Hypochondriac homeowners. Turn-tail insurance agencies. Opportunistic attorneys. Have construction-defect lawsuits made your world seem like a hostile place? Here's hope: Most litigation springs from a handful of easily avoidable construction errors. So put on your hard hat and grab your moisture meter. It's time to change the rules.

In April of this year, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens signed into law Colorado House bill 1161, limiting the amount of money homeowners can win from builders when they sue for construction defects. Similar legislation has passed in California and, more recently, Nevada, where builders now have a legal "right to repair" before owners can sue over defects.

These new legal speed bumps may woo lawsuit-wary insurance agencies back into the home builder camp. But you can bet that the thousands of plaintiff attorneys, expert witnesses, and foundation-repair companies that make their living on the backs of construction failures will be looking for an alternate route back to the big money.

The only way for builders to keep defect chasers at bay, say construction experts such as Alan Mooney, president of Criterium Engineers, a consulting firm based in Portland, Maine, is to cut off lawsuits at their source: poorly trained laborers, untested products, and a reliance on what he calls "just enough design"--which requires near perfect installation.

Problem: Movement of retaining wall.
Problem: Movement of retaining wall.

"We've looked at more than 700,000 homes [nationally] since 1998," Mooney says, "and what we've found is that construction quality is not directly related to price. A lot of times, the builder is trying to do a good job but doesn't know what to pay attention to."

Criterium's national network of engineers (67 offices) spent several months collecting anecdotal examples of housing construction defects for BUILDER. The good news: Almost all can be rectified with a modest effort at the right stage of construction.

Foundations: That sinking feeling

"We're building on sites that 20 years ago we wouldn't have touched," notes Mooney. In one part of the footprint, the soil may be fine; in another, there may be serious problems.

"One common mistake we're seeing is a detached garage built on a separate foundation from the house," he adds. "[In that circumstance] differential settlement is extremely likely."

As a solution for sloping sites, builders often erect retaining walls that are not properly reinforced and designed (see "Field Report: Retaining-Wall Failure," page 140).

"Foundation problems are on the rise," notes Stan Luhr, building expert and president of Pacific Property Consultants in Santee, Calif. "Often, the slabs are not thick enough; we see problems with the placement and use of steel, due to a lack of education among workers."

A sinking foundation often manifests in separation at the ridge beam.
A sinking foundation often manifests in separation at the ridge beam.

Luhr also blames one-size-fits-all building codes (regarding foundations) for aggravating indoor moisture woes.

"In hot, humid climates, for example, ventilating crawl spaces does more harm than good," he says. "You invite humidity and mold problems. A better approach is to keep the area closed and semiconditioned."

By "semiconditioned," Luhr means allowing a small amount of leakage from HVAC ducts. When ducts run through a crawl space, he says, modest leakage keeps the humidity from getting too high. Of course, bare soil must be sealed with a good-quality vapor barrier. Otherwise, the drying effect of leakage may not suffice. "That simple system really eliminates mold problems," Luhr says.

Structure: The slack factor

New structural products and methods have removed the safety net for framing crews, Mooney says. "For example, wood trusses are 'just-enough' products: If you don't nail them exactly as required, they won't survive [under stress]."

"Another big difference in newer homes is the loss of stiffness [in floors and walls]," Mooney continues. "When a building has flex, you reduce its service life. But we continue to compromise on stiffness. Buildings used to have knee braces; then, balloon framing came along. First, we had diagonal planks for sheathing, and now we have plywood."

Plywood (oriented strand board or OSB), of course, has plenty of shear strength, but because panels are large, excessive cutting of any one panel can reduce shear strength in a wall. In addition, says Mooney, a large number of fasteners often go astray--in part because nail guns don't offer the same self-correcting feedback as the handheld hammers of yesterday.

"I've seen whole lines of nails that missed the mark," Mooney says. As a result, walls may rack out of plumb, and siding looks uneven. In some cases, windows and doors become jammed.

Poorly consolidated concrete results when installers forgo vibration.
Poorly consolidated concrete results when installers forgo vibration.

Water Woes: A poor defense Many water-related defect cases result from simple design and assembly errors, notes Luhr, including shallow overhangs and out-of-plumb walls. Other problems are sown during installation.

For example, both Luhr and Mooney frequently encounter unflashed vinyl windows and new siding (vinyl and fiber cement) installed directly over OSB sheathing.

"In Colorado, we found out that a salesperson from one of the fiber-cement companies had been telling builders that they didn't need building paper behind the siding," notes Luhr. "Before long, builders are doing it all over the place, even though it's a ridiculous practice."

"As an industry, builders need to get away from anecdotal home building and stop operating without scientific data and research," Luhr says. But part of the blame, he adds, falls on manufacturers' shoulders.

Products: Guessing games

Diagonal drywall cracking at doorways indicates excessive foundation movement.
Diagonal drywall cracking at doorways indicates excessive foundation movement.

"Manufacturers should figure out how their products have to blend in and be compatible with other products long before they sell them to the builder," Luhr says.

"We're using the house as a laboratory," Mooney concurs, "selling products [of which] we're not sure how they will perform over 10 or 15 years. Class-action lawsuits result from this kind of approach. That's what happened with fire-resistant plywood, for instance. It was pushed into the market without adequate testing."

Luhr offers other examples. "Early vinyl extrusions didn't have a stucco reveal, so you had leakage. Aluminum sliding doors deteriorated when placed on alkaline concrete slabs. You need to ask which manufacturers have done accelerated weather testing."

Another issue: hidden changes in familiar products.

"Today's particle board and oriented strand board [OSB] are not the same products they were a few years ago," Luhr contends. "There's much less resin used. But manufacturers don't care what happens when OSB gets wet, because it's not supposed to get wet. In the real world, of course, it sometimes rains for 17 days straight and everything gets wet. And nobody knows how long the latest OSB will last [in the field]."

Labor: Lost linkages

"You don't have a carpenter on a jobsite anymore," notes Luhr. "You have a person who plates the house, another one who fabricates stairways, other people who stick-frame but don't line and level. These may be dedicated employees but they don't know the whole trade. As a result, they can walk right by a shear panel that isn't nailed and not notice it."

At the same time, he notes, building plans are becoming more complex, but most of the people in the field can't even read them.

"Some of the big builders are hiring project managers right out of college who have no prior experience with construction," Luhr adds. "More and more, you have builders relying entirely on their trade contractors for all of the construction knowledge of the home. They haven't kept pace."

"Builders need to become their own world-famous, competent experts on what they do," he continues. "When you walk into a Boeing plant, if a wing doesn't fit on the airplane, they don't call some outside contractor to come fix it. They have a fully trained person in the building to do the job."

Expectations: Lowering the bar

The home buyer of today must be disavowed of the mistaken notion that a house can be perfect, Mooney says.

"People are less willing than ever to settle out of court," he says. "They enter the litigation process having done a remarkable amount of research. One guy [we dealt with] actually measured the slope of his sewer line."

"There's no such thing as a one-year warranty," adds Luhr. "Builders need to recognize these are customers for life. And as the insurance industry retracts, [builders] are becoming their own insurance entities ... so they are now in the claims business. It's possible to get a 95 percent reduction in construction defects, but only if the builder understands the process completely and has a dedicated process."