A Fine Mess

In the last few weeks, we've spent most of our time inspecting new or nearly-new houses, where the homeowners have discovered all manner of problems. Some of the houses have leaky roofs; some have leaky walls. Many have leaky doors and windows. We found one house where the heat-and-air ducts had been scrambled. Ducts that should have been blowing air were sucking air, and vice versa. The family had been living for three years without any heating or cooling in their kitchen, wondering why the kitchen got so hot in the summer.

We've found underlapped wall sheathing. Underlapping sheathing has the same effect as putting roof shingles on backwards. Any water that gets into the walls-and water does get into walls-will run into the house, rather than weeping out through the siding.

Last week, we cut into a wall of a nearly-new house, and found that the brick veneer wasn't tied to the wall, the one-inch air space behind the brick was filled with mortar, and there was no water-repellent building paper on the wall sheathing. All those details-brick ties, a clear one-inch air space, and building paper-have been required by local building codes for at least a decade. The same house has a 14 X 18 foot garage that's supposed to hold two cars. Well, it might hold two Mini Coopers. I don't think anything bigger would fit.

These defects aren't isolated to just a few houses. From what we've seen, most of the houses in these neighborhoods have the same, or similar, problems. It gets worse: The defects aren't even isolated to a few neighborhoods. We keep finding the same things in everything from starter homes to million-dollar mansions.

Every day, somebody asks me how new construction fell to this sorry state. Well, I don't have a perfect answer. But right here and now, I'm going to take a few guesses. First, building tract houses is a competitive business, and many of the details that make a high-quality house don't show. That means important details get left out, or, at best, get done on the cheap.

If you're a builder, and you commit the time, money, and manpower to do a perfect brick-veneer job, flash every window and door, and use skilled labor to install roofs and flashings, your house will be a lot more expensive than your competitor's house across the street. But Joe and Jill Homebuyer won't be able to see a bit of difference between your carefully-built house and your competitor's soon-to-be-leaking gimcrack house. They'll buy the house across the street.

From what I can see, there's not much good communication between the building supervisors and the laborers. No offense to anybody, but until the supervisors become fluent in Spanish, and/or the laborers learn to speak English, there's going to be a communication problem. More and more building materials come with Spanish installation instructions. That's good. But how many Spanish-speaking laborers can and do read the instructions? I don't know, but from the defects I've seen lately, I'd say it's a rare day when anybody reads the instructions. Common sense says that when people don't follow the instructions, the results will be poor.

Now, mix in the fact that many, if not most, local codes inspectors are overworked, undertrained, and underpaid. They don't have time to check the critical waterproofing details. They're lucky if they have enough time to look at the foundation, wiring, and plumbing. They're running on fumes, and counting on the builders to enforce the building code on themselves.

The bottom line is, building code enforcement is somewhere between non-existent and spotty. A while back, I asked the head codes enforcement guys in two separate towns to simply tell me what code they were enforcing. Neither of them knew. One of them just made something up-he told me he was enforcing a code that never existed.

The way I see it, new-house construction won't get any better until the building code is uniformly, and strictly, enforced. That's the only way I know to stop builders from trying to out-cheap and out-short-cut each other. It's the only way I know to force builders to develop better communication between the supervisors and the laborers.

I know some of you are thinking: "Why don't some of you private home inspection companies get in on the enforcement?" Well, lots of reasons: The codes enforcement agencies don't have enough money now. Where would they get the money to pay us? Unless the government somehow "deputized" private inspection companies, we'd have no power to shut down a shoddy construction project. There would be serious friction between us and the builders. More-detailed inspection means disruption on the job site. If we go crawling over every scaffold looking for brick ties and through-wall flashings, the bricklayers are going to spend a lot of time not working.

Until somebody starts enforcing the building code, people are going to get stuck with substandard houses. Getting good code enforcement is a political issue, not a building issue. I'd suggest that some of you homebuying folks talk to your representatives, and see if you can get something done.