Picture of Termite and water damage

The framing under a window sill

Termites and Water

Buyer Beware?

We have a client that we have been working with for some time here in the Tampa Bay area. Their story is truly a terrible one, certainly the worst that I have encountered in over 35 years of being a builder. It all started last summer when we got a referral to these folks because they were having some leak issues. Their home is located in one of the upscale (golf course) communities in Brandon, FL and it was constructed in 1998. I think that the home may have been a Parade of Homes house for the builder, but I am not certain of that. The home is a contemporary, very stylish and with a lot of curb appeal. It is a two story home, all frame with a stucco exterior and a roof that in places is flat. I am not certain of the history of the house, so I won’t talk about who built it or who owned it and what they may have done to the house.

The Adventure Begins

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At first, I thought that I was going to make an initial visit with a prospective remodel client. As we arrived at the house, I immediately noticed a lot of stucco apparently buckling and cracking, discolored areas that were clearly water damage, and paint pealing. When we were invited in, the home had a very impressive two story interior with curved walls, high end ceramics on the floors, and very modern details.  It was also obvious that there was a tremendous amount of drywall damage, mold stains, water stains all over the house, and literally some pans on the floor to catch drips. It would be hard to exaggerate the damage. Our client wanted to repair the exterior and stop the leaks. Neither he nor we knew the full extent of the problems.

Our client had a horror tale to tell us. A few years after they had purchased the home, they started to get leaks. They hired some roofing folks to come and take care of the problem. After various roof repair attempts without solving the problem and the cost escalating, they decided to try and make a claim on their homeowners casualty insurance. The insurance company sent an engineer, who, after a brief inspection, told them that the problem was due to a lack of maintenance and therefore not covered under their insurance. Shortly, their insurance company canceled their policy. No surprise there. They soon found that they couldn’t buy insurance for the home and, because they had to have insurance as a requirement from the mortgage lender, their lender placed the homeowner  insurance (only for the amount to cover the mortgage). The premium is astronomical and got tacked on to their monthly payment amount.

To sum up their dilemma, they can’t sell their home because no one would buy it with the leaks. They can’t buy insurance because they would have to disclose the leak problem and no insurance company would underwrite that risk. They can’t refinance because no mortgager company would make a loan with the leaking problem. Their mortgage payment has tripled to pay for insurance that won’t benefit them in case of a loss and meanwhile, the leaks are getting worse. The stucco is buckling all over the house, every room has leaks around windows, in ceilings, and discolored interior walls.

Of course, we were asked for an estimate of the cost to make repairs and so we returned the following day to try and open up some of the cracked areas plus make an investigation of the condition of the roof. As we opened a small place in the stucco where it had cracked, we saw black. Not black as in black building paper (which is what I was expecting), but black as in mildew and water damage. Pealing off more of the stucco, we were astound to see that the plywood sheating was buckled, covered with mildew, and in most places had completely delaminated, turned into flakes and we could pull it off with our fingers. There was no building paper under the wire lath. Rather, the builder had relied on a product that is intended as an air infiltration barrier – not a water barrier.

We opening the sheating and discovered most of the underlying studs were completely rotted with either mildew or obvious termite damage. The termite damage wasn’t recent and there was no obvious current infestation that we could see, but that is probably because there wasn’t much left for the termites to eat. There were clear places that repairs had been attempted, stucco patched and repainted.

As we continued to open the wall for inspection, it became very apparent that this damage was extreme and had affected the structural integrity of the home. There was no effective water barrier behind the stucco. When stucco is applied to the exterior of a frame structure, wire lath is stapled to the wood sheating. The wire lath has a black paper behind it and it’s purpose

Photo showing air infiltration barrier misapplied

Misuse of air infiltration barrier

is to prevent water, which naturally passes through the exterior stucco and paint, from reaching the underlying wood sheating. I’ve built many frame homes in Tampa, Brandon, Clearwater and Fort Myers using stucco as the exterior finish, but I have never trusted the paper attached to the wire lath to keep water out. WE build many two stories and usually these homes have a second floor which is frame construction covered with stucco. We have always used 30 lb. felt, lapped 4″, applied to the sheating before the lath. This adds some to the cost and isn’t code required, so many builders skip it or don’t question using just metal lath.

In this case, there was no felt paper under the lath, nothing wrapping the window and door openings and nothing but a little paint, some water loving stucco, and a little bit of lathing paper to protect the wood sheating. It hadn’t work at all. I began to wonder literally why the home hadn’t collapsed under it’s own weight. We told our client what we had discovered and that we were bringing our structural engineer to inspect the damage and help us formulate a solution.

Our Engineer Has Some Concerns

The following day we returned with our structural engineer. As we walked around the home it was clear that he was appalled. We could poke a screw driver through the stucco and through the plywood sheating easily in some places. Our conversation turned to how to rebuild the home because it was obvious that the walls that we had inspected where destroyed beyond repair. We decided that we could only safely tackle one side at a time. The question became, how do you demolish the entire side of a two story home, removing the entire supporting framing, drywall, wall insulation, electric wiring and in places plumbing piping, and then rebuild it? The roof could collapse, the floors could collapse, you could get a storm while the side of the home was exposed, the bad possibilities were seemingly endless.

We discussed our findings and proposed solutions with our client and suggested that he and his family move out of the home. They couldn’t afford to do that and pay for the repairs. They elected to stay in the home. Our client felt that he could afford to pay for only one side of the home at a time as he would have to accumulate the money over time to pay for the repairs.

The Work Begins

We start by pulling a building permit, getting a termite inspection and  tenting the house, getting our subcontractors lined up, materials on order, safety equipment on site and shoring materials on site. We had to support the floor and roof by building temporary walls underneath them. Then removing the damaged materials and rebuilding the walls, one section at a time. Each night we had to temporarily close up the open parts of the walls, protect the work from the weather and clean up the trash so that our work wasn’t a nuisance to the neighbors. I’m happy to report that the job is well along with two sides completed. Soon, we expect to start the rear of the home. We’re hoping that the damage there isn’t as extensive.

The Take Away

So what’s the point in telling you this story? There are lots of obvious things that our client could have done before he bought the home to avoid this problem. Probably a good home inspector would have caught the problem by noticing the previous repair attempts – but maybe not. To me, one of the important lessons in this sad tale is that somebody tried to save a few dollars when the home was being constructed – they didn’t know to or didn’t want to pay to place 30 lb. building paper under the wire lath to protect the plywood under the stucco. They relied on a product that was never meant to stop water infiltration. A little lack of knowledge by the builder or an attempt to save a little money ended up with a complete disaster to an unsuspecting family who now have no options but to pay for their home almost twice.