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  • Neal Wilson

Why Chimneys Are Often As-Is

Almost every older home I inspect features a chimney that is disclaimed as “As-Is” in the Sellers Disclosure. It’s a frustrating development for buyers and here’s what to know and how to plan.

In most older homes, regular maintenance is something homeowners don’t think about: they repaint the exterior when it starts to look rough, worry about the roof when it starts to leak and the masonry work that needs attention is the last thing they think about. This “deferred maintenance” is the cause of most of the defects that show up during an inspection.

All masonry requires maintenance to replace lost mortar between the bricks. The mortar deteriorates over time due to exposure to the elements. This process is called “repointing” and involves removing any old, deteriorated mortar and packing in new mortar properly. Not hard work but time-consuming. And, there seems to be fewer masonry contractors doing it. Sometimes the bricks have become spalled (when the face of the brick has failed and presents a rough surface) or cracked and those bricks need repair or replacement. When these conditions are noted on a chimney it’s important to do something to arrest the decline before it’s too late, as removing and rebuilding a chimney is very expensive.

On the inside of a chimney we have the flue(s), the passageway for the exhaust gases from furnaces, boilers, water heaters and fireplaces. In very old houses these can be “unlined”, a dangerous situation as 100 years of moisture and acid from exhaust gases has surely undermined the brick and mortar. But even with the clay tile liner we usually see, time and chemistry have caused gaps and the liner needs to be replaced.

If the seller had been a little on top of maintenance, they probably had a chimney sweep tell them they needed a new stainless steel liner (or poured concrete, but that’s becoming rare). They heard the price and filed it away under the heading of “someday I’ll get around to that”. A stainless steel liner can be an effective solution when a flue issue needs to be corrected but it’s pricey at about $100 per foot and sometimes more.

Needless to say, when the decision to sell is made, the seller’s agent advises “As-Is” on the disclosure. Then the house is inspected and the inspector probably calls for a Level 2 camera inspection of the chimney (in which a small video camera is inserted up or down the chimney). These quickly reveal the gaps, cracks or other defects that mandate a liner or other repair, and the estimates always carry sticker shock.

Another thing to consider is that the original fireplace and flue design may have made for a lousy, smoky fire. Chimneys often have improperly sized flues with respect to the size of the firebox, the smoke shelf may have been built incorrectly, or maybe it’s running up the exterior of the house allowing the gases to cool too much for effective draft. In each case, you can view this chimney repair as an opportunity to maybe get it right.

At the end of the day, these old fireplaces and chimneys are something to carefully consider. There are options.

For starters, today’s high-efficiency appliances often allow for direct venting through the side of the house in the basement: no need for a chimney. And gas log, direct-vent fireplaces offer much of the romance with less maintenance and fuss. And once you have no need for a chimney, removing it means no maintenance and possibly greater flexibility in floor plans.

Next time you’re home shopping or listing, take a look at your chimney and consider your options. Contact me with your questions.


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