Stucco: What to Look For

Read Part 1 of this installment »

Because building owners knew stucco to be a protective, but also somewhat fragile coating, they employed a variety of means to prolong its usefulness. The most common treatment was to whitewash stucco, often annually. The lime in the whitewash offered protection and stability and helped to harden the stucco. Most importantly, it filled hairline cracks before they could develop into larger cracks and let in moisture. To improve water repellency, stucco buildings were also sometimes coated with paraffin, another type of wax, or other stucco-like coatings, such as oil mastics. 

Stucco Deterioration

Most stucco deterioration is the result of water infiltration into the building structure, either through the roof, around chimneys, window and door openings, or excessive ground water or moisture penetrating through, or splashing up from the foundation. Potential causes of deterioration include: ground settlement lintel and door frame settlement, inadequate or leaking gutters and downspouts, intrusive vegetation, moisture migration within walls due to interior condensation and humidity, vapor drive problems caused by furnace, bathroom and kitchen vents, and rising damp resulting from excessive ground water and poor drainage around the foundation. Water infiltration will cause wood lath to rot, and metal lath and nails to rust, which eventually will cause stucco to lose its bond and pull away from its substrate.

After the cause of deterioration has been identified, any necessary repairs to the building should be made first before repairing the stucco. Such work is likely to include repairs designed to keep excessive water away from the stucco, such as roof, gutter, downspout and flashing repairs, improving drainage, and redirecting rainwater runoff and splash-back away from the building. Horizontal areas such as the tops of walls or chimneys are particularly vulnerable to water infiltration, and may require modifications to their original design, such as the addition of flashing to correct the problem.

Previous repairs inexpertly carried out may have caused additional deterioration, particularly if executed in portland cement, which tends to be very rigid, and therefore incompatible with early, mostly soft lime-based stucco that is more “flexible.” Incompatible repairs, external vibration caused by traffic or construction, or building settlement can also result in cracks which permit the entrance of water and cause the stucco to fail. 

Before beginning any stucco repair, an assessment of the stucco should be undertaken to determine the extent of the damage, and how much must be replaced or repaired. Testing should be carried out systematically on all elevations of the building to determine the overall condition of the stucco. Some areas in need of repair will be clearly evidenced by missing sections of stucco or stucco layers. Bulging or cracked areas are obvious places to begin. Unsound, punky or soft areas that have lost their key will echo with a hollow sound when tapped gently with a wooden or acrylic hammer or mallet. 

The Cure

Analysis of the original stucco will provide useful information on its primary ingredients and their proportions, and will help to ensure that the new replacement stucco will duplicate the old in strength, composition, color and texture as closely as possible. There are, however, simple tests that can be carried out on a small piece of stucco to determine its basic makeup. 

Some plasterers began using portland cement in the 1880s, yet others may have continued to favor lime stucco well into the early twentieth century. While it is safe to assume that a late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century stucco is lime-based, late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century stucco may be based on either lime or portland cement. Another important factor to take into consideration is that an early lime-stucco building is likely to have been repaired many times over the ensuing years, and it is probable that at least some of these patches consist of portland cement. Once the extent of damage has been determined, a number of repair options may be considered. Small hairline cracks usually are not serious and may be sealed with a thin slurry coat consisting of the finish coat ingredients, or even with a coat of paint or whitewash.

The color of most early stucco was supplied by the aggregate included in the mix–usually the sand. Sometimes natural pigments were added to the mix, and eighteenth and nineteenth-century scored stucco was often marbleized or painted in imitation of marble or granite. Stucco was also frequently coated with whitewash or a colorwash. This tradition later evolved into the use of paint, its popularity depending on the vagaries of fashion as much as a means of concealing repairs. Because most of the early colors were derived from nature, the resultant stucco tints tended to be mostly earth-toned. This was true until the advent of brightly colored stucco in the early decades of the twentieth century. 

Many stucco buildings have been painted over the years and will require repainting after the stucco repairs have been made. Limewash or cement-based paint, latex paint, or oil-based paint are appropriate coatings for stucco buildings. The most important factor to consider when repainting a previously painted or coated surface is that the new paint be compatible with any coating already on the surface. 

Stucco construction is a hallmark of our Old Florida heritage. Taking good care of your historic house can be a source of beauty and pride, as well as a protection of your investment.

This article is sourced from Preservation Brief 22 of the U.S. National Park Service.

Attic Pull-Down Ladders

Attic pull-down ladders, also called attic pull-down stairways, are collapsible ladders that are permanently attached to the attic floor. Occupants can use these ladders to access their attics without being required to carry a portable ladder.

Common Defects

Homeowners, not professional carpenters, usually install attic pull-down ladders. Evidence of this distinction can be observed in consistently shoddy and dangerous work that rarely meets safety standards. Some of the more common defective conditions observed by inspectors include:

  • cut bottom cord of structural truss. Often, homeowners will cut through a structural member in the field while installing a pull-down ladder, unknowingly weakening the structure. Structural members should not be modified in the field without an engineer’s approval;
  • fastened with improper nails or screws. Homeowners often use drywall or deck screws rather than the standard 16d penny nails or ¼” x 3” lag screws. Nails and screws that are intended for other purposes may have reduced shear strength and they may not support pull-down ladders;
  • fastened with an insufficient number of nails or screws. Manufacturers provide a certain number of nails with instructions that they all be used, and they probably do this for a good reason. Inspectors should be wary of “place nail here” notices that are nowhere near any nails;
  • lack of insulation. Hatches in many houses (especially older ones) are not likely to be weather-stripped and/or insulated. An uninsulated attic hatch allows air from the attic to flow freely into the home, which may cause the heating or cooling system to run overtime. An attic hatch cover box can be installed to increase energy savings;
  • loose mounting bolts. This condition is more often caused by age rather than installation, although improper installation will hasten the loosening process;
  • attic pull-down ladders are cut too short. Stairs should reach the floor;
  • attic pull-down ladders are cut too long. This causes pressure at the folding hinge, which can cause breakage;
  • improper or missing fasteners;
  • compromised fire barrier when installed in the garage;
  • attic ladder frame is not properly secured to the ceiling opening;
  • closed ladder is covered with debris, such as blown insulation or roofing material shed during roof work. Inspectors can place a sheet on the floor beneath the ladder to catch whatever debris may fall onto the floor;
  • and cracked steps. This defect is a problem with wooden ladders.

In sliding pull-down ladders, there is a potential for the ladder to slide down quickly without notice. Always pull the ladder down slowly and cautiously.

Tips for homeowners

  • Do not allow children to enter the attic through an attic access. The lanyard attached to the attic stairs should be short enough that children cannot reach it. Parents can also lock the attic ladder so that a key or combination is required to access it.
  • If possible, avoid carrying large loads into the attic. While properly installed stairways may safely support an adult man, they might fail if he is carrying, for instance, a bag full of bowling balls. Such trips can be split up to reduce the weight load.
  • Replace an old, rickety wooden ladder with a new one. Newer aluminum models are often lightweight, sturdy and easy to install.

In summary, attic pull-down ladders are prone to a number of defects, most of which are due to improper installation. Source: InterNACHI.

Chinese Drywall

During Florida’s housing boom of the mid-2000s and after Hurricane Katrina created a shortage of building supplies, contaminated drywall imported from China was commonly used in new homes and in hurricane restoration. Builders were unaware of the potential problems that would arise from the use of this drywall that had been manufactured overseas without quality control.

coilsOver time, inspectors noticed a blackening of copper electrical writing and AC evaporator coils (see photo) due to the release of sulfur gases that have the potential to sicken the people who live in homes with Chinese drywall. Health issues may include headaches, nose bleeds, eye irritation, or breathing problems (though there are many other possible causes of these health issues).

According to the experts, “Chinese companies use unrefined “fly ash,” a coal residue found in smokestacks in coal-fired power plants in their manufacturing process. Fly ash contains strontium sulfide, a toxic substance commonly found in fireworks. In hot and wet environments, this substance can off-gas into hydrogen sulfide, carbon disulfide, and carbonyl sulfide and contaminate a home’s air supply.” Source: InterNACHI

On every inspection, we look for tell-tell signs of metal corrosion and can advise the homeowner of their options. There is no remediation other than replacement, which can be expensive. The value of the home, potential health problems, and the cost of replacement are all “must know” concerns. If you suspect your home may be contaminated, it’s important to have the residence undergo a Chinese Drywall Inspection by a licensed home inspector as soon as possible.

More information can be found at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website.

The Ideal Home Inspection

In most cases, Florida and the FHA do not require a home inspection. But a home inspection is encouraged and most buyers want them. So, how can a seller prepare for inspection day?

checklist-2470549_1920The ideal home home inspection goes like this:

  • The seller is not at home during the inspection.
  • The buyer is on time for the appointment.
  • The home inspector is on time and has all the tools needed.
  • If the house is vacant, the utilities are turned on.
  • The house is spotless and all personal items are secured or tucked out of sight.
  • Pets are crated or removed from the house; bird cages are covered.
  • Lighting is in working order throughout, including attics, garages, and closets.
  • Appliances are all in working order; pilot lights are lit.
  • Washer/dryers and dishwashers are empty and dryer filters clean.
  • Ovens and microwaves are clean and in working order; stovetops spotless.
  • Access to attic stairs, pulldown ladders, and crawlspace hatches are obvious and unobstructed. Workspace around furnaces and water heaters are clear of obstacles.
  • Air conditioning and heating units are in working order with original installation dates noted and a filter change schedule attached to the unit.
  • If septic system or water well, a location sketch is left on the kitchen counter.

Unfortunately, home inspections like this are rare. But they don’t have to be! When access areas requiring inspection are are locked or otherwise inaccessible, inspectors need to return to finish the job, slowing the sale and sometimes raising suspicions—even costing a sale!