For the last 20 years or so, I’ve made a chunk of my living walking, climbing and crawling through strangers’ houses, then explaining those houses to the people who wanted to buy them. Now that I’m taking a sabbatical, I’m inclined to share a few stories about some of the more unusual houses I’ve run across:
The do-it-yourself house
Some years back, co-inspector Rick and I went to inspect a house that was owned and maintained by a well-known neighborhood handyman. Let’s just call him Earl. According to the real estate agents and the neighbors, Earl could fix anything—TVs, toasters, tractors, foundations, fish ponds, fuse boxes and more. If you had any broken thing, the neighbors said, take it to Earl.
Well, when we got to Earl’s house, we found that he had settled on his own special method for fixing everything. Earl was a caulk man. All the pipes in his house were caulked together. Every hole where a wire went into a junction box was caulked up. All Earl’s commodes were caulked to the floor, and his shower walls were caulked to the ceiling and the floor. Outside, all the cracks in Earl’s driveway were caulked. Every mortar joint in his brick veneer was caulked. I swear, Earl must’ve used a truckful of caulk on that house.
My customer asked me, “What can we do about all this caulk?”
“Two choices,” I said. “Just leave it alone until some caulked thing has to be worked on, then de-caulk only as much as you have to. Or, you can dedicate every waking weekend hour to picking and pulling out caulk.”
The customer bought the house. I hope he decided to leave the caulk alone.
The help-yourself house
Rick and I inspected an old brick rancher and everything went fine until we got to the heat-and-air equipment. When we popped the cover off the furnace, there were no data plates, no serial numbers, no identifying marks of any kind. So we went to the backyard and checked the air conditioner’s condensing unit. It didn’t have any data plates either.
I walked in the house and told the real estate agent, “We can’t find any serial numbers, labels or anything else on the heat-and-air equipment. Without the data plates we don’t know how old this stuff is, and we don’t know if it’s the right capacity for this house.”
“That’s funny,” the real estate agent said. “The owner works for a heat-and-air
I figure the guy either kept a data plate collection or, more likely, helped himself to a little inventory down at the shop.
The secret shed
Soon after the Feds required that all new commodes use no more than a gallon-and-a-half of water per flush, Rick and I inspected a ’50s brick rancher owned by a plumber. All through the house, the plumbing was excellent—no leaks, no solder globs, no rust, no problems at all. I complimented the owner on his high-quality work. He accepted my praise and said, “You want to see what I’ve got in the shed?”
Well, I wanted to see, so the plumber walked me and Rick out to his backyard shed, swung the doors open, and there sat dozens of the now-banned three-and-a-half-gallon commodes, new and in boxes.
“We truck ’em down from Canada,” the plumber said. “Can’t keep ’em in stock. People call me all the time, begging me to take out those sorry-flushing new commodes and put these in.”
The secret room
Back when I was still working solo, I was hired to inspect a big fancy house in Forest Hills. I didn’t find any problems until I got to the kitchen. No matter what knobs I turned or what buttons I pushed, I couldn’t get the cooktop to work. So I turned to the nice woman who worked at the house and asked, “Is there some trick to turning on this cooktop?”
“Well,” she said, “I ain’t never used it. Let me call Ms. Roe and ask her.”
I kept poking around the kitchen while the nice woman reached Ms. Roe. Then I heard her say, “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. OK. I’ll tell him.”
She hung up the phone and said, “Ms. Roe says she ain’t never used it either.”
Then she added one more thing: “Am I supposed to show you the secret room?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I’m required to check all secret rooms.”
“OK,” she said, “just push on that bookcase and it’ll spin around like they do in a Frankenstein movie.”
I pushed, it spun and I went in. It was my one and only secret room.
The wet one
A young couple hired Rick and me to look at a ’70s house out in the country. They knew it was distressed but they were hoping it would be a good house for the price.
When Rick and I got there, we found water stains on every ceiling and wall. In the basement, we saw water drops glistening on every inch of wood, which was soft to the touch. “Smells like Pirates of the Caribbean,” Rick said.
We met our customers in the driveway and I told them, “This house is sopping wet, top to bottom. It’s unfixable.” Then I half-joked, “If my old buddy Clovis were here, he’d just burn it down and hope for some insurance money.”
“Not this house,” Rick said. “Too wet. Won’t light.”