Home inspection findings by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck, Professional Real Estate Inspector TREC# 9073

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How Can I get Out of My House When There Is a Fire?

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Do you think about fire safety? Do you practice escape routes out of the home with your family? None of us want or expect a fire, but not being prepared can lead to awful consequences.

I was thinking over my findings from inspections this past week to find an idea for a post. Several good post topics came to mind, but fire safety is one that stuck out to me. I guess that it became so important, because for consumers, the idea of preparing for a fire seems far fetched. Think about it: when you bought your home, did you say that a house was wrong for you, because of fire safety? I really do not want you to make that a determining factor in a home purchase, but I would hope that your home inspector pointed out issues to you, so that you can make a wise decision, and that decision should lead to a plan that you practice with your children.
    What inspired this thought on how to safely exit your home in case of fire? The idea came from a media room. Media rooms and common rooms are showing up in more homes. Homeowners like the idea of having their own entertainment space. Watching television with no glare on the screen appears to be a desire amongst home buyers. Builders accommodate this wish by creating rooms with no windows. Two of the homes that I inspected this week had media rooms. Both rooms were on the second floor. Both had the raised flooring at one end. One room faced the front of the house with windows along its length, while the other had no windows. I pointed out to the homeowner that if a fire was on her stairs, that an exit via the stairs could not happen, and that this would block the exit from the media room, since it was at the top of the stairs. People in the room would be trapped. Although it defeats the movie theater quality of the room, you should consider a window, or at least a second door.
    On my brother’s house, you will find burglar bars bolted on over the windows. He and his wife like them. Many of m clients share this view. I prefer that they have bars which can be removed with a quick release mechanism from the interior. These bars are made, but most homes have the bolted bars. How can you get out of your home during a fire when the windows are blocked. Replacing bars to a safer version is worth the investment in my mind. Yet there are other concerns to address when considering windows as emergency exits. Can you open the window? You might be surprised how many inoperable windows that I find during inspections. If you can open the window, can you get out of it? Builders now have to make windows meet a certain size, and they have to place them at a certain height, which is determined by the building code that they have to follow. The idea is that a parent should be able to lift their child out of the room, and place them onto the ground outside of the window. Take a look at your windows. Can you carry out this procedure to save your child? My home, built in 1964, has windows that are too high. I am aware of this, and we have taken steps to deal with this impediment. Our solution was to place objects that we can stand on to help us lift the child safely out of these problematic windows. A low chest by one window and a bed by another window were used.
    I mention rope ladders in my home inspection reports for homes with two or more stories. This may not be a bad idea for some one story homes. In all of my inspections, I only encountered one home with a rope ladder in a box on a balcony. Some homes do have a roof outside of the window, which can be used as an escape route. I still prefer having a ladder on hand. I may not mind jumping off the roof to save my life, but again let us consider all of our family members. We may not want them to be jumping off of a roof. Besides, a roof in Houston during summer can be so hot that you cannot touch it without burning yourself. (That is why I use gloves when scaling roofs for my inspections).
    Do yourself a favor, and make an escape plan from the home. Practice that plan. Making a plan is easy, but if you do not practice it, you may not remember it. The escape route has to become habit, so you would be able to escape quickly. Another aspect of practicing is you may find obstacles that had not occurred to you. Are your bushes overgrown? There have been bushes that I could hardly move through on a few homes. Pruning them away from the walls helps a number of things, but this does create an escape route.
    Fire prevention and warning can also be important. Each bedroom in your house should have a smoke alarm, and you should have a general one for each floor. Homeowners disconnect these all the time. AFCI breakers are now common on new homes for the bedrooms, and they may be worth the investment. AFCI stands for arc fault circuit interrupter. A loose wire can send an arc of electricity to a piece of metal. When the metal heats up, a fire in a near-by flammable material, like a wood stud, can happen. Sprinkler systems are a new trend for residential buildings. I can only recall a handful of homes that had a fire sprinkler system. Retrofitting this system may be expensive, but if you are building a home, the cost would be cheaper. I think that we may see more homes with these systems in the future. Another fire safety tip that is often ignored is the location of the gas shutoff. If a fire is happening on your cook top, being able to reach the gas shutoff can be helpful. Often these are place behind the units, so I wish that builders would get into the habit of moving these into the next cabinet down. Otherwise, remember to shut your gas off at the meter. Lastly, we should remember not to store flammable substances near burners or fireplaces. Fumes from certain chemicals can be flammable, so that is why suggestions are made to keep the gas water heater free from chemical storage. Many people use the return air shaft in closet air conditioning units for storage, and this is a bad idea too.
   Why is it that we are more open to fire prevention or safety when a fire happens in our neighborhood? The effects are visible, so we have that fear. After Hurricane Ike, most of my clients were asking about possible hurricane measures. Really, as homeowners, we should consider these events before they happen. Businesses are required by law to have these plans in place, but we let homeowners off the hook. That is probably a good thing, but this leaves the responsibility in your hands, so step up to the task.

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© Frank Schulte-Ladbeck Professional Home Inspector Houston, Texas
Frank Theodor Schulte-Ladbeck
home inspector, TREC# 9073
Houston , Texas , 77063 United States

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