Last night’s sudden downpour and wind storm inspired me to blog about “problems with houses” to assist those who either own or wish to own real estate.
Water penetration and damage represent major repair costs to homeowners. If you are new to real estate you should consider the potential pitfalls of the houses you shop. If you are about to build a new house, you have the benefit of considering the builder who will construct the house for you and you can carefully examine their building sites and designs for some of the potential design flaws that are outlined below. On this topic, the best time to check is right after a big storm.
Examine the Home Site and Land:
Is it mushy, soft, or holding standing water after a storm? If so, avoid the site. If you already have a house with these issues, consider installing “French drains” (http://www.foundation-repair-guide.com/french-drain.html) to alleviate the problem. These are not difficult to construct (a strong back, the materials, and willingness to get down and dirty are needed), or you can hire a professional to design and install a system for your yard. Done right, these drains can prevent further water damage to foundations and walls. Unprotected building systems can act like sponges and suck up the water from the ground, into your house. This can lead to “sick houses” which may encourage mold, smell musty, and can be very difficult to ever rid of the problem. In extreme cases, the house may need to be torn down. This problem has been with us since the time of Moses (Lev. 14:33-48) and in recent years Doctors have discovered just how deadly these mold spores can be for the people exposed to them.
An ideal home-site has a house that is situated higher than the road, with downhill drainage from the rear of the property toward the street. The ground around the perimeter of the house should be a graded downward and away from the house to carry roof run-off water away from the foundation. In areas where the run-off is intense, small gravel or rock beds can prevent the roof run-off from eroding the earth around the foundation of the house. Larger volumes of water may be carried away in the aforementioned French drains.
Examine the Roof Pitch, Materials, Flashings and Soffits:
Flat roofs can be a major leakage problem. However, I’ve found that the extra money paid for a good tar and gravel flat roof (projected lifetime of over 20 years) can prevent the frequent leaks that seem to pop up with asphalt-rolled roof installations (projected lifetime 8-12 years).
Asphalt shingles over pitched/sloped roofs are the most common in Florida and since the “Hurricanes of 2004” our Florida building codes now require a 5-nail installation per shingle to prevent wind damage. A properly installed asphalt shingle roof system should last from 15-25 years, depending on exposure to sun, tree branches, color (lighter colors save MUCH energy and last longer), and shingle quality. Look for signs of roof damage from branches that have rested on the roof. If you own a house, keep all trees cut back and away from your roof to extend the roof life.
Barrel Tile, Ceramic Tile, Concrete Tile roofs are mostly very durable and expensive roof systems. Many home owners prize them for their upscale appearance. Properly installed, they can last 30 years or more. Their additional weight often requires specially engineered roof truss systems. However, they can be fragile if walked across and they can present big water issues if they are not properly installed. Excessive moss, mold and dirt can build up on some of these roofs and care must be taken to clean them. Some of the newer varieties have glazed finishes that make them more durable against the elements.
Galvanized Metal Roofs are making a comeback in recent years in Florida. The original Florida houses with metal roofs were ideal for reflecting the sun’s heat (in the days before air conditioners) and for collecting rain water. The current roof products come with 50 year warranties for materials, offer very good sun reflection (when properly installed over furring strips nailed onto the waterproofed roof deck) but from what I’ve read, they seem to work best when the roof pitch is at least 6:12.
Wooden Shake roofs are rarely used in Florida these days. It appears to me that the extreme heat, mold, mildew and sun accelerates the degradation of these roofs in the Florida climate.
When buying an existing home, make sure your building inspector carefully examines the roof for signs of soft underlayment decks, rotten roof trusses, rotten soffits or fascia boards, which indicate water intrusion issues (either past or present).
Missing or improperly installed flashings (around the base of chimneys, plumbing roof stacks, and at the intersection of two building surfaces) are common sites for leaks in all types of roof systems. Look for signs of water stains on interior ceilings. If you see an interior leak and then examine the roofline over the leaks, you will often find one of the roof structures described above. Several “Home Buyer Warranty” companies will cover minor roof leak repairs, but you check their coverage before you select one. Since flashings are difficult to get right, a licensed roof contractor who will warrant their work is best used for this type of roof leak repair.
Soffits are the underside of the roof’s overhang beyond the vertical walls of the house itself. Houses that have deep (18-24”) soffits allow the rain run-off to drain far away from the exterior house walls. This soffit overhang also provides an eyebrow or umbrella to keep the hottest overhead sun rays off the windows of the house by casting a shadow when the sun is high. Green building techniques in Florida have long emphasized the energy saving qualities of well designed soffits. Unfortunately, not all builders worry about the long term operating or maintenance costs to homeowners, so they skimp on the size of their soffits to save on building material costs. Whether considering new construction or existing houses, look up and examine the size of the roof overhangs. If there is none, or it seems very small (under 12”), look carefully for existing water damage on building walls and foundations. Avoid buying houses that do not have deep soffits extending from their pitched roofs.
Examine the Windows, Sills, and Trim
Improperly installed, caulked, and sealed window openings are another major source of water intrusion (and energy loss). Look for signs of water stains either over or under the window openings. Press on any wood trim surrounding the windows, to see if there are signs of wood rot (soft wood) caused by water damage. Often times, if a house has not been properly sealed, caulked and painted, water will find it’s way in.
Examine the Paint Job
If the house paint comes off chalky on your hand as you run it across the house’s exterior then it is time for a new paint job. During Florida’s “Hurricanes of 2004” many hasty-built concrete block houses did not get a proper sealing coat of paint primer before the final paint coat. When the driving rains came, the rain was able to push right past the paint, into the concrete block walls, and into the houses. Since that time, most paint stores have advised homeowners to first paint their houses with a sealant coat (sort of like elastomeric paint for the walls) to avoid rain-driven-water penetration. There is a difference in paint quality and you do get what you pay for. Since the most expensive part of the paint job is the labor involved, it is best to spend a bit more for good quality paint to make sure that you don’t have to repeat the exercise too soon. A good paint job should last for 10+ years. A lousy paint job won’t last 5 years.
Examine the Sprinkler Systems
When the sprayer heads hit the house anywhere, there is a future water intrusion problem. Over time, the continual dampness can cause mold to grow inside the house, can rot out wood trim that is continually wet, can create a welcome environment for termites to invade the house. Like humans, termites need food (your house’s wood) and water. Wetness around the foundation creates an ideal place for the termites to congregate and penetrate. Move the offending sprayer heads away from the house and/or put protective “hoods” between the sprayers and the house to block any overspray.