Friday, May 26, 2017

What of Aluminum Wiring?

I occasionally run into homes wired with solid core aluminum wire. This of course scares many people who have heard about the dangers associated with this type of wiring. Like many of these kinds of issues the rhetoric often exceeds the value of the argument. However, I found an interesting article from a home inspection site that I have added here in its entirety. It's a good read if you have concerns about this type of wiring.

The following article was presented by and has been excerpted from their website, please follow the link for more information about the source of this content which is not owned by this blog.

Dispelling the Myths

We hear regularly that aluminum wiring has been recalled and that it is no longer approved or permitted in homes—neither of these is true. Aluminum wiring is permitted with the appropriate installation methods and materials.

Electrical wiring in homes has traditionally been copper since the introduction of electricity in homes in the late 19th century. Aluminum wiring was introduced to homes in North America in the mid-1960s. The price of copper was very high, and aluminum was a cost-effective alternative.

Not as Good as Copper

Was aluminum as good as copper? Not quite. It was recognized from the beginning that copper is a better conductor of electricity. The manufacturers and the authorities adjusted for that by using slightly larger aluminum wire to perform the same work as copper. Most branch circuit wiring in homes is 14 gauge copper. The equivalent aluminum wire is 12 gauge. Remember, though: 12 gauge is larger than 14!

The installation methods were exactly the same for aluminum as for copper.

The Issues

Shortly after aluminum wiring became popular, some problems started to appear. These included flickering lights, warm cover plates on switches and receptacles, and burned insulation on wiring. There was an overheating issue, and overheating can mean fires. They looked into it and found there were three other differences between copper and aluminum.
Softness: Aluminum is a much softer metal than copper. Electricians who had always worked with copper found that it was very easy to nick, cut, or crush the aluminum wiring when removing insulation or making connections. They had to be gentler. Damaged wire creates local hot spots and results in overheating.
Creeping: When electricity flows through wire, the wire heats up. Aluminum wire expands more than copper when it heats up. The repeated expansion and contraction as the wire heated up and cooled down caused to the wire to creep out from under the terminal screws that held the wire in place. This wire creeping resulted in loose connections and overheating.
Rusting: When metals rust, they form an oxide on the surface. Rust on steel is red, rust on copper is green, and rust on aluminum is white. It’s not a big problem when copper wiring rusts, since the copper oxide that forms is electrically conductive. It doesn’t interfere with the wire’s ability to do its job. When aluminum wiring rusts, the white oxide is not a very good electrical conductor. It does interfere with the flow of electricity, and again, can cause overheating.

The Solution

The problem was at connections, such as receptacles, switches, light fixtures, appliance connections, and at the panel. The solution was special connectors.

Connectors that work well with both copper and aluminum were created. That included:
Small receptacles marked CO/ALR or AL-CU
Large receptacles (> 20 amps) marked AL-CU or CU-AL
Switches marked CO/ALR
Twist-on wire connectors (sometimes called wire nuts) marked AL-CU or CU-AL

Electrical panels and breakers marked AL-CU or CU-AL were also available.

There were other approved connection systems that have come and substantially gone.

In Part Two of this post, we explore a few more additional considerations, as well as questions about insurance, and what to do if you have aluminum wiring in your home.

In Part One, we took a look at the difference between copper and aluminum wiring, the initial issues with aluminum wiring, and how inspectors can benefit from home inspector training to fully understand issues like this to better serve their clients. In this part, we will continue by looking at the requirements for aluminum wiring, a little bit of its history, insurance information, and what to do if you have aluminum wiring in your home.

First, let’s take a look at a few of the requirements put in place for aluminum wiring.

Push-In Not Allowed

The authorities found that aluminum performs better with screw type connections, where the wire was looped around a screw and held in place by the head of the screw, rather than with the “push-in” type terminations on some devices, sometimes referred to as ‘quick wire’, ‘dagger’, or ‘bayonet’ terminations. Push-in type terminations are not permitted with aluminum wiring.

Joint Compound/Anti-Oxidant Grease

Stranded aluminum wires need a special joint compound that is electrically conductive and prevents rust. The stranded conductors are used on larger cables (8 gauge and up), typically used for large appliances like stoves and ovens. It is agreed that joint compound is a good practice on all aluminum wiring, but the compound is generally not required on solid conductors.

A Better Alloy

In the early 1970s, the alloy used for aluminum wiring was changed to a superior quality wire much better suited to use for electrical work.

The Irony of Improvement

These changes improved the performance of aluminum wiring significantly. However, by the time the aluminum wiring issues were identified and improved, aluminum had received enough bad publicity that it became unmarketable. By the late 1970s, it was no longer used by most builders, although it is still approved and less expensive than copper. Most manufacturers have stopped making solid strand aluminum conductors, although multi-strand conductors for larger appliances and service entrances are still widely used.

The Insurance Question

The home insurance world became aware of the issues around aluminum wiring, and some insurance companies refuse to insure homes with aluminum. Others require a certificate from a licensed electrician or the electrical authority. Some say these decisions were made on conservative underwriting criteria rather than actual loss experience.

Is a Retrofit or Replacement Required?

There were a lot of homes built with aluminum wiring, and a lot of older homes that were updated with aluminum during the 1960s and 70s. What about all these homes that still have aluminum wiring? The electrical authority in Ontario, Canada says, “Aluminum wiring itself is safe and if proper connections and terminations are made without damaging the wire and using approved materials installed in accordance with the Ontario Electrical Safety Code and the manufacturer’s instructions, there should be no problems with the aluminum wiring installation.”

Home inspectors who identify aluminum wiring in homes should look for evidence of problems including flickering lights, warm cover plates, discolouration, and melted insulation. Inspectors should recommend an electrical audit of all the connections in the home performed by specialists. The authority in our area does not require that devices be replaced with aluminum-approved devices if no problems are identified.

Homeowners who have aluminum wiring should have an electrical audit performed to ensure their home is safe.


Aluminum wiring in homes has had problems, and significant improvements have been made. Neither authorities nor electrical specialists recommend rewiring a house with aluminum. All connections should be inspected and replaced or improved as necessary—there is no evidence that suggests this has to be done on a regular basis.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Swimming Pools in the Northwest?

The Pacific Northwest is known for its amazing scenery, spectacular greenery and long sunny summers... er, that last one is a stretch. So we may have the best summers on the planet, but they are also quite possibly the shortest summers on the planet. Outdoor swimming pools have a fairly brief season here in the great Northwest.

So why is it that I list a excellent home with a fantastic little built-in pool and the offers are coming in from all directions? Well my friends, a small neighborhood home with an in-ground pool is very rare in these parts. Well rare stuff usually fetches lots of money right? Well maybe... pools are rare around here due to the brevity of the season and the relatively high cost of installation and maintenance. Very high end homes in our area often have pools but they are also quite likely enclosed for year round use.

A traditional in-ground outdoor pool here in Clark County, Washington can attract a fair number of buyers, but the problem will come when the appraiser arrives. Appraisers are all over the board on swimming pools in our area and so seller's should avoid adding a bunch of anticipatory value in it. Even if the offers come in the appraisal may not.

For sellers the best time to list your home with an in-ground pool is June, the buyers have little trouble imagining the next few months of pool parties and fun in the sun. The best time to buy a house with a pool is November, no-one is too excited about the ice rink you have out back ;) It is kind of like buying a boat, buy in November sell in June!

I love me a nice pool. There is something just resort like about hanging out in the yard BBQ fired up and lounging by the pool. Even if it is chilly outside, the pool still adds that aura of being on vacation. So all you Californians, pay big bucks for the house with the pool, we get great deals.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Real Estate Deals are Like a Teenage Daughter

D-R-A-M-A. Yes friends it is a rare case indeed when the forces of the universe align and everything goes according to plan. The rest of the time a real estate deal feels like a full dose of a teenage daughter's first breakup.

The thing to understand is that real estate transactions are regulated by a series of Federal, State and local governments. The level of bureaucratic baloney is hard to fathom. Then one must consider the sheer number of individuals and companies involved in making a typical purchase money mortgage real estate transaction close. The lender, the closing agent, usually two different real estate offices, a property inspector, an appraiser and all of these are regulated at multiple levels of government.

Why am I mentioning this? Because buyers and sellers of real estate need to plan for the worst and take delight when things go better than planned. All too often people try to time everything to the day and it only takes one little glitch by one of the dozens of people involved in the deal to jam up the closing.

Don't give up your current place until you are certain your new deal is closing and always have at least two weeks of overlap. Yes, I know effectively a buyer is paying for two properties for two weeks, but most real estate deals end up with 40-60 days before the first new payment is due. So having two homes for two weeks is not so hard. It sure takes the edge off moving when you are not trying to move in a weekend.

Plan on having delays. Sometimes the stars align and the whole deal goes off without a hitch, but those are few and far between. No matter how good all the participants in the process are, everyone occasionally has the proverbial 'bad day' and that can lead to closing delays.

When buying a brand new home understand that sometimes builder run into delays. They could be due to a government regulatory action or problems with subs or materials. Don't worry, most real estate deals will involve a few hiccups, but proper planning will make every go smooth in the end.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Fixers are still tougher to sell...

Many homeowners selling in this hot market still think that people will crawl out of the proverbial woodwork and buy their beat up house for top dollar. This is a bit of a stretch and even in this tight market with little inventory, the market can be cruel on fixers. The issue lies in a few factoids that are driving buyers decisions. First lenders are not real keen on fixers. Sure conventional loans will let some minor stuff slide but not like they used to prior to the crash in '09. FHA and VA lenders are even stingier on what they allow as 'fixer'. Most people still use financing to acquire a home.

Investors are not interested in paying top dollar for fixers. They tend to pay cash so they don't have to worry about lender guidelines and soft appraisals. But they want to "steal" it so they can turn a profit. That is the whole idea around the investors approach.

Sellers with pie in the sky dreams of getting full market value for their fixer as much or near what the neighbors fully restored and remodeled house just sold for, are going to get a kick in the teeth by the cold hard realities of a market that really wants clean move-in ready homes.

That said, fixers will sell. The market just wants to pay a little less for a home that needs a lot of work. These tight inventory conditions allow sellers to get 85-90% of the relative market value for a clean, move-in ready example of their home and that is a big bump up from a few years back when fixers were fetching only 50-70% of relative market value.

Additionally sellers need to be aware that functional obsolescence is still a thing even in a hot seller's market. One bath homes are not going to yield the kind of offers that a comparable two bath house will get. It may even shock people how much that second bathroom is worth to a great many buyers. Of course a third bathroom doesn't have as much extra "punch" as a second so worry not if you have two.

Sellers should consider doing some work themselves that they feel confident in doing and by all means a little TLC cleanup and some fresh paint can go a long ways toward pushing that value up. The rules of engagement don't really change as the market ebbs and flows. Curb appeal, clean and ready, and functional by modern standards, will always yield the best results.