run back to the half bath to finish the electrical inspection. Everything was going great, and I was almost finished. Really nothing bad here to put in the report.

And then I started my garage door test. I pushed the wall-mounted button, expecting the door to start rolling down. Nothing.

Again, nothing?

What the hell?

Will this crap never end?

I am certainly not buying any lottery tickets on the way home tonight!

When I pushed the button, I could hear the motor turn briefly and stop, but the door didn’t move.

Of course. Why would I think this would be over? I’m having too much fun to stop now.

At this point (I think we can safely call this my breaking point; wouldn’t you agree?) my thoughts were to simply shut the garage door and call it a day. After all this crap, I would be glad to pay a garage door repair person to get this fixed. I made sure all the lights were out in the building, stepped outside and pulled the garage door down. Nothing. Nada. Didn’t move an inch. I pulled harder. Yeah, right. That’ll do it.

Of course, why should all this fun come to such an easy end.

What the hell do I do now?

I certainly couldn’t leave the building open, with all the seller’s belongings (hunting, camping and kayaking gear) out there for all to see. And I was certain I wasn’t going to be able to get a garage door repairman to make an emergency call out on Friday at beer-thirty, at least not for less money than what I was making on this home inspection.

I looked around the storage building, hoping for some idea. The seller’s brand new 10-foot ladder was leaning against the wall, so I grabbed it and set it up next to the opener. I climbed the ladder and started removing the plastic cover from the opener assembly.

Yes, I know this is way beyond the scope of my home inspection.

But if I don’t fix it now, it’s gonna cost me later…

I do have some mechanical ability, as I spent many years working various jobs in the maintenance departments of local chemical and industrial plants. But this was the first jackshaft garage door opener I had ever tried to work on; I had no idea what I was in for.

What the hell am I doing?

Thankfully, I finally caught a break. The release cord was attached to a spring-controlled lever, and my 10-year-old savior had pulled so hard that he yanked it out of its track. After a quick fight with a finicky spring and lever, working with two pair of needle-nosed pliers that I keep in my vehicle, the opener was working like a champ.

Well, maybe I’ll stop and buy that lottery ticket after all.

After all the stress and strain, I finally finished my inspection, albeit 3 hours later than I intended to. After thanking everyone and saying our goodbyes, I was back in my vehicle and heading for the house. As I had about a 1 ½ hour drive home, I had plenty of time to process the day’s events and try to see if I could come up with some positives from my day’s adventure.

This is what I came up with:

  1. Jackshaft garage door opener release cords are quite touchy, so don’t touch them.
  2. Never, ever trip a GFCI until you verify that you have access to every room/space on the property.
  3. Always carry more than the basic home inspection tools, as you never know when they may come in handy.
  4. Just when you think you’ve got this home inspection thing figured out; something will happen to make you realize that you’re not quite as good as you thought you were.
  5. It never hurts to call in reinforcements, even if they are only 10 years old.
home inspection lottery

Oh, and by the way, the lottery ticket I bought on the way home wasn’t the Powerball winner. So, I’m still doing home inspections.

But I’m no longer tripping the first GFCI outlet I come across…

I welcome all feedback (both positive and negative) on this post. Please take a moment to leave a comment below. Thank you!

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Thanks, Joe

pic of me, Joseph Cook Jr, home inspector

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