Uncovering the hidden enemies of home buying. Your Enemy: Copper thieves
This is the next addition to a blog series on easily overlooked issues with houses that can turn into costly repairs once discovered. These issues are usually hidden in plain sight and are easy to find you just have to be aware of the issue. Today’s hidden enemy is: copper thieves
Enemy: Copper thieves
Why it’s an issue: Electrical, HVAC and Plumbing damage
Likelihood of finding it: Likely
Cost to fix: Moderately expensive – Very expensive depending on level of vandalism
This is the type of problem that shows up on vacant or foreclosed properties. It’s not something that is of much concern on a typical buyer to seller transaction but is actually fairly common on foreclosed homes. On most typical transactions simply turning the water, lights, or HVAC will give you an indication of whether it is working or not. But what if you’re buying a foreclosed home where the seller won’t allow you to turn the utilities on?
Copper has a decent scrap value and as a result thieves tend to target vacant properties for anything that is made out of copper. The copper piping and wiring on a house is usually exposed in the crawlspace or basement so it’s actually fairly easy for a thief to access these locations. The heating and cooling system sits on the outside of the property and is very susceptible to being stolen. I would venture to guess that 20% of the foreclosed homes that I walk through are missing a heat pump, central air unit or copper piping.
What to look for:
If you know what to look for in a property it’s usually pretty easy to see when something is missing. The first thing I do when I get to a home that I have some interest in is to scan the perimeter. I’m always checking to see if an outside unit has been removed. Keep in mind that just because you don’t see an outside unit does not necessarily indicate that anything is missing. Some homes use different combinations of heating and cooling that don’t necessarily require an outdoor unit. For instance a home may operate off baseboard heat and window units. Those homes will not have an outdoor unit, so technically not seeing one doesn’t mean anything is wrong. The tale tell signs of a missing outdoor unit is most likely a pad where the HVAC unit once sat and some cut wiring/piping that is running into a hole into the foundation. If you see this then you know without a doubt the outside unit has been stolen.
Spotting wiring or piping that is missing can be slightly more difficult especially if you have a crawlspace. If the house does have a crawlspace then to truly know you will probably have to do some crawling around under the house. The first thing to do would be to note where the kitchen and bathrooms are in the home. This is where your supply lines should terminate so you will know that some sort of piping should be running to that direction. Keep in mind that not all plumbing is made of copper. The home you’re interested in may have plastic or galvanized [silver in color] plumbing. Most thieves don’t steal plastic or galvanized plumbing because it doesn’t have much scrap value. Starting about where the bathroom or kitchen is under the house, trace the plumbing lines to make sure that they obviously not cut out. If the pipes come down and are cut off then you’ve got a problem.
Pro tip: Sometimes you can grab a copper pipe from inside the house and feel if it is connected to anything or not. I usually grab the clothes washer connections and tug up slightly or twist the piping. Don’t put too much pressure on the pipe because you don’t want to damage it. If it spins freely or you could obviously pull it up with no resistance, then it’s likely that the pipe has been disconnected and stolen from under the home.
The last thing you need to check for is to make sure that no electrical has been removed from the property. This is the hardest one to notice because the wiring is sometimes ran without much coherence. The best thing to do is just follow any electrical wiring that you see and check to see if it has been cut anywhere. If you find anything that has been cut then you should start looking harder and tracing other wires. You’ll quickly notice if all the wiring is intact or has been cut out of the home.
Pro tip: Another thing to look for is loose cut wiring that is lying on the ground of the crawlspace. Sometimes this is just left over wiring from an old job, but it could be an indication that someone was cutting wiring and didn’t grab every last piece when they were leaving.
A basement makes tracing all of this plumbing and wiring a great deal easier.
How to fix and costs of fixing
Fixing these types of problems is usually pretty straight forward unless the thieves did some other damage when they were taking the copper. I’ve had to replace many HVAC units that were missing when I bought properties. I once also had a brand new heat pump stolen from one of my rental properties. The cost will depend on the level of damage, the size of the unit and the size of the home. I’ve spent $2,000 when I only had to replace with outside unit on a 2,000 square foot home and upwards of $5,000 on the same size home if the duct work was damaged or missing. As far as plumbing on a house that size you would probably be looking to spend $3,000 and luckily I haven’t had to deal with missing wiring on a house that size. I mentioned in an earlier post I had to spend about $4,100 on rewiring a home but that was only about 800 square feet. I’m sure that price would increase on a larger home.
Happy home buying!
Red Link Realty
About the Author:
Daniel Smith is the Owner/Broker-in Charge of Red Link Realty a Lexington, North Carolina based real estate firm. Daniel uses his real estate knowledge to help both prospective home buyers and sellers with their real estate transactions. Daniel has been investing in residential rental properties and house flipping since 2008.