Protect Your Investment: Avoid shoddy home construction

Consumer Reports News: April 07, 2008 03:09 AM

A few years back, a Consumer Reports investigation found that 15 percent of new homes had serious problems and defects, requiring homeowners to spend millions of dollars on repairs. During that building boom, the fast pace of construction was a major cause of shoddy construction, according to experts interviewed for the story.

While today’s real-estate market has weakened significantly compared with the robust market of recent years, you still need to be on the lookout to avoid buying a flawed home. (Our exclusive interactive illustrates the problems to be wary of.)

Serious construction defects often present themselves in telltale ways, such as the deep cracks in a floor and an exterior brick wall shown here. (The owners of that home in Edmond, Oklahoma, ended up spending $60,000 to repair their new home.) If you see one or more of the following problems when you’re looking for a home or after you move in, hire a structural engineer to investigate.

Deep cracks in the foundation or basement walls can be signs that the foundation was laid on a poorly compacted base or improperly graded soil.

Sagging floors or leaning walls might be caused by a shifting foundation or structural problems with support beams. Sometimes problems can be associated with a poorly done renovation or addition that compromised key structural members.

Windows and doors that don’t sit well in frames or close properly could be the result of house-framing problems or even trace back to uneven settling of the foundation. If the beams, studs, and joists weren’t correctly sized or assembled, the whole house might not hang together well.

Wide cracks in interior walls could signal a foundation problem. Generally, though, fine cracks are cosmetic, the result of normal wood shrinkage when drying or even minor settling.

Water damage warning signs include mold, rot, and insect infestation in exterior walls; staining, swelling and discoloration on interior walls; and a musty odor. There are a number of possible causes, including improperly installed roofing; missing flashing around penetrations and joints; no moisture barrier in a climate that requires it; lack of a drainage space behind brick or siding; poorly installed windows and doors; holes in siding; plumbing leaks and trapped water-vapor condensation from moist air contacting cold surfaces.

Flooding and sewer and drain backups might result from poorly graded land or faulty sewer and water-main connections.

Switched hot and cold spigots could signal improperly installed plumbing.

Excessive heating or cooling bills might be a sign that air ducts are leaky or improperly connected. Be on the lookout if rooms don’t get cool enough or warm enough.

Electrical shorts that cause blown fuses or tripped breakers could point to an incorrectly installed electrical system. Other signs of electrical problems are outlets and switches that don’t work or are unexpectedly controlled or affected by electrical devices in other parts of the home.

Missing required permits indicates that building authorities have not performed the required inspections.

Take these steps if you think you have a serious problem with substandard home construction.

1. Hire a licensed engineer. The National Academy of Building Inspection Engineers can make a referral for a visual inspection. For a structural analysis, expect to pay $100 to $150 an hour.

2. Give the company a chance to fix the problem. You may have no choice anyway in states with “right to cure” laws. But don’t let warranties or statutes expire while you wait. Document your complaints with photographs, copies of written agreements and warranties, and a home inspection.

3. File complaints. Send your complaints to building and regulatory authorities in your state, such as a contractor-licensing board; your state and local consumer-affairs departments; and, if you suspect fraud or corruption, your state attorney general. Also contact the Federal Trade Commission.

4. Network. Contact Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings or Homeowners for Better Building to contact other aggrieved homeowners.

5. Get legal help. As a last resort, contact a lawyer who specializes in construction-defect lawsuits. Your local bar association can help you find one.

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