LESLIE: Next up, we’re going to take a call from Garrett in Virginia who seems to be having chimney issues.
Garrett, what’s going on?
GARRETT: Well, I bought this old house (Leslie chuckles) – it’s 1928 – and decided I was going to try to fix it up a little bit. And the previous owner had worked on the outside and didn’t do much to the inside. And I noticed there’s some cracks in the ceiling where the wall meets the ceiling and the floor is lower in the center. And it all seems to be around where the chimney is because that’s right in the center of the house. So where all the walls meet at that point, it’s sinking.
TOM: Is it on a basement?
TOM: On a crawlspace?
GARRETT: Yes, it’s a crawlspace.
TOM: OK, so it is a wood-framed floor, then. Because where the chimney comes through, there is going to be some framing that takes the flooring around that and that’s probably the reason that the floor is sinking in the area of the chimney and walls that are resting on that floor would move accordingly.
Now cracks in walls – in old, plaster walls – and especially at the joint between the ceiling and the wall is really pretty much no big deal unless the plaster really gets loose because it can be kind of heavy and fall off and hit somebody. But just a little bit of sag in that area doesn’t necessarily trouble me that much, from a structural perspective; especially in an older house. You will often find older homes where the floors will sag around stairwells and staircases and chimney areas.
GARRETT: That’s exactly what this was doing because at the top of the stairs, that wall is sinking as well. So it just causes the whole stairs to be slightly skewed.
TOM: Yeah, exactly. Because the side of the stairs that’s attached to the wall usually stays high and the rest of it drops. And some of that is settlement and some of that is shrinkage of the old wood framing, too. But that’s really the personality showing through in the old house. It’s the charm, as we always say.
LESLIE: Yeah but Tom, does it ever get to a point where it becomes a major problem and what are the signs to look for?
TOM: Well, it could possibly become a major problem because of one reason: gravity. (chuckles) Sometimes it can get so bad where it can become unsafe but that’s very, very unusual. If you are concerned about it and you perceive, looking at this, that it’s dramatically sagging and you’re perceiving maybe some bounce in the floor, things of this nature, you really ought to have it professionally inspected and not by a contractor; by a professional home inspector who doesn’t necessarily have anything to provide you but good advice. It’s going to cost you a couple hundred bucks to have a pro come out and look at it but there could be other reasons it’s sagging. It could be damage by termites. Termites cause $5 billion in damage a year in this country. And things like that could be only picked up by a pro.
GARRETT: I did have an extensive termite inspection done for the house. And also, the previous owner had drywall around the fireplace. I didn’t even know this house had a fireplace until I got up in the attic and saw the chimney and I said, “Wait a minute.”
TOM: So he sealed off the fireplace with drywall? Well, there might be a reason for that and the reason might be that the chimney is not safe for wood burning. Old homes very often had brick chimneys that were …
LESLIE: It might not be coated.
TOM: Well, not lined. Yeah, exactly.
TOM: If the chimney’s not lined, you can’t use it for brick combustion. It needs to be lined. The closest that you could probably come to that is if you had a metal liner installed you might be able to use it as a gas fireplace but, again, it has to be lined.
GARRETT: Would it do any good for me to just remove it all the way down to the floor?
TOM: Only if you are looking for a big building block job to do for a while. It’s not sitting on the floor; I’m sure it’s going down to the foundation.
GARRETT: Oh, yeah. I’m sure.
TOM: So …
GARRETT: Might be easy to jack that part of the house after the chimney’s gone.
TOM: Well, I’ll tell you I’m glad you asked that question. Because many people will try to push a floor back up to where it was but you’ve got to remember – I mean what’d you say; the house was 1928? So you’ve got like 75 or so years here of that sagging of that house. Now you come along here and try to pick it back up again; it’s not going to be too cooperative. And what could possibly happen is you could stretch wires and cause them to short out; you could put stress on your plumbing system, cause pipes to break. It’s generally not a good idea to try to push a house back up after it’s sagged all those years.
GARRETT: You mentioned wiring. When I was calling to get this house insured, they asked me if I had knob-and-tube wiring, which I saw one time in an old house.
GARRETT: This house has a modern breaker panel and a couple of outlets that I pulled out had Romex. But we’re redoing the bathroom and we took the ceiling down and there’s knob-and-tube wiring in the attic.
LESLIE: But are you sure it’s still connected and it hasn’t been disconnected and it’s just still in there?
GARRETT: I’m looking at it right now. I’m standing up there and they’ve got Romex connected.
TOM: That’s very common and it’s a common mistake to think, when you see a new electrical panel, that the knob-and-tube wiring has been eliminated. But what happens is electricians will tie back in and out of it and that’s a very dangerous thing to do and here’s why. Knob-and-tube wiring that’s running through your ceiling under your attic probably has insulation around it. Insulation basically defeats the safety system – if it can be called a safety feature – of knob-and-tube wiring and that is that it has to be air-cooled. So if you insulate around it, it’s no longer air-cooled; it can short out.
Secondly, knob-and-tube wiring is not grounded, so if anything connects with that circuit that needs a ground, you’re going to become that ground. If you plug something in that’s got a short, you’re going to get the total brunt of the shock. And the wiring itself is rubber-coated and the rubber tends to dry out and fall off. So every opportunity you get, when you open up something and you find knob-and-tube wiring, it should be eliminated if possible and replaced with modern wiring, for safety reasons.
GARRETT: Well, good. Looks like I have some projects I need to take care of.
TOM: Thanks so much for calling us at 1-888-MONEY-PIT, 888-666-3974.