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A Burning Debate on Chimneys : It's Difficult to Get Easy Answers About the Hidden Damage

October 18, 1994|RON GALPERIN

It's the simple math of quake-damaged chimney repairs that opens the door to possible fraud, or at least simple mistakes.

A chimney that needs some minor repairs could cost only a few hundred dollars, but if that same chimney is deemed structurally damaged and must be rebuilt from scratch, it could cost $6,000 or more. Given the high cost and the fact that insurance companies, homeowners andchimney inspectors might have different opinions over the same "damaged" chimney, you confront the likelihood of conflicting opinions.

Consider one family in Woodland Hills. Their home suffered major damage from the Northridge quake and, early on, a masonry company representative examined their chimney and said that, with the exception of a couple of loose bricks at the top, everything was fine. That repair was made for $200.

Months passed. Then, after seeing so many neighbors forced to tear down their chimneys, the worried family hired another inspector to take a look. He did a smoke test in the chimney, blocking off both ends, and eventually a small haze seeped into the living room. His verdict: The chimney was badly cracked and needed to be rebuilt from scratch. The cost? $8,000.

So the family brought back the first mason who had checked the chimney months before. This time the mason, at their insistence, did an even more elaborate inspection with a special video camera (cost $250) and came up with the same verdict as last spring: Your chimney is fine, leave it alone. So they are.

Indeed, insurance companies are often confused by chimney damage. Some are still sorting out the chimneys for which they'll pay merely to repair (versus replace), said Tom Cordova, spokesman for State Farm Insurance Cos. in Westlake Village. "After the earthquake we were replacing some chimneys that could be repaired," he said. "Now we have learned more."

In some cases where repair is possible, though, State Farm will pay for replacement as a way to avoid future losses from another quake, Cordova said.

As insurance companies pay out more claims, Cordova said, it's becoming easier to spot overpriced bids. Most chimney replacement bids, however, are staying within the range of $6,000 to $8,000, he said.

Because of changes this fall in the Los Angeles building and safety requirements, most of the chimneys in the San Fernando Valley are being rebuilt with metal framing and a metal flue (instead of the old brick- or clay-interior chimneys), King said. A homeowner who wants a brick or a clay structure needs to file special plans with the city, drafted by a civil or structural engineer. None are needed for a metal-framed chimney that merely gets a brick veneer. Wood-framed, versus metal-framed, chimneys are allowed by the city only for chimneys built from the ground up.

Clearly, it's best to get several opinions before doing any work.

There are basically three methods for inspecting a chimney, explained Mark Lichterman, owner of the Flue Bug Chimney Sweep in Woodland Hills:

* Visual inspections involve looking at the so-called interior firebox and searching for any cracks or seams between it and the back wall of the fireplace. Outside, a visual inspection should include a look for any breaks between the side wall and the back wall of the chimney and for any cracks in masonry or mortar. Horizontal cracks are generally more ominous than vertical cracks because of the chimney's weight distribution, Lichterman said. Finally, look for proper flashing between the chimney and roof. Lichterman said he charges about $40 to $60 for a visual inspection.

* Smoke inspections are done by sealing the top of the chimney and the firebox opening with tape and plastic. A pallet is then ignited to create smoke. If any of it leaks, you could have significant cracks somewhere in your chimney. Odor is also added to the smoke so that seepage is easier to detect. Another problem with this test is that, done on a cold day, certain cracks may have contracted and the test will show no problems. Expect to pay between $150 and $250 for the smoke inspection.

* Video inspections are the newest way to check a chimney. Basically, a chimney inspector places a video camera down your chimney and looks for cracks or other irregularities. Some claim this is the best method by far, and a few insurance companies are requiring video tests before paying on a claim. There are others who remain unconvinced about the video test, especially for brick-interior chimneys where harmless water damage may appear on the video to be serious earthquake damage. The cost of the inspection is about $150 to $250. It is also advisable to clean your chimney before a video inspection. This adds another $75 to $150 to the bill.

Improper inspections can lead homeowners to tear down chimneys that could have been saved, Lichterman charged.

"I have seen a lot of chimneys condemned, and I don't know for the life of me why," he said. "There are millions of dollars being spent needlessly."

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