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How to spot a dodgy builder

You’ve started your building project and everything is going great. Or is it? You have a sneaking suspicion that your builder might not quite be up to scratch.

Perhaps they’ve turned up late or not at all, or you’ve seen them using some unusual building techniques and you’re beginning to think you’ve actually chosen a dodgy builder.

Or maybe it’s not until the job is done that you realise that the building work is less than perfect. But by now, the dodgy builder has packed up his tools and moved on.

You don’t want to be the next ‘Dodgy Builder’ story on a Current Affair. You don’t want to be left with a property that’s riddled with problems. So how can you tackle your dodgy builder head on?

In this post, I’ll give you some tips around making the best of a bad building situation.

Step 1: Getting real

The first step is to fixing the problem is to admit you have a problem.  If you’re not feeling happy about how your building work is going, then it’s important to step back and think about getting a second opinion.

Seek out some independent advice from another builder, who is experienced in remedial and waterproofing works (if possible someone who has come highly recommended). And don’t worry, you don’t need to tell the current builder you’re doing this.

I often find no one wants to accept the reality that they have problems either on, as they’re fearful of the costs involved to fix things. But this head in the sand (or cement) approach doesn’t work!

The truth is that the longer you leave the problem the more difficult it is going to be to get it fixed. Often the builder may have gone broke, or disappeared, and the damage could get worse.

Step 2: Ask (yourself) the tough questions

Consider whether you have a major building defect or a small issue. To give you some idea of what this may be:

  • A small hairline crack in a plasterboard wall is not a major defect.
  • Large cracks or rust marks appearing concrete is a major defect.
  • A leaking balcony (or any leak into a building from an outdoor area) is a major defect.

It’s important to have a sense of perspective on your problem before you contact your builder.

Step 3: Keep a good relationship with your builder

Ideally it’s a good idea to try to maintain a good working relationship with your builder. Refusing to pay a $20k bill because there’s a damaged floor tile or loose door handle isn’t fair.

Generally, in our experience if you maintain a good attitude and remain polite when dealing with your builder, you’ll get a better result in the long run.

Step 4: Give your builder a chance

If there’s a major defect always give your original builder the chance to fix things. There are often teething troubles with building work and a good builder will always be happy to return and fix problems.

Step 5: Create a paper trail

It’s vital to document everything and keep records. Start a diary of your correspondence, and write short and simple entries covering the latest developments.
Some examples could include:

  • <DATE>: I contacted <Builder name> by phone / email on site to ask about leaking window frames in bedroom two.
  • <DATE>: Two men came on site today at <TIME> and spent <NUMBER> hours working on the window frames.
  • <DATE>: Heavy rainstorm, more leaks in window.

Where possible try to correspond with your builder via email, text or letter, and keep copies of all digital messages.

When you contact them about your problem, ask them to document (in written form) what the problem is and the steps they plan to take to fix it.

I also recommend to taking photos of all affected areas, to provide as much detail as possible.

Step 6: Don’t be tempted to fix yourself

I can’t stress enough how important it is NOT to fix the problem yourself. As soon as you start working on the issue, you essentially let the builder off the hook.
They can then claim that YOU created the problem, or made it worst.

Of course it’s fine to implement simple emergency measures, like putting a tarpaulin over a leaky balcony or blocking off a dodgy balustrade.

But don’t do anything such as trying to seal tiles, or pulling up a tile to fix a leak. You’ll void the warranty and be in an even bigger mess.

Step 7: Check your warranty

I always recommend that customers insist on a written 10-year manufacturer’s warranty from a major long-term supplier for all waterproofing works. This is a simple, but effective, way to strain out the cowboy builders and waterproofers.

Step 8: Seek legal advice

I highly recommend seeking advice from a legal firm experienced in building matters. If you’re having trouble contacting your builder or they’re failing to fix the issue, you next step should be to get expert guidance. (I recommend Bannermans Laywers in North Sydney).

Most good building lawyers will work hard to limit your out-of-pocket costs and avoid a protracted legal dispute.

Step 9: Contact Fair Trading

Check with your state’s fair trading organisation, most of whom offer a quick cost-free dispute resolution service for building issues.

Step 10: Knowing when to give up

Although it can be tempting to persist with the builder or developer as they work through a number of half-baked fixes, it’s important to realise when enough is enough.

Set a time limit for dealing with the issue, say 6 months, and if at that state you haven’t got anywhere. Contact your lawyer and contact a professional builder experienced in remedial works. This is seldom a regular builder, but rather someone who has specialised in this area.

Peter’s story

I was recently asked to project manage some remedial works on in Sydney’s Inner West. It was a townhouse project and after my initial inspection I found that:

  • There was extensive water penetration in the townhouses themselves, the planter boxes and the underground carpark.
  • There was extensive cracking in the masonry walls and retaining walls.
  • The roof and roof flashings were defective resulting in extensive leaking.
Townhouse project retaining walls

Townhouse project retaining walls

Unfortunately, I had to refuse the project, as I felt the proposed works would have been substandard.

I provided a list of alternative solutions, that would lead to a small cost increase of less than 10% and a better result both in terms of quality and aesthetic. Sadly, the owners ignored my advice, then worked directly with the dodgy repairer and the insurance company were then totally off the hook.

On another project, after inspecting leaking balconies on a fairly new unit building, I saw that the external balustrades were non-compliant and dangerous. I had a duty of care to inform the strata manager and a decision was made to have them inspected by an independent engineer.

Unfortunately, the balconies were found to be defective and had to be replaced on the entire building.

Upon further investigation I found that no inspections had been done on the building by the certifier, a serious breach of the building regulations. These owners have now engaged me to oversee the rectification process.

The dodgy falling apart roof area on the fairly new unit building

The dodgy falling apart roof area on the fairly new unit building

The ultimate goal

Although dealing with dodgy builders and poor building work can be stressful, it’s important to keep your cool. Remember, the ultimate goal is to get the original builder to fix or pay for their defective work, with as little cost to you as possible.

Additional information

If you’d like to learn more about dodgy builders, check out these links and resources:

Over to you

Have you had an issue with a dodgy builder? How did you handle your situation? We’d love to hear, so please comment below.

Got a question?

If you would like us to take a look a building issue with your property, give Peter a call on 0412 355 887, or contact us for an obligation-free initial site visit.


How to waterproof outdoor structures

Leaking balconies, tiled areas and other outdoor structures are problems I deal with every day. I want to share some of the outdoor structure waterproofing issues I’ve dealt with and give you my top fixes.

Of course, this post is just an overview and every situation is different, so I recommend seeking professional advice before you attempt any DIY fixes.

What causes leaking balconies?

Roughly 90 per cent of the structure failures I see are caused by poor workmanship, detailing and design rather than the membrane itself.

Lack of falls, no overflow, and insufficient drainage outlets.

Lack of falls, no overflow, and insufficient drainage outlets.

Are all contractors created equal?

If you own a building, you need to make sure any contractor you use for remedial repairs is experienced in that specific type of work.

I’m often approached to fix building defects after a lot of money has already been spent – often because the contractor doesn’t have the knowledge or skills needed for the job.

Large amounts of money are often wasted on unnecessary repairs.

For example, at a recent job, a $12,000 ventilation system was installed in a sub-floor space that held 50-75 mm of surface water after heavy rain. We simply installed drainage to draw off the water in the first place, which was far more efficient and cost effective.

 

There is not continuation of the membrane over the low walls. Water bubbles appear behind the paint. There are leaks into the unit below.

There is not continuation of the membrane over the low walls. Water bubbles appear behind the paint. There are leaks into the unit below.

Expert engineer?

In another case, a so-called ‘expert engineer’ wrote a report listing a massive amount of rising damp in a property when in reality only one small area was affected. We installed ventilation at 40 per cent of the cost of new dampcourses, which had been recommended. The installation of dampcourses would have done nothing to fix the problem.

The PVC membrane (white) finishes just below the tile level rather than higher up. The pipe should pass through a sleeve that the membrane is sealed to.

The PVC membrane (white) finishes just below the tile level rather than higher up. The pipe should pass through a sleeve that the membrane is sealed to.

Money well spent

If an experienced contractor suggests paid investigation work, this can be money well spent. Alternatively a consultant can prepare a report and scope of the work needed.

Keep in mind however, that while investigation work can be worthwhile, inviting multiple contractors to provide quotes could also be a waste of money.

Waterproofing warranties

I’ve had one project where around $150,000 was wasted on ‘repairs’ – all of which failed.

I use all types of membranes and have had to repair or replace most types – liquid, sheet and loose laid PVC – that have been incorrectly applied. All have their advantages and disadvantages.

The planter soil finishes above the top of the PVC membrane. The top of the membrane does not have a pressure seal. No protection board against the membrane. The membrane system does not continue up and over the side walls.

The planter soil finishes above the top of the PVC membrane. The top of the membrane does not have a pressure seal. No protection board against the membrane. The membrane system does not continue up and over the side walls.

My advice is to ask for a manufacturer’s warranty, normally for a period of 10 years. The technical rep from the supplier will visit the site and inspect the work as part of this process.

In a current contract I’m working on, the membrane has had many failures due to poor workmanship and design, despite being of high quality. The clients paid a premium for this system, but failed to get the manufacturer’s back up. The contractor who installed it is no longer in business and multiple areas on the building need to be redone at considerable expense.

What to be aware of

Owners should also be careful when using companies who advertise that they can ‘fix leaking balconies or showers without removing tiles’. There are cases where this can be a successful, cost-effective solution. In general, however, I suggest being cautious and reading the fine print of the warranty because these warranties often have a lot of ‘outs’.

Trees too large / cracked brickwork and membrane failure.

Trees too large / cracked brickwork and membrane failure.

Rooftop terrace / Planter. Obvious lack of maintenance.

Rooftop terrace / Planter. Obvious lack of maintenance.

Why getting an expert remedial contractor is so important, the original membrane installed by the builder failed, the repair job by another contractor paid by the client also failed. I often fix things for the third and in one case the fourth time.

Why I don’t like loose laid membranes. When there is a leak the water just tracks under it all over the place. At least with a liquid membrane system and in most cases a stuck on sheet membrane any leak occurs at the failure point. This also demonstrates why the edge details are so important for membranes and absolutely critical for loose laid ones.

Waterproofing checklist

If you’re waterproofing an exposed, above-ground outdoor structure, use this simple checklist to make your life easier:

  1. Use a solid, well-built base under the membrane: The base must be constructed using moisture-resistant material with all holes or gaps filled.
  2. Do not apply the membrane to a level surface: The membrane must be applied to a surface with the required falls to the drainage outlet. Do not use the tile screed to form the required falls.
  3. Use a continuous membrane system: This must run from the outside edge, across the base and under the sills to the inside of the doors.
  4. Ensure the membrane turns up at the edge: Keep a suitable distance above the finished surface.
  5. Make waterproofing continuous: On low walls and on brick walls, the membrane should run under the wall then over it once it’s built.
  6. Build a well-designed drainage system: It needs to cope with heavy rain to catch water and discharge it into the storm water system without backing up.
  7. Ensure sufficient overflows: This prevents water entering the building.
  8. Create a raised hob: A must-have for under items including columns, air conditioning outlets, plumbing and vents.
  9. Avoid fixing balustrade posts through the membrane: In general, the membrane must finish above the finished tile level.
  10. Allow for movement: This includes wall and base junctions, structural expansion joints and sheet joints.
  11. Make sure tiles aren’t glued to membranes: This should only be done if there is no other option.
  12. Get a ten-year manufacturer’s warranty
  13. Use compatible materials from the same supplier: This includes the membrane, sealants and adhesives. Get advice from the technical department if in doubt. I use Ardex Australia.
  14. Isolate the membrane during building works: Wait until the tiler has laid the screed over it before any other works are done in the area.
  15. Make sure the membrane is UV stable: They can break down quickly otherwise.
  16. Keep maintenance up to date: This includes keeping drains clear of debris, salt deposits and ensuring expansion joints are in good condition.

Additional information

If you’d like to learn more about waterproofing your outdoor structures, check out these links and resources:

Over to you

Have you had an issue with leaking balconies or other outdoor structures? What was the cause and how did you fix it? We’d love to hear, so please comment below.

Got a question?

If you would like us to take a look at a leaking structure on your property, give Peter a call on 0412 355 887, or contact us for an obligation-free quote.


How to deal with salt damage

Salt damage is a very common issue that I see in buildings every day. But unfortunately most building contractors don’t appear to understand this problem or how to fix it. So I thought I’d share my experience and recommendations on how to deal with this salty problem.

What is salt damage?

Just like rust in steel, once salt damage starts, it’s hard to stop. The salt appears on walls, floors and ceilings as stains, solid build-ups, salt crystallisation and salt blisters at the surface.

What causes salt damage?

The most common causes of salt damage are rising damp, leaks, and water leaching through tile beds and render. Generally these issues are caused by bad workmanship or the use of inferior products, but with older properties (over 50 years old), often it’s simply a case of the damp course breaking down due to age.

What is airborne salt damage?

Since so many of Sydney’s buildings are close to the water, I see a lot of salt damage caused by airborne salt. This results in the surface of the stonework or brick fretting (flaking off).

The softer lime mortar used in external brickwork and stonework prior to the 1960s can also be substantially affected by salt deterioration.

How do I know if I have salt damage?

Commons symptoms of salt damage include bubbling plaster, ceiling stains, flaking paint, crumbling bricks or stonework, or visible leaching of salt on tiled areas.

How can I prevent salt damage?

As with all building problems, prevention is better than cure. For a new build, ensure that you use a reputable Sydney builder who uses top-notch materials.

For example: To avoid salts leaching from tile beds, it’s vital that your builder keeps the base material dry when laying tiles to stop any salt forming in the first place. I actually apply a second membrane over the tile screed to keep it dry. The tiles are then glued to the second membrane layer (using a compatible glue, of course).

With render, any builder worth his salt (!) knows that a salt-retardant render works best in external areas; combine this with a decent membrane paint system such as Dulux AcraTex and you’ll have a salt-free long-lasting finish.

With an existing property, stick to a strict maintenance schedule, ensuring render, grouting and tiles are all well looked after. A common result of salt leaching from tile beds is a build-up of salts in the drainage system. I have seen pipes completely blocked due to this. On exterior balconies, take off the drainage grates at regular intervals and clean out the salt deposits in the pipes below.

How can I fix salt damage?

Each type of salt damage requires a different fix, so it’s vital that you assess the cause of the damage before you attempt any remedial measures.

Warning: Painting over the damage is NOT a solution. Yes, you can cover up the stains or flaking with paint and hope it all goes away, but the dampness will just reappear at a later date.

Here’s a brief outline of some salt damage solutions:

  • Rising damp: Unfortunately there’s no easy for fix for a rising damp issue. First, a new dampcourse must be installed either using sheet type such as Alcore or using an injection system.After this, the affected plaster (and at least another 300mm past the last sign of salt damage) must be removed and replaced. Be sure to use salt-retardant render mix, as it acts as a barrier preventing any more salt from reaching the brick surface. It’s critical that your plasterer doesn’t use any additives such as lime or plastermaster renderer’s clay. Using even a tiny amount will prevent it working and the salt will bleed through. (Most renderers are not aware of this!)
Peter’s tip:
“Standard render mix won’t work – the salt damage will quickly reappear.”
  • Leaks: With a leak, again, it’s a case of repairing the leak source, and then removing and replacing the affected render using salt-retardant render.
  • Leaching: If you have salt leaching from tile beds, unfortunately this can be a big problem. It’s important to check that the tiles are sound, fully bedded (tap to make sure there is no hollow sound), expansion joints are in place, the tiled area has the correct fall (slope) and so on. If all this is ok, cleaning off the salt and sealing might work.
Peter’s tip:
“‘Read the Fine Print.’ The so-called 10- or 12-year warranty the tile-sealing companies provide is void if there is movement or there are other issues below the tiles.”
  • Stonework: If you have salt damage to your exterior stonework, there are several products on the market that aim to remove as much salt as possible. (Several applications are required.) A stonemason will then need to cut away the damaged surface and re-dress the stone.
  • Painted brick: This can cause a real problem and the only 100% fix is to grind off the paint using special tools (make sure there is no lead in the paint) and re-render with a coat of salt-retardant render at least 10 mm thick.

Additional information

If you’d like to learn more about salt damage, check out these links and resources:

Over to you

Have you had an issue with salt damage on your property? What was the cause and how did you fix it? We’d love to hear so please comment below:

Got a question?

If you have a problem with salt damage on your property, give Peter a call on 0412 355 887, or contact us for an obligation-free quote..

A thick build-up of salt on the ceiling

A thick build-up of salt on the ceiling

After several applications of Cocoon, a protective lead cover was installed Kirribilli Project

After several applications of Cocoon, a protective lead cover was installed Kirribilli Project

Cocoon trowel on salt removal product on a Kirribilli Project

Cocoon trowel on salt removal product on a Kirribilli Project

Salt damage causes peeling paint in this Sydney property

Salt damage causes peeling paint in this Sydney property

Cocoon trowel on salt removal product on a Kirribilli Project

Cocoon trowel on salt removal product on a Kirribilli Project

Salt damage causes a mottled effect on the exterior of this Sydney home.

Salt damage causes a mottled effect on the exterior of this Sydney home.

Stripping back the wall to the brick in preparation for new salt-retardant render

Stripping back the wall to the brick in preparation for new salt-retardant render