Common Electrical Problems Found During Home Inspections

electric panel

Conducting a thorough home inspection is essential in purchasing or selling 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. However, it is not the same as a qualified electrician, but a home inspector can examine and report any issues 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 These include problems primarily centered around outdated wiring, old electrical panels, ungrounded outlets, improper wiring, and missing smoke detectors.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.

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.

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

If a home inspector recommends you have a complete 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 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 have a dedication to the highest industry ethics.

Home inspections follow the Standards of Practice. If you wish to receive a more in-depth electrical examination, you must consult a licensed electrician or electrical contractor to perform a full electrical inspection. 

Let’s look at the most common electrical home inspection issues that home inspectors report.

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Outdated Wiring

old wiring

Compared to today’s standards, many older homes have unnecessarily complex and inadequate electrical wiring. Old electrical wiring in a house can be dangerous. Any households over pre1990 are typically strong candidates for having outdated and potentially hazardous wiring systems. Let’s take a look at some things inspectors inspect.

Knob and tube wiring

Knob and tube wiring is especially common in pre1950 homes.

  • Knob and tube is one of the oldest wiring methods found in homes.
  • Knob and tube wiring consists of a single-insulated copper wiring rum throughout the house framing.
  • Knob and tube wiring is secured with porcelain knobs and passes through the frame through porcelain tubes.

Knob and tube wiring is no longer sufficient for the modern demand of our household electrical needs. Most homes have 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 prevalent 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 look for amateur workmanship and improper wiring. It’s not uncommon for people to attempt to fix electrical issues themselves or hire an unlicensed handyman.

For the most part, this is not a problem if the electrical work is done correctly. Unfortunately, more times than not, the work is not done correctly and can create a severe fire hazard that puts the house’s inhabitants 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:

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. In the last 30 years, NEC only expanded GFCI protection to 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 that do not function properly. In the event of failure, older GFCI outlets would still work as standard outlets with no GFCI protection. That is not the case today. When newer GFCI outlets fail, they trip off, cutting power to all outlets on the circuit.

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 versa. Most 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.

Open Neutral

An open neutral occurs when a break in the electrical flow through the neutral wire back to the electric panel. Electrical current flows through the hot wire to outlets, switches, and devices like lighting fixtures. When the neutral wire is loose, the path back to the electrical panel through the neutral wire is impeded.

A loose neutral wire can cause lights to flicker or a portion of your house to lose power.

Read more on open neutrals at What Is An Open Neutral: Troubleshooting Guide.

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 two slots and no hole for the ground wire.

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

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

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

Often, 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 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 label each outlet “No Equipment Ground” present. So, 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 with 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 inexpensive and easy to install.

Painted Outlets

Painted electrical outlets can fail and are a fire risk. Painted outlets tend to overheat when paint gets trapped in the slots, preventing the plug from making a good connection.

Painted GFCI outlets can fail to work correctly due to paint preventing the buttons from tripping correctly. 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 GFI outlets, outlets in new construction have tamper-resistant doors over the slots and USB ports and USB ports. If a tamper-resistant outlet is painted, it will likely render the outlet useless because the slot doors are sealed or could prevent them from closing.

Double-Tapped Circuit Breakers

A double-tapped circuit breaker is a defect found inside the electrical panel. It occurs when two or more hot wires run to one circuit breaker slot that can only accommodate one wire. It is usually the result of poor quality electrical work, yet it risks 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 before reaching the breaker.

In recent years, breaker manufacturers have developed breakers designed to accept two-wire circuits called tandem breakers. These breakers accept two circuits into one breaker. A tag on the breaker will identify the breaker as a “1 circuit” or a “1 or 2 circuit” breaker.

No circuit breakers accept three or more wiring circuits.

Missing/Incorrect Weather Proof Outlet Covers

Exterior outlets need protection 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 to.

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

If your home has inadequately exposed outdoor outlets, this may be discounted as an electrical defect in the home inspection report. Although, you can fix this 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 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 regarding electrical safety. Arcing can occur in the exposed and spliced wires, which presents a fire safety and shock concern. Any wires spliced together outside a junction box will be regarded as a defect on the home inspector’s report. 

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

It 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 near the wiring.

Trees touching the main service wire could damage the wire or cause a power outage. It is 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 collected on the conductors to drip off, preventing 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 found at the overhead wiring connection before the weather head and service mast heading into the electrical meter. It is more common in older and rural homes where underground electrical service is not present.

If the rainwater finds 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 your home have a safe path with a drip loop located just before the service entrance.

Suppose your electrical overhead service is old and lacks a service mast, weather head, or proper height clearance from the roof. In that case, you will need an electrician 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 alarm’s 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 destroys your property. Not bad when you consider you can get an alarm installed for less than $100. 

A carbon monoxide alarm should also be a permanent fixture in your home. Carbon monoxide is a 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. It would be best to change smoke and carbon monoxide at least once every ten years.

Open Slots in Electrical Panel

A widespread 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. They are attracted to the panel by the heat it produces. Once inside, pests may chew on the wires, causing damage to this vital part of your electrical system. 

It’s also unsafe for humans, especially young children who may insert foreign objects or 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 RepairAverage 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 of these issues could easily warrant going into renegotiation with the seller. Some of these issues can get rather expensive, so it’s only fair if you negotiate a new price for the property in this instance. 

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 seems 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.

We’ve compiled a guide about home inspection costs at How Much Do Home Inspections Cost in 2022.

Final thoughts

Faulty electrical systems present real risks to human life and should be taken seriously.

Updated wiring and panels, double-tapped 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.

Highlighting electrical issues is one of the most critical 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.

Suppose you suspect that the property has significant electrical faults. In that case, 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. 

Photo of author

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.
DISCLAIMER: The content published on HomeInspectionInsider.com is not professional advice. You should consult with a licensed professional and check local permit requirements before starting any project.
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