From faulty flashing to lousy lumber, watch for construction problems that cost

Tom Corbett

New Construction Corner

Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood has a rich cultural history and some wonderful housing stock. The quality of new construction is good overall, but an immense number of units have been constructed or rehabbed there in recent years. My growing number of visits to the area has revealed some of the recurring problems that I see at developments in other neighborhoods.

I recently inspected several multi-unit projects in Bronzeville, most between 39th and 51st streets, from King Drive to Drexel Boulevard. In the process, I looked at about 40 units, performing detailed inspections on about 10 of them. I also did a thorough analysis of the common areas.

Many of the problems I found are more cosmetic than structural, but they all cost money to fix. If you’re in the market for new construction in Bronzeville – or any Chicago neighborhood – it’s worth keeping your eyes open for the following defects:

Missing “flashing” and “weep holes.” Since masonry isn’t completely waterproof, builders must take certain steps to prevent moisture from seeping into the building and damaging walls. Any building constructed since 1970 should have rubber, plastic or metallic “flashing,” a protective skirt that curves around joints to protect against moisture. When water does get through a wall, it collects on the flashing and is released through “weep holes,” small openings in the masonry. These holes are most obvious at the top of the foundation wall.

If your building does not have flashing to protect against water, or weep holes to let it escape, its susceptible to water damage and possibly mold. In about a dozen of the units I inspected, flashing wasn’t installed properly.

Cracked or split masonry. Check the building’s concrete or masonry foundation. If you find cracks wide enough to fit a business card, water will be able to seep in and mold may grow. I found this to be a pervasive problem in the properties I inspected. And make sure the builder hasn’t used “unsealed split-face block,” made from concrete that is split as it hardens. A city ordinance outlaws it, since it also allows water seepage.

The absence of exit signage and emergency lighting. Buildings with five or more units are required to have signs instructing you how to exit the building in the event of an emergency and lights so that you can see your way out. Of the complexes I inspected, only one complied with these rules.

Poor lumber used for trim around doors and windows. You can spot low-quality lumber by its sharp edges or rough, sawdusty texture. This won’t harm life or limb (besides the odd splinter), but it will lower the resale value of your unit. Look for wood trim made from “clear pine” or a “clear lumber,” which is more durable because it’s free of knots. Check the blueprints to see what kind of wood the builder was required to use.

Ill-fitting doors and windows. Problems with energy efficiency and water damage can often be traced to the installation of doors and windows. Look for water stains above and around these openings. A brown stain in the trim can mean that water is present and needs to be drained.

Thresholds at the bottom of doors are another place where water and the elements come into the building and heat escapes. Some condominiums require that this area remain open for air circulation. Check the blueprints. If this area has been closed off even though it’s required to be open, the condominium may develop negative air pressure, sucking poisonous furnace gasses back into the unit.

Poor drywall and finish work. All of the buildings I’ve inspected in Bronzeville recently have failed the U.S. Gypsum drywall test: get the brightest flashlight you can find and aim it not directly at the wall but across it, creating about a six-foot arc of light. The wall’s surface should not look rough or uneven, and there should be no dents.

The industry standard for new construction involves adding four coats of topping compound to drywall and sanding in between each coat. The area should then be wiped dry and covered with one coat of primer and two coats of paint. Skimping on these steps can cost you, since professionally painting a new house can easily run from $10,000 to $20,000.

Whatever problems you encounter, make sure you work out with the developer how they’ll be fixed before you plunk down your earnest money.

Tom Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc., a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work. E-mail your construction questions to Tom at Inspection@Tomacor.com.

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