Shear panels provide structural support
Q: I'm having a disagreement with the home inspector who was hired by my buyers. The inspection report says the shear panels under the house may not provide adequate structural support. The buyers are now insisting I pay for an engineering report. I've explained to the inspector that the home is only one year old, and the city requires engineering approval before signing off a building permit. The home inspector seems to think he knows more than the engineer who OK'd the house. In my opinion, home inspectors should respect the engineering standards enforced by local building departments.
Home inspectors are not structural engineers and should avoid trespassing in areas that exceed their professional expertise. What's your opinion of this obvious overreach?
A: The home inspector may or may not have made a mistake about the shear panels. Sooner or later, all home inspectors disclose conditions that are not truly defective.
However, a primary function of home inspectors is to identify and disclose the mistakes of others. All homes, being constructed by imperfect people, are prone to periodic imperfections of every possible kind. These errors may be committed by carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, heating contractors and, yes, even structural engineers.
The engineer who designed and approved the shear panel layout beneath your home may have done an excellent job, but possibly not. Either way, the home inspector is bound to disclose any doubts that may shadow the performance of that engineer or of workers who may not have followed the engineer's design. It would be better to recommend re-evaluation of a faultless condition than to approve a foundation system that is, or is suspected to be, substandard or in any way compromised.
We can agree that home inspectors should not trespass in the field of structural evaluations, unless they are duly credentialed. However, there are some basic guidelines by which a home inspector may question compliance with general structural standards. For instance, anchor bolts in a foundation should be spaced no wider than 6 feet apart. If a new home is not in compliance with that standard, a home inspector should disclose the shortcoming, even though that could be regarded as overstepping the expertise of an engineer or the building department.
The same principal applies to shear panels. These are sheets of plywood or OSB (oriented strand board, a panel made of glued wood) nailed to the framed walls beneath a building to provide bracing against lateral forces. Although the necessary amount of shear paneling can vary according to an engineer's specifications, there are general guidelines for determining minimum shear panel adequacy. When compliance is in doubt, it is the responsibility of a home inspector to draw such matters to the attention of all concerned parties.
The purpose of a home inspection is to discover significant construction defects. The question here is whether a home inspector should dismiss doubtful conditions on the basis of official approval. If so, it would be necessary to routinely overlook common defects of all kinds, simply because the home inspector is not an expert in every field of construction.
My advice is to consider the consequences if the home inspector should prove to be right. Play it safe and have the shear panels evaluated by a licensed structural engineer.
• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at www.housedetective.com, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.
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