7 Tips to Avoid Becoming the Last Man Standing in a Property Water Intrustion and Mold Claim

Expert Contributors:

Mold and moisture issues can be one of the largest and most expensive problems buildings face. Whether you’re looking to acquire a property or have a current property, these tips and tricks will help you with evaluating buildings for future mold and moisture problems and how to identify mold and moisture problems sooner before they get out of hand and cost you millions of dollars to fix.

Tip 1: Evaluate Combination of Building Systems

The potential of the underlying presence of moisture and mold problems can be incredibly predictable. Case-in-point was a senior living facility in south Texas that experienced outside air infiltration problems because of wind impacts. The entry points were through planned mechanical openings like exhaust wall caps and the VTAC enclosure. The original design had a deficient outside air system that assumed it could feed a limited amount of makeup air to the corridors to offset what the designer thought would be minimal impact from individual living unit intermittent exhaust fans. In high wind coastal environments, this is a combination of systems that have historically (and highly predictable risk exposure) resulted in moisture and mold problems in the living units.

Bottle Tracer Test in Senior Living Facility

Before acquiring a property or a complete portfolio of properties you can evaluate each property at a high level to identify if there are a combination of systems designed and constructed into the property that historically have been shown to lead to moisture and mold problems.

Tip 2: Avoid Making Quick Fixes to Larger Problems

In this military housing located in the deep south, the resident soldiers were complaining of indoor high humidity and condensation problems. Reacting to these claims, the property manager attempted to correct the problem by installing an attic exhaust fan. High indoor humidity and condensation problems often stem from a combination of building envelope and HVAC system deficiencies.

Attic Exhaust Fan in Military Housing

This repair attempt did not correct the problem, in fact, it exacerbated it by causing the entire home to become significantly more negative and therefore introduced even more outdoor air infiltration. Unfortunately, this repair was deployed across several hundred soldier housing units before the property manager realized it was not working.

High indoor humidity and condensation problems often stem from a combination of building envelope and HVAC system deficiencies and they require a multi-disciplinary approach (architectural and mechanical) to solve the problem. The local property manager should not attempt to resolve this kind of issue on their own.

Tip 3: Don’t Be a Victim of Brand Standards

The theory behind brand D&C standards is that they are often portrayed as a repository of lessons learned and of what should be done (and, by implication, what should not be done) to make the hotel work. However, theory proves contrary to actual practice in this case because D&C standards are developed on a global basis. They typically do not take into consideration the specific needs and limitations of differing regional climates. In fact, it has been found that these standards often don’t comply with recommended building practices for certain climates. These violations in the brand standards have been shown repeatedly to result in extensive and costly mold and moisture problems.

Mold Damaged Wall Due to D&C Standards Not Adapted for Local Climates

Always make sure your design and construction team are required to adapt the D&C brand standards to the local climate requirements. They should also highlight if there are mandated D&C brand standards that violate good practice for your location.

Tip 4: Not All Assessments Find Defects or Damage

The Property Condition Assessment is a standard tool used in the real estate industry for property transactions. It even has its own ASTM standard on how to conduct the assessment. Notably, the assessment intentionally avoids the kind of inspections and testing that would identify if the property you are considering for purchase has hidden water or mold-related defects or damage.

Mold Behind Drywall Found During Property Condition Assessment

As a property management company involved in the acquisition of properties, you should augment your PCA with a separate consultant who will focus on identifying if there is hidden water or mold-related defects or damage reducing your exposure to this risk.

Tip 5: Don’t Rely on Work Orders to Assess Issues

Even if the property undergoes regular analysis of work orders to determine patterns that may indicate problems, it is not correct to assume that this analysis will show that there are effects from original design or construction defects in the building envelope. Nor will the work orders show that there is underlying damage from water intrusion, including structural deterioration and mold inside the walls.

Work Order Summary Pie Chart

Do not rely only on work orders to assess if you have systemic building issues that have led to or will lead to mold and moisture problems. Always use a good peer review approach to the installed systems to evaluate your risk exposure.

Tip 6: Pay Attention During Unplanned Work

One important type of work that occurs on multi-family properties like student housing, condos, and apartments is special work and projects. Usually, this work is performed by outside vendors, not by the property engineering staff. Often, if not always, this work is not a part of the work order process. As such, this work does not become part of the work order “story”, and may not be tracked or reported to management effectively.

Destructive Test Damage Behind Stucco Found During Work Orders

At this particular property, when special work occurred, areas of the building were exposed and the vendor completing the work did get a view of the underlying damage (and by extension, defects), like mold impacted and deteriorated wood structure from water intrusion. However, because this work was primarily viewed as a one-off event by the property engineering, and because it was performed mostly by outside vendors, there was poor feedback within the property management organization, and the potential of significant, systemic, repeatable problems was not obvious.

Make your vendors produce a report of their findings along with photographs of what was found during the special work or project. This will allow the property management staff to conduct its own assessment and “connect the dots” with other similar work that may have been performed on the property.

Tip 7: Advise Owners of Subsystems Near End of Life

It is common practice to communicate to owners that certain equipment is or has reached the end of its useful life. This allows for forecasting of replacement costs of equipment like fan coil units. But often the attached ductwork is not also considered in the assessment for replacement. Ductwork also has an end to useful life.

Duct With Mold Damage in Subsystem Needs Replaced

Don’t forget to advise the owner of the subsystems that may be reaching the end of their useful life, like ductwork. Often, these subsystems have an end of useful life that is earlier than the main equipment.