Florida townhomes are awash in a sea of stucco, the thin coating of cement designed to seal homes from moisture.
But many of those homes – the most expensive investment for many Floridians — may be rotting away much faster than expected, says Noah Pransky of WTSP-TV, losing homeowners as much as $1 billion in overall value.
By the time they realize damaged stucco, with cracking and buckling, it may be too late, and repairs could reach thousands of dollars.
The problem, according to stucco experts, is in the application; it must be done right, not quickly. Put up stucco too fast, and too cheap (as it had been during Florida’s housing boom of 2005 through 2010) and that is when the problems start.
Often stucco installations were an afterthought by builders, Pransky reports, and frequently applied without supervision of licensed contractors. In Florida, installing stucco is not a licensed profession, and most building departments fail to inspect for stucco quality, even though all aspects of home building should reflect the state’s building codes.
Because all building materials expand and contract – especially in a hot, humid environment like Florida – proper care needs to be used when installing stucco, a cement-like material layered on like paint. But when proper expansion joints and procedures aren’t used, stucco will expand at different rates than the wood underneath it, leading to cracking.
On Florida’s West Coast, wood frames are typically constructed on the second floor of a townhome, over a first cement/cinder block floor. On Florida’s East Coast, damage can be more significant, where entire homes were frequently built with wood frames.
Another factor is limited legal rights of homeowners to sue builders; many buyers sign away rights when purchasing a home, and most contracts call for arbitration.
Arbitration is a lower cost alternative to the courts, usually at the expense of homeowners. And since the proceedings occur behind closed doors, neighbors with similar problems rarely are aware of any admission of guilt by a negligent builder.
Aggravating the problem, Pransky notes, is Florida’s statute of limitations, which limits the time to take legal action to four years on construction, and 10 years for a claim over defect. If a homeowner discovers cracked stucco after only a few years, and the wood rots slowly, many are left with a small window of time to seek legal relief.
Home values, in the case of people looking to sell their property, could be another headache, particularly when it is illegal to not disclose a home’s defects prior to a sale.
Pransky says he will continue investigating the stucco problem in Florida, and how some of the state’s largest home builders flew under the radar without supervision.