Home Inspection Electrical Nightmares

Unsafe Exterior Outlet


There are several common wiring problems that I come across as a home inspector in Western New York.  Several of these are safety concerns that can truly cause harm to children, and may even result in fire.

Wiring and Breakers are Mismatched

The residential wiring standards that we rely upon to power our homes were not initially developed to keep us safe.  They were created to provide power to our lights, way back around 1882! Safety was never built into the electrical system – it has evolved over time and is still not fool proof.  

It is surprisingly easy for a homeowner, amateur electrician or even professional to create a dangerous situation inside of a house.

I open up every electrical breaker box or service panel I find when I inspect homes.  The reason is that there can be lots of nasty problems hiding in there.  

One of the most most important safety concerns I look out for is the matching of branch wire gauge to circuit breaker.  If the wire is rated for less current than the breaker, then the wire’s insulation could melt off and trigger arcing and a fire.

This is obviously a very dangerous situation and it is more common than you may think.  There are two very common gauges of wire used in homes – 14 gauge and 12 gauge.  Amateur electricians and homeowners may not recognize the difference between the two, and may create this safety issue while attempting to correct a wiring problem in the service panel.  

I’ve learned through experience that hot tubs (also known as saunas) sometimes are wired with mismatched breakers. This can be a particularly unsafe condition since hot tubs have a relatively steady current draw. You can read about hot tub power requirements in this article.

When I encounter mismatched breakers and wiring I inform my client that this is a critical safety concern that should be corrected before they move into the home.

Missing Ground Connections on Outlets

Electrical receptacles in homes generally have two prongs or three.  2-prong outlets were common from the dawn of electrification to the early 1970’s.  3-prong outlets were introduced in the 70’s as a safety improvement, and include a 3rd wire that acts as a safety feature that will in some cases prevent stray voltage from travelling through you and harming your body along the way. Grounding is an important safety feature that will prevent electrocution in certain situations.  

I test many outlets in every home that I inspect, and find that most older houses in Buffalo may have 3-prong outlets but they are mis-wired and in fact aren’t grounded. 

The reasons for this mis-wiring are many, but in most cases I find that the outlets on the first floor of these houses are properly wired but the second-floor ones are not.  After further inspecting the house I find that the actual wiring in the walls leading to the second floor has not been replaced – probably because doing so would require cutting into walls and repairing plaster. 

If an outlet is ungrounded, and the wiring in the wall is older, the 2-prong outlet can be replaced with a Ground Fault Circuit Interupter(GFCI) outlet.  This type of outlet will effectively improve the safety of the outlet.

An outlet will no ground connection

Exposed Wiring

Shoddy Wiring in Attic

For some reason it seems that most older houses have wiring that is hanging down from ceilings and sticking out of walls.  As a tall guy, some of this wiring practically hits me in the eye during my basement inspections.  Ouch!  

If you are selling your house and you have any of these situations, please consider repairing them before listing your home for sale:

  1. An outlet missing its cover plate
  2. A wall switch with a missing cover plate
  3. A junction box in your basement ceiling that has wires sticking 8″ out
  4. Electrical connections made loosely in the attic, with no junction box in sight

These situations are all easy and inexpensive to repair.  An electrician should charge minimal fees to do so, and could help prevent your child or pet from being shocked.

If for no other reason, repair them before listing your home for sale.  Any descent home inspector will identify these as problems and note them as safety concerns on their home inspection report.

Missing GFCI Outlets in Bathrooms

Ground Fault Circuit Interupter, or GFCI for short, is a type of outlet that can detect small changes in current flow that occur when certain electrical faults occur.  The main type of fault they detect is when a hair dryer or other bathroom appliance falls into the sink.

When the hair dryer touches water, the GFCI will turn itself off before your body receives a shock.  

They are designed to protect lives, and have been required for decades at all outlets in bathrooms, kitchen countertops, unfinished basements, laundry areas and exterior outlets.  

Although GFCI outlets now cost over $20 to purchase, they are easy to install by an electrician and should cost little to have installed. 

Less Common Electrical Defects

Our home inspection checklist includes many electrical problems to watch out for.  In addition to the common ones above, we also look out for larger and sometimes critical issues.  

A few of them are:

  1. Low-hanging aerial wiring
  2. Service entrance conductors are smaller than main breaker
  3. Water penetration issues at the electric meter
  4. Loosely attached meter or service panel
  5. Pointy screws used to attach breaker box cover
  6. Standing water near breaker box
  7. Arcing in service panel 
  8. Overheating breakers
  9. Sub-panel grounding is misconfigured

We specialize in inspecting homes from a safety perspective, and pay special attention to the electrical components.  

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About the Author:

Bradley Beck

Bradley is owner of Alto Home Inspection, LLC.  He lives just south of Orchard Park, in Western New York’s Southtowns, and inspects homes throughout the Buffalo area, and is NY Licensed Home Inspector #16000086029, NY Certified Mold Assessor #MA01313.