Ken Merunski has seen home construction mistakes that make him shudder. He's seen floor joists notched to a dangerous extent to make room for plumbing. He's seen bearing walls that don't align with support beams. He's seen joists butted against ceiling beams instead of overlapping to handle the weight of the roof. "You'd think the building inspectors would catch it," he said, "and quite often they don't."
Merunski is an architect who sometimes testifies as an expert witness in lawsuits involving residential construction. Between that work and visits to construction sites related to his own architectural practice, he's seen faulty construction that can result in leaks, wall cracks and worse.
Sometimes the builder and the inspector just aren't up to date on requirements for the way materials should be installed, he said. Sometimes they don't know enough about structural engineering to recognize a problem in the making. Sometimes, he said, the builders are taking shortcuts to save money.
That's why Merunski, who owns M.E. Architecture in Seven Hills, Ohio, counsels homeowners to stay vigilant when their homes are being built.
Here are his recommendations.
Show up daily
You've probably already heard the advice that you should visit your home's construction site every day the workers are there. But Merunski takes that recommendation a step further.
Take pictures, he advises. Lots of pictures.
Document every step of the construction process in photos, he said. It's especially important to take pictures of the walls while they're still open, when the frame and the systems are still visible.
Be thorough. In the end, you should have more than 1,000 pictures, he said.
At best, Merunski said, you'll catch problems while they're still easy to fix. At worst, you'll have documentation should something go wrong.
And if you ever decide to make alterations in the future, he pointed out, knowing what's inside each wall will prevent potentially costly surprises.
Watch the siding
Vinyl siding isn't designed to keep moisture out of your house, Merunski said. It needs to be installed over a building wrap made from a material such as Tyvek or Gore-Tex, which is water-resistant but breathable. Otherwise, he said, water that gets behind the siding can find its way into your house.
Merunski said some builders will skip the building wrap and install the siding right over the wood sheathing, either because they're trying to cut costs or they haven't read the manufacturers' specifications.
Make sure they install it and do it correctly, he said, including sealing the seams with tape made for that purpose. He said he once saw a major construction company, which he declined to name, put narrow strips of the material only over the joints of the sheathing.
Eye the stonework
When synthetic stone is adhered to the outside of a house, it needs to be done in a way that allows the stones to move with the structure, Merunski said.
On a typical house, cultured stone needs to be adhered to both the concrete foundation and the house's wood framing. Wood swells and moves with changes in humidity, while concrete remains almost immobile, he explained. So the installation method for the stone needs to allow for those differences in movement.
Merunski said synthetic stone should be installed with soft joints, which are grout lines that are filled with caulk instead of grout. The flexible caulk absorbs the movement so the stones or mortar won't crack, allowing water to get behind.
Check the brick
On homes that are covered in brick, the brick is typically installed with an air space between the brick and the wood sheathing. Merunski said the brick surface should have weep holes, or openings, near the bottom of the cavity to allow for the escape of any moisture that gets inside.
Otherwise that water will soak into the wood behind the brick, and over time it will deteriorate the wood sill at the bottom of the wall, he said.
Merunski said weep holes are required by the International Building Code, which Ohio adopted in 2006, and are common in commercial construction. But builders who don't do commercial work might not be aware of that requirement, he said.
Get the roof right
Roofing manufacturers have specific requirements for the installation of their products. One of those is adequate roof ventilation, based on factors including the roof's square footage and whether the attic insulation has a vapor barrier.
But Merunski said builders rarely calculate the proper amount of ventilation for the product they're using, instead choosing to ventilate the entire ridge and soffit. That's probably fine for a typical gable roof, he said, but not for a hip roof, which has a shorter ridge.
He recommends reading the warranty on the roofing shingles to see what the manufacturer requires, and making sure those requirements are met. Ask the builder to show you his ventilation calculations, he said. If the ventilation is insufficient or the other requirements aren't met, the warranty on your shingles may be affected, he said.
Merunski also recommends making sure the builder installs an adequate amount of ice and water shield, a roofing membrane that keeps melting snow from backing up under roof edges and leaking into the house. It should start at the eaves and extend to 2 feet inside the heated part of the house. It should also cover vulnerable spots such as roof valleys and gable ends, he said.
Evaluate the framing
Mistakes in a home's framing may be difficult for a lay person to recognize, but here's where Merunski's suggestion to take photographs comes in handy. Before the walls are closed, take your photos to a structural engineer or an architect who's knowledgeable about structural engineering, he said. He or she can review the pictures to see whether the structure is sound, without the added expense of a visit to the job site.
If any problems are found, they'll be much easier to remedy at this point in the construction process, Merunski said.
The consultation might cost you anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $1,000, depending on the complexity of the project, Merunski said, but that investment could save you hassles and money in the long run.
Take problems to the top
If you see something wrong on the construction site, don't tell the person doing the work to fix it, Merunski said. Instead, take it up with the general contractor. It's his job to make sure the subcontractors are doing their jobs correctly, he said.
If you tell a subcontractor directly to change something, Merunski said, he or she will submit a change order for that work to the general contractor, and you'll end up paying for it. And should a problem arise later, you might not be able hold the general contractor responsible.