For Dr. Suj Sundararaj and his family, trying to sell a beautiful, three-year-old Chicago home was complicated by more than the economy.
Sundararaj purchased his Chicago home as a new construction in 2005, but he put his house on the market a few years later to move to the suburbs. As prospective buyers toured the home, they noticed a strange smell.
The smell turned out to be a major black mold infestation, growing in damp insulation throughout the house. Water had seeped through the mortar that held the bricks together, as well as through the split-face cement block that composed the home.
Sundararaj was forced to tear out all of the dry wall, let the home dry out, and then replace it—just to be able to sell the home. He moved his family into the basement, instead of the new home in the suburbs they imagined.
“Our entire house wasn’t sealed,” Sundararaj said.
Apparently the plastic material meant to prevent seepage was never put in by the builders, and he wasn’t familiar with the needs of split-face cement. Ultimately, Sundararaj spent more than $140,000 on eliminating the mold and sealing his home.
“It’s a terrible ordeal,” Sundaraj said. “I wish it on no one.”
Sundararaj is apparently just one of many Chicagoans currently living in a home built with split-faced concrete block.
Real estate broker Ryan Gable estimated that on the North Side of Chicago, 30 to 40 percent of the condos he shows in the $200,000 to $500,000 range are built with split-face.
“If they are looking for something more contemporary, it could come up more than that,” Gable said. “It’s more prominent in stuff built in the last 30 to 40 years.”
He said that as long as the split-face block is sealed every few years, it isn’t a problem.
But private home inspector Steve Hier disagrees, pointing out that the problem can come from poor craftsmanship, either because the developer was looking to cut costs, or the contractors were not well-qualified. Or, the problem stems from the block itself – which by its nature is more porous than a material like brick.
“In the late 90s, I would find about 25 percent of these buildings had issues. Now, just about all of them do,” he said.
Gable is CEO of StartingPoint Realty, a real estate company that works only with first-time home buyers. He said he always makes sure to let potential buyers know what they are getting into when they are considering a condo built with split-face blocks.
“It’s our responsibility to tell you, if you are buying into this building, your monthly assessment could be $50 to $100 more a month,” Gable said.
But we talked to several owners of split-face block units who said when they purchased their home they were unaware of the maintenance responsibilities associated with split-face. Either a realtor, inspector or developer failed to inform them, they said.
Many, including “Julie,” who appears in the story, told us they would not have bought a split-face unit had they known it would cost more to maintain.
Other municipalities, like Oak Park, outlaw the use of split-face block entirely. The City of Chicago does not build with the material for city-subsidized housing.
A spokesperson in the Chicago Department of Buildings declined to appear on camera for this story, but defended the use of split-face concrete block in private development, despite its well-documented problems. He said the city inspects the safety of buildings, not the craftsmanship.
Gable makes sure to check with the building to see how recently the blocks were sealed, and how much it cost. He also checks the building’s funding reserves to make sure they have the money to reseal again in the near future.
“That’s one of our jobs, that’s how I look at it. [The buyers] don’t know what they are looking at,” Gable said.
“Julie” said her realtor recommended a home inspector, who told her the building had no problems. As she tells the story, the wall started leaking almost immediately. She spent around $20,000 out of her own pocket for repairs, and said her homeowners insurance would cover the damage done to the interior of her place, but told her they wouldn’t cover any fixes resulting from workmanship defect.
A State Farm spokeswoman confirmed what Julie found: “If a claim is caused by faulty workmanship and deterioration over a period of time, it is usually not covered under a Homeowner contract,” she said. “Generally, a homeowner would need to consider pursuit of the home builder if there was a construction defect involved.”
Sundararaj did not have insurance for mold infestation, so he is currently involved in a lawsuit against the contractor who sold him the home to recoup the money spent on repairs. The house is still on the market.
“We’ll probably win, but it’s been years,” Sundararaj said.
Acknowledging the fact that the contractor outsourced all the construction to builders, Sundararaj tried to split the cost of the repairs with him. The contractor declined, and Sundararaj took the matter to his lawyer.
“I don’t think he did this out of malice,” Sundararaj said. “We are just looking for my costs back—there are a lot of things that we went through.”
For some information on how often split-face concrete needs to be sealed, as well as estimations of how much that might cost, click here.
To upload your own leaky condo photos, click here.