New construction corner


Loft buyers should not take the roofs over their heads for granted

Nothing beats a loft for rustic, romantic appeal. Dedicated loft lovers swoon over their units’ soaring timber beams or rough concrete columns. They delight in the idea of living in a building that has history and a slightly mysterious past life.

But if you want to live happily ever after in the loft of your dreams, you must first take a long hard look at the roof of your prospective home. Make sure there is no history, or mystery, to the roof over your head. You never should buy a loft in a building where the developer failed to replace the existing roof during the conversion process.

In the parlance of development, a “new roof” might simply mean the addition of a waterproof skin to an existing roof assembly. A “tear-off,” in which the existing roof has been stripped down to the deck boards and replaced with new insulation and a fresh roof, is far superior. Make sure that the loft development you’re considering has a new “tear-off roof,” and not just a “new roof.”Â

A new tear-off can last up to 20 years, but old roofs have shorter life spans. And when something goes wrong with an old roof, the new homeowners are prematurely saddled with the cost and inconvenience of replacing it.

The Chicago Building Code requires a developer to replace the existing roof on a building earmarked for conversion if the roof is already covered in three layers of roofing product or if the sheer weight of the roof overloads the roof rafters. I’d estimate that the developers of two-thirds of the new loft projects I’ve encountered as a home inspector failed to adhere to that standard. The building code requires developers of converted buildings to hire an engineer to inspect the roof and recommend repairs where necessary. In my experience, many developers don’t bother to follow that rule either, and the city doesn’t do a good enough job policing the quality of roofs.

My advice is to go one step further than the requirements of the Chicago Building Code and only buy a loft in a building that has a new tear-off roof. Roofs that have been patched over once are less durable than new tear-offs, and water can easily seep through the top layer to the original, aging roof and into the units below.Â

The cost of replacing the roof of a 20,000-square-foot loft building could exceed $250,000. In a building of 100 condos that means everyone might have to cough up $2,500 in a special assessment.

But even new tear-off roofs can create headaches if they aren’t properly installed, and buyers should ask themselves these questions when inspecting the roof of a prospective home:

Is the roof holding water? If so, the drainage system may be inadequate. Chimneys weigh roofs down, causing water to collect in saucer-like depressions. When the water freezes, its expansion causes the roof to tear. Check that there’s a drainage system located at the center of the roof of your prospective home.

Is mold or mildew visible in the units below the roof? This problem can arise when a contractor fails to correctly seal the roof around the building’s furnace flues, and water seeps into the roof. Contractors are supposed to use flashing – a flexible waterproof material – to seal flues. But some contractors (or developers, depending on who you want to blame) seal flues with caulking, tar or expandable foam, all of which tend to develop leaks.

Is the roof fortified to handle decks? If not, the added weight of decks – and snow, for that matter – will accelerate the deterioration of the roof. Recently, one of my clients bought a resale loft (which included an individual rooftop deck) on the top floor of a building that was converted fewer than 10 years ago. Multiple layers had been added to the original roof. This roof, like many on Chicago’s older buildings, was constructed from a material called pitch, which contains gravel. As the roof deteriorated, water and pieces of gravel fell through the timber ceiling of my client’s loft onto his expensive computer equipment and retro shag carpet. The resulting mold that developed in the unit triggered a lung condition in my client.

Before buying a loft, request a copy of the engineer’s building conversion report. Do yourself a favor; review it and avoid some heartache.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc. (312-475-0835), a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work. E-mail your construction questions to Tom at

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