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Builder shortcuts hazardous to new homes
Sunday, 29 September 2002

Faulty construction, mold-attracting materials, builder shortcuts hazardous to new homes Willard and Cinda Thomas say their dream house almost killed them. Only four years after moving into the 3,000-square-foot model home in Keller, Cinda had joint pain to the point where she could barely walk. Willard became weak, depressed, asthmatic and arthritic...Mold may be the last thing home buyers think of on moving day. But home inspectors and some homeowners have found that new homes are not exempt from sometimes devastating mold infestation. Faulty building techniques, builder shortcuts during the construction boom and some materials that serve as food for mold are being blamed for mold moving into some new homes as fast as the new owners do.

Dangers Within

Faulty construction, mold-attracting materials, builder shortcuts hazardous to new homes
Posted on Sun, Sep. 29, 2002
Andrea Jares / Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Willard and Cinda Thomas say their dream house almost killed them.

Only four years after moving into the 3,000-square-foot model home in Keller, Cinda had joint pain to the point where she could barely walk. Willard became weak, depressed, asthmatic and arthritic.

They trace the source of their problems to errors they say the builder made. A piece of weatherproofing left off allowed water to leak in a closet wall. Air holes in exterior walls blocked by the soil in the flower beds cut the air circulation that could have dried the moisture rotting the walls and fed the rapid growth of black mold.

They didn't notice the mold until it had probably festered inside the walls for several more years.

They repaired that house and put it up for sale. And they're not taking any chances with the new house they're having built: It will have alarms inside the wall to alert them when there is a water leak, just like a burglar alarm.

"If the mold gets going, it's going to cost more than a burglary," he said.

Mold may be the last thing home buyers think of on moving day. But home inspectors and some homeowners have found that new homes are not exempt from sometimes devastating mold infestation.

Faulty building techniques, builder shortcuts during the construction boom and some materials that serve as food for mold are being blamed for mold moving into some new homes as fast as the new owners do.

Some blame construction companies for building with damp wood and insulation after a rainstorm, or drywall that uses recycled paper and acts as a mold incubator. They also blame a hastened and harried construction pace in times of record home sales and skilled labor shortages.

Mold has also played havoc with the Texas insurance industry, causing leaps in premiums and accusations that specious health claims and fly-by-night remediation companies are driving costs through the roof.

Last week, Farmers Insurance said it will drop 700,000 homeowners when their policies expire because of massive water damage and mold claims, as well as regulatory action by the state regarding alleged deceptive and discriminatory trade practices.

Caught somewhere in the middle, this issue has captured the full attention of the Texas Association of Builders. In the past 10 months, the group has drafted legislation that is expected to tighten building standards and form a building standard commission.

Builders are becoming more aware of mold-resistant building practices, said Vincent M. Torres, associate director of the Texas Institute for the Indoor Environment.

"No one can build a mold-free home," Torres said. "What you don't want is active mold growth."

As insurance companies wrestle with the rising costs of ridding houses of mold -- and health experts debate how much exposure to commonly occurring mold is dangerous to a resident's health -- builders are attempting to develop mold-resistant techniques that would make the other debates moot.

Mold may, or may not, be a bona fide health hazard. But its underlying cause -- constant moisture in a dark enclosure -- can destroy a house from within, rotting wood, devouring the paper on Sheetrock and the glues that hold together particle board and other materials.

Mold and rot are taking over a McKinney home purchased seven years ago for $700,000. The walls are now being ripped off because synthetic stucco was applied incorrectly, said Scott Franklin, a Dallas housing inspector specializing in product failure.

The framing of the house is rotting because water was trapped behind the flawless-looking synthetic stucco, he said.

The house was appraised in August at $60,000, Franklin said. He estimates that it needs about $450,000 in repairs. The house is part of a lawsuit that Dallas lawyer Brent Crumpton is organizing against synthetic stucco manufacturers.

"This gentleman was living in this home while this was going on and he had no idea," Franklin said.

Aubrey and Jeannette Whitehead were having a home built in Mansfield when they noticed that the lumber the builder was using, which had been stored outside in rainy weather, had a black growth on it.

The Whiteheads tangled with the builder, having the company replace specific pieces, until the builder released them from their contract. They figured that was the best option because they were unable to reach agreement. They say that whoever ended up buying the house would not see what they said was problem wood.

"As it goes up and gets Sheetrock on it, you can never tell," said Aubrey Whitehead.

But the mold issue is multifaceted, and tighter building practices are only part of the solution, said Kosse Maykus of Maykus Custom Homes, president of the Fort Worth Home Builders Association.

"You can't look at any one part of any one thing and think it is the magic dust that is going to stop moisture," Maykus said. "It is a whole menu of things."

That could include more consumer education on home care, such as cleaning air filters to reduce condensation.

The Richardson family of Austin moved out of their 2,800-square-foot Hill Country house just five weeks after moving in, complaining of nosebleeds, headaches and other maladies.

"I would wake up in the middle of the night not able to breathe," said Dawn Richardson. "The baby was falling over. I was dropping dishes."

The mold still infests their lives even after the family moved to an apartment. All of their possessions were deemed mold-contaminated by their insurer and had to be left in the house. They are still paying their mortgage for a house where they say they can't live as they fight with their builder over responsibility.

Some say that the building materials industry has been slow to offer mold-retardant products.

But more than that, it's owners and builders looking to cut corners that opens the door for mold, said Mishko Teodorovich, an Austin builder who teaches about mold-resistant materials, design and construction practices at Texas Tech University .

"It's really surfaced due to the overall intent to build the cheapest possible way," said Teodorovich, who said that his argument holds despite the price of the house.

Fungi are drawn to the natural cellulose fibers of particle board, paper drywall casing and in insulation backing, Teodorovich said. Improper placement of a vapor barrier in a house can cut air circulation, and a lack of weep holes stifles drainage in the masonry, both factors that can lead to mold growth.

"It's like building a candy home and putting it in front of a school," he said.

Teodorovich said the mold issue needs to be addressed by the Legislature, making specific rules for building practices that will curb mold growth.

Another problem is the builders working too fast because of the unprecedented demand for new houses, Torres said. Many builders have had trouble finding the skilled labor needed, he said. In the rush, lumber sometimes is not dried completely, contributing to mold growth when put inside of walls, Torres said.

The mold issue has been a widespread concern throughout the construction industry, said Jack Merry, spokesman for APA - Engineered Wood Association, which represents businesses that make plywood, oriented strand board and laminated wood.

Mold has been the topic of meetings and seminars. The Engineered Wood Association has information about building practices that resist mold on its Web site and have held demonstrations of these practices for builders.

"The problem really is that moisture is getting in because of the way products are installed," Merry said.

Also challenging builders are the more airtight houses that evolved after the energy crisis in the 1970s, Merry said.

"Mold grows everywhere, even in dust on glass," Merry said.

Maykus said the mold issue has had some changes to his business. Besides attending mold seminars and joining the Texas Association of Builders' task force on mold, his company has a new policy on moisture-related calls from homeowners.

"We react just like their house is on fire," he said.

Builders are taking mold more seriously, said Gary Bryne, who owns a mold-testing company, Airtech.

"It used to be the homeowner would complain and the builder just kind of ignored it," Bryne said. "Nowadays they're not doing that."

Not all builders are convinced that mold is a hazard. But Bryne said some builders are now more likely to ask for mold testing so that a mold problem can be taken care of before it spreads and becomes more expensive to fix.

"Most builders are not looking to ignore the problem, they're trying to resolve problems as quickly and efficiently as possible," Bryne said.

But all builders have incentives for building quality, more mold-resistant homes.

"We truly want to be part of the solution and the customer is ultimately who we answer to," Maykus said. "If I do a crummy job, they won't call me."

Some guides to protecting against mold growth.

  •  Suggestions for better building practices from the Engineered Wood Association, formerly the American Plywood Association: www.apawood.org, click on "design/build," and then click on "Build a Better Home."Mold and health information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/nceh/airpollution/mold
  • National Association of Home Builders information on mold, how to prevent it and what to do when you see it: www.moldtips.org
  • Home Owners for Better Building , www.hobb.org, documents homeowner nightmares after the house is built and watches for regulatory developments that affect new-home buyers.

Proposed legislation

The Texas Association of Builders plans to propose several legislative remedies to guard against building practices that can contribute to moisture buildup, causing mold growth.

  • Establish a state commission that will create performance and warranty guidelines, and educate consumers about buying a new home and maintenance. The commission would deal with post-construction performance issues. The commission would have six members from the building industry, two public members and a professional engineer. All would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
  • Builders or homeowners who have a dispute can appeal to a state-created inspection and resolution commission. The organization will appoint a code-certified inspector to resolve the issue.
  • Establish performance standards modeled after the existing homeowner guarantee standard language.
  • In disputes, homeowners would follow the guidelines in the still-to-be-created Residential Construction Liability Act before going to court or arbitration.    

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