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Andy Wojtowski

Improper Stone Installation

A special guest, Yvonne, joins the show to talk about her experience with failed stone veneer siding throughout a townhome development in the Twin Cities metro area. These are some real concerns that are going to cost people a lot of money.

Yvonne talks about how she started suspecting that there was a problem in their townhome. A problem that started from one of the units’ conditions that might be replicated across other units. She then found out the improperly installed masonry stone veneer in their unit has been a problematic material all over the country, and most people aren’t aware of this.

She then concludes with how important it is to consider having moisture intrusion testing on products like stone veneers done by an experienced home inspector.

Reuben then talks about the industry-standard all across the country on how to do testing on walls, how water-resistant barriers work, and its proper installation.

TRANSCRIPTION

The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

Yvonne: We are working from home all day and we’re dealing with improperly installed masonry stone veneer. It appears like this is a prevalent problem across the country.

Bill Oelrich: Welcome, everybody. You’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. As always, the what?

Reuben Saltzman: Three-legged stool.

BO: Yes, we are now the three-legged stool. It’s antique. It’s really cool, kinda funky. It’s got some scars on it but it is still a three-legged stool.

Tessa Murry: I don’t know where that came from. [chuckle]

BO: I don’t know. I don’t know but it’s stuck. So welcome everybody to today’s episode. We have a special guest on the line today, her name is Yvonne, and she is here to talk to us about invasive moisture testing. And we’re gonna dig into a very specific situation in a very specific community here, somewhere around the Twin Cities metro area. And Yvonne’s gonna tell us her experience with invasive moisture testing and she really wanted to bring to light some concerns. These are real, true concerns that are going to cost people real, true money. And so, I just wanna preface this whole conversation that we are not going to use anybody’s real name, we are not gonna talk about any real addresses, but they are real. And we’re just trying to protect the innocent and/or guilty, depending on which part of this equation you fall into. Reuben, why don’t you go ahead and give a little background here just in case I missed anything.

RS: Sure. Well, Yvonne and I had traded a few emails after we had done the moisture testing. She had reached out to me with some questions like, “Hey, I’ve got these pictures, do you mind if I send them to you? Because I had somebody to come out and say, ‘Well, this really isn’t even a big deal.’ You see this huge post that’s holding up the middle of the house, well, my association had an “engineer” come out and say that, ‘It’s not load-bearing.'”

[laughter]

TM: Oh, no.

RS: And Yvonne knew how ridiculous this was too, but she’s like, “Can you just weigh in on this?” And I started asking her some questions saying, “Now, wait, I don’t even see it in our database. How did we end up doing moisture testing for you? What’s the backstory?” And Yvonne sent one of the most entertaining emails we’ve ever received.

Yvonne: Oh, thank you.

RS: I had to share this with the rest of my team, and we got a good kick out of your email Yvonne and we started chatting and were like, “Man, she would be an awesome podcast guest. We gotta have her on just to share the story.”

Yvonne: Oh, thank you, Reuben.

RS: Yeah, so here we are. That’s setting a little bit more of the stage from my perspective, but why don’t you tell us what happened.

Yvonne: Well, I only agreed to do this because I believe in what you’re trying to do with education and educating the public. To me, this is the difference between a chef who chooses to go on the Food Network and a chef who goes on PBS. To me, you’re on PBS and you are trying to educate people, and this is a teachable moment, what we’re living through. And I believe in consumer protections, I believe in being educated homeowners. You’ve talked about running your house like a business and home maintenance. And so what we, we as in my boyfriend and I… I have to set the stage for you.

Yvonne: So I sold my home and I moved in with him at the end of February, right at the beginning of the pandemic. I moved in, so we are two people in a town home. We combined our Humane Society of five animals and so we are now trapped in here and we are working from home all day, and we’re dealing with improperly installed masonry stone veneer. It appears like this is a prevalent problem across the country. It is a workmanship-contingent product, from what I’ve seen, is not being installed correctly still. This place was built 2003 to 2005 by a large national home builder who shall remain nameless, and you’ll be able to speak to it from the pictures, but it was improperly installed: Incorrect flashing, incorrect weep screed, incorrect termination from grade… I know more about this stuff than I care to and it has become a saga. We’re in the middle of it.

Yvonne: You asked me what tipped me off…

RS: Yeah.

Yvonne: And so, I’m a little obsessive and I had heard that one of the owners here went to install hardwood floors. He purchased the unit this year and went to install… He ripped up the carpet and went to install hardwood floors. When he went to nail it down, the subfloor was squishy, and always a treat, right?

RS: Yeah.

Yvonne: So I heard this story from him. I just started wondering whether the conditions there might be replicated across other units. And he mentioned that there was mold, there were ants, ant frass, and I started doing a little digging. I talked to the board president and I started becoming increasingly concerned. And you can find out a lot of stuff on the internet. The kicker was when I read your 2012 article in the Star Tribune. That was when I was convinced we had a real problem here.

TM: That’s when you stop sleeping well at night. [chuckle]

Yvonne: Yeah. In that article, you talked about improper installation and you showed pictures. I talked to the board president a little bit and I kind of became the Chicken Little of the HOA. I’m going around, like instead of the sky is falling, “The walls are crumbling, the walls are falling.” So I talked to him and he mentioned to me that, possibly, a few other owners were having problems, ants, maybe some moisture on windows, and we started trying to look through the meeting minutes and whatnot. I suggested, if he were going to do a moisture intrusion testing that he go with Structure Tech.

RS: Thank you.

Yvonne: Yeah. Yeah. It’s funny because my dad wanted to look at a home in Grand Rapids and he said, “I’m not interested in it unless Structure Tech can drive out here.” And I’m like, “I don’t think they’re gonna come three and a half hours, dad.” “Well, I’m not interested. They know what they’re doing. Do you think they’ll go to Wisconsin?” I was like, “Dad, I don’t know about that.”

[laughter]

Yvonne: The attention to detail in your reports is amazing. This is a long story, it’s what we’ve been living. But basically, I started looking at the flashing. The stone we have has a ledge. Antonio who works for Structure Tech, he came out and he did the testing, and as he pointed out, it was tilted towards the walls, this ledge and this flashing. So the opposite of what it should have been. And my understanding of Antonio is he had extensive experience with the EIFS, I think that’s what you say, EIFS wall, the stucco, and you call this the new lumpy stucco. And so, I just started… I don’t know. I had this neurotic Geiger counter going off where it was like I’d go by this wall and I just… Tick, tick, tick. It was going a little nuts. And so I said to my boyfriend, I said, “We need to tear up the carpet.”

[laughter]

Yvonne: Like, “We have to tear up this carpet. I have to see. I wanna know if there’s moisture, if there’s something… ” I’ve been hearing all these stories. “Absolutely not. We’re not tearing up the carpet. No, we’re not tearing up the carpet.” So after I tore up the carpet…

[laughter]

Yvonne: He’s very patient. After I tear up the carpet, extensive ant farms. I described it to you as an entomological Pompeii.

[laughter]

TM: I love that.

Yvonne: They were stopped, but they were in the midst of… They had created a currency. They had elected statesmen, like I don’t know what was next. So we both got that sick feeling of, “Okay, this is no longer my alarmist neurosis. This is an issue.” From what I understand about ants, we found out that ants are attracted to moisture. And so I’m thinking to myself, “Why would there be so many ants?” And I had heard my boyfriend say, “Well, I had an ant problem a few years ago, then they went away.” And I was, “I don’t know if they went away so much as they moved.”

BO: Maybe they finished what they were eating and then they found…

TM: Yeah.

RS: Yeah.

Yvonne: If you look at the pictures, there is really nothing left to eat. I think they moved to another development. They were done. The buffet was over.

TM: To another end unit. [chuckle]

Yvonne: Yeah, exactly. And so, Structure Tech came out and you guys did the moisture intrusion testing. And it was funny because board president of the master said… He called it funny science. And I was, “I really don’t think this is funny science because I believe this is the industry standard.” And Reuben, maybe you can talk more about this. But it is the industry standard, is it not?

RS: This is the industry standard. There’s a whole group that certifies people to do this type of testing called the Exterior Design Institute, and they have a fantastic training process. This is the standard all across the country. If you’re gonna do testing on a wall, this is the process you use.

Yvonne: Okay.

RS: It’s tried and true.

Yvonne: Part of the frustration and part of why maybe you asked me to be a guest is because I am the homeowner that you talk about, like we are the end results of these poor practices. We are living it. I find myself having to advocate for us in areas which I’m not familiar. So I’ve had to get up to speed. I’ve had to say, “No, I think thermal imaging might be less reliable than moisture intrusion testing.” So we did it. The report showed problems across all the units. And now the story… It’s really funny because this is dark humor. So the master board president and another board president, we’re gonna call them Brian and Keith…

[laughter]

Yvonne: To protect the innocent and accused. So they started doing the construction work themselves. I cannot make this up. They’re not licensed contractors. We were told one person was a licensed contractor and then we were told that this person was licensed in another state, and then we were told that they had worked for a contractor once. So a seasonal job is not a contract to me. So they tore up all of the masonry stone veneer. The amount of rock, maybe you’ve seen the pictures, I could not…

BO: We’ll put pictures on the podcast here, for sure.

Yvonne: I could not believe it. So everything, there was vinyl above and then there was the ledge, and then there was the masonry stone going down into the mulch, which you’ve showed pictures of. It goes into the mulch, of course. They had a whole area which just rotted out. At that point, we were in a state of shock. I called the City and I wanted to know if permits had been pulled. You’ve talked about permits and city inspectors before. I had a feeling that this was a structural issue. And so, the city inspector came out and I said to him, “If we’re gonna install masonry stone veneer again, we need to do it right. I’m not going through this a second time.” And I think in your 2012 article, you’ve said something like 90% are done incorrectly or you haven’t really ever seen it installed correctly, is that right?

RS: It’s… Back then, it was unusual. Within the last eight years, I feel like people have gotten a lot better at it but even today, on new installations, maybe we’re at around 50% are correct.

Yvonne: It’s pretty low considering…

RS: It’s pretty low.

Yvonne: You’d think, after the stucco nightmare, that these builders would have learned and even some of these failures, that they would have learned. So I said, “If we do this again, we weren’t sure at that point what the association was gonna do because the stone looks good.” People like the stone. The stone itself, I think, is a fine product. From what I’ve read, it’s how it’s installed that makes or breaks it. It looks good, so it increases property value. I don’t know, maybe it’s the facade of middle-class ambition, it says you’ve arrived.

[laughter]

Yvonne: And then there’s a rotting underbelly. The fetid rot underneath. This is the American story.

TM: This is a metaphor?

RS: Yes, that’s good.

Yvonne: The reason I ended up calling Reuben was because I said to the city inspector… I said, “I needed to hear it from you that… ” I kind of got hooked on this whole weep screed. I had never even heard of a weep screed. I thought it was screen, but it’s not. It’s screed with a D. And I said, “Look, if we’re doing this again, you need to make sure that we are installing a weep screed.” And this is a licensed city official who said, “Well, that’s not required in Minnesota. There’s nothing that I can do to make them put one on.” And what happened then was he said, “Look, if you can prove to me… ” I said, “Look, you gotta give me a day. I’m gonna go online and I’m gonna talk to some people that this is… ” He’s like, “Okay, I’ll keep an open mind. I’ll give you my card and my email if you can show me that we’ll need one.” And I give him credit for doing that ’cause some people, they just shut down.

RS: Yeah.

Yvonne: They don’t wanna hear it especially from someone like me, a person with no experience in construction. So I started thinking, “What is the best way to convince this city inspector that this is a requirement?” So I remembered from your article, you talked about the National Concrete Masonry Association, that’s what it is now, the NCMA. I went on Google, and I called their corporate headquarters. I mean this has been a lot of work. So I called them and I was like, “Is there someone who works on these guidelines, like is there some kind of person of authority there that I can talk to?” I knew that calling a large organization like this, it might be hard to get just to someone. Believe it or not, they got me on the phone with an engineer who writes the guidelines, which was incredible, and so I was telling her this whole saga, “Well, what do you think we should do?”

Yvonne: And she suggested writing a letter to the official, I said, you know, “Maybe if we both send it, he can’t really ignore us.” And she explained the history of the NCMA and this product and why you need to install it this way, and so the next day, I spoke to the official and he said, “Well, you will be getting a weep screed,” and I thought it was like an act of generosity. And then I realized, he said, “Well, I guess actually Minnesota did adopt it. You do have to install it this way,” and Reuben, you probably can talk more or Tessa about that, I believe it is, I don’t know what year it was added to Minnesota code, but…

RS: You need to follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions, that has been there forever. And if they have it in the instructions, you have to do it. So it’s been in there for a long time.

BO: Quick question, how do you track down manufacturer’s instructions, where did this stone originate from, whose instructions were to be followed? I mean unless there’s some imprint on the back of the stone that can identify where it came from or are we sort of swimming up a stream that dead ends at a dam?

RS: I don’t know, I’ve never tried. I just always assume that all stone is gonna follow the same installation instructions by the Adhered Concrete Masonry Veneer Manufacturers Association, which I guess has changed over to the NCMA, new abbreviation for them, but same thing. They have a really nice manual and everything should be following that, that is the standard for this product. Yvonne, were you able to track down your exact manufacturer?

Yvonne: No, in my understanding is that they formed this trade association, I may be wrong, but to deal with the improper installation, like they realized that their product was at risk if this wasn’t being installed correctly. And so this was their attempt at developing a uniform standard for all masonry, concrete, veneer products. I’d be interested to hear more about the history of… And in identifying your facture of it, but I don’t know that you can always do that. So I guess where we are now is we found out like no one was licensed, no one had a permit, presidents were doing the work themselves, I don’t know if it was to save money, but it wasn’t a good way to go. And they did bring out an engineer because the city did require it, the city issued a stop work order and the engineer they contacted said that the wall wasn’t load bearing and he said that he wouldn’t touch this for $10,000, though so that was the quote I heard. And at this point, we have tieback covering our house, we’re in pandemic, we’re trapped in here. We’re both working from home with the monastery of pets, and we’ve tried to be polite.

Yvonne: I’ve tried to educate the board president. I won’t give any legal advice, I do have a legal education, but I did try to educate them on the benefits of seeking advice from a lawyer who works in this area, like if you suspect you have a problem with this, this isn’t a time for me or your uncle or a friend to tell you what your rights are, you have to talk to a licensed attorney who knows construction law, who knows HOA law, and that’s complicated. That’s a nuanced area. And so I cannot give any advice about that, but other than to say talk to someone. This stuff is, from my research, there are relevant statutes, limitations. Oftentimes, these problems are revealed after the builder is long gone and those relevant statutes have expired and you’re left with possibly tens of thousands of dollars in repairs to do this right and in our case, I’m not sure what to do. We still don’t know what we’re gonna do.

RS: So I have a few things to bring up Yvonne, because so often people just kinda get lulled into this sense of security, and I’d like to address a few things. Number one, this is a town home. It’s on the exterior. A lot of people have the idea that if you’re buying a town home, they don’t… A lot of our clients will ask us, “Well, you don’t even inspect the exterior, right? Because that’s not owned by me, that’s owned by the association.” Can you comment on that and shed some light on this for people?

Yvonne: Well, it’s difficult, I would say. I don’t fully know the answer, and that is part of why I have advised my boyfriend to seek legal counsel because the lines can get blurred pretty easily. I would say to some people who have this false sense of complacency about the exterior it’s… If they’re gonna repair this wall, some of the dry wall inside the house is gonna be impacted, right? They’re now talking about possibly having to tear out the actual interior drywall to rebuild the framing. Homes are interconnected, as you know. And then this other idea of, “Well, the HOA maintains it.” It’s like, “Well, you are the HOA, right?”

RS: Yes.

Yvonne: This “they,” “They are gonna fix it,” they is you, right? You are the HOA. So at the end of the day, there will not be a clear winner in this. This is not something I rebel revel in or I’m excited about, people hate lawyers until they need one. This is not a good thing. At the end of the day, it’s the home owners, it’s the members of this community who’ve agreed to these covenants who are going to be holding the bag. All of us, we’re here for the good of snow removal and shared lawn maintenance, and we’re here for the bad of crumbling walls.

RS: Sure, so another question for you. When was this town home built?

Yvonne: The tax record says 2004, and I called the builder and the builder says in their records, it’s 2005.

RS: Okay, alright, just getting a general idea. I’m just trying to paint a narrative for when a lot of this stuff had a lot of problems, and we typically say pretty much very late ’80s up through today, there is no date where we say, “Oh, it was all good after this point,” so somewhere around 2004 or ’05.

Yvonne: And it’s funny because you’ve talked about this and in the industry you know about him, Ben Hendrix out of Kentucky, ABI home inspections. He’s a nationally recognized expert in masonry stone or veneer failures. And I’ve looked at his blog and I’ve looked at yours, and oftentimes, there is no indication of failure. Like, you look at this stuff, ours looked good. It was a good-looking product. Again, it goes down to installation, and some of the units I started seeing some signs of a possible moisture issue. You would talk about some of the cracking, and I started seeing signs of dampness, staining, and that was where I became more suspicious. But for the most part, you don’t know that there’s a problem until you’re oftentimes looking at a huge structural failure. If you get to that point with this stuff, it almost feels like it’s too late.

RS: Yeah, here’s another point I wanna bring up, Yvonne, is that we as home inspectors, when we’re thinking about problematic areas, we’re mostly focused on roof wall intersections where you need to have the right flash in there, and we’re focused on openings in walls, around windows and doors, decks, things like that where water can get in. But, at your unit, you had nothing of the sort. There were no gaps, no nothing, it was just a short little wall. I mean, what, three feet, four feet high at most.

Yvonne: Yeah, causing all these problems. I did nerd out on one of your training videos for inspectors, and you talked a lot about eaves.

[chuckle]

Yvonne: I don’t want the fancy gourmet white kitchen in the future, I want eaves, right?

[laughter]

TM: Yeah.

Yvonne: Oh baby, eaves.

TM: Welcome to our world, Yvonne.

Yvonne: I mean, I had no idea, right? And this goes back to education. I mean, a part of me, I start questioning, I’ve talked about this, the removal from higher education of Home Ec. I do kind of wonder if we’re not being taught these basics of home maintenance, of home repair, how to protect our homes, you talked about the business of running a home. People don’t teach us this, and I guess that’s what home inspections are for, and let me tell your listeners, get a home inspection, please.

RS: Amen. Thank you.

Yvonne: So I actually sold my last home to a buyer with no home inspection. Obviously, I can’t make people, but you’re making a huge financial investment, right? This is probably the biggest financial investment. You know, I’d ask my boyfriend whether he had his inspection, whether many of these issues were revealed, and I don’t know that they were, we haven’t definitively determined that. He purchased it in 2009 and so I’m not sure. But education, this is really important. And I know there are people who know way more than I do, of course, and I wanna listen to them. I mean, Antonio, when he came out here, had so much good advice. You know, what prep flashings look like, what eaves you want, and why he’s not as concerned about the stone veneer on the front, because there’s a huge eave, we’re not as worried about the water getting in. It’s a learning lesson, and I hope that other people across the Twin Cities, or across the country if you have any national listeners, I mean, if you have this product on your home, consider having moisture intrusion testing done by a licensed inspector. Look into it, because a lot of the relevant statutes of limitations have expired. That’s something we’re looking into, but you really don’t wanna be left holding the bag with this. Like, if you have a suspicion about it, I would suggest investigating it.

BO: So I’d like to jump in. I have a couple of questions on clarification here. You said that these two gentlemen who were a part of the board were part of the insulation, were they part of the repair or were they part of the initial installation?

Yvonne: So they weren’t part of the installation that occurred years earlier. We don’t have a new product on our wall, we just have tieback. They’re calling it the demolition part.

BO: Okay.

Yvonne: So we remain at demolition going into winter in Minnesota, with snow that piles up. They misquoted Antonio, ’cause I was here. He actually happened to come back out and he was in the neighborhood, which I think should tell you something about the need for moisture intrusion testing that he happened to just be in the suburb. We both just kind of laugh, ’cause my boyfriend’s like, “Isn’t it funny that he’s out here again in this area?” We wonder how many other people are dealing with this, and I look around and I see a lot of it. But he was in the neighborhood and he just wanted to stop by, and he didn’t know of the drama that’s going on, he was just looking at it, and what he said was, “It’s good you found it now. It’s good that this has happened, that it’s out there.” Well, the HOA took that and said, “Just as Antonio said, your ball is in a better condition now than what it was before.”

RS: Oh my goodness.

Yvonne: Antonio said it’s good that you’ve found this so you can remediate it and people aren’t gonna be hurt when walls collapse. So that’s what we’re dealing with right now.

BO: And then second question, Reuben, this goes to you. Typically behind this product, the tieback should go all the way down to the bottom. Does the tieback, or the building paper end and then the tar paper begin? Just can you give me…

RS: Well, you’re using a lot of specific terms, and I’d say let’s just make it more generic and say the water resistive barrier.

BO: Okay.

RS: But whatever you’re gonna put behind it that’s gonna keep water from reaching the wood at your home, that goes behind all of this. And there’s always an assumption that water is going to get behind this, this is not a water-proofing membrane that you’re putting on the outside of the house. I mean, we got a great video where I pour water on this stuff and you can see all the water just gets soaked right into it like a sponge. Water gets in there, you need a layer to keep the water from reaching wood and anything that’s gonna rot. Does that answer your question, Bill?

BO: Yeah, but I’m just wondering is there a double, triple layer of membrane by the time you get to this product, or it’s hard to know each…

RS: No. No. You shouldn’t have a double or triple layer of water resistive whatever, unless you’re going with tar paper. Maybe then you’ll have a couple of layers, but any high-end installation today is gonna have a really specific proprietary type of water-resistive barrier where it’s a drainage mat, it’s a drainage screen, and it does a really good job of making sure nothing gets through there with one layer.

BO: Well, thank you for that clarification, ’cause I know I’m a visual guy, and so it’s nice to sort of see behind the veneer. Wow, Yvonne, that’s quite a story, and we could probably go on for hours and hours on this, but we don’t have time for that on this episode. But I wanna thank you for sharing with us. I’m sure this is fraught with emotion in both just the uncertainty, but also the financial side of it, so thanks for sharing. I hope somebody else can learn, just even in the buying process, take that one extra step, get that one extra test done and hopefully you can avoid a bigger problem down the line. You’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murray and Reuben Saltzman. Thanks for listening and we will catch you next time.