Stucco homes in Chester County failing at alarming rate, and the fix is costly

Submitted photoThis photo shows a before and after from stucco remediation, by Pancoast Construction of Unionville.
Submitted photoThis photo shows a before and after from stucco remediation, by Pancoast Construction of Unionville. 

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POCOPSON >> Ted Trevarrow was one of the lucky ones.

When he put his house in the Newlin Green Development up for sale, an inspection revealed moisture had got underneath the stucco, compromising its structural foundation. Fortunately, the damage was contained and it only cost him $15,000. But his neighbors, all of whom have “McMansion” style houses sided with stucco, were paying twice, three and even four times what Trevarrow paid.

Stucco remediation is now a big business in Chester County, and some estimates indicate there are more than 50,000 homes in southeastern Pennsylvania that need it.

“This is a huge problem,” said Tom Pancoast, owner of Pancoast Construction which has done scores of stucco remediation on houses. “Every house built in the last 20 years that has stucco will need a stucco remediation job. This is happening everywhere.”

Tim Dilworth, co-owner of Stucco Remediation Specialists in Delaware County, said stucco remediation is extremely expensive because the house has to be torn down to its sheathing and windows replaced.

“I wouldn’t recommend a stucco home to my worst enemy,” Dilworth said. “This is beyond the asbestos plague, the radon plague and the lead paint problem. This is a life changer and scope of this is enormous.”

But stucco, Pancoast said, is a great product. The reason it is failing is because some builders took shortcuts and didn’t’ install flashing properly, installed inferior windows and didn’t apply enough layers of stucco.

“What we have now is a perfect storm,” Pancoast said. “Many (builders) won’t put stucco on new houses anymore, not even on foundations. But stucco is a good product, and you can use it anywhere as long as you use good practices like having a good vapor barrier, and proper caulk around all windows and doors.”

Ben Horain recently purchased a house in Unionville, just north of the high school, knowing it failed a moisture inspection. He said he put a significant amount of work and money into his home, and replaced the stucco with stone because it was one-third of the cost.

Dilworth said a house buyer today would be wise to order a moisture report if considering a stucco home. It’s not required, but sometimes the cost for the inspection falls on the potential buyer.

“Some (real estate agents) sell houses to unsuspecting buyers, hoping they won’t get the test,” Dilworth said. “Will the realtor tell you to get a moisture inspection, or will they not tell you and hope to get the sale and the commission.”

Tammy Duering, real estate agent and broker for ReMax Excellence, said she recommends testing if a home is covered with at least half stucco.

“I think every single (stucco house) buyer should do a stucco inspection,” she said. “Houses built in the past 20 years seem to be more prevalent with the problem. It’s a big problem. If you have a home that has stucco, you could have problems.”

Homeowner’s insurance typically does not cover issues of mold or rot or shoddy contractor construction. Many carriers eliminated stucco remediation when the problem was first discovered years ago. Insurance typically only covers “Acts of God” such as rain, hail, fire and wind. And Pennsylvania law states homeowners cannot hold the original builder accountable for problems after 12 years.

So in just about every case, the cost for stucco remediation lies with the homeowner. And when that homeowner just bought a house without ordering a moisture test and discovers problems, they are severely “underwater” in their mortgage just after purchase.

“I would say $100,000 is a normal price for stucco remediation,” Dilworth said. “We did a stucco remediation on a $2.2 million house that cost $300,000 to remediate. I feel bad for the people with homes in the $250,000 to $300,000 range because a lot of the times we can’t help them because of the cost.”

A proper remediation, Dilworth said, involves tearing off the stucco, taking out windows and replacing them with new windows, replacing damaged sheathing and framing, applying a drainable house wrap, reinstalling new windows with proper flashing, applying extra layers of house wrap, applying rainscreen and applying new stucco.

Homeowners who hire contractors who patch affected areas and do not replace windows will find it will fail again in short order, Dilworth said.

“Most of the time it fails out the windows, especially if they are cheap” Dilworth said. “Sometimes it’s the gutters with lack of kick-out flashing.

Pancoast said some builders don’t caulk around maintenance-free windows, and they install flat counter flashing around windows and doors instead of beveled flashing.

“The water runs down the wall, hits the head of the flashing at the window, and runs down the sides where the cracks are,” Pancoast said. “Water gets behind the stucco and rots out the windows and frame (construction).”

Pancaost said many times he tears stucco off houses, the composite board nailed to the studs has rotted.

“I’m seeing houses that are only seven or eight years old and it costs $100,000 to rip stucco off houses and put on new siding,” Pancoast said. “It’s crazy.”

Some municipalities, such as East Goshen Township, are beginning to enact tough ordinances to protect homeowners who have stucco. They enacted strict rules for how the remediation must be done.

“People aren’t talking about this, and just hoping it doesn’t happen to them,” Dilworth said. “Meanwhile, their house is rotting behind the walls. This is a really big problem. It’s bad, really bad for those with stucco houses.”

Stucco remediation experts recommend those with stucco houses should order moisture tests, even if they aren’t in the process of selling their home. If left unchecked, moisture behind the stucco could rot out the framing.