Improper application may cost you in repairs
By Paul Wenske - The Kansas City Star
Dwight Orr suspected he had a problem when he saw water leaking into his $500,000 Parkville home — but he never dreamed it was literally rotting away.
When workers tore off the exterior's synthetic stucco in 2003, they found water damage and mold so extensive that the repair bill totaled a staggering $105,000.
“It was just a god-awful mess,” said Orr, who sued the builder of his nine-year-old home and won a judgment through arbitration. “It has taken a long time to get over feeling totally irate about this.”
Orr isn't the only one steaming over bad stucco.
Experts predict that because of damage caused by improperly applied stucco, hundreds of homeowners in the Kansas City area — and thousands nationwide — may end up paying millions of dollars to repair homes that are less than 15 years old.
“Our general feeling is that this is a big problem,” said Jerry Anderson, assistant codes administrator in Overland Park, one of the first area cities to begin inspecting stucco.
Anderson acknowledged no one knows the scope of the problem, though experts estimate that eight out of 10 homes probably aren't affected. But Johnson County codes officials have formed a task force with local builders to develop stucco application standards. They hope such standards will be adopted across the metropolitan area.
Codes officials in communities outside Johnson County are not yet participating in the task force but are monitoring its progress.
“We have the best intentions, and we have put together a pretty good standard,” said Chris Neal, government affairs director in Kansas for the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City. “Education is certainly going to be a cornerstone of this program.”
The stucco problem only recently surfaced across the metropolitan area. Elsewhere in the United States, it already has spawned class-action lawsuits and spurred home inspectors, city building codes officials and homeowners to take corrective measures before houses are destroyed.
Bad-stucco problems began to be noticed in the Kansas City area about two years ago. Because there were no codes that addressed stucco application, area codes inspectors said they seldom even looked at stucco on new homes.
“No one was going by any standard; there was no one way to do things right in everyone's mind,” said Jerry Mallory, director of the Johnson County building contractor licensing program.
But many today agree, Mallory said, that “we don't think it was being done correctly.”
In October, Mallory's group began holding seminars for contractors to call attention to stucco problems. Building officials have joined with the Home Builders Association to write a “best practices” guide to promote standards in applying stucco.
Stucco is widely recognized as a strong exterior covering for homes. Experts estimate that half or more of all homes constructed nationally and locally since 1990 were built with stucco.
If stucco is applied incorrectly, however, moisture can seep in through cracks, become trapped inside walls and result in rot that devours structural wood.
Gary Maylon, an Alabama stucco expert and owner of Metal Lath & Stucco Consulting Co., said that based on his experience and a review of some of Johnson County's newer neighborhoods, 20 percent or more of newer homes built in the Kansas City area with stucco may need substantial repairs.
Maylon's assessment, given at the request of Johnson County officials at a building seminar in February, was that if area problems continue, they could spawn a wave of lawsuits, since homeowner's insurance doesn't cover damages from bad stucco.
“There's going to be some nasty stuff going on here, if it goes on the way it's going,” he said.
Some contractors said they would welcome new stucco standards. “It's way past time they did something,” said Carl Brown, a stucco contractor whose own crusade led him to launch a Web site called Badstucco.com. “There are too many untrained people,” Brown said.
Yet as officials attack the problem by developing installation standards, they're also bracing for a strong reaction from some builders and even some homeowners.
“We expect existing homeowners to be upset this wasn't done before,” Mallory said.
Damage often unnoticed
Stucco has been a competitively priced alternative to wood, stone facades and masonry for years. And some builders assumed it was easy to apply.
But problems stemming from water intrusion began showing up several years ago, especially in areas experiencing a building boom. They first surfaced in Florida, North Carolina and other eastern states. Locally, some of the first complaints came from Overland Park.
“It started with a house that had over $100,000 worth of damage,” recalled Anderson, the assistant codes administrator. “We weren't really sure what the problem was at the time.” After more complaints, codes officials focused on stucco — especially around windows that weren't flashed properly.
Seasoned builders say problems can develop when houses are put up too quickly. Other builders simply cut corners. But inspectors said workmen often just aren't aware of the complexity of applying stucco in such a way that keeps water out or allows it to escape if it seeps in.
More crews also began using a synthetic stucco that has an acrylic coating and looks like the more traditional and heavier Portland cement stucco that has been used for 50 years or more. Synthetic stucco, however, is spread more thinly, making it more susceptible to cracking if it is not applied correctly over fiber mesh used in securing it to the house.
In addition, the synthetic stucco — known as an exterior insulation and finish system, or EIFS — uses an insulation foam board that can trap moisture inside a wall. If the installers don't create a drain system for moisture to escape, it remains trapped and begins to rot the structural materials. Oriented strand board — a composite of glue and pressed wood commonly called OSB that's used in many new homes as structural siding — can soak up moisture like a sponge and crumble into chunks.
Inspectors in Overland Park so far have found improper or missing flashings around windows, bad or missing caulking, poorly installed window assemblies and incorrectly joined lathing under the stucco that causes it to bulge and buckle. New standards call for installing multiple sheets of special paper that allow water to drip away from the wall.
Builders said the problems are more common in newer homes because they are built to be tighter than older homes for energy conservation reasons. Older homes have the advantage of allowing moisture to vent more easily.
Inspectors also note that some newer homes are constructed with softer woods that, if not primed and sealed properly, are more vulnerable to moisture.
“Since the rot is taking place from inside of the wall out, it often goes unnoticed for months until it has done substantial damage,” said Dan Bowers, owner of Holmes Inspection and a stucco expert.
That's what happened to Joe Lambert. Lambert purchased a $750,000 home in south Johnson County.
But when his family, who wanted to stay in their old home, prevailed on him not to go through with the move, he decided to sell the new house. That's when a private inspector noticed some cracks in the stucco.
“He grabbed a putty knife and literally drove (it) through the OSB board and cut out a two-by-four hole,” Lambert said.
He decided he couldn't sell the house with a clear conscience without fixing it. As workmen began stripping off stucco, the extent of the damage became apparent.
“Around every area of penetration — the gas line, electrical meter, it didn't matter — there was water damage,” Lambert said. Workmen replaced more than 45 large sheets of OSB board. “It took a month to fix it. I put it back like it was brand new,” he said.
The cost: $72,000.
Homeowners often are alerted to potential problems only when they see what a neighbor is going through. Roger Campbell, who lives near the home Lambert bought, decided to have his stucco tested, even though he didn't suspect a problem. He ended up with $60,000 in repairs, which included replacing the synthetic stucco with a traditional style of cement stucco.
“I was very surprised,” Campbell said. “There's going to be a ton of houses where people are going to wake up to this problem.”
Ben Romano, the owner of Wood Rot Pro who removed and replaced rotted wood on Campbell's home, is not surprised. Last week, he drove a reporter around Campbell's neighborhood pointing out possible problems in homes, all priced at more than $500,000, and most less than 10 years old.
At one, where he had already talked to a homeowner, Romano pushed gently against window trim. It gave easily. Had he pushed harder, his finger would have punched through. At another home, he reached behind the stucco and removed a handful of crumbly OSB board.
Romano said business was brisk in some of the area's toniest neighborhoods.
“You can't run out of business with the ‘fungus among us,' ” he said, using a slogan that graces the side of his truck.
No easy answers
When it comes to bad stucco, there's no good recourse.
Repairs can be costly. And most homeowners' insurance covers only water damage caused by accidents, such as from a tree falling through a roof or a burst pipe, said Eric Goldberg, assistant general counsel for the American Insurance Association.
Some homeowners persuade their builders to make repairs. But some are reluctant to fix damaged homes after years have passed, said Dan Fowler, the attorney who represented Orr.
Fowler said sometimes a homeowner's only option is to sue. But lawsuits can take years to resolve, and in the meantime the homeowner must make the repairs needed to maintain a house's structural integrity. And even if they win, homeowners may not recover all their losses.
Orr's lawsuit forced his builder into arbitration, where Orr won an $85,000 judgment. But $22,000 of that went toward legal expenses.
“I was still out of pocket $40,000,” he said. “That's retirement money.”
Prevent stucco problems....
Know your builder: Check with the Better Business Bureau. Talk with residents of other developments built by your builder.
Be involved: Check for any lawsuits against your builder. Get a history of your builder's financial health.
Talk with your builder: Find out the company's expertise with stucco. Ask how stucco and window subcontractors are supervised and inspected to ensure proper application and sealing.
Check out subcontractors: Does the stucco contractor follow accepted standards, including the manufacturer's guidelines, the International Building Code or the International Residential Code?
Look ahead: Discuss what happens if you discover flaws with workmanship.
Get everything in writing: Make sure contracts state that materials must be installed according to manufacturer instructions and that you must approve material changes.
Know your rights: Have an experienced real-estate attorney review your contract and warranty.
Hire a qualified home inspector to check key stages of completion: Inspectors should have insurance against liability errors and omissions.
Do your homework on water damage: If buying an existing home, get an insurance-claim history.
If you find stucco problems...
Have your house tested for moisture. Hire someone certified by one of the national construction inspection organizations. Prepare to pay $300 to more than $600.
If you find damage, document it with photos and a written home inspection.
Give the builder a chance to fix the problem. Many states require that you notify the builder in writing. Take advantage of any warranties before they expire.
Get a correction plan in writing. If your builder fails to respond, follow up with complaints to county and state building and regulatory authorities.
Your last resort may be to contact a lawyer who specializes in construction-defect lawsuits.