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Top 5 Things That Go Wrong in Too-Fast Construction

A man wears a mask due to mold growth as he inspects a home in Jupiter, Fla., in April 2008. See more pictures of hidden home dangers.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In 2005, at the peak of the housing boom in the United States, more than two million new homes were built [source: McQueen]. In contrast, only half a million homes began construction in 2009 [source: Emrath]. The boom fed the public's nearly insatiable appetite for new construction. Home prices were rising quickly, mortgage terms were loose, and developers were churning out prefab McMansions on the hope of flipping an instant profit.

To keep up with the frenetic pace of construction, corners were most definitely cut [source: Toy]. Developers put pressure on contractors to build cheap and fast (a Seattle developer boasted a 54-day construction schedule) [source: Pulkkinen]. Contractors, pinched for experienced subcontractors, sometimes hired teams of unskilled laborers to handle critical tasks like pouring foundations, hanging windows and shingling roofs. A shortage of quality building materials led to cheap, unstable substitutions. If that wasn't enough, building inspectors were often so crunched for time that they often relied on spot checks that overlooked serious design and construction flaws.

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Of those two million homes built in 2005, experts estimate that 17 percent have at least two significant defects -- anything from cracked foundations to leaky roofs to critical structural failures [source: McQueen]. If you thought that newer homes had fewer problems, read more about what can go wrong when work goes too fast.

Homeowners Against Defective Dwellings (HADD) is a consumer rights group advocating for homebuyers who have the misfortune of living in a lemon. According to HADD president Nancy Seats, one of the most common problems caused by too-fast construction is a leaky roof.

Roofs are tricky business. Building a safe, watertight roof involves much more than nailing down a few shingles. First of all, the pitch of the roof must be sufficient to direct water at least six inches (15.24 centimeters) away from the house [source: Lewis]. Some construction jobs are pushed too quickly through the design stage, giving the green light to a roof design with eye-catching angles, but lousy drainage.

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Secondly, you can't skimp on the waterproofing materials that go underneath the shingles. Qualified roof contractors will install a layer of metal flashing at all vulnerable points. Flashing refers to flat or corrugated metal panels that are laid over seams in the roof structure, valleys where two slopes meet, and around disruptive structures like chimneys and vents [source: Handy American].

An inexperienced or rushed contractor might skip the flashing because the shingles would conceal them anyway. HADD has also received complaints about contractors who neglected to install a protective layer of felt before nailing down the shingles [source: Lewis]. Without felt backing, it's easy for water to seep through seams and infiltrate attics, leading to costly water damage and even mold infestations.

While we're talking about leaks, let's look at another symptom of rushed construction: defective windows.

Cutting corners on window construction can lead to foggy windows like the ones shown here.
Cutting corners on window construction can lead to foggy windows like the ones shown here.
©iStockphoto.com/dinadesign

Poorly hung windows can lead to a host of problems: leaks, fogging, drafts and jammed windowpanes. Like roofing, window installations are multistep affairs that require specialized skill and layers of sealing materials. In the rush of boom-era construction, contractors scrambled to find qualified workers. And when high-quality materials became scarce, they cut corners to get the job done.

To properly install a weatherproof window, the sides and top of the window (called the head) must be sealed with a rubberized flashing material that looks like giant strips of colored tape. The sides are flashed first, and then the head strip is applied to further protect from top-down drips [source: Ueno]. The bottom of the window, interestingly, isn't sealed as tightly. The idea is that gravity will always draw water to the lowest point. By leaving the bottom of the window frame relatively "open," any water that collects in that area can simply drain out.

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Homeowners Against Defective Dwellings (HADD) has received many reports of defective windows that were improperly installed without flashing or foam insulation that would protect against drafts. When moisture infiltrates a house, wooden materials become saturated and swollen, walls bulge and crack, mold grows, and homeowners fume.

Onto the next construction nightmare: basement flooding.

As a homeowner, there are few sights as sickening as a finished basement filling with murky brown water. Construction engineers cite "moisture intrusion" as the No. 1 reported complaint with newly constructed homes [source: Roney]. Some flooding is unavoidable, the result of torrential storms and swollen rivers. But in many cases, basement and crawlspace flooding isn't Mother Nature's fault; it's the contractor's.

There's no such thing as a waterproof foundation [source: Building Science]. If water builds up around foundation walls, hydrostatic pressure will eventually force the moisture through inevitable cracks and fissures. With the right design and materials, however, a quality contractor can keep water away from foundation walls altogether.

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A dry basement starts with careful grading of the property. If a contractor is in a hurry, he or she may not take the time to bulldoze soil so that water always flows away from the house rather than toward the foundation. Next, you should install roof gutters and downspouts that corral rainwater far away from the base of the home. If rainwater is allowed to run directly from the roof to the ground, it will pool up right next to the foundation wall. In a rushed construction job, downspouts are easy to overlook, but they could lead to costly damage.

Below the surface, foundation walls need to be cushioned by a thick layer of free-draining backfill, usually gravel. When water flows freely, it drains straight down, rather than seep horizontally. The loose gravel ensures that all groundwater flows directly down toward a subterranean drainage system. The system is a perforated drainpipe that lets water in from the top, and then whisks it away to sewers or a sump pump [source: Building Science]. Failure to lay the right fill material can lead to flooding, even in high and dry areas.

A cracked foundation can make your house impossible to live in.
A cracked foundation can make your house impossible to live in.
©iStockphoto.com/spxChrome

The Blue Oaks subdivision outside Sacramento, Calif., looks like a retiree's dream. All 250 of the freshly stuccoed ranch homes circle a private, manicured 18-hole golf course. But as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2009, that dream quickly turned into a nightmare for over half of the subdivision's residents as their homes literally began cracking into pieces [source: McQueen].

The residents filed a class action suit against the developers of the subdivision, claiming that the builders neglected to properly test the soil in which the foundations were poured. It turns out that the heavy clay soil expands in the rainy winter and contracts in the scorching summer sun, wrenching the foundation walls until they crack. Those cracks and fissures spread through walls and tile floors, making a telltale "popping" sound as the residents tried to sleep at night.

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As Nancy Seats of HADD confirms, cracked foundations are another common problem associated with too-fast construction. Sometimes, as in the California case, builders don't take the time to run soil tests. In other cases, they skimp on the rebar reinforcements that hold the concrete foundation's walls together [source: Lewis]. If a builder is in a rush, he or she might not sufficiently tamp down the fill soil underneath the footers, meaning the house will continue to "settle" long after it's finished.

Let's finish our list with one of the nastiest things that can go wrong when builders are in a rush: mold.

Mold is a critical part of the natural order, helping to decompose organic material and return nutrients to the soil. But there's nothing natural about a mold garden flowering in the crawlspace of your house. Certain strains of mold -- namely stachybotrys chartarum (aka "black mold") and the aspergillis family of molds -- produce mycotoxins that can cause serious health problems if ingested [source: Nolo.com]. But even allergies to more common molds can lead to hay fever-like symptoms, dizziness and skin rashes [source: Department of Health and Senior Services].

Mold spores are carried by the wind and breed in moist environments. During the construction boom years, when materials were scarce and time was tight, builders sometimes resorted to using damp plywood, sealing it up behind drywall before it had a chance to dry. Unlike hardwoods such as cedar and oak, plywood and other processed construction materials contain tons of natural sugars, a feast for mold [source: Lstiburek].

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Even in new homes, mold will grow quickly wherever moisture infiltrates and festers in sealed areas. If pipes aren't properly insulated, they can produce condensation, which collects between walls. If an attic doesn't have sufficient ventilation, even the tiniest leak can produce a forest of mold. If the heating and air conditioning ducts aren't properly sealed, they can carry mold spores throughout the house, spreading allergens to unsuspecting residents [source: Garber].

For lots more information on construction planning and building materials, follow the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Building Science. "Information Sheet: Groundwater Control." May 12, 2009http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/information-sheets/1-foundations-and-site-work/groundwater-control?topic=doctypes/information-sheets/info-sheet-foundations-sitework
  • Emrath, Paul. National Association of Home Builders. "Characteristics of Single-Family Homes Started in 2009." October 7, 2010http://www.nahb.org/generic.aspx?genericContentID=145984&fromGSA=1
  • Garber, Richard. Engineering Times. "Your Best 'Mold Insurance.'" January 2003http://www.nspe.org/resources/pdfs/Licensure/FTC/FTC-Jan-03-MoldInsurance.pdf
  • Handy American. "Installing a Roof Can Be Tricky-Consider Hiring a Roof Contractor"http://www.handyamerican.com/articles-roof-installation-roofers.asp
  • Lewis, Marilyn. "How to avoid buying a lemon" MSN Real Estate.http://realestate.msn.com/article.aspx?cp-documentid=13107861
  • Lstiburek, Joseph. Building Science. "Mold Explosion: Why Now?" January 1, 2007http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/published-articles/pa-mold-explosion-why-now/view?topic=resources/flooring-probs
  • McQueen, M.P. The Wall Street Journal. "Cracked Houses: What the Boom Built." July 13, 2009http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203872404574258531574049434.html
  • Nolo.com. "Toxic Mold: Who to Sue"http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/article-29622.html
  • Pulkkinen, Levi. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Owners sue Quadrant Homes over 'sick' houses." November 19, 2009http://www.seattlepi.com/local/412486_quadrant19.html
  • Roney, Maya. Bloomsberg BusinessWeek. "Foreclosure's building problem." August 22, 2007http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20393984/
  • State of Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. "Mold"http://www.dhss.mo.gov/IndoorAir/mold.html
  • Toy, Vivian S. The New York Times. "Your New Condo Leaks? Join the Club." October 23, 2009http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/realestate/25cov.html?_r=3
  • Ueno, Kohta. Building Geek. "Proper Technique for Flashing and Window Installation." August 6, 2007http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpqJxbk5qwc

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