In our ongoing exploration of house exteriors, today we’ll be taking a hard look (pun intended) at brick veneer—an option that offers durability, exceptional curb appeal, resistance to insects, stellar fire protection, and low maintenance compared to wood surfaces, as we noted in our previous blog post about cedar shake or shingle siding.
While properly installed brick veneer offers a host of benefits, there are a number of common defects you’ll need to watch for to make sure your brick exterior stays in top shape. And if you’re in the market for a home and have your heart set on solid brick or brick veneer, you’ll definitely want an experienced home inspector in your corner checking the walls for obvious problems (extensive spalling, missing bricks, widespread mortar cracking and deterioration) and more subtle signs that trouble may be on the horizon.
What are the differences between brick veneer and solid brick exterior cladding?
Popular until the mid1950s, solid brick construction, also known as “double brick,” entails building the home’s support structure by use of several layers (wythes) of brick, held together with header bricks. On the other hand, brick veneer is essentially a single-layered brick wall that is installed over a concrete, steel, or wood backup wall, which serves as the support for the house. The brick veneer provides protective and aesthetic benefits but does not support the load of the building. It also allows for the placement of added insulation.
After World War II, the popularity of brick veneer in residential construction soared as builders took advantage of its lower cost and ease of installation over the significantly heavier solid brick. Brick veneer is also known as a “cavity wall” because proper construction calls for a cavity between the veneer and the supporting wall. In addition to the benefits above, brick siding is widely recognized for its long-life span and recyclability. On the negative side, the porousness of brick veneer makes it a poor moisture barrier, which we’ll discuss below.
Here is a brief home inspection checklist of some of the problems association with brick veneer sidingthat have been reported by the home inspectors at A-Pro over the last 27 years.
Installation Problems: Properly executing a brick veneer job requires experience and meticulous, skilled workmanship to do it correctly. In short, weekend handymen need not apply. This is why it’s not uncommon to find brick veneer projects with installation-related defects. Moisture that gathers on the sheathing or flashing behind the brick wall needs a means to drain to the outside. Placed along the top of the foundation and above windows and doors, weep holes (in the form of open vertical joints) provide an escape route for water. Missing, improperly placed, or blocked weep holes (perhaps from dropped mortar during installation or homeowners who have clogged them to deter entry by rodents and insects) will be a cause for concern since the trapped water may eventually find its way inside, leading to rotting wood framing, mold, and mildew.
Some hidden defects, such as lack of a required air space between the veneer and sheathing, cannot be observed by the inspector. Another part of the structure that cannot be seen are the metal ties that connect the veneer to its backup wall. By pushing on the surface, your inspector may find that the structure is loose or that there is separation between the veneer and backing wall, indicating that ties may be missing, damaged, poorly installed, or insufficient in number. A wall’s bowed appearance may be another sign of separation.
Other installation defects include window sills that don’t have enough slope to shed water; amateurish, damaged, or missing flashing between brick veneer and the foundation, trim, roof materials, and other types of siding; inadequate, improperly installed, or missing lintels; missing mortar joints; and bad repair jobs that could lead to moisture penetration. Your inspector will also report mortar degradation, which may be the result of an installer using a non-recommended grade of material to bind the bricks.
Cracks: Your inspector will note the size, direction, and frequency of cracks in brick veneer. Do the cracks indicate serious foundational problems or are they the result of natural settlement or expansion and contraction of wood framing? The inspector will look for further evidence (drywall cracks opposite the brick veneer cracks, misaligned doors and windows, separations between walls and floors, etc.) to confirm if the exterior cracks signal major foundational issues or if they are simply defects that need to be sealed to prevent moisture intrusion. Cracks may also be the result of separation of the veneer from the backup wall.
Your inspector will also report instances of significant spalling—a flaking or crumbling of masonry that can be traced to moisture absorption and breakage caused by the freeze-thaw cycle.