6 Places Builders Cut Corners, Get Sloppy or Cheap in the Construction Process
By Cesar Collado
When I mentioned to a colleague the fact that just because a home is new; it doesn’t mean it is mold free, he was surprised and alarmed. He had just made a recent investment in a new home and thought he had made the “mold-safe” choice by opting for new construction over an older home. Well, unfortunately, there are two facts that exist regardless of newness or expense: 1) The laws of physics apply to all homes; 2) Even well-known, quality builders have been found to cut corners. Before you read further, I must caveat this information with the disclaimer that following the advice from this article may mean that your builder may not be a fan of yours for questioning them in the end. But, in the end, it is your investment, and I’m sure they have experienced many buyers armed with similar wisdom.
What is important for any new home buyer or existing home dweller to know is that there are some key mold problems that can be identified and fixed before a full blown, overly expensive, mold remediation nightmare happens. There is good and bad news that comes with this information. The good news for a new owner is that you have a warranty and can identify and discuss issues with your builder to prevent future catastrophic claims under that warranty. The bad news for existing home owners is that preventing a catastrophic health or financial problem feels less gratifying, because you are footing the bill.
To help me with this article, I consulted an expert, Danny Gough of Energy Solutions Inc., Lewisville, NC. He has over 40 years’ experience investigating and solving building failures. His expertise spans building science, mold, and mechanical engineering. It just so happened that he recently finished teaching a class to builders on the very same topic. We had a long discussion on some of the key themes people can look out for with their homes. This information does not replace the need for a qualified and licensed professional with the experience and tools to identify and remedy every potential problem. It does, however, provide a homeowner or mold sufferer enough information to use some common sense, do a little research online, and make a phone call, if needed.
Potential Mold Issues Inside the Home:
1. Air Conditioner Size Selection
The term “Bigger is Better” is definitely not true for homes. Oversized air conditioners are
common in housing developments. An oversized air conditioner can cycle on too often allowing for moisture accumulation in many areas around the home. Air conditioners and ductwork should be selected and designed to meet the specifics of the home. Calculations are required that include size of home, ceiling heights, windows, floor plans, and more. Today, a quality HVAC technician will measure, count, and tour the entire home from top to bottom. They will then utilize this data in a program to determine the proper size and selection for an HVAC system. A homeowner can always ask for a copy and explanation of the calculus. In some states, HVAC companies are required to provide this information
This important calculation is often overlooked by volume builders. For example, a new housing development may be built by a single developer. They may have 5 or more different floor plans and models they want to sell. They try to make each home appear distinct and provide diversity for a neighborhood feel. Every floor plan typically requires a separate calculation because the air ventilation differs, but also the placement of the home can differ as well. But every floor plan has its own way of managing the flow of air, The air conditioner is meant to “condition” the air. It has a filter to remove pollutants, refrigerant coils to cool, and it should provide fresh, outside air into the home. In a single development, it is very possible that all of the homes have the same HVAC system and size. Homes with foyers, high ceilings, balconies, and open floor plans will behave differently from more closed floor plans and require different HVAC schemes.
If there are any large windows, the physics of the building will behave differently when those windows are facing a different direction. The sun always rises in the same place. Southern exposure will differ from northern exposure. This can be explained by the fact that in many neighborhoods, some homes need to do much more snow shoveling in the winter than their neighbors across the street. The heat of the sun changes the behavior of the heating and cooling inside. This is why there are zone systems.
I also spoke with a career homebuilder after this discussion.
He validated, understandably, that builders cut costs everywhere they can to maintain profitability and timelines. It is very likely that the builder-grade ductwork and HVAC units are purchased in bulk at a discount. Any new home buyer or existing homeowner can ask for specifics regarding he HVAC sizing and effectiveness.
2. Kitchen and Bathroom Exhaust/Ventilation Fans
This one will surprise you. It surprised me. A majority of bathroom and kitchen fans work but they do not exhaust to the outside. I had to validate with my professional friends and check my own home before writing this. This means that the humid bathroom or stove hoods route the steam into a wall space. To illustrate, many people, like myself, have microwave ovens above our stoves that are equipped with exhaust fans. You purchase the microwave and have it installed. Where does the steam go? It is not sucked up and exhausted outside of the home, unless it has been specifically routed to do so with a hood and separate ducting. If it is just installed as is, with no ductwork running from the fan to the outside, it just blows the steam away from the stovetop and around the kitchen. This does nothing to remove moisture or smoke from cooking. In the bathroom, to test if your bathroom fan is sucking up moisture, you can fold up some toilet paper to where it will hold into the vent. After showering with the fan on, you can check to see if the toilet paper is wet. You should be able to trace the ductwork for bath fans to an outside exit point on the roof or to the side of your home. You want as direct a path as possible, with as few turns or corners as possible. Remember, moisture can be caught in the ducts as well. You should never find ventilation ducts culminating in your attic or crawlspace. This is a definite mold issue when it occurs. Contact your builder or a licensed tradesman to properly ensure bathroom or kitchen fans are diverting the humid air to the outside or a proper place where materials do not serve as mold “food.”
3. Houses Settling
When a home is built, it is common for the house to settle over time. This usually becomes evident during the first year, but can span a longer timeframe as well. Buyers will often see cracks in drywall, tiles, etc. The builder will usually ask the homeowner to come up with a punch list of defects that they will fix prior to the initial year portion on the warrantee. However, settling can disrupt PCV pluming pipes. Construction workers often take creative license when installing mechanical, electric, and plumbing (MEP) due to timelines. These specialty installations are often subcontracted to licensed subcontractors. Quality by subcontractors is not the same as most licensed and branded residential tradesman. Sloppy installation or any element not up to building code can falter. In addition, weather or other natural phenomena can always be problematic.
Do your own inspection of each room looking for discoloration indicating water or any moisture. Proactive inspection of your home on a regular basis or after storms can give you an early indication of a problem and allow you to DIY to fix affordably.
Potential Issues Outside the Home:
Many homeowners fall in love with a home prior to taking a good hard look at some not so obvious details. The topography around the home is critical. It is not uncommon for a neighbor’s home’s groundwater to flow into another home’s foundation or vice versa. If groundwater settles against a home, moisture problems will likely occur. As a former member of the BOD of a HOA for a new neighborhood, I listened to countless “Water Wars” between neighbors, where water flowed into on neighbor’s yard or home, causing several types of problems from a wet foundation to plant disease or pest issues with landscaping.
I personally encountered this issue with a house being built next door to me. It sat on a higher foundation where there was an incline from my home to their slab. I initially spoke with the builder (who was different than mine) about the problem and he dismissed me. After some research, I learned that he could build a “swale” (ditch) around my fence line to direct water to a neighborhood drain. I made this proposal with the notion that I worked from home and will educate potential buyers on our future water disputes. He begrudgingly agreed and was able to have someone dig the swale in a couple of hours once they started. Problems avoided!
When you purchase a home, it is wise to imagine flooding rains to determine if there may be a problem. There may also be evidence of a problem, like pooling water in your yard. You can then decide whether you want to proactively prevent the problem with the builder or construct a remedy. To that end, I also had French Drains installed around my crawl space and some trees to prevent future groundwater problems.
5. Gutters and Flashing
Gutters and flashing are installed to direct water on any pitched or flat roof. They are usually made of aluminum and come standard on any home. They redirect water away from the home. Their very important function is often neglected as debris from trees can clog the gutters or disrupt water flow, allowing water to accumulate in almost any location. These should be inspected and cleaned at least yearly during the autumn, rainy seasons, after big storms, or after leaves fall. Gutters can also become detached due to improper installation and need to be re-attached to avoid a systemic malfunction. Downspouts should be attached to piping or along a declining hill away from the home.
In some neighborhoods, front, back, or side doors may not have any direct roofing to protect you from the elements while fiddling with keys. When this happens, the door frame, jamb, and trim can be exposed to excess water and deteriorate. Many homes have small porch roofs or canopies to provide shielding from the elements and direct water away from the home. If a side door, for example, does not have a canopy, homeowners must pay attention to the wood or other materials around the door for water damage or even wood rotting. These can be easily inexpensively repaired with a quick trip to the hardware store, and DIY directions can be found online. Periodic checking of window frames is also a good practice.
Flashing can be installed sloppily and lead to water intrusion. Flashings are usually metal components used to seal roof system edges, perimeters, penetrations, walls, drains, and any other areas where the actual roof coverings meet on a pitch roof. You can read more about the specifics of identifying and fixing gutters and flashing on Moldfreeliving.com HERE.
Crawl spaces exist on many homes where a concrete slab is deemed unnecessary or in some standard home styles, like Ranches. This empty space above ground and below the floors is often neglected by builders due to lack of building code requiring preventive strategies. Many crawl spaces have vents around the home to allow ventilation in the crawlspace. No crawlspace is ALWAYS best from an air quality standpoint, but sometimes this kind of construction cannot be avoided. The following list details a few must-haves if you have a crawlspace:
- Seal the venting in humid geographies. Because it is often more humid outside than below the home, the vents allow moisture into the dark space. This accumulation of moisture leads to a variety of problems like mold, termites, and dust mites. Due to the “stacking effect,” the air from the crawlspace moves upward into the home including multi-floor homes. The dirt and dust below can lead to a catastrophic mold build-up under the home which will permeate the entire home over time. Remediation of crawl spaces can be expensive.
- Adding Dehumidification to a crawl space is inexpensive and valuable.Running a dehumidifier continuously will keep the moisture low at levels where mold will not grow or reproduce.
- Having a vapor barrier in the crawlspace prevents moisture and ground gases from entering the home. It also prevents mold, termites, other pests and should be considered a necessity for the mold sensitive. In addition, it makes any electrical or home entertainment wiring work in the home readily accessible. Entering a moldy crawlspace is a safety hazard without all safety equipment. It can be dangerous enough for an individual exposure to cause someone to reach their “toxic load.” Read more about toxic load HERE. While MEP technicians and other contrshould be responsible for taking safety precautions, they seldom do so in my experience. I personally feel more comfortable having a clean and safe crawlspace for whatever reason that may cause someone to go below my home.
Much of this of this information also applies to basements. Periodic cold fogging of basements and crawlspaces for mold with EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate can circumvent potential mold problems. It only takes minutes and can prevent mold from entering your home with the stacking effect. You can get a special rate for a fogger, EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate, and EC3 Mold Screening Test Plates from the exclusive “Special Bundle” on Moldfreeliving.com homepage and save $100.
A new home for many of us is a celebration or milestone. As with everything, most good things in our lives require some work. For mold sufferers, keeping up with these building variables and turning the building experience into a conversation around these important items will pay you back multifold over many years of safe living and improved health.