By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"I felt warmth when I first walked in here," recalls Rose Ellen Rosier. "The house hugged me."
But nearly four years after she originally crossed the threshold of her spacious, $116,000 home in Glendale's Independence Park subdivision, that embrace has turned into a stranglehold. Today the 59-year-old invalid feels she's being dragged down both financially and emotionally by the dwelling--a house she now claims is literally sinking right under her feet.
"I thought this was going to be my dream house, but it's turned out to be my nightmare," whimpers Rosier, unsuccessfully fighting back the tears that are never far from her eyes. "I wouldn't wish what I've gone through on my own worst enemy!"
Rose Ellen Rosier's own worst enemy may well be the very party responsible for her miseries. Last spring, Rosier filed suit against Watt/Hancock, the Valley homebuilders from which she bought a split-level basement home in 1990. Asking for recision of the contract as well as monetary damages, Rosier alleges that Watt/Hancock was aware that the three-year-old model home they'd sold her was rife with structural defects--problems she'd later learn were common to other basement homes in the neighborhood. Rosier blames many of those defects on severe "settling" problems, an unsettling situation that has caused floors to shift, walls to warp and her nerves to snap. "I never wanted to be a burden on anyone," insists Rosier, a former Lockheed employee from Sunnyvale, California, who moved to the Valley when health problems forced her premature retirement. "That's why I bought this house. This was going to be the place I spent the rest of my life. But now . . . well, just look at this place!"
Even to the casual observer, Rosier's home looks as if it might have been designed by a specialist in carnival-fun-house architecture. Walls buckle and bow. Floors pop under the slightest pressure and appear to be dropping away from the baseboards. The spongy lawn is dimpled with a series of minisinkholes. And in the best tradition of any good roadside "antigravity Mystery Spot," the chain of a free-hanging ceiling lamp doesn't appear to line up with any other vertical angle in the room.
While most of these structural abnormalities are so subtle they can't successfully be captured on film, the "feel" of the house is that everything's just a little "off." In fact, a visitor to Rosier's home probably wouldn't be too surprised if a ball were to roll uphill.
But architectural quirks that might be amusing in a fun house are no laughing matter to the white-haired shut-in, who sank her entire life savings into the money pit on North 75th Drive.
Plagued by severe back and knee problems that force her to rely on a walker, Rosier also suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome that makes it impossible for her to perform all but the simplest household tasks. Unable to even prepare her own lunch, Rosier has sandwiches delivered by Meals on Wheels. Several times a week, she requires the assistance of a volunteer who helps bathe her. Although currently on antidepressant medication as a result of emotional problems she believes stem from anxiety over her house, Rosier continues to feel so frazzled, she recently assigned power of attorney to her nephew Jack Meeker, a clerk at a discount store.
"All my money's in this house," sniffles Rosier, who made a $32,000 down payment on the five-bedroom home and now reluctantly makes monthly mortgage payments of $666. "I'm scared to live here now. I never know if I'm going to wake up and find the ceiling in my bed!"
While there's no evidence to suggest that the roof is in any danger of collapsing, that's one the few structural catastrophes that hasn't befallen the trouble-prone tract home since Rosier and the 25-year-old Meeker took up residence more than three and a half years ago.
Dabbing at her eyes with a tissue, Rosier says, "This whole thing has been a terrible strain on me." But she's hopeful that she and her nephew will receive more satisfaction from the courts than they did from the unnamed Watt/Hancock representative who fielded one of her early complaint calls. "You know what they told me?" sobs Rosier. "They said I was too fat and that's why my house was sinking!"
While Rosier's lawsuit against Watt/Hancock does not go to trial until next summer, the case of the sinking house already promises to become mired in mudslinging. "We have substantially different views of the facts," says David Jordan, the Phoenix attorney who is handling the case for the Los Angeles-based Watt Homes. (Watt/Hancock Homes, one of the biggest builders in the Valley during the late Eighties and early Nineties, no longer exists as an active business entity. The result of a short-lived merger between Watt and the Valley-based Hancock Homes, the company received wide media coverage when it participated in a "Home of Miracles" raffle earlier this year that raised $1 million for Phoenix Children's Hospital.)
Although Jordan declines to elaborate on the suit, papers filed in Arizona Superior Court reveal a classic case of "we said, she said," with both sides contributing wildly divergent tales of the complaints, work orders and subcontracted work whirling around the Rosier residence for the past several years. Interestingly enough, court records reveal that Watt isn't arguing that the house might be sinking as a result of drainage problems. Instead, the company points a finger back at Rosier, claiming she's to blame because she "made changes to the landscaping" and "held animals in her yard which had altered the contour of the yard."