My daddy, Jabo Jowers, was a sheet-metal man. And a dang good one, too. Sure, in his later years, he was up to his eyeballs in criminal activity, building house-sized liquor stills and faking up VIN plates for stolen cars. But Jabo took pride in his work. Even though he was an elementary-school dropout, he was smart enough to lie his way out of prosecution, and he by-God knew how to put metal together. Before Jabo graduated to federal-level crime, he spent his days putting sheet-metal flashing on roofs and walls. When Jabo put metal together, it stayed together and didn’t leak.
Jabo never picked up a tube of caulk. When it comes to sheet-metal work, caulk is for people who can’t bend, weld, braze or solder. Caulk—if you’ll forgive my saying so—is Dumbass Helper. A superior sheet-metal man never needs caulk.
I bring all this up because caulk is a main ingredient in every newly built house I’ve seen in the past 15 years. There’s caulk on the roof, caulk on the walls, caulk around the windows and doors, caulk on the cats, dogs and toddling babies. Why so much caulk on new houses? Well, because caulk is cheap, and any two-handed unskilled laborer with a thimbleful of brains can squeeze it out of a tube. Caulk’s all over new houses because it might just last just long enough for the builder to be off the lawsuit radar by the time the caulk comes loose, falls off and lets water into the house.
I know, I know: caulk is guaranteed for 20, 30, maybe even 40 years. But read the warranty closely. If the caulk fails, and leaks turn your house into a fungus farm, you don’t get your house fixed. You get a new tube of caulk or your money back, if you kept the empty caulk tube and the receipt. Believe me when I tell you: caulk lasts about as long as a hamster, which is about two to four years.
As an experiment, I gave daughter Jess a little piece of caulk, just to see what she’d do with it. She immediately broke it into two pieces. “Not much to it,” she said. “It’s about as strong as a booger.”
If your caulk fails before your home warranty expires, and your house starts leaking like a Russian submarine, the builder will send one of his toadies to your house to tell you that you were supposed to keep the roof, walls and windows caulked, all by yourself.
But don’t take my word, or even Jess’ word, on the low usefulness of caulk. Here’s what my friend Jean Harrison—who’s also a construction-defects lawyer—says about caulk: “The main ingredient in caulk is calcium carbonate, which is also the main ingredient in Tums and Maalox. I am not a chemist, but I do not believe that calcium carbonate has amazing properties that have revolutionized home building. Choirs of angels will not sing, nor will the heavens open up to shine light down on caulk.
“Caulk is for lazy people. Caulk is what you use when you screw something up. Before caulk existed, people actually had to build things right the first time. I have renovated at least five Victorian-era homes. None had any caulk on them. Those houses are still standing and I’m pretty sure will continue to do so for many years. I’m not so sure many of the new houses I’ve seen will be around in 20 years.
“The last tube of caulk I bought cost $2.24. Building a house properly costs money. Cheap people don’t like to spend money. Cheap people who use caulk as the only line of defense against water are not building your house properly. In the name of all that is good and decent, I beg every builder to spend the few extra dollars it takes to buy real flashing materials, and a little more to bring in some skilled labor to install it.
“Builders always tell me that my clients’ houses leak because they have not properly maintained the caulk. This is, of course, a lie. The reason my clients’ houses leak is because their builders didn’t build their houses properly. If caulk were truly the miracle product that builders claim it is, one would expect caulk manufacturers to line up extolling the virtues of their products in ensuring the long-term viability of new houses. I have found no manufacturers of caulk who’ll give any warranty about its water-repellent properties. That’s cold comfort when your half-million-dollar house is in the toilet because your builder used a few tubes of $2 caulk to ensure that it wouldn’t leak.
“If your builder gives you the you-should-have-fixed-your-own-caulk line, ask him for a written guarantee from the caulk manufacturer stating that caulk will protect your home from all manner of water perils. I bet he won’t do it.”
I’m with Jean on this one. If you’re having a new house built, do whatever it takes—including paying extra—to get a skilled sheet-metal man on the job. Make sure the sheet-metal man flashes the roof, walls and windows. And before you turn him loose on the job, ask him how he feels about caulk. If he says he loves it, fire him and get a better sheet-metal man.