Unhappy Homes

I know it sounds peculiar, but the unhappiest homeowners I know are the ones who just bought brand-new houses. In our little home inspection business, hardly a day goes by without me hearing another sad tale of a new-or nearly new-house springing leaks, sprouting cracks, or slipping and sliding when it ought to be standing still.

I know how this happens. New-house buyers get a little giddy when they start their house hunt, and they lose their skepticism. They like to think about their new house as a special thing, built especially for them, and they like the fact that nobody has ever lived in the house before. Never mind that every new house is made out of old wood, older dirt, and prehistoric dinosaur parts. Never mind that the house has been full of strangers for weeks, eating fast food by the box and bucket, then making full use of the future owner's porcelain fixtures, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

A new-house buyer will meet some skilled salespeople who will reinforce the joy of new-house ownership. Those sweet, friendly people at the model home give house-hunters tasty cookies, compliment their well-behaved children, and show them videotapes that tout the builder's awards and quality control. They assure folks that municipal codes inspectors have gone over the house with great diligence, and have pronounced the place free of defects. Then, they pull out the big closer: the one-year warranty. "If anything goes wrong, just call."

Well, I'm here to tell you that your new house-whether it costs $80,000 or a million bucks-is going to start out with a fair number of things already gone wrong. Most of them won't be obvious until the one-year warranty has expired, and most of them won't be fixable.

The way I see it, somebody needs to encourage new-house buyers to hold onto some healthy skepticism, and get pro-active about making sure builders get things right. All that encouraging is a big job, and I don't see anybody else volunteering to do it. So, heck, I'll do it. If you're going to buy a new house, here's what you do: Take pictures while the house is being built.

Before the foundation trench gets filled in, take pictures of the waterproofing. Depending on the conditions at your house, you might need a thin coating of black goop, or you might need a fancy multi-ply waterproofing job. You won't be able to see the waterproofing when the house is finished. If the builder does it wrong, you'll get water in your basement or crawl space, and you won't know why.

Before the siding goes on, take pictures of the windows. Get some close-ups of the window sides, tops and bottoms. Installers frequently mistake window nailing flanges for flashing. A lot of windows in new houses aren't flashed (waterproofed) at all. You want pictures of any mistakes, so if your windows start leaking, you'll be able to prove what went wrong.

Also before the siding goes on, get pictures of the building paper and/or house wrap. There's a fair chance that the installers will do what we call "reverse layering;" that is, they'll put the stuff on ass-backwards, in a way that will ensure that water leaks into the wall. For reverse-layering details, and some good pictures of layering screwups, go here: http://www.slcc.edu/tech/techsp/arch/courses/ARCH1210/Lecture/Vaporbar/Housewrap/index.html.

If your house is going to be clad with brick veneer, take pictures on day 1 of the bricklaying job, and every day until the job is finished. Take pictures twice a day if you can. This is critical, because there is a near-100% chance that the installers will screw up the brick job, and you'll have leaks and other troubles because of it.

Now I know some of you are thinking, "I don't know anything about brick. What should I look for?" Go to the Journal of Light Construction website (www.jlconline.com), and find this article: "Keeping Water Out Of Brick Veneer." The article appeared in the November 1999 issue of JLC; the author is Jerry Carrier. You'll have to pay a few dollars to download the article. It's worth it. Spend the money.

Show the article to your builder. Tell him you want your brick veneer done with way Jerry Carrier does it, because Carrier's method, unlike most builders' methods, conforms with the building code.

Fair warning: All of the things I'm telling you to photograph are things which, if done improperly, will let water leak into your house. The usual builder fix, under that one-year warranty, is to send a man to your house with a caulking gun. Believe me when I tell you: The caulk guy won't be able to fix problems inside your walls. His mission is to make you feel better until the warranty runs out.

While your house is under construction, make sure you get copies of all the installation manuals-the manuals for the roof shingles, the windows, the water heater, the heat-and-air equipment, the fireplace, the appliances, and everything else. If your house ends up with defects-and it almost surely will-the manuals might just let you prove what was done incorrectly. Manufacturer's specs-printed in those manuals-trump local builders' practices, and even the building codes.