Common Electrical Problems Found During Home Inspections


electric panel

Conducting a thorough home inspection is an essential process in the purchase or sale of a house. Not only do the home inspectors check to make sure that all of the building’s critical structures are up to scratch, but they also examine the function and safety of the household’s essential systems, such as the electrical system.

A certified home inspector will open an electrical panel to inspect it but it is not the same as a qualified electrician, but they are still trained to inspect and report on any issues that they believe to be deficient or unsafe in the home.

Common electrical issues found in home inspections are generally related to safety issues and the National Electric Code. These include issues that are largely centered around outdated wiring, old electrical panels, ungrounded outlets, improper wiring, and missing smoke detectors. The presence of one or more of these issues may require a full inspection from a licensed electrician.

Do you need a Licensed Electrician? We can help! Get a free estimate from top-rated, screened, and licensed electricians in your area!

A March 2019 report from the National Fire Protection Agency cited:

  • Local fire departments responded to an estimated average of 44,880 home fires involving electrical failure or malfunction each year in 2012-2016.
  • Home fires involving electrical failure or malfunction caused an estimated average of 440 civilian deaths and 1,250 civilian injuries each year in 2012-2016, as well as an estimated $1.3 billion in direct property damage a year.

This is a stark reminder of how important it is to ensure the electrical system in your home is functioning as they should and that they are up to the current National Electric Code (NEC) standards.

If a home inspector recommends you have a full electrical inspection, you can expect to pay between $200 – $500 according to Fixr.com. For repairs, you can expect to pay a licensed electrician $65 and $85 per hour, with a minimum of $200 per call plus materials.

If you are in the process of buying a property, then you will likely turn towards hiring an ASHI or NACHI certified home inspector who will assess the property for you. These certified home inspectors work through a list of criteria to observe, inspect, and report on a wide range of features throughout the house, including the structure, heating, plumbing, exterior, and the electrical systems. 

You can also locate a Certified Master Inspectors (CMIs)® from the Certified Master Inspectors Board. Certified Master Inspectors (CMIs)® is a professional designation for qualifying inspectors who have been in business for a minimum of 3 years, have demonstrated superior training, and a dedication to the highest industry ethics.

This is all done in accordance with the Standards of Practice that they follow with guidance from their association. If you wish to receive a more in-depth electrical inspection, you must consult a licensed electrician or electrical contractor to perform a full electrical inspection. 

That being said, let’s take a look at the most common electrical home inspection issues that home inspectors report.

Outdated Wiring

old wiring

A lot of older homes have unnecessarily complex and inadequate electrical wiring when compared to today’s standards. Old electrical wiring in a house can be dangerous. Any households that are over pre1990 are typically strong candidates for having outdated and potentially hazardous wiring systems. Let’s take a look at some things inspectors look out for.

Knob and tube wiring

Knob and tube wiring is especially common in pre1950 homes. In fact, it is one of the oldest wiring methods found in homes in the USA. Knob and tube wiring consists of a single-insulated copper wiring rum throughout the house framing. The wiring is secured to the framing with porcelain knobs and pass through the framing through porcelain tubes.

Knob and tube wiring is not sufficient for the demand of a households electrical needs. Most homes have been updated from knob and tube wiring to more modern wiring, however, it does still exist in some older homes.

Aluminum tubing

According to the NACHI Standards of Practice, inspectors must report “the presence of solid conductor aluminum branch-circuit wiring,” and suggest that it requires correction in their assessment report. This type of wiring was especially popular between 1965 and 1973 when the price of copper skyrocketed. Unfortunately, aluminum wiring does not quite stand the test of time as well as copper. 

Aluminum becomes defective far faster than copper and becomes increasingly dangerous over time. This type of wiring is renowned for overheating rapidly which increases the likelihood of electrical fires. Interestingly, aluminum wiring is so dangerous that it voids some home insurance policy claims.

Improper Wiring Installation

The home inspector will keep an eye out for any signs of improper wiring that looks like it’s been done by somebody with little electrical knowledge. It’s not uncommon for people to attempt to fix electrical issues in their house themselves or hire an unlicensed handyman.

For the most part, this is not a problem, provided it’s done correctly. Unfortunately more times than not, the work is not done correctly and can create a severe fire hazard that puts the inhabitants of the house in danger.

Common improper wiring issues include:

  • Extension cords installed as a permanent wiring source.
  • Interior rated electrical wiring used for exterior wiring purposes.
  • Electrical wiring runs without proper conduit.
  • Electrical wiring not properly secured to framing in attics, basements, and crawl spaces.

Outdated Electrical Panel Boxes

If you have or are looking to buy a home built pre1990, you likely have an electrical panel that needs to be updated. The typical lifespan of an electrical panel box is 20 to 30 years.

Most older electrical panels are not suited for the electrical needs of today’s households. You will likely need to update the electrical panel in your home if you have the following:

  • The electrical panel has fuses instead of circuit breakers.
  • Breakers are frequently tripping.
  • The electrical panel is manufactured by one of the following companies: Federal Pacific, Zinsco, ITE/Bulldog Pushmatic, Sylvania. These panels have a failure rate and are a latent fire risk.
  • The breaker panel is at maximum capacity.
  • There is rust present inside the electrical box.

According to Jeremy Tollie, “If you notice burn marks, hear buzzing or crackling, or smell burning plastic around or inside the electrical panel, have a qualified electrician check the panel immediately.

No GFCI Protection

Ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection has been around in a limited capacity since the 1970s. It’s only been in the last 20 or so years, that GFCI protection has been expanded to what it is today.

Today GFCI protection is required in all wet areas including all kitchen outlets, bathrooms, laundry rooms, exterior, basements, crawl spaces, garages, and anywhere else that an outlet can come in contact with water.

You can read our article on GFCI code requirements at Common Questions About GFCI Code Requirements.

A home inspector will test and document GFCI outlets they do not function properly. In the event of failure, older GFCI outlets would still function as a normal outlet just with no GFCI protection. That is not the case today. When newer GFCI outlets fail they will become completely inoperative and any outlets also on the circuit will become inoperative.

Typically, GFCI outlets only last about 10 years on average. If you have older GFCI outlets that are still functioning, you should consider upgrading to the newer GFCI outlets for the added layers of protection provided.

Reversed Polarity

The NACHI Standards of Practice (SOP) states that home inspectors must report reversed polarity in receptacles as a defect.

A hot/neutral reversed polarity occurs when the hot wire is connected to the outlet neutral terminal and vice verse. The majority of the time, this is the result of a DIY electrician who has wired the outlet incorrectly. 

While this doesn’t present much of a fire risk, it does create quite a significant risk of an electrical shock. Reversed polarity can also damage some appliances that remain connected to the faulty outlet; in some cases, it can result in the appliance overheating.

A hot/ground reverse polarity is an even more dangerous condition. If you find an outlet like this, you should not use the outlet and immediately seek out a licensed electrician for repair.

Ungrounded Receptacles/Outlets

2-prong-outlet

According to the NACHI SOP, home inspectors must report any instances “where the receptacle was not grounded.” 

These days most homes have wiring systems that are properly grounded, which protect people from experiencing electric shocks and help guard against electrical fires.

However pre1960s homes commonly had ungrounded wiring and receptacles. Fortunately, they are relatively easy to spot as ungrounded receptacles usually have just two slots and no hole for the ground wire.

This presents a genuine risk of an electrical fire, as any faults that occur with the outlet can cause electrical charges and sparks that could potentially ignite nearby fixtures, fittings, and furniture.

Similar to the reverse polarity issue, the lack of ground wire presents a risk of shock to people operating the electrical appliances connected to the outlet too.

It’s a good idea to have the ungrounded receptacles in your house upgraded to minimize the risk of fire and potential hazards that it causes to the people residing in the house.

Oftentimes, we find these receptacles upgraded from two-prong to three-prong without a wiring upgrade taking place. People would do this to accommodate modern devices intended to be inserted into grounded circuitry. This is not an approved upgrade with the NEC.

According to the National Electric Code 2017 406.4(D)(2) Non–Grounding-Type Receptacles. You are allowed to have 3-prong outlets on ungrounded wiring circuits provided the outlets are ground-fault circuit interrupter protected and each outlet must be labeled as “No Equipment Ground” present. Under this code, you are not required to rewire the house.

Missing Switch / Outlet Cover Plates

All outlets and switches should have cover plates installed to protect the wire connections. Outlets and switches that have missing cover plates pose a serious shock hazard risk, particularly for small children and pets.

We often see these missing in homes that have been recently renovated because the plates were removed for painting and just never replaced. Cover plates are really inexpensive and easy to install.

Painted Outlets

Electrical outlets should never be painted under any circumstances. Painted electrical outlets can fail to function properly and are a latent fire risk. Painted outlets tend to overheat. Paint gets trapped in the slots which can prevent the plug from making a good connection.

Painted GFCI outlets can fail to work properly due to paint preventing the buttons from tripping properly. If the buttons on the GFCI can not function properly, this creates a safety issue with the outlet that could cause an electrical shock.

Like GFCI outlets, outlets in new construction have tamper-resistant doors over the slots. If a tamper-resistant outlet is painted it will likely render the outlet useless because the slot doors are sealed or worse could prevent them from closing.

Double-Tapped Circuit Breakers

A double-tapped circuit breaker is a defect found inside the electrical panel. This occurs when two or more hot wires run to one circuit breaker slot when it is only designed to accommodate one. Again, this is usually the result of poor quality electrical work, yet it presents a risk of fire if left unchecked. 

Most, if not all, electrical circuit breakers are designed to hold just one hot wire at any given time. Connecting two wires can lead to loose connections, sparking, or arcing, all of which start electrical fires. Fortunately, a professional can quickly fix this by introducing an extra circuit breaker or connecting the wires together before they reach the electrical panel.

It should be noted that in recent years, breaker manufacturers have developed breakers that are designed to accept two-wire circuits. Often referred to as tandem breakers, these breakers are designed to accept either one or two circuits. There will be a tag on the breaker that identifies the breaker as a “1 circuit” or a “1 or 2 circuit” breaker.

No circuit breakers is designed to accept 3 or more wiring circuits.

Missing/Incorrect Weather Proof Outlet Covers

Exterior outlets need to be protected from the elements. If you have a standard outlet exposed to things such as wind, rain, sleet, and snow – you risk electrical shock or the outlet not working when you need it too.

According to the NEC, if you have an electrical outlet in a damp or wet location (outdoors), you need to use the correct coverage to protect it from the weather. This means that the exposed electrical outlets need to be sturdy and able to withstand water contact. However, this does not mean that they have to be waterproof, just weatherproof. 

If your home has inadequately exposed outdoor outlets, this may be marked down as an electrical defect in the home inspection report. Although, you can fix this very easily by installing a bubble cover or a surface mounted weatherproof box.

 Overused Extension Cords

Extension cords are one of the most commonly used items in our home. We use them to extend the range of our home’s electrical sockets so that we can connect appliances in just about every corner of the household. 

However, extension cords are only meant for temporary use. They should not become permanent fixtures in the home under any circumstances. With continuous use, extension cords are known to deteriorate rapidly, causing them to become fire and shock hazards. 

On top of this, the NEC states, “flexible cords and cables shall not be used as a substitute for the fixed wiring of a structure.”

If you find yourself using extension cords as a permanent wiring source, it would be much safer to have an electrician install a permanent electrical outlet in its place. Not only will this reduce the fire hazard, but it should also help to keep the electricity bill down as permanent outlets are much more efficient than extension cords.

Exposed Wiring & Splicing

Exposed wiring is a big no-no with regards to electrical safety. Arcing can occur in the exposed and spliced wires, which presents a fire safety and shock concern. Any wires that are spliced together that aren’t protected by a junction box will be regarded as a defect on the home inspectors report. 

To fix this, homeowners should install a junction box that is fitted with a cover plate, which is easy to get a hold of and relatively inexpensive. This acts as a protective cover for the exposed wiring and reduces the risk of fire.

This also prevents the chance of you or your family coming into contact with the exposed live circuit and receiving an electric shock, which is especially important if you have young children in your home.

Furthermore, if the home inspector finds any wires that look like they’ve been damaged due to rust, fraying, or animal damage, this will likely be noted in the report.

Trees Touching Main Service Wire

When examining the overhead electrical service entry wires, a home inspector will look for areas where tree limbs are touching or in close proximity to the wiring.

Trees touching the main service wire could damage the wire or worse cause a power outlet. Its important to keep tree limbs trimmed away. If this is not something you can do, call your local power supplier.

Improper Drip Loops

Drip loops provide a safe place for excess water build-up that has collected on the conductors to drip off from. This prevents water from following the wiring down into the terminals and wreaking havoc on the electrical system.

As you are probably aware, water and electricity can be deadly, so having a functioning drip loop in place is vital to keep your electrical system functioning as it should.

The drip loop is located at the overhead wiring connection just before the weather head and service mast heading into the electrical meter. This is more common in older homes and rural homes where underground electrical service is not present.

If the rainwater manages to find its way through to the electrical box, the equipment will become damaged, and rust will take hold of the components. After some time, this could result in electrical failures and an increased fire hazard. 

Ensure wires that enter into your home have a safe path with a drip loop located just before the service entrance.

If your electrical overhead service is old and lacks a service mast, weather head, or proper height clearance from the roof, and electrician will be needed to correct this to protect the home and the electrical system.

Missing Smoke Detectors

Both the ASHI and NACHI Standards of Practice require home inspectors to report the absence of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in the property. Even if this wasn’t a requirement, it is just basic common sense to have these alarms in place for the sake of your safety and your family’s. 

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, three out of five home fire deaths occur due to a lack of working smoke alarms. They also state that “the risk of dying in a home fire is cut in half in homes with working smoke alarms”. 

A smoke alarms job is to provide an early warning of fire, giving you and your family a heads up on the situation and ample time to escape before the fire takes hold. The presence of smoke alarms may even give you a chance to extinguish the fire before it totally destroys your property. Not bad when you consider you can get an alarm installed for less than $100. 

Don’t forget, a carbon monoxide alarm should also be a permanent fixture in your home. Carbon monoxide is it tasteless and odorless gas often referred to as the “silent killer”. It reportedly kills over 300 people each year and more than 5,000 people are treated for carbon monoxide poisoning in the USA annually. Smoke and carbon monoxide should be changed at least once every ten years.

Open Slots in Electrical Panel

A very common defect a home inspector will cite are openings in electrical breaker boxes. Having open breaker slots inside a panel box allows insects and other vermin to nest inside the panel. They are attracted to the panel by the heat is produces. Once inside, pests may chew on the wires, causing damage to this vital part of your electrical system. 

It’s also not safe for humans, especially small children who may insert foreign objects or worse their fingers inside the electrical panel.

Before the inspection, make sure you cover these up with filler plates. These are inexpensive and are extremely easy to install yourself without the help of an electrician.

Electrical home inspection issues and the average cost of repair

Now that you know ten of the most common electrical issues that home inspectors report, let’s take a look at are how much they usually cost to repair 

Electrical Issue Repair Average Cost
Full home rewiring (2000sf house) $8000 – $9000
Replacement panel $1500 – $4000
Electrical Outlet Repair/Replacement (each) $120 – $200
Repair Double Tapped Breaker $150 – $250
Electrician hourly rate ($200 minimum) $65 – $85
Prices reflect national averages and can vary based on the location and severity of the repair

If you are the buyer in this arrangement, the presence of one or more all of these issues could easily warrant going into renegotiation with the seller. As you can see, some of these issues can get rather expensive, so it’s only fair if you negotiate on a new price for the property in this instance. 

With that being said, if the property looks like it’s suffering from some serious electrical flaws, then it may be worthwhile to walk away from the property altogether. Even if the property looks like the bargain of the century, it’s not worth putting yourself or your family at risk in a home with an inadequate electrical system that poses a substantial fire hazard.

Final thoughts

The fire hazards that faulty electrical systems present pose a real risk to human life and should be taken seriously. Outdated wiring and panels, double-tapping of circuit breakers, and the overuse of extension cords are just some of the biggest culprits for common electrical issues found in the home inspection reports and should be addressed ASAP.

It goes without saying that highlighting electrical issues is one of the most important tasks for a home inspector. It may sound dramatic, but a thorough inspection could be the difference between life and death or at least serious injury.

If you suspect that the property has significant electrical faults then you may want to consider hiring a licensed electrician to conduct a full electrical inspection on the home to ensure that it’s safe for living. 

HomeInspectionInsider.com is owned and operated by Hubert Miles is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. HomeInspectionInsider.com also participates in affiliate programs with other affiliate sites. Hubert Miles is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.

Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

Recent Posts