Cracked Houses

Homes all over Arizona are falling apart. Blame the bad soil -- and the lousy construction

Shari Wilson's house is falling apart at the seams. And her life isn't so great, either.

You'd never know it to look at her. At 32, Wilson has the wholesome good looks of a sitcom mom. Juggling 3-month-old Teagen in her kitchen in suburban Surprise, she might be starring in a commercial for children's Tylenol. Or Ivory soap.

Her five-year-old house is another story.

This continuing series looks at home construction defects in the Phoenix area.
Alana Machnicki/Three in a Box
This continuing series looks at home construction defects in the Phoenix area.
Shari Wilson and five of her children
Michelle Paster
Shari Wilson and five of her children


The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Services Arizona map

The Phoenix shrink/swell map (» web link) shows which parts of the Valley have expansive soil. Red indicates a high potential to swell, yellow is moderate, and green is low.

Cracks are etched along the walls, creeping from the corners of the windows and the baseboards. Holes have been cut in various spots on the kitchen linoleum. There's also a series of holes in the backyard -- five feet deep.

And, since the Wilsons started pulling up the carpet three years ago and stopped, it now sits, half-on, half-off, as if waiting for hardwood floors to arrive and put it out of its misery.

Worst of all: the crack running the entire length of the house, from the easternmost edge of the living room floor to the westernmost edge of the kitchen.

This is not one of those spidery cracks that surface on aging stucco, or the normal hairlines that show up on patios.

This is a 45-foot gash bisecting the house's foundation, as if an earthquake struck Surprise.

It's because of this gash that Shari Wilson's entire house is starting to crack, and because of the cracks that her lawyer advised her, in no uncertain terms, to hold off on any new flooring.

"I can't do anything," she says. "I absolutely cannot fix anything, because if I do, and they end up ripping it out, I'd have to pay for it. And so I'm just stuck."

Wilson and her husband, Shane, chose this house, on North 158th Lane in Surprise, for its size: 4,100 square feet.

They already had three daughters when they decided to become foster parents. Eventually, they added three more kids to their brood, all with special needs. So four bedrooms were important. So was a big yard.

"We got the biggest house we could afford," Shari Wilson says.

They were living the American dream, as clichéd as that sounds. And, yes, it's an even bigger cliché to report that their dream turned into a nightmare. But it did.

(That's the thing about clichés: There's some truth at the heart of every one.)

What happened is this:

The house that Shari Wilson thought would be perfect for her growing family developed severe structural defects, including a mold problem.

Her builder refused to fix them, she says.

And when she hired a lawyer, the builder just fought harder. Now Wilson's paid out nearly $100,000 in legal and professional fees -- and the house is as screwed up as ever.

All along, Shari Wilson has wanted only two things: to get the home fixed, and to get her lawyers' fees recouped.

She feels like she doesn't have a choice. Who has the money to pay a lawyer $100,000? And if she can't stay in the house, where is she going to go, with seven kids -- baby Teagen having arrived last November -- and the rising cost of Arizona real estate?

Some people in Shari Wilson's situation might get hysterical. For most Americans, a house isn't just shelter: It's the biggest financial investment they'll ever make.

No one takes out a 30-year mortgage, imagining that their house could fall apart in just five years.

And they don't expect to have to refinance that mortgage, twice, to cover lawyer and engineering fees.

Shari Wilson has done this.

Now she's left trying to salvage her investment in a system that's stacked against her. Arizona's government has been heavily influenced by developers, and if the builders have their way, it's sure to get even worse.

But Shari Wilson is not hysterical. You can't be a mother to so many kids unless you accept catastrophe with a certain nonchalance. And so Wilson does.

Still, it's clear that she is sick and tired of this 45-foot-long crack, and sick and tired of contractors coming to her house. And engineers. And lawyers.

January's bill alone was $13,000.

"Who in the world has $13,000 sitting around?" she asks. "After I've already been paying two to five thousand bucks a month!"

But she doesn't really have a choice. If she doesn't pay up, she knows her lawyer could walk, and then she's lost her entire six-figure investment in legal work -- and will still live in a cracked house.

She surveys her kitchen: the places where engineers have cut away the linoleum, the cracks and the holes.

"This has been going on for two years," she says, and her blue eyes flash. "And I've never asked my builder for a dime. I've just asked them to fix the house."

"The Desert Is Desirable," the U.S. Census Bureau concluded in December, and the headline wasn't just silly government alliteration (even if it was, in fact, silly government alliteration).

Arizona is booming. The state added a net gain of 199,413 people in 2005, or 546 people every day. According to the Census Bureau, we're the second-fastest-growing state in the nation, behind only Nevada.

Evidence is everywhere: In the ever-worsening traffic. In the new schools opening every year. Most of all, in the homes that seem to sprout up overnight, mushroom-style, in every direction.

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This is similar to what happened, to my home/life savings, as I had planned on paying off the mortgage of my newer beautiful home on the 8th fairway!!  Unfortunately, I couldn't afford the $100,000,00 plus legal fee, and the $30,00, for forensic report, and the builders, Del Webb and Poultry , had a 10 year warranty for foundational/structural work, they refused to help, as it was prior to the 10 years.  After many months of begging them to come see the house, they finally sent out 3 "experts" and reported that "the right side of the house was lifting," but weren't sure, " if it was homeowner caused". I'm just an RN, and had paid $230,000,00 off on the mortgage, thinking that a home could never be stolen.  I had to do a Deed of Lou, as I couldn't afford to have a empty house, that was buckling, and had open areas in the wall and floor, and pay the mortgage, and the above expenses for attorneys, etc......However, I can't believe, I'm the only person that has had this occur, with these builders, and would appreciate any others, coming forward, to perhaps have some sort of compensation, for this monumental loss.  If so, please contact me at


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