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How to keep your house from burning down
How did that joist fire put itself out? Who knows?! - photo by Garth Haslem
House fires and gas leaks happen more often than we may realize.

As a home inspector, I see things on a daily basis that can affect family safety inside the home. Gas leaks are one example, but theres also carbon monoxide, unsafe electrical, mold and issues like lead, radon and asbestos. Critter urine or feces in our attics or walls can cause severe respiratory issues, there is also possible hantavirus from mouse feces, and the list continues.

How do you protect your family from so many issues? If you havent died yet, does that mean youre good? Is there a set of small things you can do to improve safety in your home?

The answer is that yes, there are some things you can do to protect your home. Here are some tips:

Gas smells

Natural gas coming from the ground doesnt typically smell like the gas were used to they add an odor to it so it has a smell that we can identify. Why do they do that? Because natural gas leaks in the home can be extremely dangerous. What happens when there is a natural gas leak near the gas stove or in the fireplace? What if its out of the way in the basement? All too often, the answer is life threatening. Gas builds up to a certain level, then often mixes with a spark or flame.

So heres the question: how often do you walk past your furnace or water heater? You should make sure you are periodically checking on them. Do you smell gas? Even faintly? Did you know that many local gas utilities will send someone out immediately for free if you call and report a gas smell?

However, if you do smell gas in your house, dont go hunting for it. Dont take your baby into the basement looking for it. Get out of the house and then call the gas company. And do it in that order.

Garage chemicals

Do you store gasoline in your home? Is it in the garage or the basement? I inspected a home where the gas can was stored right next to the furnace. In case you were wondering, this is not a good idea. In this instance, it wouldn't be a flash bang and life is OK were talking about a bomb/house fire/mortuary event.

Always store gas at least 50 feet away from all potential flames and never in the living space.


I was in an older home near the Capitol recently where the wiring had been changed out, but only partially. It seems that the old and heavily spliced wiring had heated up and caused a local fire at the nearby floor joist. It was enough to burn almost a half square foot of joist away. How that much fire managed to put itself out is a mystery, but there we were: a set of buyers about to buy a home that had almost burned down because of the electrical system.

So what do you do with old wiring? First, you need to know how old your home is. Is it older than you are? Has grandpa Fred done some of the wiring in there? Are there additions where someone might have borrowed from an existing circuit to go power a new bedroom or air conditioner? If so, you should have a home inspector or electrician come make sure your home is safe and the wiring is up to code.

Fireplaces and space heaters

We all love a fire, but only when its where it should be. Fire in the fireplace can warm the soul, but a creosote fire in the flue can burn your home down. Space heaters can warm the cold basement, but when little Janie dries a T-shirt on the open gas flame that never ends well.

Flames and kids go together great when there are marshmallows, but never inside the home. Avoid leaving children alone with space heaters that are on and make sure there is never clothing or other flammable objects too close to space heaters.

Smoke alarms

Smoke alarms can be the most hated appliances in the home. They beep. Theyre insistent. They scare the kids. They let you know when your cooking is terrible. Still, they perform a purpose. Make sure your smoke alarms get fresh batteries twice a year and test them regularly.

If you have interconnected alarms, you can press one button and they all go off. If so, youre good for a few more months. If not, you might want to consider upgrading.

The $10/ $10,000 rule goes like this: if you do things correctly up front, life is good, the family is safe and your bank account is secure. If not, life comes at you with a bad attitude. Its better to master your mansion than be mauled by it.