Gotta Dig Deep
New-house problems show up where you least expect 'em.
By Walter Jowers
JULY 26, 1999: When people hire me and co-inspector Rick to inspect a spanking-new house, it's usually because they've found something that makes 'em worry. Here's what's funny about that: People worry about the same things over and over again, and the things they worry about usually turn out to be no big deal. Here's what's funnier yet: The stuff that new-house buyers aren't the least bit worried about--those are the things that usually turn out to be all screwed up.
Number-one complaint of new-house buyers: a crooked bathroom wall. Crooked-wall spotters, listen to me: New houses are full of crooked walls. You just notice the ones in the bathrooms because bathrooms are small and brightly lit, and the geometric patterns in floor and wall tile tip you off to the crooked parts.
When people see crooked walls, their common sense tells 'em that there's some big structural problem. That makes sense, of course, because every derelict building gets plenty crooked before it falls down. In our part of the world, most people have watched an old barn sag and lean and settle slowly into the ground.
But we're talking about new houses here, not old barns. Most of the time, a crooked wall in a new house just means there's a warped stud or two in the wall. Sure, the carpenters should've noticed it and fixed it. Sure, the wallboard crew did notice it, but they're not carpenters, and they're not going to stop work and wait for the carpenters to come back. So new houses end up with crooked walls. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a little bump or dip in a new wall is purely an aesthetic problem, not a structural problem.
Of course, if a slightly crooked wall is going to drive you nuts, you can try to get the builder to take the wall apart and straighten it out. But if he refuses, you shouldn't stay up nights worrying that the house is going to fall down.
Number-two complaint of new-house buyers: squeaky floors, usually in carpeted bedrooms. Squeaky floors, like crooked walls, make people think the house is going to fall down. With very rare exceptions, squeaks are just an annoyance and not an indication of a structural problem.
Here's how it works: Under the carpet, there's subfloor. The subfloor is nothing more than sheets of plywood or strandboard, butted up to each other and nailed to the floor framing. The edges of the subfloor rub against each other, and that makes the floor squeak. It is fairly easy to make squeak-proof floors. All you need is two layers of tongue-and-groove subfloor, glued and screwed into place, rather than nailed. Of course, these details cost a little more, so you'll never see 'em in a production-line house.
Now, let me tell you new-house buyers what you really ought to be worrying about. Number-one recurring problem with local new houses: bad roof framing. I don't have any hard data on this, but I feel safe saying that there are more first-rate brain surgeons in Nashville than there are competent framing carpenters.
Rooflines on modern houses are steep and complicated. Just laying out the rafters and beams requires a better-than-average math head. Putting all the parts in place means working from ladders and scaffolds, or, more likely, wobbling along on a few bouncy 2-by-10s. Framing a fancy modern roof is a real test of skill, brains, athleticism, and work ethic.
I'm sad to say, a whole lot of crews don't measure up. From what I've seen in the last year or two, the average framing crew works like a couple of kids building a treehouse--they just make it up as they go along and use whatever parts they have on hand. I've seen roofs where dozens of rafters miss the ridges by a half-inch or more. I've seen pre-engineered roof truss systems--which are never supposed to be modified without an engineer's specific instructions--cut up and reassembled like some Bizarro Erector set. I predict that the next time we get a foot of snow, a lot of roofs are going to fall in.
Number-two recurring problem: bad flashing. Flashing is the sheet metal that keeps rain from coming in around the chimney, skylights, windows, and doors. Good sheet metal workers are vanishingly rare. Right now, if somebody gave you 24 hours to come back with either the contents of King Kong's scrotum or an excellent sheet metal worker, you might as well just pack up a deer knife and a safari hat and start looking for giant ape footprints.
I offer this as proof: Since at least 1992, the building code has required that roof-to-wall joints be flashed by the step-flashing method, which is far superior to the lame continuous-flashing method. But what do you see on most new local houses? Continuous flashing, that's what. Because it's cheap and easy, and the local codes inspectors don't enforce the code.
Since 1995, the code has required brick-veneer walls to have properly flashed weep holes, to keep water out of the wall cavities. I have yet to see this on a new local house.
So, new-house buyers, it's not the crooked walls and squeaky floors that'll get you. It's the fragile frame of the house and the leaky flashing.
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