Steve Katz set his sights on a 3,100-square-foot home in Bucktown this past June, but before he would sign on the dotted line, he was wishing he could see behind the walls for any problems that might be lurking there. Turns out Katz is in luck because new thermal image cameras used by home inspectors allows them to literally see through the walls.
"Visual inspections can only reveal so much," said Frank Lesh, owner of Home Sweet Home Inspection Co. in Indian Head Park and president of the American Society of Home Inspectors, Des Plaines. "This technology allows us to see behind the walls without being destructive."
Thermal image cameras use infrared technology -- think of scenes from the film "Predator" -- to compare the relative temperature of one object to that of its surroundings. These images can reveal problems with moisture, electrical and HVAC systems, as well as problems with insulation, foundation and plumbing. They can even reveal insect infestations. For example, during cold months a wall with insufficient insulation will show up as a red spot because it's releasing so much heat, whereas an area that's been penetrated by moisture will show up blue because it's cooler.
The problem -- only a handful of inspectors offer it. "Last I checked, there were only 11 inspectors in Chicago doing thermal scans," said Will Decker, owner of Decker Home Services and past president of the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors.
In the past, the major hurdle was price, but in the last three years, cameras have dropped in price from an average of $75,000 to $10,000.
Interest is building.
"Eighty percent of the inspectors who take my continuing education class say they really want to do it," Decker said, "and within five to seven years, I think it will be widespread."
Katz heard about the new technology from his real estate agent, and hired Applus Home Inspections to do the thermal scan. "This is a 100-year-old house, so I didn't expect everything to be perfect. But I'm a very analytical person, and I really wanted to have as much insight into the place as possible," he said.
Katz said the most important thing his inspector did was show him the camera up front along with examples of what the results might look like once he received the report. The scan turned up a damaged spot on the roof, a wiring issue and evidence of a plumbing leak behind one wall. Katz decided to proceed with the purchase anyway.
Ranan Engelhart is a buyer who almost did not.
Last month, Decker inspected a Skokie duplex Engelhart was interested in, and to the naked eye, everything checked out. But a thermal scan turned up a giant blue spot on the dining-room ceiling, which he traced back to a loose seal on the upstairs toilet. "Without the scan, he moves in, and a few weeks from now the ceiling caves," Decker said.
The seller eventually agreed to repair the problem, and Engelhart is scheduled to close in November. "There are a lot of things you can do cosmetically to make a house look sound, but the thermal scan lets you see beneath all that," Engelhart said. "It definitely gave me the confidence that the place was in relatively good shape, and I know the extent of any problem areas."
Thermal scanning is a hard thing for many home buyers to grasp, but industry experts believe that interest will increase as more learn about the potential value of its findings, especially as related to energy savings.
Jonathan Gonsky agrees, and has been marketing the service to Chicago area Realtors to increase awareness.
"The rising costs of heating and cooling are a big concern, and thermal scans offer buyers two great services -- the ability to spot potential risks and identify energy-saving opportunities," said Gonsky, a manager for Applus, which began performing the scans six months ago. "They're extremely useful for older homes where drafts and electrical issues are more prevalent, especially if you're buying a gut or partial rehab."
Lesh thinks the scans have value, but warns homeowners that they're no magic pill and typically go way beyond what a normal inspection requires. "It's not cheap, but if you've got a real problem, such as a room that's really cold or really hot compared to the rest of the house and everything to the naked eye looks OK, it might be a good idea to bring it in."
Prices vary, from as little as a few hundred dollars up to the thousands, depending on square footage. Katz paid Applus $350 for his thermal scan, and said the cost was well worth it. "No one wants to buy someone else's problems. To go a level deeper and get behind the walls is very valuable -- it could be the difference between paying $400,000 for one place or not," he said.
Angie Hicks is the founder of Angie's List. She can be reached at www.angieslist.com.
DON'T SKIMP ON YOUR HOME INSPECTION
Thirty percent of 1,428 Angie's List members participating in a recent poll said their home inspector missed items that became a major expense down the road. Considering a home is often the most expensive purchase you'll make in a lifetime, don't skimp on the inspection.
Illinois requires a state license of every home inspector, so be sure to ask for proof of license. You can visit www.idfpr.com/dpr/ re /relookup.asp to check the inspector's licensure status.
Illinois does not require insurance for home inspectors, but many carry it voluntarily and it's a good idea to hire those inspectors who are insured. There are three kinds of insurance: general liability insurance, which protects the inspector and the client in case of error (a ladder through a window, for example); bonding, which protects both inspector and client from any theft or missing items, and errors and omission insurance, which protects the client against any mistakes the inspector might have made during the inspection, kind of like malpractice insurance.
A large temperature difference between inside and outside air temperatures usually ensures the most accurate thermographic images, so it makes sense for Chicagoans to time their thermal inspection for the winter months. If this isn't possible, shoot for early morning or late evening hours during warmer months.
Thermal imaging requires extensive training; ask for proof that your inspector has received it.
Look -- and smell -- for signs that something isn't right. Check the corners of the basement and closet and utilize your sense of smell when you walk into a home.
Ask to see the current homeowner's energy bills, but don't just pay attention to the balance due. Look at the thermal units and the number of heating and cooling degree days. If there's a big increase over last year, the home is energy deficient.
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