Troubleshooters: Uncovering construction nightmare

Nydia Han Image
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
VIDEO: Stucco
Hundreds of homeowners claim a construction problem of epidemic proportions is tearing through homes in the Delaware Valley, leaving them with repairs costing into the six figures.

Hundreds of homeowners claim a construction problem of epidemic proportions is tearing through homes in the Delaware Valley, leaving them with repairs costing into the six figures.

It has to do with stucco. And if you have stucco on your home, pay attention.

No matter who your builder, no matter where you live - city or suburbs - your biggest financial investment could be a decaying dud, and you may not even know it. The failure is often invisible. No visible signs of water leaks or damage.

Time and time again, peeling back the stucco wall reveals rotting wood, mold and horrified homeowners.

"You never know what's underneath until you start taking it off like this," said Rich Sander of Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

"It makes my heart drop. It makes me sick to my stomach," said Nancy Fetrow of West Chester, Pennsylvania.

"It's not the stucco per se that's the problem. It's really truly what's underneath," said Gavin Semrow, Ai Restoration.

Experts tell Action News a combination of mistakes during construction, and the extremes of Northeast weather allow water to get trapped behind the stucco, causing the homes to rot all the way through.

"This is very dangerous," said inspector Kevin Thompson of The Green Valley Group.

"I've told people you need to move your family out. You need to keep your children out of those rooms," said Dr. Frank Hendron, building science consultant.

Homeowners in development after development claim stucco-related problems.

The homes were built by various builders including the region's biggest names.

Action News talked to the owners of 22 homes built by America's Luxury Home Builder, Toll Brothers.

"You should never, ever have to be in a position where you have to take down the entire outside of your house down to the studs and have it redone," said Rob Greer of Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.

"We're all handcuffed to these houses. We can't sell them," said Kathy Greer of Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.

Another big builder accused of this faulty construction? The David Cutler Group. Seventy-nine homeowners have filed against Cutler in a pending lawsuit.

And in one case, one couple was awarded more than $317,000 after alleging Cutler engaged "in a series of unlawful conduct in order to hide the home's significant water problems and avoid its promise and obligation to repair." Cutler is appealing.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General is also suing Cutler. And in its suit, the AG's office alleges Cutler failed to comply with building codes, a claim Cutler denies.

"I mean I knew there was damage, but this is beyond," said Mary Lou Sander of Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

And the repair cost for homeowners can be crippling.

"The remediations can range anywhere from ballpark $100,000 up to over $200,000, and you're not getting that money back," said Bob Rafferty of Glen Mills, Pennsylvania.

Homeowners tell us they alerted their builders to the problem months, even years ago, yet no fix, no money.

Many have even gone to court.

They tell us the builder has yet to step up and say they'll fix it, and they feel like the Toll Brothers is dragging its feet.

Last year, Toll Brothers itself estimated its potential liability for stucco-related repairs at $80.3 million.

"They admit there's a problem, then fix it. That's all we're asking," said Joe Hope of Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania.

Because left untreated, the condition worsens and spreads.

And this flaw isn't just destroying homes built years ago.

"No, we're seeing it on brand new construction. This epidemic is just going to continue. People are going to continue to fail until it gets stopped," said Dr. Hendron.

Toll Brothers released the following statement:

"Toll Brothers stands behind our homes with an extensive warranty. We are proud of being America's premier luxury homebuilder, the excellent customer service we provide and the manner in which we respond to our homeowner warranty claims.

With respect to the Toll homeowners featured in this 6abc story, we have met with each of them, reviewed their warranty claims, and they are satisfied with our plan to repair their homes. We have been responding to and working with our homeowners since we first became aware of these stucco related issues. While this process is complex and timeconsuming, we are moving through it as expeditiously as possible.

Like many other builders, we have concluded that stucco is a challenging building application for this climate, and, we have discontinued its use in this region. While we are disappointed when even one of our homeowners is dissatisfied, we are proud to have sold approximately 100,000 homes and that the overwhelming majority of our buyers recommend Toll Brothers to their friends and family.

As always, if any Toll Brothers homeowner has any questions about their home, they should visit"

Hundreds of homeowners claim a construction problem of epidemic proportions is tearing through homes in the Delaware Valley, leaving them with repairs costing into the six figures.

Toll Brothers also sent this statement to Action News, as well:

WEB EXTRA: If you feel you have a problem

Dr. Frank Hendron, a building science consultant at Northeast Inspection Corporation who chaired the committee that writes the standards that go into the building code, said the root of the problem is simple, "We don't inspect any of this, none of it is being inspected. The portion related to the stucco, the water management, the flashing details, the window installation, none of that is inspected in Pennsylvania."

Dr. Hendron said the state legislature must require those inspections in the building code. He said if that would happen then construction would stop until any code violations are corrected.

"They're not going to keep failing. They're not going to keep getting red-tagged. They're going to fix it," said Dr. Hendron.

Construction attorney Jennifer Horn of Horn Williamson, LLC represents 128 families dealing with what she calls defective stucco.

"We are just scratching the surface, and we are seeing family after family facing this issue," said Horn.

And Horn said stucco is not the only problem. She said homes with siding and faux stone can have the same flaws.

So what do you do if you believe your home has a problem? Horn said it is critical homeowners contact a construction attorney immediately. Many firms offer an initial consultation for free, "This is a major life investment. It is critical that families get outside consults from professionals, experts and attorneys outside of the builder so that their rights are protected."

You have 12 years, in some cases 14 years, in Pennsylvania to file a claim.

But there are other important legal deadlines that are critical not to miss.

Also Kevin Thompson of The Green Valley Group says be careful when hiring a stucco inspector or remediator. Currently stucco inspectors and remediators are not regulated and there is no required license.

- Look at someone's educational background

- Ask how many tests they've done

- Have they witnessed destructive testing?

Be aware the process can be costly, experts estimate an inspection for a standard 3,000-square-foot house to be $1,000-1,800.

There are two phases of testing, probe and destructive.

Probe testing yields moisture readings for a particular area. These results will identify if there is a problem, and if there are any areas that could become problems in the future.

Destructive testing actually peels back layers of the house to inspect the construction and determine the cause and extent of the damage. That could run $5,000-10,000.

Experts also strongly urge that homeowners use different people for the inspection and the actual remediation.

"It is a conflict of interest for someone fixing these issues to be out here testing. That should be a red flag, so if anyone is saying we're going to test your house and fix it, too, that's a big red flag. A lot of reputable firms when they're initially contacted will advise them to get their own independent test, figure this out first and then if you do need work, yes, we can help you fix it, but its best two keep those two separate," said Dr. Hendron.

And when it comes to getting repairs, called remediation, you need to hire the right person so you don't end up having to do it all over again. This is not a job for a general roofer or contractor. It is very specialized work.

Stucco remediator Gavin Semrow of Ai Restoration said it's also good to go with a certified installer.

"What happens with a certified installer is the manufacturer doesn't have to come out to make sure it's warrantied, so we're certified installers for anything we touch. So if we go and do this work we don't have to have the manufacturer come out here. We're certified to install it properly," said Semrow.

Semrow said on any project pay in increments. He charges 10 percent up front.

He also said a red flag is if your remediation plan does not include replacing the windows.

"We get a lot, a lot of contractors that say you don't need to pull and reset the windows. You basically take the stucco off, put siding on and you're good to go. It's hard, it's really difficult for me for doing this for 21 years to look at that and say you know my experience is the window, the flashing of the window is improper. I mean just about anybody can look at this and say the leaking is coming from underneath the windows," said Semrow.

Dr. Hendron says the last thing to remember is make sure that it's not just the damage that's being fixed, but also what caused that damage because that is the actual defect. Whoever fixes your home should be fixing the root cause of the damage. That can include things like the thickness of the stucco, how it's applied, the window flashing and much more.

Stucco Failures and Remediation.