Diagnosing the ailing house may take a second opinion


February 20, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Sometimes when readers ask us how to solve an unusual problem, it's like asking a doctor to diagnose a strange illness over the phone. Now, where, exactly, does it hurt?

A few people send pictures, and that's a help. But often the cause of the problem -- much less the solution to it -- isn't obvious. That was the case recently when a couple in Bolton Hill asked us why large patches of plaster were peeling off the interior side of exterior walls in their old house. They sent several photos. We started discussing the possibilities.

"Calcimine?" Karol suggested, thinking of the old water-soluble paint that often fails when it's covered with an incompatible coating.

"Maybe," Randy agreed. "But look here, it looks like the whole surface is failing."

"Water must be getting in."

"They say they've worked on that -- they've caulked the windows, checked the storms, had the roof hot-tarred."

"Is it just under windows?"

"Looks like it."

"I had this problem in Louisville, under a bedroom window. Water was getting in around the sill, and the plaster had failed -- it was fluffy, like ashes. I had to remove it down to the brick and replace it."

"Well, we can tell them how to patch the plaster."

But the more we looked at the pictures, the more baffling the problem seemed. Since the readers were local, we called and asked them a few questions.

It turned out they had already tried the plaster-repair technique. And papered over the spot. That was six months ago; now the paper's wet, stained and ruined.

The exterior wall is stucco over brick. They've coated it with a silicone water-proofing and had the windows caulked and repainted.

But somehow water is still getting to the plaster. How? We suspect that the stucco was applied without pointing joints in the brick underneath. That often happened; the stucco was meant to cure any leaks. But if water somehow gets under the stucco, it will seep through the bad joints between the bricks.

The drastic solution is to remove the stucco and repoint the brick. Then, if it's not hard-glazed, exterior brick, it will need to be restuccoed or painted to seal it. (If it's a rowhouse and the brick is covered up, as in this case, check the brick on the front of the house or on the backs of adjoining buildings; chances are it will be the same type.)

But first, an attempt should be made to exhaust every other possibility. Although the readers say they've worked on the windows and those don't seem to be leaking, it would be a good idea to check the entire exterior area around every one to make sure there's no place water might get in. The roof should be checked, too; sometimes installers neglect to put a drip edge, or metal flashing, over the edge of the roof and into the gutter. If there's no gutter, the edge of the roof should be flashed over the top of the stucco.

If none of the easier solutions works, it will be time to call in a contractor who specializes in chemical cleaning and repointing. In Baltimore, these are the guys who remove Formstone and strip off old paint. Ask around your neighborhood for a recommendation.


Sometimes the simplest question is also a stumper. Another Baltimore reader asked for information on installing a chair rail -- "Specifically, how far from the floor would the railing be placed?"

Good question. We have more than seven shelves full of books on every aspect of home improvement and home decoration, and while many of them described chair rails, not one said how far from the floor they should be installed.

So we asked an expert. Mike Soper, of Soper Enterprises Inc., a Baltimore general contractor, said he installs chair rails at 34 inches from the floor to the center of the molding. He said some people install them at 36 inches; the point is to catch the back of the chair. If you're in doubt, measure the chair back to the point that it would hit the wall and adjust the rail height accordingly.

There's one tricky bit to installing a chair rail (or any molding): the inside corners. Inside corners look best when the joints are "coped" -- that is, one side is trimmed to fit the profile of the other. It's not a difficult skill; anyone should be able to get the hang of it. If you buy a coping saw at a do-it-yourself center, you may be able to find someone there to show you how to use it. You can look at home-improvement books for hints, but we think this is a skill you have to learn hands-on.

If you're hiring someone to put up the rail, ask them to cope the inside corners. Sometimes even the pros save time by simply joining all corners at 45 degrees.


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