House Shopping 101: Infill “mansion” issues.
by Keith Tripp, Revised 2020
Buying the infill “custom” mansion requires a bit of a different mindset than other homes. These homes are built in older, high demand urban areas, typically by smaller building and development companies. The old home is knocked down and a new one built on the lot. They are marketed as “custom”, but tend to be repeats of the same plans with minor differences in models. As with all new construction, there is some risk of incomplete or inadequate work, but a few areas stand out as being higher risk than buying from a subdivision developer. Here are the first few that come to mind:
- Age: For financial reasons, these homes are typically put on the market a year or more after completion of construction and have usually been sitting vacant or “lightly used” for that first year or more. The house is slightly aged but hasn’t been tested by actual occupancy. Appliance and other warranties may be expired. Because the house has been vacant or very lightly used, there is no assurance that everything is in working order. For example, it is common that not all of the bathrooms have been used on a regular basis.
- Warranty: For financial reasons, these homes are often built without Tarion warranty coverage, and the builder is not registered with the Ontario provincial warranty program called Tarion. Discuss this risk with your lawyer.
- Municipal and jurisdictional authority’s’ compliance: Permit approval is a multi-staged process. The fact that the house is for sale, or even proof of occupancy approval does mean that everything is complete and approved by the authority having jurisdiction. Due diligence is required to check completion and compliance of the building, plumbing, electrical and gas systems.
- Exterior claddings, especially EIFS: Details such as weep holes for brick veneer and drainage for EIFS are notoriously bad on these houses. I have yet to find one of these houses that does not have significant issues related to the exterior claddings. The use of non-draining EIFS (“stucco”) is common on these houses, and that practice has been known to be unsuitable for many years.
- Strange roofing slopes: High interior ceilings combined with height restrictions result in strange and unusual roof layouts. Typically, the top of the roof is flat, but the problem is that the slopes leading to the flat part of the roof are often too flat for normal shingle application. These roofs are not accessible with a 32ft. ladder. Very long ladders or lift trucks are required if any maintenance or repairs are required.
- Sump systems: Most of these houses have sump systems that are mandated by the local building department. Footings may be lower than surrounding basements and often there is an exterior basement walkout drain connected to the sump.. Sump issues include: excessive water flow, incorrect use of perforated basins, illegal bypass of discharge piping to sanitary sewer, sumps in cold rooms that are subject to freezing, sump lids not meeting air barrier requirements, missing or poorly installed infeed pipes, perforated infeed pipes.
- Heat Recovery Ventilators not functional. HRV’s are often required as part of the Energy Compliance package to meet basic building code requirements. Issues include missing controls, missing electrical supply.
- Hydronic heating not labeled or commissioned: In-floor hydronic (using hot water pipes) heating, is good technology and is often installed in these homes. The issue is that the systems tend be completely unlabeled and without documentation. The hydronic heating is not typically required to meet the heating load of the house, so may not be included in the permit documents. These systems are sometimes completed after the inspection by the local Building Officials, so they are not inspected for compliance with code requirements or good practices.
- Roof flashings: Complicated roof designs means that the chance of incomplete metal work and flashings is higher.
- Unsafe decorative guarding ( rails at balconies and interior landings and stairways.) Climbable guard railings are not permitted in Ontario, however they are often found in the infill mansions in the form of decorative metal guarding. To pass municipal inspections, the guarding is covered with plexiglass during the inspection. Once the municipal inspection is complete, the plexiglass is removed, exposing the climbable elements.
If you are a home buyer in the GTA, feel free to contact me early in your house shopping process with the address and age of a house you are interested in. I can send you a few key questions to ask that may save you time and money.