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A Tampa Bay home inspector shares tales of critter encounters and what he's found in the attic

Jim Belt of Home Belt Property Inspections uses a small digital camera to record the condition of the garage ceiling in a Carrollwood home.
Jim Belt of Home Belt Property Inspections uses a small digital camera to record the condition of the garage ceiling in a Carrollwood home.
Published May 20, 2016

You've found a home you love, signed a contract and can't wait to move in. But don't — unless you've had it thoroughly checked out by a professional home inspector.

In the past 20 years, Jim Belt has inspected thousands of Tampa Bay homes for nonworking appliances, leaky pipes and the many other problems big and small that can kill a deal or give the buyer added bargaining power before closing.

Belt also does the so-called "four-point'' inspections required by insurance companies before they'll cover a home more than 30 years old. Those inspections target four major areas — roof, plumbing, electrical and heating/air conditioning. Among the red flags: roofs with a life expectancy of less than three years.

A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Belt, 61, specialized in quality control and inspections of government facilities during his military career. Since retiring and starting his own company, St. Petersburg-based Home Belt Property Inspections, he has inspected everything from hospitals to restaurants to office buildings. But with the residential market on fire, the vast majority of his time now is spent inspecting homes and condos.

Belt, a state-licensed inspector who has been a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors, spoke to the Tampa Bay Times about the job, including some of the hazards he has encountered.

What's the first thing you do when you pull up at a house?

I first generally check the water meters, especially if the house is unoccupied, to see if any water is flowing through the meter, which may indicate an underground water leak. If it's (underneath) a slab, you've got a huge expense. You also start taking pictures immediately for the four-point inspection; you've got to start collecting those right away because if you forget, you'll be back again.

What's the difference between the home inspection and the four-point inspection?

The home inspection is for the client purchasing the house, though in some cases sellers do them. That inspection is very in-depth to protect them and their interests. The four-point inspection is to protect insurance companies. They ask questions from a different standpoint — they couldn't care less if the A/C works because you can't file a claim for that. But if condensation (from the A/C) is damaging the ceiling and walls, they'd be very interested in that.

Even though the insurer might require it, does your client have to pay for the four-point inspection?

I usually advise them to see the results of the home inspection before they get the four-point inspection because if they ain't buying the house, they don't need insurance, that's for sure. (Home inspections typically run around $275 to $400; four-point inspections, an extra $100 to $150.)

Are most homes you see in pretty good shape?

It depends on the market. When we had all the foreclosures, we saw a lot of older houses that were physically damaged by the occupants on the way out and needed to be looked at closely. You'd watch to see if the pipes had things poured down them; we could run into cement poured into a toilet and flushed. There would be houses where everything had been taken out including the door knobs.

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Has that changed?

When I started 20 years ago, home inspection was kind of in its infancy. I'd go into a house and people would ask me, "Why are you here?" Nowadays when you go to list a house, you know it's probably going to be inspected by a professional. Real estate agents are advising what to do to get prepared for listing and get maximum profit out of the house, so we're now seeing houses that are much cleaner. If you see that people didn't make repairs or declutter, you would suspect that this might be a rush sale or divorce sale or something that's not quite as well planned.

Do you go into attics?

The attic and crawl space are perhaps the most important aspects in many ways because they are areas that have probably not been prepared for much of an inspection. You can see things in there you're not going to see in an ultra-clean home.

Like what?

Termites, roof leaks, damage to the rafters or trusses, rodents, just about anything. That's some of the primary space for exposed electrical wiring.

Do you often see rats and other rodents?

All the time. I tell my clients that in my estimation, at least 70 percent of houses have some level of rodent activity in the attic. I only make it a big issue if it's fairly bad, a strong urine odor and things like that. Sometimes we find raccoons, though squirrels are probably the more damaging of rodents that get in attics because of the hyperactivity. They tend to chew the ductwork. I've found where ducts were completely torn apart by rodents.

Any other critters?

I've been (stung) by bees. I have pulled open the cover to the city water main and have found snakes that have just scared the bejesus out of me.

Besides the home inspection and four-point inspection, is there any other type of inspection?

You don't need it to close, but a wind mitigation inspection can save money on insurance. Those look at things like hurricane impact windows, hurricane clips. They usually cost about $100 to $150 and can save you a substantial amount.

Do you have a favorite style of house?

After doing houses in this region for so long, it's concrete block because of high winds and water, and it resists termites and other insects; and concrete slab because you don't have the usual settlement problems unless it's in a sinkhole. And I like the low-profile, hip-style roof because if you're in high winds and tropical storms, they tend to handle those better.

How about your own house?

It's concrete block but it's got a gable-style roof. We're getting it ready to put it on the market, which means I've got to go into the attic. You go in everyone else's attic but you don't want to go in your own attic.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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