Whenever she steps into a bathroom for the first time, home inspector Welmoed Sisson has two things on her mind: safety and water.
As a certified home inspector in Maryland, Sisson is trained to think in terms of the worst-case scenario, so it makes sense that these are her overarching concerns, and they often go hand in hand. That’s because bathrooms tend to fall on the more dangerous side of the safety spectrum, Sisson says, pointing out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even studied the issue. (Analyzing data from 2008, the CDC found that emergency department doctors treated 234,094 non-fatal injuries that occurred in the bathroom.)
“There are so many ways to be injured: slipping on wet tiles, scalding from water that is too hot, and electrical shock from improper wiring are all common occurrences,” she says.
As such, when she conducts her inspection of the bathroom, she’s on the hunt for water that is too hot (more than 120 degrees coming out of the sink and more than 106 degrees in the bathtub), cracked tiles with sharp edges, loose toilets, poor clearance, loose grab bars, small shower doors, and non-tempered shower door glass, among others. She also checks the outlets for ground fault circuit interrupters, or GFCIs, which protect against electrical shocks.
Potential safety issues aside, Sisson also checks for problems caused by or related to the bathroom’s damp environment. These problems, which are often invisible to the untrained eye, can cause buyers hundreds or even thousands of dollars in repairs, so Sisson wants to make sure they’re buying the house with as much information as possible.
“Many people assume that a bathroom is waterproof — it’s not. It’s water-resistant,” she says. “Water is persistent, and will find any available opening to flow into. Any tiny gap in caulking or grout can lead to massive amounts of hidden damage to the framing inside the walls.”
To investigate and warn against any hidden water-related issues, Sisson starts by looking for gaps between tiles and missing caulk around bathroom fixtures. If she finds any evidence of those two things, she notes in her report that buyers should consider a “high likelihood” of damage in the walls.
She also makes a point of looking underneath the sink to ensure that the drain is actually plumbed correctly. Sisson does this for every sink in the house because she’s encountered sinks with the entire drain pipe missing, which is a recipe for a flooding disaster.
Later on, she usually steps down firmly around the base of the toilet to check for any softening of the floor, which could indicate water damage. She also does what she calls the “toilet shimmy,” which involves lifting the lid and seat, straddling the toilet bowl, and gripping it with her knees. Then, she shimmies, and checks to see if the toilet shimmies right along with her.
“It should not move at all,” she says. “Any movement could indicate weakening of the seal at the floor, which can lead to leaks.”
Above all else, she cautions buyers against being distracted by trendy light fixtures, a gorgeous backsplash, or an upgraded rain shower head. Instead, they should focus their attention on the less sexy stuff — the grout, the caulk, and anything else that offers clues about the previous owners’ commitment to preventative maintenance (or lack thereof).
“They should get up close to the walls and floors, looking for signs of poor maintenance,” she says.