Chimneys and Real Estate Transactions -- What to Watch for This Spring

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As we enter into spring 2006 the real estate industry goes into high gear. A big part of a real estate transaction is the state of the chimney in the home.

Spring of 2006 brings expectations that the Real Estate Industry will bounce into high gear. During a real estate transaction home inspectors are of course called in to provide a full report of the condition of the home.

Top real estate agents in the Southern California area predict that the industry is not slowing down. On the contrary, they feel that things will pick up even more this spring.

For most, real estate transactions are one of the single largest financial transactions of a lifetime. Having all the facts to hand is imperative when facing a decision of this magnitude. Complete, professional inspections are the best weapon to hand for the prudent buyer or seller.

Fireplaces are such a wonderful aspect to homes and add to their value. It is a wise decision to have the fireplace and chimney inspected by a certified chimney inspector during the real estate transaction.

The purpose of any inspection is to clarify the condition of each chimney as to SAFETY, FUNCTION and CODE COMPLIANCE.

Earthquakes and Chimneys

The Long Beach earthquake, estimated magnitude 6.25, occurred at 5:55 p.m., March 10, 1933. Engineered buildings and reinforced concrete buildings sustained little or no structural damage in the earthquake. Brick buildings with un-reinforced masonry walls, including many of the school buildings in Long Beach and surrounding areas, failed catastrophically.

Chimney design changed after the Long Beach earthquake. Prior to 1939 most chimneys were not reinforced, had ash mortar and many were not lined. A single wythe ash mortar chimney can be a real safety hazard and must be carefully looked at.

Today mortar consists of Portland Cement mixed with sand and water. It hardens to be very hard and has an excellent bond. Mortar before 1939 was made from sand, lime and ashes. Although it had compression strength it had a poor bond strength which is what is needed to hold the chimney together in an earthquake.

Some homes have pre-fabricated chimneys. These should automatically be inspected.

Basically there are 3 categories of chimneys: Pre-fabricated, masonry and hybrid.

There is a trick to tell what type of chimney you have:

Real bricks in the firebox usually mean you have a masonry system. The top of the chimney offers clues as well. If you can see a clay type square or oval pipe protruding out the top of the chimney stack you have a masonry fireplace and chimney system.

If you can see a metal pipe with a metal cap that fits the pipe perfectly, protruding out the top, chances are you have some kind of a prefab.

Look at the firebox. Does it have a metal box? If so you have a prefab. If it is all brick and mortar but with the metal pipe protruding out of the top you probably have a hybrid system.

If a home inspector says that your chimney was in “A” condition should you go to the expense of having the chimney inspected?

If the chimney has been used successfully and there are no Red Flags visible then a complete chimney inspection is probably a waste of money and time. However, if you want to be 100% sure, a complete inspection by a chimney professional is required.

Chimneys that leak can lead to future difficulties. What could cause a chimney to leak?

There are several possibilities. The number one cause is the roof/chimney intersection. If this is not properly flashed it will leak. Number 2 cause is no rain cap. Rain will come into the flue of the chimney and begin to saturate the inside of the chimney. If the geographic area you live in receives 3-inches of rain you will get 3-inches dumped into the chimney. If we get 15-inches over a 2 week period, as during the winter of 2004-2005, your chimney will probably leak.

Saturation is another cause. During the winter of 2004-2005 many chimneys leaked that had adequate flashing and chimney caps. The bricks, being porous, and exposed to weeks of heavy rain, simply absorbed so much water the water by-passed the flashing and showed up in the house. Lastly there is “wicking”. Water saturating the soil around the base of the chimney will “wick” up through the porous masonry and show up inside the house. This condition is almost always caused by a poor drainage situation coupled with over irrigating or a downspout from the roof depositing a lot of water near the chimney. All water should drain away from the house, not only the chimney.

Is it possible that a home inspector may miss something that is seriously wrong with a chimney? As hard-working and conscientious as home inspectors may be, the answer is unfortunately yes.

Hopefully, armed with the above information, you will know when it is time to call in the certified chimney inspection professional.

Author Dave Laverdiere is the owner of Boston Brick & Stone located in Pasadena, CA. Dave can be reached at 626-296-7700 or you can find more information at

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