Pennsylvania families are looking at a billion dollar problem, though many homeowners haven’t realized it yet. Stucco-clad homes across the state are crumbling due to water damage.

Water Damage Homeowners Insurance Claims Graphic

Expert home inspectors believe that thousands of stucco homes in Pennsylvania may be affected, leaving families with hundreds of thousands of dollars in remediation expenses. The problem, though, isn’t being chalked up to stucco’s inherent weaknesses as a siding material. Instead, experts and homeowners alike have placed the blame solely on home builders and contractors. It’s defective construction, and disregarded building codes, that have made Pennsylvania’s homes so vulnerable to water damage.

Water Damage: A Huge Problem In Pennsylvania

Most homeowners understand that water damage is a significant problem.

Water Damage Statistic Infographic

Once moisture has been allowed to infiltrate a building, the adverse effects can be numerous. As metal corrodes and beams are eaten away, the very structural integrity of a home can be threatened, putting residents directly in harm’s way. Even foundations can crack, ultimately losing the ability to support the overlying structure. Beyond structural damage, damp building materials provide an excellent environment for mold growth, aggravating pre-existing conditions like asthma or leading to the development of new respiratory conditions.

Water Damage Cost To Insurers Infographic

It should go without saying that water damage in the home has to be addressed immediately, even disregarding the impact that unrepaired problems will have on the home’s value. As a homeowner in Pennsylvania, you need to know whether or not water damage has begun to eat away at your home. Planning on purchasing a home? Trust us; you’ll want to have a moisture inspection done first, especially if the home is clad in stucco.

Is Moisture Inspection Part Of Home Inspection?

Very rarely.

Most licensed home inspectors don’t perform examinations specifically for moisture damage. While these professionals usually pick up on obvious signs of water infiltration, like those classic “stucco tears” that weep down from windows, home inspectors aren’t required to look underneath the walls of a house. In fact, the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors doesn’t require accredited members to use moisture meters at all. Too bad that’s really the only way to detect water damage. The true evidence of moisture infiltration is usually hiding beneath a home’s exterior, not on its surface.

Water Damage Homeowners Insurance Graphic

Most buyers choose to have an inspection performed before purchasing a home, but that’s all home inspection is: a choice. Sellers aren’t required to have their homes inspected before putting them on the market. Moisture inspection, for that matter, is an added level of protection, but one that home buyers, like homeowners, will have to go out of their way to receive.

How Does Moisture Inspection Work?

To ensure that your home is safe, it’s likely that you’ll have to contact an inspection team that specializes in moisture detection. Moisture inspectors have a lot of tools at their disposal, but some have proven less than helpful in identifying the severity and extent of water damage, according to the experts at Structure Tech.

  • Get a knife and start cutting – Of course, any homeowner can just grab a butcher knife and start tearing into their own stucco walls. The DIY-approach won’t do you much good, though, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. Add to that the (costly) headache of patching up unsightly scars on your home’s exterior and contacting a professional starts to sound pretty good.
  • Video scopes – After drilling a small hole through the stucco, some moisture inspectors insert a small camera, or boreoscope, inside the wall cavity. Images show up on a small LCD video screen, but don’t expect those images to tell you much. Since exterior walls are covered in insulation, navigating a video scope to the right place can be hard, especially when you want visual confirmation of problems that lie below the insulation. Plus, no amount of visual confirmation can really tell you anything about moisture levels, because a board can still look fine even though it’s saturated with water.
  • Infrared cameras – Instead of pure visuals, some inspectors will use an infrared camera to detect changes in heat inside a wall cavity. While areas of stucco can become cooler after soaking up moisture, this test is far from conclusive. Where Structure Tech is concerned, “reputable” moisture inspectors just don’t use infrared cameras to inspect stucco homes any more.

Most experienced inspectors forego the methods we’ve just discussed and rely on moisture meters instead. Probe testing is generally considered the most accurate, but still fairly non-invasive, technique for performing moisture inspection.

Moisture Inspection 101

Remember that the real problem isn’t what’s happening on the surface of your home. It’s not the stucco we want to test, but the wood underneath. That’s why a moisture inspector will drill small holes through the exterior stucco, allowing for a probe to be inserted. Probe testing can also be conducted from inside a home, although decorative finishes and personal belongings might limit the areas into which an inspector is willing to drill.

Moisture Meters: Pin Type & Search Mode

While there are two different types of moisture meters on the market, the International Association of Home Inspectors says that the best meters actually incorporate both types of detection, pin type and search mode, into their designs.

  • Pin type moisture meters are designed to measure the amount of moisture on a building material’s surface or at incremental depths. In either case, the meter’s thin metallic probes register how much electricity the material is able to conduct. When a building material is wet, electric currents find it easier to flow. Dry materials, on the other hand, resist the flow of electricity. In practice, moisture meters convert a raw reading of electrical conductivity (expressed in ohms, the unit for electrical resistance) into an easily-understood percentage moisture content. These percentages can be important. Mold growth, for example, is generally believed to begin at around 20% moisture content.
  • Search mode (or pinless) moisture meters are designed to register moisture levels that lie beneath a material’s surface. By emitting electromagnetic waves, usually radio waves, the meter can read how a given material’s underlying moisture content affects the nature of these waves. After penetrating the material, electromagnetic waves bounce back. It’s this returning signal that’s of real importance. If the wave comes into contact with water, its amplitude will have decreased. The meter reads these changes in amplitude and then calculates the moisture content.

Most experts consider the pin type meter more accurate on repeat testing, but the method does come with some drawbacks. Most importantly, pin type detection is unreliable in catching intermittent patches of wetness; it works better when a material’s surface is thoroughly soaked. Search mode meters, on the other hand, can be fooled by metal, which affects electromagnetic waves in much the same way that water does.

Probe testing isn’t all technology, though. Sometimes simply inserting the probe into underlying wood will be enough to feel a noticeable difference in the material’s strength or integrity. Feels strong and hard? That’s a good sign. Water-damaged wood, at least after chronic moisture infiltration, tends to feel mushy or insubstantial.

What Happens After The Inspection?

Beyond checking for the moisture content of underlying materials, most moisture inspectors also perform a visual examination to determine where water is getting in. Caulking around windows and flashings, which divert water away from joints, should be checked. Fixing the problem, however, isn’t the moisture inspector’s job; that’s work for contractors and engineers. In fact, Pennsylvania has a law that prevents home inspectors from performing most repairs.

Avoidable Water Damage Statistics Infographic

Still, you might learn some unpleasant truths about your home in the moisture inspection process. For one thing, your inspector may tell you that your home’s moisture-barrier elements look to have been improperly installed. As a result, many inspectors tell their clients to contact the home’s builder, while taking caution to protect their legal rights. The experts at Structure Tech, for example, ask clients with excessive moisture intrusion to “immediately notify your building in writing” of the inspection’s findings. Homeowners are also advised to contact an experienced stucco damage attorney before moving forward, to help with any legal issues that might arise due to defective construction.