Builders and Homeowners should know how to protect themselves against this damaging and dangerous problem
Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt
Mold-related damages have recently plagued the construction industry. In addition to direct damage to property, some experts contend that mold and mildew can cause health problems. Not good. As a result, contractors, homeowners, remodelers and potential homebuyers should take steps to prevent or mitigate these risks. Because the insurance companies have tightened their policies to limit coverage, prevention versus cure is key. There are also legal ramifications for builders or owners of homes with mildew problems.
What is mold? Mold is part of the natural environment and, when limited to the outdoors, is beneficial because it breaks down dead organic matter. However, when it grows indoors, it can pose a very serious problem that must be addressed immediately. Because it grows in isolated areas, mold is difficult to eradicate totally, which can lead to endless battles. Once mold spores enter a home, they need moisture and material to thrive and spread. Mold usually results from moisture that occurs from water intrusion or flooding. Faulty building or materials (normally siding, roofing or flashing) or failure to timely address moisture issues are the usual culprits.
What can a homebuyer, builder or remodeler do to protect themselves?
No matter its age or apparent condition, buyers should assume a worst-case scenario when buying a home. Mold is something that typically cannot be detected during a walk-through inspection. It is essential to have the home inspected by a qualified inspector before closing.
Under Washington’s real estate laws, a seller must, in writing, disclose any known issues involving flooding, leaky roofs or mold before closing. A purchaser should not rely exclusively upon these disclosures when it comes to mildew. Instead, a home inspection should include a discussion with the occupants of the home and an investigation into any evidence of past events that could have resulted in water intrusion.
New Construction or Remodels
When building a new home or conducting a remodel, the most important step is to hire a qualified, licensed and bonded builder. Fortunately, the most reliable builders – those that put a premium on their reputations – are very versed in the methods and materials to reduce risk of mold. Interview your builder about these issues and whether they have a plan to minimize these risks. In addition to your contractor, consider retaining your own home inspector periodically to inspect the construction of the home. He or she should know when and how to inspect the project to make sure the builder is using appropriate methods to minimize your risks. Also have frank and continuous discussions with your home inspector about your concerns with moisture and mold.
Also become familiar with your builder’s warranties to determine whether mold-related damage is covered. If there is coverage, which you may wish to insist upon, make sure you have a follow-up inspection performed by a qualified inspector at least 60 days before the warranty expires to ensure that any potential problems are identified before the warranty expires.
Next, try to select a homeowner’s insurance policy that covers damage caused by mold. These may be rare since insurers don’t like to pay out on mold claims. Insurers have crafted and interpreted their policies to limit exposure. However, the courts in Washington have not yet allowed insurance companies to completely avoid liability for mold claims.
There are also steps a homeowner should take while owning the home. Preventative steps include fixing plumbing leaks immediately; reducing indoor humidity by using ventilation fans; using air conditioners and dehumidifiers; and using exhaust fans whenever cooking, dishwashing or cleaning.
What can a contractor do to prevent or limit liability from mold claims?
During the construction phase, the contractor should establish a mold-resistant strategy that includes the use of mold-resistant products, a mold-resistant process and mold-resistant site management. This strategy should include keeping all wood studs dry, allowing framing to dry before putting up drywall, installing ventilation fixtures in the bathroom and kitchen that vent outside, waterproofing the home to prevent bulk water intrusion, and using house wrap to keep building materials dry and improve building durability. Contractors should also look into purchasing liability insurance to protect against mold-related claims. And, they should review their contracts with homeowners to ensure that they have adequately addressed the scope of their warranty.
Again, mold and mildew will damage a structure and can cause health problems. In the Northwest, builders and homeowners must be especially wary of these issues and take steps to prevent and remedy a problem.
Brad Andersen is an attorney with the Vancouver and Stevenson offices of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, specializing in land use, real estate and litigation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.