Modern materials, a less-skilled work force and lax code enforcement are blamed
By PAUL WENSKE, The Kansas City Star
Chagrined homeowners in relatively new subdivisions throughout the area are being stuck with house-repair bills that can hit $10,000 and sometimes much more.
The culprits? Wood rot and mold caused by water leaks.
With their dream homes turning into financial nightmares, homeowners are increasingly wondering: Who's responsible?
Many blame their builders for slighting precautions to keep water out, such as flashing and moisture barriers around windows, doors and roof lines. Builders acknowledge that some contractors cut corners, but they say homeowners often make things worse by failing to maintain their homes.
National experts confirm the trend and cite a combination of factors, including newer building materials that make homes more vulnerable to water intrusion, construction practices that haven't kept pace with new technologies, a less-skilled work force and lax code enforcement.
"To see all that rotten wood just blew me away," Barbara Choplin said recently after repairmen tore the siding off her 11-year-old house in a south Johnson County development, revealing a crumbling mess. At least 58 of the subdivision's 111 homes, priced at $350,000 and above, have similar problems.
Experts nationally estimate that $5 billion to $8 billion in home repair costs are attributable to moisture problems. However, there is no official accounting of the problem.
Builders deny it is widespread. Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City spokesman Matt Derrick said "only a fraction" of the more than 80,000 homes built here since the early 1990s have wood-rot problems.
"The vast majority of home builders pay a lot of attention to detail and take these issues very seriously," he said.
Even so, experts say moisture problems are raising major concerns.
"Is there a problem with water intrusion? Absolutely there is," said Jerry Mallory, head of the Johnson County Contractor Licensing Program. "Anyone who says there isn't a problem is putting his head in the sand."
In November, the program focused its fall contractor training seminar on new international building codes that address the wood-rot problem. The codes involve specific steps builders must follow to protect what for most consumers is their biggest investment. Officials say the new codes are less ambiguous -- making them more objective for codes enforcers and less open to interpretation by builders.
Alan Mooney, president of Criterium Engineers, a building engineering consulting firm with 72 offices in 35 states, said water intrusion "is the No. 1 problem in residential construction today." He estimates that up to 20 percent of the 1.8 million homes built this past year had construction defects serious enough to cause immediate water intrusion damage.
Problems can increase with the home's age. Christopher Burton, president of Moisture Warranty Corp., which provides warranties for homes rehabbed to make them more moisture-resistant, estimates that 50 percent or more of homes built in the past three to 15 years experience problems, from simple window leaks to major decay that can threaten the safety of the house.
Home inspectors and repair contractors say they are seeing the same thing in Kansas City.
"These houses built since the early 1990s are having more problems than ever before," said private inspector Bob Babich.
Problems don't respect any particular development, city or price range. Consider:
John and Laura Keck paid $30,000 in September to repair wood rot on their six-year-old, $240,000 house in Shawnee.
Daryn Ross paid $180,000 in part to repair wood rot on his $864,000 home in Kearney. This summer, his builder's insurance company paid him a $23,000 settlement.
Two dozen Leawood homeowners, including former Kansas City Chief Willie Roaf, sued their builder last year. They alleged that defects caused their four-year-old homes to suffer damages, in some cases as much as $85,000 worth. Roaf settled out of court. The builder denies the defects. The case is set for trial next spring.
Overland Park codes administrator Tim Ryan serves on the national board that writes the building codes used in 98 percent of the nation's cities.
He said stepped-up enforcement in Overland Park and in some other cities has documented building defects overlooked in years past. But he said codes inspectors share some of the blame if homes aren't meeting code.
He said inspectors "looked mainly at life and property safety issues," ensuring a house wouldn't fall down, that no one would be electrocuted and that the plumbing worked. They didn't have time to look at much else as homes went up at a rapid pace and suburbs sprawled in all directions, he said.
Efficiency's dark side
The recent history of wood-rot problems can be traced back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when new subdivisions were springing up virtually overnight.
With high demand for competitively priced homes and traditional-cut wood in short supply, builders relied on cheaper materials. But products such as plywood and Oriented Strand Board, made from pressed and glued wood chips, were less resistant to moisture if unprotected.
And with rising energy costs, builders promoted energy-efficient homes that relied on new types of sidings that were tighter and more insulated. Older homes, with their larger, less-insulated wall cavities, were downright drafty by comparison. But the older homes had one advantage: When water did get inside their walls, most of it was able to drain out. And traditional-cut wood structures quickly dried out.
That didn't always happen with the newer, airtight and more energy-efficient wall systems. Builders often applied the newer sidings directly to an OSB chipboard sheathing. While this made the house tighter, it resulted in less air movement, and there was no drainage plane, or cavity, between the siding and inner sheathing to allow water to drain out. So if water got trapped inside the walls, it often held horrors for homeowners.
One type of siding, a synthetic stucco substance called Eifs, which stands for Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems, was especially susceptible, mainly because it had a foam backing that held water like a sponge.
If water gets behind a wall and can't get out, a moist Petri-dish environment can result that feeds wood rot and mold, said Dan Bowers, a Kansas City area inspector. Trapped water saturates the OSB board sheathing until it gets spongy and "starts to crumble like a wet Saltine cracker."
Another practice, called single-wall construction, which involves nailing siding directly to a home's studs, also became popular in Kansas City and helped keep housing costs lower. But if crews don't cover the inner frame with some kind of house wrap, leaking water can seep through insulation right into the wallboard.
Homeowners may first notice damage when water comes through a ceiling, around a window frame or under wall trim. Sometimes they may not discover it at all until they are trying to sell their home.
Inspectors and repair contractors say the newer sidings aren't solely to blame. They say sidings work fine when the house is designed and built properly to shed water.
Ralph Heying, a former siding contractor who now repairs wood rot, said he often encounters missing or defective window flashing and a lack of roof devices called kick-outs, which when installed properly "kick" water away from areas where roofs intersect with walls and into rain gutters.
New international codes now require builders to create a drainage plane inside walls. That includes applying a "house wrap" of treated paper inside the walls, to act as a crucial secondary moisture barrier, so that water that gets behind the walls follows gravity and drains down and out.
Ensuring everything is done right is harder, in part, simply because the sheer number of new homes going up makes it harder for inspectors to check for all potential defects.
"It's really about the builder having skilled craftspeople, putting the house together right, having trained supervisors monitoring the construction process -- and having proper inspections," said Steve Easley, president of Building Media Inc. and a former Purdue University professor of building sciences.
It's the job of the builder to supervise subcontractors who put on the roofs, nail together the frames and perform dozens of other jobs. But Easley said training has not kept up with the new technologies.
Unions that require workers to go through apprenticeships now focus almost exclusively on commercial projects, because they pay better than home construction. Officials say few training programs exist for nonunion workers, often hired more for broad backs than experience. And with more turnover, contractors are hiring more immigrant crews, which they can hire at less cost. While these crews work hard, they present language problems for supervisors.
As a result, say some contractors, details get overlooked.
The best thing a homeowner can do is be proactive.
Nancy Seats of Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings, a national group, says homebuyers need to look beyond the color of their walls to what's happening behind them.
She said buyers should hire their own private inspector to make sure their home contains all the proper flashings, barriers and water-drainage systems. She also advises consumers to talk with other homeowners who have bought a home from a particular builder.
Seats said too many homeowners assume their house is built perfectly and fail to note problems in a walk-through of the house or to demand repairs before making a final payment. In addition, she said, homeowners should document later problems and bring them to the builder's attention before the warranty lapses.
"You ll pay for it later if you don't," she warned.
Once they move in, new buyers can help stave off huge repair bills through vigilant and scheduled maintenance. In fact, many newer and larger homes, with more wall space and in some cases twice as many windows as older homes, require more -- not less -- maintenance, inspectors and builders say.
Newer homes may need fresh caulking around windows, doors and decks yearly to keep water out, especially where upper-story windows face driving rain.
"Caulk is not a permanent product," said Derrick, the homebuilders association spokesman.
Consumer advocates say owners of homes three years old or older should consider hiring a private inspector.
After a standard one-year warranty lapses, remedies can be limited -- and costly.
Consider the experience of John and Laura Keck.
Every time it rained, the Kecks found themselves mopping up water in their six-year-old house in the Highland Ridge development in Shawnee.
They asked their builder, Jerry Jones, to fix the leaks. Jones said the leaks were not his fault; if anything, he said, they were the fault of the Kecks for not caulking their windows.
After a prolonged conflict, the Kecks in September shelled out $30,000 to repair their home. They considered hiring a lawyer but concluded it would cost as much as paying for the repairs.
Laura Keck said that if nothing else, she's learned a lot from her experience: "I can drive by a house now and see where they are missing kick-outs and flashing."
Experts say consumers end up footing most repair costs. While federal agencies exist to recall defective products ranging from cars to toasters, nothing similar exists for homes.
Builders are responsible for meeting all codes, whether or not they are checked off by a codes inspector or whether an occupancy permit is granted. That means if a homeowner acts soon enough and can prove that a defect was related to a code violation, he or she may have a good case in a lawsuit against a builder.
But suing a builder is getting harder. A flurry of past lawsuits nationally involving mold allegations prompted some insurers to drop out of the building industry. In response, builders aggressively lobbied states, including Missouri and Kansas, to pass so-called "right-to-cure" laws that require homeowners to first try to work out problems with their builders. If that fails, they must submit their claims to an arbitration process before they can finally go to court.
Builders say these laws make contractors accountable and help avoid frivolous lawsuits. Consumer groups say the laws just drag out conflicts, force consumers to jump through complicated hoops and then drain their pocketbooks so that they can't afford to hire an attorney to sue.
Some homeowners have banded together to share the costs of hiring attorneys. But sometimes homeowners discover problems too late to sue -- after the strict 10-year statute of limitations has run out.
Consumer advocates say the problems show a need for greater state regulation. Among recommendations are laws requiring licensing and continuing education for contractors. Other recommendations include mandatory warranties on homes for 10 years, rather than one.
Some experts say builders should give homebuyers manuals, much like auto-owner manuals, to explain the components and maintenance needs of their homes. And they encourage builders to market the quality of their homes.
Many homeowners are left feeling simply clueless.
"You assume you are getting the best you can," Choplin said. "I did nothing for this to occur, and I m being held responsible for the total repair."
KEEPING YOUR HOUSE DRY - Drainage is the key
Precautions that help keep water out of your house.
Caulking around trim, light fixtures, nail holes in siding and other penetration points.
Moisture barrier behind window trim and where siding meets roof.
Flashing, caulking around windows.
Sloping window sills and sill-drip pans.
Kick-our flashing where roof meets wall.
Any tears or holes in the house wrap sealed.
Flashing where deck butts up against siding and edge of house.
Drainage plane inside the wall to let trapped water escape.