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This New House

On getting it right the first time.



Lately, in our little home-inspection business, we've been checking out a lot of spanking-new houses. If you ask me, this is a good trend. It means new-house buyers are getting savvy, and they're showing appropriate skepticism when they hear the promises that the house passed a codes inspection and is guaranteed. (Reminder: They all pass codes inspections, and the guarantees don't kick in unless the house has heinous problems.)

From what I've seen, it looks like just about every local builder makes the same set of mistakes in new-house construction. When I say mistakes, I'm not talking about a few blemishes on the walls or a door that won't quite latch. I'm talking about dead-obvious building-code violations -- stuff you could see from a running horse. Understand: A house built to conform with the building code isn't something special. It's the worst house a contractor can build legally. If a house falls a little short of the building code, that doesn't make it an A-minus house. More like an F, or, if you want to be kind, an I for Incomplete.

Oddly enough, most of the common violations we find -- we call 'em the "fish in a barrel" -- could be avoided with just a little planning and effort. So I'm going to try to explain right here and now how to cure some of these things. I'm doing it for two reasons: First, because I think people ought to get what they pay for when they buy a new house; second, because I'm appropriately lazy. I want the builders to get these details right, and I want the codes inspectors to enforce the building code, so I can quit explaining the same things all the time.

So, you builders: Do it for yourselves, do it for the homebuyers, but most importantly, do it so I can knock off work earlier. Try my hints below. Pretty please with sugar on it.

Get the grading right. If you don't, water will get into the basement or crawl space, mold and fungus will grow, and foundation walls could settle.

Getting the grading right should not be hard. All you have to do is get the dirt around the house to drop six inches in the first 10 feet. If you can't eyeball it, screw a level to a straight 10-foot board and stick a six-inch leg on one end of the board. Now you have a real-enough grade-checking stick.

Don't forget: Plan ahead to make sure the concrete pad for the heat-and-air equipment doesn't have to go in a low spot. And don't put the access hatch for the crawl space in a low spot. That just about guarantees water in the crawl space.

Get the weep holes and flashings in the brick veneer right. If you don't, the structural wood parts behind the brick might just rot out or grow a crop of toxic mold. I know, I know. The bricklayers don't know how to put in weep holes and flashings. Here's how you fix that: Go to the Journal of Light Construction Web site at Search for the article "Keeping Water Out of Brick Veneer" by Jerry Carrier. In this article, Carrier explains in vivid detail exactly how to install weep holes and flashings. You'll have to pay five dollars for the article. That's a steal. The article will show you how to do the job right, once and for all.

Flash the decks. Every now and then, a deck falls off a house. Most of the time, it's because the connection between the deck and the house wasn't flashed.

Best I can figure, decks go unflashed because they're built after the outside of the house is finished. Here's an easy cure: Have your carpenters put up the deck ledger boards -- and flash them -- as part of the rough framing. That way, the flashed ledger is sitting there waiting when the never-saw-flashing-in-their-lives deck boys show up for work.

Fix those bathroom vents. One of these days, the sorry tradition of running cheap-ass dryer vents from the bathroom fans to the soffits is going to cause a house to develop a bad case of rot or grow a big crop of mold.

Here's what you do: Get the roofers to install vent hoods as part of the shingling job. Then, get the heat-and-air guys to run real metal duct from the vent hoods to the bathroom fans.

Now, you codes enforcers, listen to me: You're going to have to schedule at least one more inspection to check the weep holes and flashing in the brick veneer. If you ask me, there ought to be one inspection dedicated to flashings -- roof flashings, chimney flashings, window and door flashings, and brick-veneer flashings. Y'all are smart men. You can figure out how to do this.

You can check the rest of this stuff during your normal inspections. You know what to look for: dirt that slopes away from the house, flashing at the deck ledger, bathroom vents run through real metal ducts to the exterior.

Finally, please stop playing nice. Everybody knows it's hard to fix something after it's already screwed up. That shouldn't stop you from making builders fix things when you know they're wrong. Make 'em fix the fish in a barrel a few times, and they'll start getting things right.

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