Leaky Condos

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.

Leaky Condos

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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.

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9 responses to “Leaky Condos”

  1. chris laughlin says:

    The reason this happened is because the workers did not know what the building codes are in the area. They more then likely came from another country and never had any training on how to do this work in the City of Chicago. The buildings in the city that have been standing for over 100 years are all solid wall construction, and these buildings do not seem to have problems like the buildings of today. This is not the case now because the builders/developers have all gone for the buck in their pockets, not giving any price brake to the persons buying the homes or condos built with this material.

  2. sharon says:

    The problem is the building material–splitface concrete block. This was approved by the Chicago City Council when many area municipalities rejected the material. NPR did a lengthy piece on the problem several years ago when new condo owners were just becoming aware of the situation. Splitface can be utilized in warmer climates but not in colder ones where the connective material will have to expand and contract with each season. Like it said in the video segment, these buildings will eventually collapse!

  3. Thomas says:

    Excellent story. WTTW should do more on this.
    Did the reporter try search court records related to mold and poor construction materials?
    Why does every home inspector in Chicago warn buyers to stay away from these block buildings? What will this mean over the long-term?
    What will happen when several of these buildings collapse and people are hurt?

  4. Jeff says:

    I must disagree both Chris and Sharon. The block is not to blame and the masons are probably not entirely at fault. The block and mortar needs to be sealed properly. The developers failed to mention this fact to the buyers fearing this maintenance cost would look bad on the bottom line. There is a 10 year warranted eco friendly Green sealer available at ecosealntsolutions.com that should alleviate the problem for an extended period of time.
    Great, informative program!!!

  5. Anne says:

    I first heard about this problem over 10 years ago. Those of us who were aware of the problem then wondered how many years of useful life these buildings would have before they either became uninhabitable or just got rundown enough to become low rent and start changing the character of their neighborhoods, undoing gentrification. I’m surprised it’s taken this long to start getting media attention.

    I hope that Chicago building code will address this problem soon.

  6. As a licensed Home Inspector working primarily in the City of Chicago, I, like my colleague Mr. Hier see a lot of split faced concrete block buildings. Many of these buildings have the same problems. Leaking into these buildings and the resultant structural damage and mold is epidemic.
    Shrunken, cracked mortar; lack of and / or poorly installed through wall flashing; lack of weep holes / improperly installed weep holes / weep holes sealed; missing control joints; poorly installed roofs / roof flashing / coping; lack of concrete block sealant. These are just the deficiencies that are visible during the standard pre-purchase Home Inspection. What is not visible is maybe more critical to the construction of a leak free wall.
    Not visible to the inspector is how the through wall flashing is attached to the inner wall, is there “end dam” flashing installed at the lintels; is the cavity clear or filled with excess mortar, was the block manufactured with integral sealant, is there sealant in the mortar, etc. Any short-cuts or poor workmanship will cause leakage.
    As pointed out in the report, most of the buildings constructed using split block are single wythe, meaning that there is one layer of block between the exterior and the finished wall. There may or may not be a 2″ x 4″ stud wall between the block and the drywall. Often there is just a thin “furring strip” that the drywall is attached to. Using this configuration, any defect in the construction of the exterior wall will mean water penetration into the residence.
    A better, but more costly means of construction, involves building a “cavity wall”. Cavity wall construction uses a frame or block built inner wall and an outer wall of split block and / or face brick. The exterior cladding is a veneer. There is a 1″ – 2″ space or “cavity” between the exterior and the inner wall. The cavity serves as a drainage plane and pressure equalizer; decreasing, but not entirely eliminating the possibility of leaking into the building.
    As for the building code, I had a discussion with my alderman in the early 0’s, when the City of Chicago was considering a so called “Split Block” ordinance, to address the burgeoning problem with these buildings. When asked what should go into a new building code regulating split block construction my answer was first and foremost double wall, cavity construction, no exceptions. After that would be strict adherence with “best practice” standards, including frequent, in-progress inspections by the city to insure compliance. I was told that neither of those recommendations would have a chance to become code. Cavity wall construction would add too much to the cost of construction, the developers would never accept it and it would stifle development. As for the in-progress inspections by the city; there are not enough city inspectors and no money in the budget to add more. As pointed out in the report, most new buildings are approved by the plans alone. An inspector rarely, if ever checks up on the actual construction. Even if all the proper details are in the plans, nobody holds the developers feet to the fire to ensure the plans are followed to the letter.
    Most of the licensed Home Inspectors I know, who work in the City of Chicago and inspect a lot of these buildings discuss the downside of split block construction with their clients. Additionally, all Inspectors should have a disclaimer in their reports explaining that this type of building material has a high probability of causing leaks into buildings if not installed and maintained properly.
    I find that often the client, a first time buyer, has blinders on. They are sold on the home or condo unit because of the way it looks, size, high-end finishes and amenities, location. The unit is new, or if a resale freshly painted. No sign of mold or water damage.
    Although told by their inspector the exterior materials and type of construction is vulnerable to problems, they wrongly believe it will not be their problem. It is a condo issue; failing to realize they are the condo. Or they are only planning to stay a few years. They will be gone before any problems start.
    Exacerbating the problem is that most of these buildings are self-managed condos. The units are owned by first time buyers, who believe, wrongly, that condominium means someone else takes care of the building. Maintenance is deferred, or doesn’t get done at all.
    There are many reasons for the problems with these buildings, and more than enough blame to go around. The real worry is that explained by Mr. Hier; catastrophic failure of these structures and the death of residents, due to rotting trusses and joists, is almost certain to occur, sooner rather than later.
    Barry Kreiter
    Building Knowledge, Inc.
    BK Property Inspections
    & Condominium Consulting

  7. Steve Hier says:

    I appeared in the WTTW program and have inspected thousands of the concrete block buildings in Chicago. I first started questioning the use of single wythe walls in the late 90’s. I have been featured in countless articles in the Sun Times, Tribune, Masonry Magazine, and WBEZ radio. I have met with countless alderman and city commissioners about this issue.
    The city does not inspect these buildings for proper detail and the contractors in many cases do not know what they are doing. The city says over and over that this is a good building product if done properly. This reminds me of the childrens parable ” The Emperors New Clothes”. Let us all stick are heads in the sand.
    Some of these condo buildings associations can not get insurance because claims have been paid and they still leak.
    Also many asscoiations have no reserves to pay for repairs which can cost tens of thousands. Bring a suit against the developer, good luck.

    My advise, call your alderman and get an experienced inspector when buying or selling a concrete block condo or home.

    Steve Hier
    Miller-Hier Enterprises
    773-342-4722

  8. kathy torres -Arrow Masonry says:

    I completely agree with you, as a project manager for Arrow Masonry I have helped to fix hundreds of these split face block condos in the Chicagoland area for over 10 years now. It is not the block itself causing the horrible leaking conditions these homeowners have. It is improper or missing flashings with no apparent drip wicks or end dams above the windows,doors and capstones. It is having no moisture barrier installed. It is missing mortar, cracked or voided mortar joints. Caulk is missing or deteriorated around all or some of the fixtures, utility housings, scupper boxes, vents, anchors, bolts, windows, doors and railings. Also I have found than in about 70 percent of the cases no IPCO thru wall flashings are insalled on top of the parapet walls. Also the capstones and quoinings are reniassance stone NOT limestone and the renaissance stone is extremely porous!!!when I go out to a building I need to go inside as well as outside to fully inspect the leaking areas theb make a proper assessment- it is rare to just have to seal the block. Normally flashings, drip wicks,faulty caulk and mortar all have to be fixed PRIOR to waterproofing the block. I have seen so many families affected by these leaks where they have been infested with black mold and have to move out. I have also seen homeowners think they have been sealed by “fly by the night” companies who have no idea what they are ding or using inferior sealants – some will only seal the bottom floor as they don’t want or can’t set up scaffolding and ignore the 2nd,3rd etc floors.

    For a proper,detailed inspection of your condo or home please call
    Kathy -Arrow Masonry-Project Manager (847-776-6400) kathy.arrowmasonry@gmail.com

  9. […] have been a few recent stories in the media on this issue. The most recent being a piece on Chicago Tonight (WTTW); about a year ago This American Life on WBEZ featured the plight of first-time condo owners […]