With new construction back on track after a five-year slowdown, the time is ripe for updating our 2010 Brickunderground post on the most common construction defects buyers need to know about, including windows that don't work, defective wood flooring and more.
Why you should care
Obviously, no one wants to deal with intrusive, time-consuming repairs to a brand new home. But it's one thing when the developer steps up willingly to fix any problems; it's quite another to have to take the developer to court, which is why you should check whether the developer has any pending litigation for construction defects before you commit to buy.
"This is a red flag for any buyer for a number of reasons," says Robert Braverman, a real estate attorney at Manhattan-based Braverman Greenspun, whose firm is representing the five-year-old Setai Condominium in a $5 million lawsuit against the developer for construction defects including exterior issues, roof leaks, window problems and ventilation issues.
If your building winds up with substantial defects that the developer won't fix, you could face assessments for both the repairs and a six-figure lawsuit against the developer.
Your property values can also take a hit "from the negative perception that develops when a building is embroiled in protracted litigation," notes Braverman. Addtionally, a lawsuit can create financing difficulties in the building, meaning if you want to sell your place, you may be limited to all-cash buyers, potentially driving the sales price down.
And don't count on your homeowner's insurance policy to cover any of this.
"As a general rule, faulty construction is excluded from home owners policies, although some ensuing damage like a fire due to an improperly installed gas pipe might pass--it's a gray area," says apartment insurance broker Jeff Schneider of Gotham Brokerage.
Why there are so many problems with new construction
Just about every problem that occurs with new construction happens because “someone is trying to save money, be it the developer or contractor," says Jim Cicalo of FSI Architecture, whose firm is is retained by property managers, co-op and condo boards, and attorneys to investigate construction defects.
Also, he says, "some new developers do not recognize [the distinction between] good versus better."
Cicalo is generally optimistic, though. He says that when his firm is called in to carry out investigations, he's found that developers are usually eager to correct the problems.
“They want to build good buildings," says Cicalo. After all, their reputations hang in the balance. And, "of course, it’s always more expensive to fix something than it is to do it the right way the first time. “
Jon Colatrella, a project manager at Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, warns that some of the new greener technologies such as co-generation units (units that produce both energy and heat) may create new challenges as they are used more and more often in new development.
“It’s really too early to tell. We also need to keep an eye on some of the back up generators being installed in new buildings to withstand future storms like Sandy. I don’t anticipate many problems, but it’s worth watching," Colatrella said.
The 7 most common construction defects
Below, an updated checklist of common caveats for new and nearly new construction:
1. Facade leaks
These are still number one on the hit parade.
“As architects get more and more creative and unique with their designs, the likelihood of having window and exterior facade problems becomes far greater," says Braverman, the attorney, who has helped many condo boards work through defect problems with developers.
"Many of the construction defect cases I handle involve complex curtain wall systems that, while aesthetically pleasing with their sleek look and oversized windows, are comprised of thousands of component pieces," he says. "All you need is for a few of these pieces to fail because the piece itself is defective or improperly installed, and you’ll have a serious water infiltration issue which is often difficult to identify and repair.”
Cicalo agrees that exterior leaks are still significant problems in both new construction and restoration projects. He says that in most of the new construction he sees now, especially on the West Side of Manhattan, these issues are being addressed. Developers are generally getting smarter about doing them right the first time. Most of the problems his firm is seeing are in small properties built in Brooklyn three-to-five years ago.
2. Window leaks
“Usually when there are window leaks, the problem is due to faulty installation, “ says Cicalo. It’s not a good idea to have the developer’s contractors do the installation; professional installers are needed. Expensive details on new windows make installation more complicated than ever before.
Ivan Mrakovcic, an architect and survey expert at RAND Engineering and Architecture, adds that although the new windows are great to look at and out of, they need regular maintenance.
“The seals and gaskets need to be cleaned at least once a year, otherwise they will develop drafts and leaks," he says.
Accumulated grime is not a good seal against the elements. All window seals should be thoroughly vacuumed post-construction to remove any debris that might have settled there.
3. Wood floor problems
Natural wood expands and contracts over time. Wooden flooring must be acclimated to the building site before it is installed. If it is put down when damp, gaps can develop.
Small gaps the thickness of a dime are not a worry; gaps as thick as a quarter may be more of a concern. Engineered wooden floors--floors with a veneer of wood over a composite--may be subject to warping from moisture or, in a worst case scenario, mold.
Cicalo cites a nightmare case in a Brooklyn building where the entire undersurface of the floor was covered in mold, because the contractor had put plastic between the concrete and the wooden floors.
Often, facade leaks are what make floors warp and you’ll see the results of the leak on the floor before you’ll see it on the ceiling or the walls.
4. Fire-stopping deficiencies
According to Mrakovcic, recent RAND building surveys show that it is common for buildings to have localized problems with inadequate fire-stopping seals around pipes, conduits and ducts that go through fireproof floors and walls.
5. Ventilation/exhaust problems
This is often an issue in both the public areas of a building and in individual apartments. In common areas, a proper ventilation system may not exist at all or may not function properly. Anemometers are used to measure air flow in these areas.
New highrise buildings present a particular problem for ventilation/ exhaust systems, called the stack effect. These buildings are well sealed from the outside and when their heating systems are in use, hot air rises through the hallways and creates negative pressure, possibly pulling odors from one apartment to another, usually on the lower floors. This kind of problem, says Mrakovcic, is a real challenge for engineers to alleviate.
"Some airflow or odor problems can arise from clogged or incomplete duct systems," says Maria Vizzi of Indoor Environmental Solutions. "When our company does a video inspection of a duct, we sometimes find construction debris or a gap in the duct connection."
6. Inferior substitutions
Since offering plans don’t usually reveal the make and model of a particular feature, surveying engineers often find things aren’t quite as they were intended in the original plans for the building. Standard offering plans include a disclaimer that allows the developer to make changes that are of equal or better quality. Whether something is equal or better is a tricky point to have to make. Most substitutions are made simply because they are cheaper.
7. Useless warranties
Warranties are an even more worrisome problem than substitutions. Sometimes they are absolutely useless, as in a situation that Cicalo’s firm encountered.
“We were called in to examine a new building’s defective roof," he says. "The roof had a warranty. When we took a look at the company that gave the warranty, it turned out that it had less money available than what the repairs to the roof would cost, “
To protect against that kind of unpleasant surprise, Braverman advises prospective purchasers to “secure as much information as possible as to warranties that will be issued for the building’s structure and systems--such information is not always completely contained in the offering plan--and if possible find out if the developer has utilized these systems in other projects and with what degree of success.”