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Hidden flaws

By COLLINS CONNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2000


In looking at new home construction, the St. Petersburg Times found plenty of evidence that work had deteriorated. Some defects are easy to see. But industry insiders described commonplace problems that are difficult to detect or that occur during phases of construction that are virtually unexamined. These flaws affect a home's strength, wind resistance, durability or efficiency.

Concrete slabs

Though concrete trucks arrive at construction sites with a measured mix of water, cement, sand and gravel, 40 to 100 gallons of extra water often are added at the request of the finishing subcontractors. That makes the mix easier to spread but is "the worst thing you can do to concrete," said structural engineer Jack Harrington. "It makes it crack much worse, much worse." Severe cracks let moisture and termites into the house. To cover themselves against complaints, concrete manufacturers have their drivers mark the added water on the delivery tickets, which also warn that extra water weakens the mix. Area concrete companies estimate 30 to 50 percent of their residential shipments are substantially diluted. By way of example, on Oct. 25, significant amounts of water were added to six of 10 deliveries by Southdown Inc., a local concrete manufacturer. When the Times questioned watered shipments at U.S. Home sites, the builder asked its concrete vendor, RMC Ewell Industries, to check the slab strength at 355 homes. In each case, the concrete exceeded the building code requirements, said Ewell's senior vice president, James Bothwell. The test showed Riverview resident Ellen Rosenthal's slab was plenty strong, but it had sizeable cracks, which U.S. Home repaired in recent weeks. "All of a sudden they're fixing everybody who's complaining," Ms. Rosenthal said. She asked the worker if too much water had been added to the concrete: "He said, "Well, maybe."'

Reinforced blocks

Concrete-block walls are reinforced to help a home withstand hurricane-force winds. At intervals, steel rods are put down the holes in the block and then concrete grout is poured in, forming a solid pillar. Sometimes steel is put in the blocks, but grout isn't. "I would say probably two-thirds or maybe three-quarters of the homes I examine are missing at least one or more of the (reinforced pillars)," said home inspector Karl Goellner of Realty-Chek Inc. Chris Miller of Suncoast Real Estate Inspections Inc. takes pictures of improperly reinforced blocks. "A lot of times (the workers) get down to the end of the pour and they're running out of concrete," he said, "They'll skip a few (of the downpours) . . . so they won't have to call out another truck." After tornadoes hit Kissimmee in 1998, structural engineer Joe Russello photographed walls that had collapsed in the wind. Clearly shown in the photographs are unreinforced blocks. That is why the walls fell down, according to Russello.

Termite treatment

In December, Lennar Homes settled a lawsuit affecting 1,827 customers in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties who said their home sites weren't sprayed for termites by the now-defunct Ace Professional Pest Control Inc. "We've all seen where you can end up with a bad termite company that plays games," said Lennar president Stuart Miller. How common is Lennar's experience? Last year, agents of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services hid near seven Tampa Bay home sites to watch pest-control companies treat the soil. One was adequately treated; six got watered-down chemicals or a partial spraying. It's a tiny sampling, but with just 14 inspectors statewide, department officials say that's all they can do. Fernando "Frank" Mongiovi, president of Best Termite and Pest Controls, guesses "at least half the new home buyers are not getting adequate termite protection." Some builders pay subcontractors less than the cost of the chemicals, he said, so you can bet the treatment's no good. Where are local building inspectors? When they check the site, they merely look at the sprayer's statement that the job has been done.

Hurricane straps

Another way to help houses resist wind is by nailing metal straps imbedded in the top of the concrete wall to a roof truss. Sometimes, straps are missing. More commonly, trusses end up inches from the strap, rather than next to it, as they should be. When that happens, the straps often are hammered flat along the top of the wall, then nailed to the truss. But that voids the strap's warranty and could cause the trusses to lift in high winds. Construction attorney Dan Moody said bad strapping was one of the problems Lennar had to fix on 79 Fox Lake homes in Pinellas County. Moody represented the homeowners. "We do our very best to supervise and make sure the trades do what they are contracted to do," Lennar president Stuart Miller said. Because hurricane straps are at roof level, building inspectors view them with a mirror attached to a long rod. Even then, it's hard to see them on complex roof designs. Ken Young of Young Construction Consulting said he often must "actually get up (in the roof area) to examine the straps. I did one (recently) in Sun City where the framers had bent all the straps and beat them into place." Poor installation is so common that Suarez Housing replaced the straps with specially engineered clips that are easy to install and inspect.

Flashing

"We're getting houses that make the House of Seven Gables look like it has no gables in it at all," said Burt Folce, Hillsborough County's building official. "With those, instead of two potential places for leaks (where roofs meets walls), you've just put in 15 or 20 potential places of leaks." At each juncture of the roof and a wall, chimney or vent, L-shaped metal strips called flashing must be installed so water won't seep into the crevices. "It takes a mechanic to put it in," said luxury homebuilder Jay Fechtel."Many of the guys putting it in either haven't been trained or aren't capable of doing it." Fechtel hires a roof inspector to check his houses. Most builders don't. Cities and counties don't check flashing either. "A lot of the problems we end up with are the result of improper flashing," said Bob Pensa, who just retired as Pinellas County's building official, "but the trouble is, it comes in such stages of construction that we really don't get to see it."

Stucco

By code, stucco should be a 1/2-inch thick when it covers concrete block and a 7/8-inch thick when it covers wood. Many builders claim stucco over block is merely decorative and doesn't have to meet the building code requirements. But nobody disputes that when it covers wood, stucco helps waterproof the wall and must meet code. That means, on the frame part of gable-end walls and on two-story houses where the second floor is frame, the stucco must be nearly an 1-inch thick. Typically, it isn't, according to industry experts. Thin stucco can crack excessively, letting water seep into the wall, but saving the builder about $1,500 per house. Ed Pipino Jr. of Advanced Building Inspections Inc. said that when he finds insufficient stucco on a tract house, he girds himself for battle, "because you're not only talking about (repairing) one house, you're talking about every single house in the subdivision. And they are really willing to argue to the umpteenth degree." Building departments don't inspect stucco, but Joe Koon, of Koon Contracting, said inspectors realize it doesn't meet code. "They know what's going on," he said. "If they did stop it, we'd all be playing the same ballgame."

Insulation

In Florida's heat, it's impossible to efficiently air-condition houses without adequate insulation. But when insulation is blown into attics, the installer often puts in too little. Where it should be 8.25 inches thick, it's often 5 inches, according to Ken Young of Young Construction Consulting. That strains the air conditioner and inflates the electric bill. When Young found too little insulation in a house built by Highmark Homes, the company's operations manager, Bernard Strong, hired him to check each of the 53 Highmark houses in that Pinellas neighborhood. "Every single one was 2/3 short," Young said. Highmark hired a new subcontractor who puts measuring sticks in the attic as an easy check for thickness, Strong said. A Pulte house that Young inspected at the Times' request also was short on insulation. No surprise to Pulte -- the company recently examined attics insulated by a former installer who was fired for unreliability. All of them were short. After the Times' inspection, the company checked its new installer's work. Again, all were short on insulation, according to a Pulte official, who told the installer to fix the shortages.

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