USDA Loans

By Bud Coburn

USDA loans are housing loans that are backed through the Rural Housing Divisionof the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).The USDA offers competitive loans for borrowers in rural areas
In the wake of the mortgage crisis in 2008 and 2009, lenders have become more cautious, so it’s harder for home buyers, especially first-timers, to secure financing, especially those with low incomes or little money for a down payment. In response, the USDA has enacted changes that made millions of borrowers eligible for their rural mortgage programs, which have been around for decades. These loans are primarily used to help low-income individuals and families purchase homes in rural areas, given the challenges faced in finding an affordable mortgage loan or deriving high income in sparsely populated areas. Funds can be used to build, repair, renovate or relocate a home, or to purchase and prepare sites, including providing water and sewage facilities. If the borrower defaults on payments, loan funds are still guaranteed to the lender.
Eligibility of Applicants
The following factors affect eligibility for USDA loans:
  • Loans are restricted to borrowers in rural areas, although many of the zip codes that qualify for USDA loans are in relatively typical suburbs of major cities.  The 2002 Farm Bill defines a rural area as “any area other than (1) a city or town that has a population of greater than 50,000 inhabitants, and (2) the urbanized areas contiguous and adjacent to such a city or town.”
  • Applicants for loans may have an income of up to 115% of the median income for the area. If an income exceeds the maximum mark, you may be able to make certain adjustments that will help you qualify.
  • Applicant families must currently be without adequate housing, but be able to afford the mortgage payments, including taxes and insurance. Copies of IRS tax filings from years prior may be required, especially if the prospective borrower is self-employed or has worked many jobs over the past few years.
  • Applicants must have reasonable credit histories. Late payments will appear on the credit history, as will bankruptcies, repossessions and  foreclosures.
  • The amount loaned will also depend on the number of dependents claimed by the applicant.
Eligibility of Housing
Housing must be modest in size, design and cost. Also, houses constructed, purchased or rehabilitated must meet the building code adopted by the state and the Housing and Community Facilities Programs’ (HCFP) thermal and site standards. New manufactured housing must be permanently installed and meet the manufactured housing construction and safety standards of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as well as the HCFP’s thermal and site standards.  Existing manufactured housing may not qualify unless it is already financed with an HCFP direct or guaranteed loan, or it is Real Estate-Owned (REO), formerly secured by an HCFP direct or guaranteed loan.
USDA Loans vs. Federal Housing Authority (FHA) Loans
While the USDA and FHA both insure loans made by private lenders, the policies and eligibility requirements for each are quite different. The following are the principle differences:
  • Unlike loans offered by the FHA, USDA loans have no monthly mortgage insurance premium.
  • The FHA requires that an applicant invest 3.5% of the purchase price as a down payment, although this fee may be donated by an employer, a blood relative, or a non-profit organization that is approved by HUD.  The USDA does not require a down payment.
  • Both the USDA and FHA have similar appraisal requirements.  Both feature mortgage options for a fixed rate mortgage, and repayment terms of 15 years and 30 years.
  • FHA loans may be as high as $729,750, while USDA loans are limited to $300,000.
In summary, USDA loans are a good option for many prospective home buyers and borrowers living in (or moving to) rural areas.

Unvented Roof Assemblies

By Bud Coburn

Unvented roof assemblies are becoming an increasingly common construction alternative to traditional vented roofs. They are designed without ventilation openings, and the attic is conditioned like the rest of the living space.
 Un-vented roofs offer certain advantages if they are designed properly

Unvented roofs operate by the principle that venting is not necessary to control moisture accumulation. The following conditions must be met in order for an unvented roofing assembly to function properly:

    • The building envelope must be tight, including having adequate vapor and air barriers installed, which is generally accomplished through the use of spray-foam insulation.
    • The building must be pressurized in order to counter the stack effect, which happens when hot, pressurized air in the upper part of the house tries to escape through holes in the building envelope.

Proponents argue that, when installed and implemented properly, unvented roofing assemblies offer the following advantages over vented attics:

  • enhanced comfort. Wind, temperature gradients and pressure differences in a vented attic create undesirable air movement between the living space and the attic. Also, unvented attics block volatile organic compounds and other moisture-related airborne particles from migrating to the living space from the attic;
  • protection against certain moisture-related problems. In vented attics in cold climates, warm air can leak from the living space and condense on the underside of the roof sheathing, while humid air can easily leak from the outdoors and condense on cold metal surfaces of ductwork and air-conditioning equipment typically located in the attic. Unvented attics do not experience such problems;Ice dams may form on un-vented roofs
  • energy conservation. An unvented attic is conditioned space and won’t be subject to the extremes of temperature common to vented attics. Heat is thus less likely to escape into an unvented attic from HVAC equipment, and if it does, it will remain within the conditioned space. Insulation around ducts and HVAC equipment becomes less critical, and the equipment is not forced to work as hard to compensate for unwanted air or heat loss. It might be possible to downsize the HVAC system if enough energy is saved in this manner. Also, cold air blowing through the eave vents in a vented attic can degrade the thermal performance of attic insulation;
  • snow and ember barrier. Openings in the soffits, gables, mushroom and ridge vents easily allow snow intrusion, especially fine snowflakes, into the attic. The snow can accumulate and eventually melt, causing damage to building materials and encouraging the growth of mold. Airborne mold spores may pass through vented attics into the living space and harm susceptible individuals. Also, blowing embers from wildfires can pass through unscreened attic vents and light the house on fire. These blowing embers often fall far from the edge of the actual wildfire, which might not otherwise have reached the house; and
  • expanded use and design options. Because the temperature in unvented attics is more easily controlled, they can be furnished and incorporated into the living space or used as a conditioned storage space. Also, unvented roof assembles make complicated roof geometries more viable, as they are difficult to ventilate effectively.

While unvented attics are gaining acceptance, homeowners must realize their limitations, including:

  • codes. Many local building codes do not account for non-standard construction alternatives such as unvented attic assemblies. They were addressed in the 2006 International Residential Code (IRC), however, which states that they must have no vapor retarder installed between the attic and the home’s living space, and there must be air-impermeable insulation installed between the rafters;
  • asphalt shingles may fail prematurely due to increased exposure to heat; and
  • ice dams are more likely to form at unvented attics in cold climates.
Inspectors and homeowners should understand that unvented roof assemblies are a controversial idea. The Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association (ARMA), for instance, has argued that the IRC’s acceptance in 2006 of this design should be repealed.  ARMA representative Dave Roodvoets has stated,  “Even the best researchers have only a few years of data on unvented attics in humid climates.”  ARMA also contends that unvented roofs may make a building more susceptible to decay by trapping moisture inside. Proponents of the design have countered this contention by pointing out that in humid climates, most moisture comes from the exterior.


In summary, unvented roofs offer certain advantages if they are designed properly.

Ungrounded Electrical Receptacles

By Bud Coburn

Grounding of electrical receptacles (which some laypeople refer to as outlets) is an important safety feature that has been required in new construction since 1962, as it minimizes the risk of electric shock and protects electrical equipment from damage. Modern, grounded 120-volt receptacles in the United States have a small, round ground slot centered below two vertical hot and neutral slots, and it provides an alternate path for electricity that may stray from an appliance. Older homes often have ungrounded, two-slot receptacles that are outdated and potentially dangerous. Homeowners sometimes attempt to perform the following dangerous modifications to ungrounded receptacles:
  • the use of an adapter, also known as a “cheater plug.” Adapters permit the ungrounded operation of appliances that are designed for grounded operation. These are a cheaper alternative to replacing ungrounded receptacles, but are less safe than properly grounding the connected appliance;
  • replacing a two-slot receptacle with a three-slot receptacle without re-wiring the electrical system so that a path to ground is provided to the receptacle. While this measure may serve as a seemingly proper receptacle for three-pronged appliances, this “upgrade” is potentially more dangerous than the use of an adapter because the receptacle will appear to be grounded and future owners might never be aware that their system is not grounded. If a building still uses knob-and-tube wiring, it is likely than any three-slot receptacles are ungrounded. To be sure, InterNACHI inspectors may test suspicious receptacles for grounding; and
  • removal of the ground pin from an appliance. This common procedure not only prevents grounding but also bypasses the appliance’s polarizing feature, since a de-pinned plug can be inserted into the receptacle upside-down.
While homeowners may be made aware of the limitations of ungrounded electrical receptacles, upgrades are not necessarily required. Many small electrical appliances, such as alarm clocks and coffee makers, are two-pronged and are thus unaffected by a lack of grounding in the building’s electrical system.
Upgrading the system will bring it closer to modern safety standards, however, and this may be accomplished in the following ways:
  • Install three-slot receptacles and wire them so that they’re correctly grounded.
  • Install ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). These can be installed upstream or at the receptacle itself. GFCIs are an accepted replacement because they will protect against electric shocks even in the absence of grounding, but they may not protect the powered appliance. Also, GFCI-protected ungrounded receptacles may not work effectively with surge protectors. Ungrounded GFCI-protected receptacles should be identified with labels that come with the new receptacles that state:  “No Equipment Ground.”
  • Replace three-slot receptacles with two-slot receptacles. Two-slot receptacles correctly represent that the system is ungrounded, lessening the chance that they will be used improperly.

Homeowners and non-qualified professionals should never attempt to modify a building’s electrical components. Misguided attempts to ground receptacles to a metallic water line or ground rod may be dangerous. InterNACHI inspectors may recommend that a qualified electrician evaluate electrical receptacles and wiring.

In summary, adjustments should be made by qualified electricians — not homeowners — to an electrical system to upgrade ungrounded receptacles to meet modern safety standards and the requirements of today’s typical household appliances.

Underground Fuel Storage Tank Hazards and Inspection

By Bud Coburn

Buried storage tanks that contain petroleum and other hazardous chemicals may pose a safety hazard to those living in homes nearby and significant financial liability to the owner. Leaky underground fuel storage tank Underground storage tank inspectors should try to identify whether a property contains an underground storage tank, whether it is in service or inactive, and what it holds, and note these details in his/her report.  The inspector should recommend that it be tested for leaks, especially if testing has never been performed, the tank is unused, or the tank is old.

According to the Groundwater Protection Council, there are currently more than 640,000 federally regulated buried tanks that store fuels and other hazardous substances. Of these, about 465,000 have leaked, and most have required cleanup, although tens of thousands were never cleaned because a responsible party could not be identified. Actual figures are likely far greater than these totals, which represent only the documented cases. At particular risk are households that use groundwater, which comprise a large part of the total U.S. population, and 99% of families in rural areas.

Once free from the tank, petroleum will sink through unsaturated soil and enter the water table. There, much of the chemical will vaporize and eventually bubble up through the ground’s surface. In addition to the risks posed by other petroleum products, leaked gasoline presents the risk of fire and explosion, especially if the fumes collect in buildings. Any petroleum-contaminated water that is ingested or used to bathe is potentially deadly. Tanks are capable of leaking chemicals for many years, since the corrosion process is typically slow.

Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes, collectively known as the BTEX compounds, are the most hazardous chemicals found in petroleum. Benzene-contaminated water has been proven to cause cancer, as does water contaminated by methyl tertiary butyl ether, which is added to gasoline to make it burn cleaner. The latter chemical has infiltrated 9,000 community water wells in 31 states, although its use in gasoline is being phased out.

The liability connected with leaking buried tanks can be huge for the property owner.  Testing typically costs around $500, which is considerably less expensive than the amount of money required to clean up a subterranean oil spill and install a new tank. The test should show that there is no leakage.  If there has been a leak, the situation should be remedied before the property is purchased. Testing requires one or more of the following technical measures:

  • pressure testing:  Tanks are pressurized and then monitored for a period of time to observe for fluctuations that indicate a leak;
  • soil testing:  Soil samples are taken from around the tank and sent to a lab for analysis. If the tests show chemicals have leaked, it is advisable for additional samples to be taken so that the extent of the contamination can be better understood;
  • water in tank:  If water has entered the tank through a crack, chemicals may leave the tank through the same path. If water is pumped through the fuel lines into the burner, it may rust the metal parts of the oil filter, which is one way to check for water in the tank. It is possible, however, for water to enter an oil tank through a bad oil delivery or condensation; and
  • other methods:  Ultrasound and ground-penetrating radar can be used to create an image of the tank and identify leaks.

Tanks that show leakage must be removed from the ground or filled with a chemically inert solid, such as sand. Groundwater contaminants too must be removed by pumping air through the water, which causes volatile petroleum compounds to vaporize and biodegrade naturally. The process of treating or removing the tank, water and soil, known as remediation, costs thousands of dollars and is not guaranteed to succeed. Many communities have been forced to find alternative sources of drinking water because of petroleum contamination. To avoid this costly and difficult mess, new installations should be buried far from potable water sources and properly maintained, once the system is in service.


Ultrasonic Pest Repellers: Solution or Scam

By Bud Coburn

Ultrasonic pest repellers are electronic devices that emit high-frequency sounds designed to repel, injure or kill household pests, such as rodents and insects.  Whether they’re actually effective at doing so has been disputed by testing labs and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Left unchecked, rodents and insects can transmit salmonella, hantavirus and other diseases, as well as cause significant building damage. Signs of a rodent infestation include droppings, especially near food and beneath sinks, gnawed or chewed food packages, and holes in structural materials that can provide entry into the home.
Cockroach infestation, which is arguably the most pervasive and hard-to-eliminate type of pest infestation, especially in urban areas and industrial and commercial kitchens, is evidenced by the pest’s droppings, which are pepper-like specs, typically found in kitchen cupboards, as well as their egg sacs, which are often spotted in hard-to-reach locations, such as cracks and crevices in kitchen cabinets and drains, and behind dishwashers and refrigerators.  Ultrasonic pest repellers are claimed to eliminate even these types of household pests.
How They Work
The use of audible sound to deter pests is an old strategy; the ancient Chinese used a number of mechanically operated sensory-repellent devices to deter rodent infestations in agricultural crops and buildings. Ultrasound, which is defined by sound frequencies beyond the upper limit of human hearing, has been used as pest control only over the past few decades, however.
The ultrasonic devices are plugged into a home’s electrical receptacle outlets which then purportedly emit high-frequency sounds that are disruptive to pests. The sound supposedly causes a physiological response known as audiogenic seizure response, which is characterized by non-directional running, convulsions, and possibly death from cerebral hemorrhage. The theory behind the devices is that confused rodents eventually flee when the disruption prevents them from gathering food, breeding, building nests or communicating. Ultrasonic devices are popular and appealing to consumers because of their ease of use and the fact that they are silent to human ears and allegedly eliminate the need for traps and poison, which are thought by some to be inhumane forms of pest control. Electromagnetic and subsonic devices are also available, and all designs vary by signal intensity, rate and frequency.

But Do They Work?

Studies designed to investigate the efficacy of ultrasonic pest repellents have shown mixed results. One extensive test performed by Kansas State University in 2002 found that the devices were effective at repelling some insects, such as crickets, but the same devices had little effect on cockroaches. Ants and spiders were unaffected by any of the devices. Of the pests that seem to be bothered by the noise, some tests have shown that they soon become habituated as they realize the noise is harmless. Even models proven successful in tests are unlikely to perform adequately in real-world situations, where signal strength rapidly diminishes and can be blocked by walls and furniture.
Safety concerns have arisen, too; some users have reported that the sound can weaken the clarity of telephone conversations, interfere with burglar alarm systems, and cause muting in hearing aids. The noise may also cause inadvertent distress to rabbits and rodent pets, such as guinea pigs and hamsters. Cats and dogs can hear in the ultrasonic range, but they appear not to be bothered by the noise emitted by these devices.
Manufacturers of ultrasonic pest repellers make claims that may be unsupported by scientific testing. In fact, more than 60 companies received warning letters from the FTC in 2001 stating that “efficacy claims about those products must be supported by scientific evidence.”  Two years later, one company was sued by the FTC for violating its warning.
Nevertheless, many users have reported success, so customers are advised to research specific brands before they purchase an ultrasonic pest repeller. The devices should be placed in areas where their signals will travel uninterrupted by walls or furniture.
Better Options
InterNACHI inspectors may inform their clients that many more reliable forms of pest control, such as chemical pesticides, traps and even cats, are effective and inexpensive.  Many InterNACHI inspectors are also qualified to perform wood-destroying organism (WDO) inspections, which can further identify and possibly diagnose insect infestation problems to help homeowners devise workable solutions.  Inspectors should always wear the appropriate personal protective equipment when inspecting areas of a home that could be a refuge for pests.
In summary, ultrasonic pest repellers emit high-frequency sounds that manufacturers claim reduce household pest infestation, but laboratory tests have shown that the majority of such devices do not work as advertised, in violation of FTC guidelines.  Homeowners with pest problems should rely on a qualified inspector who can help them identify their particular pest problem and advise them on practical and effective solutions.

UFFI Insulation Inspection

By Bud Coburn

Urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) is a thermal insulation product used mostly during the 1970s and early 1980s. This expanding foam insulation was mixed on site and pumped into building cavities in older buildings that had not been previously insulated.UFFI insulation installed in attic
UFFI was first developed in Europe in the 1950s as an improved way to insulate hard-to-reach cavities in wood-frame walls. It could be sprayed into building cavities through small holes, an improvement over the conventional process that required walls be removed to add insulation. It was typically mixed on site using urea-formaldehyde resin, a foaming agent, and compressed air. When the mix was injected into the wall, the urea and formaldehyde bonded to form an insulating plastic foam. UFFI became a valuable thermal insulation product during the energy crisis of the 1970s, when energy-shortage fears led to the exploration for new thermal insulation technologies. It was used in approximately half a million homes in North America.
UFFI was banned in Canada in 1980, and two years later it was banned in the U.S. because of fears concerning off-gassing of the formaldehyde, an irritating and potentially carcinogenic gas. The chemical was added on site during the curing process, and some homeowners, mostly in small, poorly ventilated homes, began complaining about adverse health effects, including respiratory issues. Some houses were sold at a fraction of their market value to compensate for the expense of gutting, cleaning and re-insulating building cavities.
Research during this period, however, began to show that, after installation, the formaldehyde gas dissipated within several days to less than 1 part per million, low enough that there was virtually no health risk. The U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the ruling to ban UFFI in 1983, although the ban remains in effect in Canada. Nevertheless, the insulation is still being installed in Canadian homes, according to the Canadian organization Health Zone. Apparently, it is illegally imported from other countries under the brand name RetroFoam™, although the government has taken actions against the perpetrators. UFFI was never banned in Europe, and it’s still used there today. Any formaldehyde detected in a home is likely to be from other sources, such as pressed-wood products (plywood wall paneling, particleboard, fiberboard), un-vented, fuel-burning appliances, carpet padding, or tobacco smoke.
While UFFI is not the carcinogen it was originally feared to be, it does present issues concerning its value as insulation because it suffers from considerable shrinkage over time, depending on how precisely the product was mixed. Inspectors may see an inch or more of shrinkage on each side of the foam insulation block. These gaps can easily allow thermal drift or even air leakage, seriously reducing its effectiveness. UFFI also deteriorates when it comes into contact with moisture or water. Wet UFFI should be removed by a specialist. Also, a declaration of the presence UFFI may be required as part of a real estate transaction.
UFFI can be inspected for based on the following factors:
  • the age of the building. UFFI will probably not be found in buildings constructed after the early 1980s. It was used from about 1975 to 1978 primarily as a retrofit insulation in older buildings;
  • patched injection holes on the outside of the building;
  • oozing. The insulation sometimes oozes out from cracks and above wall cavities;
  • color. UFFI is white or a dull yellow, and may have been darkened over time from exposure to dust and dirt; and
  • texture. UFFI is soft and crumbly and will be easily damaged if handled.
In summary, UFFI is an unfairly stigmatized and relatively harmless insulation product that was installed primarily during the 1970s.  Inspectors can allay their clients’ fears about its former reputation as a carcinogen, but may want to check its installation for signs of deterioration and ineffectiveness.

U-Factor Ratings for Windows

By Bud Coburn

When quantifying the energy efficiency of a window assembly, the rate of loss of non-solar heat can be expressed as its U-factor (or U-value).  Understanding the U-factors of windows is helpful for inspectors performing energy audits, as well as for consumers planning a new build or updating a house with energy-efficient windows.
U-Factor or R-Value?
While windows are rated using both U-factors and R-values, the U-factor is used to express the insulative value specifically of windows, while the R-value is used primarily to rate the energy efficiency of insulation installed in other areas of the building envelope, such as beneath the roof, in the attic, behind the walls, and beneath the floors.  In order to translate a window’s U-factor into its R-value, divide 1 by the U-factor.  For example, a window with a U-factor of 0.25 is calculated as 1 ÷ 0.25 = 4, so the same window has an R-value of 4.
What is the U-Factor?
The U-factor rating system was devised by the National Fenestration RatingAn example of an NFRC-certified product label Council (NFRC).  The NFRC is a non-profit group that administers a uniform, independent rating and labeling system for the energy efficiency of building components, including windows, doors, skylights and attachment products.  The U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Program take the U-factor into account when evaluating the energy efficiency of windows for product certifications, and federal incentive and rebate programs.
Windows that have the best resistance to heat flow and, thus, the best insulating qualities, have a low U-factor.  Less efficient windows with poor insulating ability have a high U-factor.  The combination of a window’s U-factor, air leakage, sunlight transmittance, and solar heat-gain coefficient add up to determine its level of energy efficiency.

The temperature difference between the interior and exterior of a building creates the non-solar heat flow that results in windows losing heat to the outside during the winter, and gaining heat from outside during the summer.  Compensating for this by cranking the thermostat or turning up the AC results in added energy needs and higher bills.  Greater energy efficiency calls for a closer examination of the individual building components to see how they can work individually and in relation to each other in more effective ways.  U-factor ratings can help in formulating standardized comparisons and objective evaluations.

Determining the U-Factor

The U-factor generally refers to the energy efficiency of the complete window assembly, which includes the glazing, window frame and spacer.  The spacer is the component of a window frame that separates the glazing panels, and often reduces the U-factor at the glazing edges.  The performance rating of the glazing alone, independent of the frame, is known as the center-of-glass U-factor, but use of this rating is less common.  For most energy-efficient windows, the U-factor for the entire window assembly is higher than the U-factor at the center of the glass.

The best, high-performance, double-pane windows may have a U-factor of 0.30 or lower, indicating that they are very energy-efficient.  Some triple-pane windows may have a U-factor as low as 0.15.  Manufacturers have started to incorporate low-emittance coatings and gas fills between panes in attempts to further decrease U-factors and provide an even more energy-efficient product.

U-Factors in Different Climates

While beneficial in cooling-dominated climates, a low U-factor is most important for windows in heating-dominated climates.  The following are recommendations for the most effective window U-factors based on the major climate zones in the United States.

  • In colder climates in the North that are heating-dominated, the U-factor should be less than or equal to 0.30 for windows, and less than or equal to 0.55 for skylights.  In areas where air-conditioning needs are minimal, windows that allow for solar heat gain during the day (a solar heat-gain coefficient of 0.40 or higher) can be considered energy-efficient with a U-factor as high as 0.32.  Low U-factor windows are most important and will be most effective in this colder climate area where minimizing heat loss is critical to energy efficiency. 
  • In mixed climates in the North and Midwest regions that use both heating and cooling,the U-factor should be less than or equal to 0.32 for windows, and less than or equal to 0.55 for skylights.  Heating bills can help determine the importance of U-factors in this climate.  Higher bills indicate the importance windows with a lower U-factor for added energy efficiency.
  • In mixed climates in the South and central regions that use both heating and cooling, the U-factor should be less than or equal to 0.35 for windows, and less than or equal to 0.57 for skylights.  In these climates, again, heating costs can determine if a lower U-factor could be beneficial and more energy-efficient.  If costs are high and a list of factors for heat loss is being addressed, window U-factor can be taken into consideration.  A low U-factor for windows can also be helpful during hotter seasons when it is important to keep heat out, though a low solar heat-gain coefficient is more important in such situations.
  • In hot climates in the South that are cooling-dominated, the U-factor can be less than or equal to 0.60 for windows, and less than or equal to 0.70 for skylights.  A lower U-factor is still useful during any cold times of the year when heating is needed in this climate.  Such low ratings can ensure that heat is kept out on hot days when combined with a low solar heat-gain coefficient, which is the most important consideration in this climate.
Understanding the function and rating criteria for U-factors is a helpful tool for inspectors who perform energy audits.  They can then pass this information along to their clients who may have questions about their windows and their home’s overall energy efficiency.