You have probably heard the saying, “Ignore your teeth and they will go away.” The same concept can be applied to the crawl space under your largest investment – the house in which you live.
I have been asked by homeowners to check out warped hardwood floors, tile floors with loose or popping tiles, and odd stains under vinyl flooring. Invariably, the question I ask concerns the last time they looked in the crawl space. My favorite answer is probably, “I didn’t know we had a crawl space”, but the blank stare and shoulder shrug is also a common response. I get it – who really wants to get suited up and crawl underneath their house?
So how often should someone take a peek underneath their house and what should they look for? The answer to the first question is fairly simple: every thirty days. The reason being that you if can spot a new issue in the first four weeks, you are more likely to prevent the issue from becoming a major repair. A leaking wax seal under a commode is a good example; if you spot the leak when the wax has just started to fail, you could get by with a simple wax seal replacement and a little cleanup in the crawl space. A wax seal that leaks for a couple of months may lead to ripping out the bathroom to replace the floor and an extensive mold remediation project, all of which could be classified as ‘owner negligence’ by the insurance company. Translation = you can probably forget about a trip to Disneyworld this year.
Before you drop everything and dive into your crawl space, there are a few things you need to be safe. You’ll want a Tyvek suit or some type of coverall that does not go back in the house after your crawl space adventure. Crawl spaces are full of bacteria and other stuff that you do not want to bring back to your family. You will also need a dependable flashlight, preferably with fresh batteries. Kneepads are good, especially if your soil floor contains gravel. I also suggest a helmet for head protection – anything will do and you’ll be glad you have it if you bump your head into a floor joist trying to outcrawl a snake. One last thing you’ll need is a big stick. I learned years ago to always ‘knock’ before entering a crawl space. A few raps on the door with a stick will let any creatures living in your crawl to expect a visitor.
While not mandatory, I suggest bringing a camera with you to document conditions. A few shots that show a clean and dry crawl space could go a long way in convincing an insurance adjustor or home inspector that the leak under your shower has not been going on for months as they might suggest.
By no means intended to be comprehensive, the following list and thirty minutes of your time will go a long way in helping you identify any issues under the house.
1) Is the soil vapor barrier intact (or is it missing in places, torn or generally rough-looking?)
2) Is the floor insulation in place against the sub-floor (or is it falling down, missing or wet in places?)
3) Does the crawl space smell earthy (acceptable) or musty (could be from excessive mold). Some mustiness in a crawl is OK, but if your living room also smells musty, you may need to have a professional check the crawl space.
4) If there are heating and A/C ducts under the house, note their condition. Duct runs should not be making contact with building materials, the vapor barrier or each other. They should also look to be tightly connected and sealed and not have any visible rips in the material. If you have doubts about the integrity of your ducts, hire a professional to inspect them.
5) Do you see any water on top of the vapor barrier? A small puddle of clear water near a foundation vent following a blowing rain is OK, but a stream of dirty water trailing across the vapor barrier warrants further investigation.
6) Are there stains on the floor joists that were not present a month ago? Try to determine if the area is damp or why it’s stained.
7) Monitor any patches of mold growth on the wood. Some mold is normal in a crawl space, but mold that is expanding its territory could lead to rotten wood and heath complaints. If in doubt, consult a professional.
8) Consider purchasing a simple wood moisture meter to measure the moisture content of a few joists during your monthly inspection. The wood moisture content should be 16% or lower. If it’s above 20%, you probably have a water leak or condensation problem that requires immediate attention.
I could write a book about crawl space maintenance, however, the few steps above are reasonable and will help head off a serious and potentially expensive issue. Paying a little attention to your crawl space will help you keep your largest investment healthy for many years.