New build homes ‘crumbling due to weak mortar’

The decorate frontage of the White Horse Inn building in Winchester, built in late C.18
The decorate frontage of the White Horse Inn building in Winchester, was built around 1636

Hundreds of sub-standard new properties have been built across the UK, according to an investigation by the Victoria Derbyshire show.  The enquiry showed that at least thirteen new housing estates include homes built using weak mortar that does not comply with industry standards.

The full extent of the industry-wide problem is hard to comprehend as some of the homeowners affected have been asked to sign ‘gagging’ orders in exchange for compensation.

Mortar performance can be affected by a number of factors making it hard to assess, according to industry experts.

One of the homes affected is owned by Vincent Fascione. Mr Fascione bought his semi-detached home in Coatbridge, just outside Glasgow in 2012 for £122,500. After his discovery, he lodged his complaint with the homebuilder, Taylor Wimpey, and the NHBC, the industry body that signs off and provides the warranty for nearly all new-build houses. One evening in 2016, while watching television, he heard what sounded like a loud cracking noise from the outside walls of his home. The following morning, he discovered what looked to be a sand-like substance all over his driveway and nearby path. He took photographs and a video as evidence, which appeared to show cracks in the mortar between the bricks of the house.

Under the guidelines set out by NBHC, mortar in most areas of the UK needs to be made out of one part cement to 5.5 parts sand. In areas which have more severe weather such as Coatbridge, and anywhere facing the elements, such as the coast-line, there should be a larger ratio of cement in the mix to make it more hardy and durable.

Laboratory tests carried out on samples taken from parts of Mr Fascione’s home showed that the amount of sand in the cement was nearly three times higher than it should be.

The NHBC bought back Mr.Fascione’s home at the market rate after 18 months of complaints and he is now living in alternative accommodation. NHBC said it bought the property after the company hired to repair the issues had also not been up to standard and ‘in consideration of Mr Fascione’s personal circumstances’, not because of the original issue with the mortar.

The Victoria Derbyshire programme reported that at least thirteen other estates of new build properties, ranging from Scotland to Sussex, have suffered similar problems, even though they were built by different companies.

Retired construction manager, Phil Waller, said that this could be a widespread problem among new homes that needed more investigation which, he said could not be “explained away by the industry as a few isolated cases”.

Taylor Wimpey has agreed to replace the mortar in approximately 90 different properties on an estate on the Scottish Borders, despite stating that engineers had found “no structural issues” with the homes. It is not known why the weaker building material was used but in some cases it might be possible that the builder used the wrong type of mortar. Otherwise, errors could have been made with the mixing of materials on site.

Some construction experts have blamed the switch to a new mortar that is mixed in factories instead of on site, which despite passing a strength test in the laboratory is not strong enough when actually being used.

A builder from the Home Builders Federation, Steve Turner, said: “generally we have mortar provided by large accredited suppliers [who] have clear quality assurance and testing processes to ensure mixes are delivered as required. There are very few instances we’re aware of where defective mortar has been used.” He said that of those builder he had spoken to recently, most had had no issues with mortar.

After being faced with what could have been a costly repair bill, some homeowners have been told by their solicitors not to speak out until the issue had been addressed fully. In some cases, this can result in the house builder or NHBC buying back the house, so many people are opting to keep quiet until the problem is resolved.

In others case it seems that repairs have been made and/or compensation paid in a deal involving a non-disclosure agreement or ‘gagging’ clause. This is the case for one homeowner in North West England who told the Victoria Derbyshire programme: “The only comment I can make is ‘no comment’. I’d like to speak out, but at the end of the day I have to protect my investment.” It is possible that more people will come out and speak about issues they have had after they have some sort of resolution.

So what is a ‘gagging clause’?

A gagging clause in this case can stop a property owner talking openly about any issue they may have with their property. This doesn’t just include the media, such as newspapers or local news, but could also include neighbours on the same estate and friends.

A spokesman for NHBC said that confidentiality clauses had only been used in isolated property cases but declined to give the exact number. He did say: “We work with builders to help them improve the construction quality of the homes they build. However, it is the builder who is ultimately responsible for the quality of the new homes they build.”

Taylor Wimpey apologised to Vincent Fascione for the issues he experienced with his property and a spokesman said: “We are committed to delivering excellent quality homes and achieving high levels of customer satisfaction. On those occasions where issues do arise, we endeavour to resolve those issues as soon as practically possible.”

An Independent Chartered Surveyor is experienced in identifying build quality issues and will help to ensure your new build property don’t end up being a property buying nightmare.

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