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condemning a house

condemning a house

condemning a house

I'm investigating a house that is two years old and is so damaged by water infiltration that major structural elements of treated engineered lumber can be pulled apart by hand, by the handful, all over the house. There are multi-story SIPS panels where the exterior sheathing, side columns, and sill plates are all rotten, as well. So are the ends of treated LVL beams, the subfloors, etc. Straps/ties were either not installed or installed incorrectly. Hangers are installed wrong, web stiffeners aren't there, tie rods aren't tight, framing done differently than shown on the drawings. And just to top it off, I am not convinced the house was designed for the correct wind speed.

I've told the owner all this, in a letter where I strongly recommend they move out. Cost-wise, they're looking at basically building a new house, and I can't guarantee that I can find all the errors or omissions in order to have the repair contractor fix them. Some of the repairs I'm not certain are even fixable without destroying the house. The repair contractor keeps pushing me to get him a list of materials so they can start repairs. What a mess. At what point does a house become beyond saving? And how do I convince the owner? What are the general requirements when a house is condemned?

RE: condemning a house

I can't help thinking that you should be talking to somebody's insurance adjuster.

Mike Halloran
Pembroke Pines, FL, USA

RE: condemning a house

They've done that, and both their homeowner's insurance and the builder's insurance is not interested. Lawsuits will likely follow.

RE: condemning a house

"Not interested" means two insurance companies are trying to screw each other. ... and their lawyers are already preparing for that likelihood, so you won't be able to talk to the companies' own experts and adjusters.

However, independent adjusters pop up by the thousands in the wake of natural disasters, and are only too happy to help a victim tote up the damage and file a claim. Somehow they get paid for that work.

Even if you have to pay for their time, an independent adjuster might give you some insight into insurance company tactics, and an experienced one may know exactly what to look for and where to look for it.

Mike Halloran
Pembroke Pines, FL, USA

RE: condemning a house

I think I would tell the owner that the house is unsafe, explain why, and, if needed, notify the AHJ of the problem. Once the AHJ knows about such a problem, they will pull the certificate of occupancy (or simply condemn/red tag it), and the insurers can fight about it. In some states, builders are on the hook for a period of time (until 2010, there was 10 year warranty in Texas, but our legislature was too involved in interfering in doctor-patient relationships to renew the residential construction commission.)

RE: condemning a house


Due to your knowledge of the matter, you have to do your professional diligence and state it as such if you feel that the house is unsafe.

I had to do that once many years where the homeowner was his own contractor and it looked like it, plus the house was larger than the approved plan set. - like 30% larger. Kind of a different animal than yours as this involved shoddy workmanship, but I did get hold of the structural engineer of record, a local long-time friend of mine, and still is by the way, and let him know of my opinion to condemn the structure. He thanked me and we moved on. You have spiked my curiosity and I may take a short trip to see if it is still there - been 10 to 15 years or so now.

If nothing else, your letter will give the owner recourse to go to his insurance company to get temporary relocation costs among other things while all this is being sorted out.

Mike McCann
MMC Engineering

RE: condemning a house

slta...we routinely find significant structural damage from water intrusion in stucco clad wood framing. We have even seen structures partially collapse from damage. Having said that, wood-framed structures are relatively resilient and can withstand a lot of repair.

I would recommend shoring immediately then look at possibilities of selective replacement of structural components. If multi-story and the floor trusses are compromised, it will be a toss-up on salvaging. We generally see about 10 to 30 percent of the exterior bearing walls needing replacement. If it gets much beyond that, it is probably better to consider tear down.

If the house is only 2 years old, there is a good probability of legal relief through your state's construction defect laws. The statute of limitations on latent defects typically starts when the issue is discovered. In your case, even if discoved on the day of completion, there's likely still time to file a claim.

Suggest that your client engage legal counsel before you write a report. That way the attorney can offer some privilege protection for the documents and your report, until you get designated as a testifying expert in the case.

RE: condemning a house

And the issue of mold and mildew have not even been brought up yet. Repaired well or not, I certainly would not want to be the next owner of that house. Anything can be fixed, but what's the old saying about "polishing a turd" ?

It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all.

RE: condemning a house

...as Ron noted... best to talk to a lawyer ASAP...


RE: condemning a house

The first thing is a mold issue which has already been mentioned. But some people do move out due to mold. There was problems similar to yours in our area some years back. Wrong wind exposure, no consideration of out-of-plane wind loads, suspect plan checks by either the county or contract plan checking. Bad stucco application - on and on and on. I don't know how many people eventually moved out of their homes - but it was a lot. Much litigation - payouts by insurance companies and contractors - don't think any of the engineers got badly beaten. Pretty awful. Made the local TV station and one county supervisor said that all of the houses in the area dropped by $100,000 in value after the broadcast.

Later came the meltdown and some of this notoriety faded away.

Some litigation that I was involved in got pretty interesting with engineers on the contractors defense making some questionable comments.

Pulled the interior sheathing off of a two-story wall(with windows) to see how many studs there were. I had guessed at about five full height studs in an eighteen foot length. The EOR didn't know and couldn't figure out from his own drawing what might be there. Turned out there were three!

One house plan had 2x6 studs about 20 feet high in a Exposure C location. Some houses were at the top of a bluff and no one considered uphill wind speed up.

If the house is so bad that someone shouldn't be living in it, write a letter to the homeowner but also inform the local building official. Just hope he isn't a GOB with the local building industry.

These things are really tough when you are interacting with the owner.

[GOB = good ole boy]

RE: condemning a house

situ -

msuared48 has the right approach to do diligence and go as far as you can go based on obvious structural problems and they may be severe enough to recommend on a structural basis whether they should move out (which you have done), but also point out the obvious moisture problems that may need to be investigated much closer for the future. After informing the client of the potential future problems, you will done as much as you could do professionally.

If you are in an area that has engineers the concentration on moisture intrusion. I worked with and for a fellow engineer that abandoned most of his structural work and concentrated on moist problems. It was amazing what a good engineer geared for moisture can do with a short description and site visit. Normally, with knowledge of building practices (roofing, details, window installation, etc.) he could look at a structure ans make a very few deep probes (2-1/8" holes at each location) to paint an entire picture of the problems for the structure. This is valuable because it can minimize the short term hose tests and unnecessarily stripping wood or stucco off testing of walls because fiberglass does not dry out and holds moisture in place. Obviously, stripping a wall to expose everything is more accurate, but may not be needed to make an intelligent rcommendation.

It is a specialty area of consulting that requires a strong knowledge of structural design, details and construction practices. To an extent, it can be a GOB (good ole boy) situation. Most of the good ones moisture intrusion engineers work for owners, contractors, association and insurance companies, BUT do have the respect of most and work on problems, and not just one side and they all seem to know each other. It was an interesting area, but it was not for me because of the tight rope that eventually has to be traveled on important jobs and fear of being classified in someone's "pocket".


Engineer and international traveler interested in construction techniques, problems and proper design.

RE: condemning a house

Here's an update. I delivered my final report, and the associated 318 pictures, with descriptions at 50 investigated locations. The owner seems to be finally listening and they're looking for a new place to live. I am expecting a call from their lawyer any day, to get started on the litigation side as they go after pretty much everyone.

Just to be safe, I talked to the state licensing board, who agreed that having given my report and initial letter, I've done all I can and need to at this time. If they're still there in a month, I will reconsider getting the county involved.

The board guy had a great quote: I can't save people from themselves.

cheers, folks.

RE: condemning a house

Hope something doesn't happen to anyone for the next month... if truly a hazardous condition, I would be notifying the AHJ.

One thing about brown rot, aka dry-rot, is that you can lose significant strength by the time it is noticed...


RE: condemning a house

As I pass by, I say very loudly, "Bad house, Bad House,...Bad, Bad".

Mike McCann
MMC Engineering

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