Some years back, when I was just getting started in the home inspection business, an unhappy homeowner asked me to figure out why he kept getting water under his months-old house.
So, I drove out to the house, and as soon as I turned onto this poor soul’s street, I saw that his house was sitting at the bottom of a little basin. After I crawled under the house and found puddles of water, rotten floor framing and damp insulation, I explained the mess to my client this way: “You know how some people take a spoon and make a dent in the top of their mashed potatoes, so they can pour a little gravy on top, and the gravy will stay there?”
“Well,” I said, “all this land around you is the mashed potatoes, and your house is at the bottom of the dent.”
Armed with my report, my customer called his builder and demanded satisfaction. A couple of weeks later, I went back to check out the work. I found that the builder had sent one knucklehead, driving one little earth mover, to mound up dirt in a circle about 10 feet from the house. The knucklehead had built a moat. All it needed was a drawbridge. Last I heard, the unhappy homeowner was lawyering up.
Since then, I've seen the new-house-on-a-wet-lot problem hundreds of times. I even have a pet name for it: The sucker lot.
Just about every new housing development has at least one sucker lot. It’s big enough to hold a house, but it has un-fixable drainage problems. The developer has two options: leave the lot empty, or build a house on it and sell it to somebody who doesn’t know any better. Don’t you know, the developer always chooses the build-it-and-let-it-rot option.
The sucker lot usually gets sold to a trusting soul who walks into the model home on a Sunday, sits down among the plaques and trophies that the developer has won, then enjoys some cookies and coffee with the nice sales folks there at the model.
Naive buyers just can’t believe that those sweet people at the model home would mislead them. Y’all need to understand: those sales folk are professional deal closers, not geotech engineers. They don’t care about the dirt. They care about the dough.
Now you might be thinking, “How about the city codes inspectors? They catch all the big problems, right?”
Well, no. They just don’t have enough time, training or resources to find everything wrong with the houses they inspect. Even so, I can’t figure out how a full-grown codes inspector misses a lot that slopes toward a house on three or four sides. Municipal codes inspectors bless houses built on sucker lots every day.
If you’re hot for a new house, this thought might pop into your head: “The house comes with a warranty. I'm covered.”
I suggest that you read the warranty very closely. From what I've seen, a new-house warranty won’t kick in until your house suffers a real enough failure. That means a mini-collapse, or some bizarre combination of conditions that makes the house uninhabitable. In the warranties I’ve read, if your house cracks, the builder isn’t necessarily obligated to make it right. Usually, he’s just obligated to fill up the crack. He could use Play-Doh and still meet the terms of the warranty.
Just so you’ll know: Houses built in low spots develop all kinds of problems, including foundation cracks and rotten framing. They also are home to all kinds of water-loving fungi and molds that eat wood and make people sick. And if that’s not bad enough, termites love houses with damp crawl spaces.
Now, I’m going to tell you how to avoid the sucker lot.
Step 1. Use your eyes and common sense. Water runs downhill. If the lot looks like it’ll direct water straight at your house, it probably will. If there are mini-gullies carved into the lot, that’s a clue that the lot takes on a lot of water.
Step 2. Do some measuring. All you need is a level and a ruler. According to every building code I’ve ever read, the soil adjacent to a newly built house has to drop at least six inches in the first 10 feet. Simply put, your house should be at the top of a six-inch (or higher) hill.
Step 3: If the lot looks funny and doesn’t measure up, just walk away. You can find a house that’s not sitting in its own little swamp.
Jowers has been writing about renovating old houses, and other things, since 1981. His column appears every Thursday in The City Paper. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org