Seven sins to watch for in new-construction condos

Tom Corbett New Construction Corner

I recently completed my 650th inspection of a new-construction condominium and found seven problems that significantly affected habitability and safety. Unfortunately, the deficiencies I discovered in this condo were typical of the problems I find in many of the new condos, townhouses and single-family homes that I inspect.

The arc-fault circuit interrupters were missing from the bedroom circuits. Arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCI) are designed to detect arcing or sparking problems in electrical wiring and cut off the power when they occur, preventing a fire. Federal standards and Chicago’s building code mandate that all bedrooms must be protected by ACFIs, but these lifesaving devices are often overlooked.Â

The cold air return for the condo’s furnace was open at the mechanical room wall. Furnaces are little more than simple box fans that suck on one side and blow on the other. They do this over a heat exchanger that is usually warmed with gas heat – and there’s the rub. Gas heat, which needs oxygen for combustion, can produce poisonous exhaust in the form of carbon monoxide if you remove some, or all, of the oxygen (or just the air in the room) from the burning gas. In this case, the builder simply left open the sucking portion of the furnace, called the “return,” next to the exhausting flue gas. The furnace turned on, but the poisonous gas couldn’t escape because the return pulled it back into the breathing space. The same open return was sucking the air out of the cramped furnace room, competing with the standing furnace flame for air. The fan motor always wins this battle, so the return air duct will pull the needed combustion air from the mechanical room, starving the flame of the oxygen it needs and circulating carbon monoxide in the living space.

Flashing and weep holes were missing at the doors, windows and other critical areas. Flashing acts like a stretched-out skirt to collect water driven through the brick wall, while weep holes in the flashing send the water back out to the building’s exterior. When there are no weep holes or flashing, water becomes trapped behind the brick and eventually moves into the drywall, creating mold and mildew.

A deck was installed above an unfinished roof. Now the roof can’t be completed and waterproofed until the deck is removed. The resulting leaks are due to poor quality control and mismanagement of contractors’ schedules. If you have already moved into the unit, this becomes a problem that you have to resolve with your fellow condo association members.

The eight fireplace flues were producing exhaust at a level that could be felt on the deck. This common problem is a variation on our previous theme. The new deck needs to be completed before the fireplace guys can come back and raise the chimneys. When raised, they will need to be stabilized so that the wind won’t knock them over.

The hardwood floors only had one coat of sealant. When I removed the wooden heat register from the floor and examined the back of it, I could tell by the layers of sealant drips there that only one layer had been used on the wood floor. Three coats of sealant is the industry standard. Our clients and their pets will have walked through this floor finish within two years, and then they will have a repair job that will be expensive and disruptive.

The wall and ceiling paint were of poor quality. I asked the homebuyer to place her hand on the finished wall and the resulting smudge could not be removed, a sure sign of a shoddy paint job. Don’t let the developer tell you that paint quality is an aesthetic issue, outside the scope of an inspection. Poor paintwork is a serious deficiency on the part of the developer.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc., a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work.

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