Stone Exteriors: Asset or Nightmare?

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Traditional vinyl siding, long the go-to material for home builders, is increasingly being snubbed in favor of trendier manufactured stone products that may or may not contain any actual stone. The appeal of faux stone to builders and home owners is easy to understand: Fabricated stone or stone veneer exteriors are lighter weight and less expensive than natural stone and are offered in a wide array of colors and styles. Manufacturers have reported double-digit sales increases in recent years. But home inspectors are sounding off about the need for caution: Reports of water damage due to poor installation techniques have become widespread.

Home inspector Scott Patterson with Trace Inspections in Nashville, Tenn., says that in nine out of 10 homes he inspects with stone veneer siding, the product has been applied incorrectly. And home owners are reporting that water seepage behind the siding is leading to rotting walls and mold problems. Sometimes the problems don’t become evident for years after installation.

These damage reports related to manufactured stone sound eerily similar to those from the 1990s when synthetic stucco (also known as exterior insulation finish systems or EIFS) generated a lot of public attention. Like artificial stone, synthetic stucco was initially touted as a more affordable, versatile alternative to the genuine product. EIFS were also more crack-resistant than traditional stucco. Years later, home owners discovered water penetrating small openings around windows and doors, leading to costly repairs. Home owners filed lawsuits against manufacturers, and class action settlements resulted in affected home owners receiving generous payouts.

3 Ways to Protect Home Exteriors

Most siding materials require little to no upkeep. Brick, engineered wood, stone (both natural and manufactured), and fiber cement are thought to last for the life of a home, according to a report released by the National Association of Home Builders and Bank of America, “Study of Life Expectancy of Home Components.” But Frank Lesh, executive director of the American Society of Home Inspectors, offers some pointers you can share with home owners to help them protect their siding from damage, including:

  • Keep foliage away. Make sure no plants are growing on the siding. “Plants can trap moisture and allow insects and animals to infiltrate,” Lesh says. “You want the siding to be exposed to the elements.”
  • Watch where water may be getting in. Check areas around windows and doors to see if water is getting in. Moisture can linger and eventually cause rotting or fungal growth. Make sure those areas have been properly caulked or tuckpointed to prevent seepage.
  • Keep the gutters cleaned. Many home owners think they only need to check for clogged gutters in autumn when leaves are falling. A neighbor’s stray tennis ball, a bird’s nest, or even squirrels stocking up for winter can quickly become a serious problem. If water gets backed up in your gutter, it could damage your siding too, Lesh notes. Have gutters checked at least twice a year. Or better yet, clean them four times a year to prevent back-ups.

To avoid a case of history repeating itself, the American Society of Home Inspectors has urged members to become familiar with manufactured stone siding and to inspect it vigilantly for budding problems given its porous nature compared to actual stone. ASHI has offered seminars about how to spot problems resulting from improper installation. Home inspectors nationwide are also posting articles on their websites warning home owners to have their manufactured stone inspected.

That said, not all homes with these exteriors are doomed, says Frank Lesh, executive director at ASHI. Home owners typically experience no problems when faux stone is installed correctly and appreciate it as an affordable, lightweight alternative to natural stone exteriors. The artificial product, running about $3 to $8 per square foot before installation, is one-third to one-half the cost of genuine stone, though still about double the cost of vinyl siding. “It’s a durable, long-lasting product, but there are still things to watch out for,” says Lesh. “It has to be installed the correct way, and among subcontractors—of even some big builders—unfortunately this isn’t always the case.”

Consumers purchasing a home featuring manufactured stone veneer might consider hiring a home inspector with specialized training. Real estate pros can direct clients to ASHI’s homeinspector.org website and recommend that they search for inspectors who list an expertise in these materials in their profiles.

So how do home owners know if they have a problem? There may be visible signs; Patterson recalls one recent incident where home owners noticed the trim boards inside their home were starting to separate and found a slight discoloration on a section of their hardwood flooring. Patterson discovered the exterior’s artificial stone was not installed with sealants or the needed backer rods around a huge window frame, which led to water pouring into the walls and eventually damaging the interior wall.

Another test for potential problems is to simply tap on the stone to see if anything feels loose. “If there’s water behind it, the glue starts to come off and you may get some movement,” Lesh says. Also, look for water damage around the siding. However, inspectors warn that the problems are often hidden behind the stonework and difficult to detect until the damage has become extensive.

That’s where specialized equipment can come in handy. Patterson uses a moisture meter and an infrared camera if he suspects a problem. He also looks to make sure the artificial stone comes up to the window or door frame, with only about a half-inch buffer between the two. That space should be filled with a foam rod and a flexible sealant that seals the entire area on top. He also checks to make sure the artificial stone isn’t buried underground. There should be about six inches between the ground and the base of the stone to prevent water from seeping in.

If damage is found, recommend that your clients consider hiring a structural engineer to complete a more invasive moisture testing procedure to learn the extent of the damage to the walls behind the stonework. Many of the same contractors who fixed EIFS in the 1990s and early 2000s are working on repairing stone veneers too. Home owners may find that builders can help resolve an installation issue as well.

Repairing the damage is no small job. The cost of replacing improperly installed manufactured stone runs from about $30 to $38 per square foot of wall. And that doesn’t include repairing any damaged landscape or the replacement of the product itself.

Meanwhile, home owners’ interest in manufactured stone veneer remains strong. The vast selection of colors and textures are a draw, and when it’s installed correctly, home owners find it worth every penny. Indeed, Remodeling magazine’s 2016 Cost vs. Value Report highlighted manufactured stone veneer as having the second highest ROI out of 27 home projects, with nearly 93 percent of the cost recouped at resale. (Only attic insulation, with an ROI of nearly 117 percent, came in higher.) But don’t leave any stone unturned when doing research about the benefits and pitfalls of this emerging product category.

Cerdit to Melissa Dittmann Tracey
Contributing Editor

Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a contributing editor for REALTOR® magazine.

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