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Stuck on Stucco? Here’s What You Need to Know

March 31 2010

If you’re looking for a home with Southwest or Tuscan character or want to give more personality than wood siding to your home, stucco is back and is stirring up the market.

Mixing it up

In use for more than two millennia, plaster work, or stucco, has long been appreciated for its utility. With its sand and cement base, it’s highly durable, maintenance-free, and provides insulation. It can also give a colorful change of texture to a brick, stone or wood-sided home.

But stucco hasn’t always been held in high regard with home buyers and sellers. In the 1990s, some synthetic stucco put a crack in the material’s reputation in America. Complaints about material cracks and trapped moisture that rots wood helped promote one of the biggest housing scare of the ‘90s – mold and mildew.

Synthetic stucco was introduced n the 1980s to the American market- an import from Europe that had been tested for decades. Known as external insulation finish stucco or EIFS, synthetic stucco is more commonly applied to wood siding, with a layer of foam board insulation between it and the wall, where as European stucco is applied directly to the external brick and mortar of a house.

Problems with stucco can still arise in the multi-step process that it takes to apply to your home. Depending on the makings of your home’s exterior, either wood siding or brick, synthetic stucco is first applied either with or without paper insulation on a wire mesh skeleton. Next the home is coated with many layers of plaster, to ensure adequate distribution of the material on the surface. It comes to a final depth of about one inch. If these layers aren’t properly applied, they can cause cracking and water problems in your home.

Brick homes are typically fine with synthetic stucco, though cracks around windows and doors can be a problem with moisture being trapped and unable to escape, but it’s the synthetic stucco on wood that causes the most problems. According to edubook.com “numerous houses in the USA are suffering from wood rot, caused by their EIFS coating.”

What you can do

Stucco can cause minor cracks in your home’s finish, so you should expect them. They are easily patched, and are part of the natural settling of any building structure.

If you’re thinking of buying a home with stucco, find out if the home is cement or synthetic stucco. If the home is synthetic stucco on wood, that doesn’t mean there’s a problem, but make sure that there is adequate flashing around the base of material, especially where it comes in contact with new or other material. The flashing directs water away from the base of the material and is an extra safeguard against moisture buildup and future migraines. Be sure to ask the seller for any moisture, mildew, or mold disclosures.

One of the easiest ways to tell cement stucco from the synthetic stuff is to simply go up and gently rap your fist on it- synthetic sounds hollow while the real stuff will give a robust thud as it is considerably more solid.

So when considering stucco, remember that it’s stood the test of time for ages, it looks good and keeps maintenance costs low. It’s a form of stone, after all.