Buying a home is one of the most costly and important investments you will ever make. It’s important to know what to look out for before signing on the dotted line. Many things are obvious when walking through a home, but the electrical system is largely out-of-sight and out-of-mind. That’s usually the case, until something bad happens.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, home electrical failure or malfunctions account for over 51,000 home fires each year. Having a sharp eye, to catch potential electrical problems, can steer you clear of danger or headaches down the road.
Additionally, this allows you to alert the home inspector of any areas of which you are particularly concerned.
Knowing what to look for is half the battle, and being able to spot home issues during a walkthrough provides an immense amount of assurance.
Here are the top 5 electrical issues to look out for when buying a home:
Outdated or Unsafe Wiring
Some clients love older homes, especially for the remodel potential. However, older homes means older wiring, and older wiring can be unsafe. The wiring in your house will generally correspond to the electrical code used at the time the house was built, unless a whole home rewiring was previously completed. In the 60’s and 70’s, aluminum wiring was used instead of copper, and it can be dangerous and problematic. Listen for buzzing, look for exposed wiring, and note if sparks come from switches or outlets. As always, voice your concerns to the home inspector prior to the inspection.
On one electrical job in Fort Myers, we found an outlet where the wires were burned and melted, causing arcing:
Bad Electrical Panels
Electrical panels, also known as “breaker boxes”, receive the power from the grid and distribute it throughout the home. By opening the hinged electrical panel access door, one can see if there are any telltale signs of issues. Stray wires are a bad sign, and it’s usually unsafe. If it’s an old home, ensure the panel has been upgraded to 100 amps or more.
Another important issue that often arises (that your home inspector should catch) is an unsafe, recalled panel installed in the home. Federal Pacific Electrical (FPE) panels contain defective circuit breakers that create a substantial risk of fires…because of this, insurance companies usually will require you to replace the panel before insuring the home.
Here is an FPE panel change that we did in Fort Myers. We replaced the FPE panel with a Cutler Hammer retrofit, with no damage to the existing drywall:
No GFCI Protection in the Kitchen, Bathrooms, and Outdoor Areas
A ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet is designed to cut power or “trip”, thereby protecting against the risk of electrical shock. You can identify them by the two buttons on the face of the outlet. Lack of these outlets in the kitchen, bathrooms, and outdoor areas is a sign that the home isn’t up to code.
In the picture shown below is a patio outlet with GFCI protection. You can easily tell by the two buttons in the middle of the switch. Here we are using a receptacle tester to ensure everything is wired correctly and checks good:
If an outlet has only two prongs, instead of three, it lacks a ground. Besides preventing you from plugging in modern “three prong” appliances, the ground part of the outlet helps protect the delicate circuitry from power surges. If you see two prong outlets, it might be a sign to have the inspector dive deeper into the electrical system.
No Permits Pulled on a Renovation
If the home your clients are considering to purchase has been remodeled, be sure to ask for the actual permits that were pulled to perform the work. Work permits, issued by local governments, ensure that any work performed is inspected, and up to code, before project completion. DIY’ers or “side work” contractors that don’t have a license will sometimes forego the permit process to bypass inspections, save money, or save time–and this often spells trouble or safety issues down the line. Always check to ensure that an inspection was passed on any electrical work.