Cracked Houses

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

The home-building business is booming: Greater Phoenix alone -- now so sprawling it stretches into both Maricopa and Pinal counties -- added 63,570 new homes last year, according to RL Brown Housing Reports. That's an increase of 63 percent from 2002, itself a record year.

Anthem, the vast Del Webb development north of town on I-17, is one example. Nine years ago, that hunk of land seemed as remote, and as empty, as Manitoba.

Today the traffic that gluts the freeway serves as indisputable proof of the development's popularity. More than 20,000 people live in Anthem already, and still construction continues.

Clarke Booth, former state inspector
Michelle Paster
Clarke Booth, former state inspector

Details

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.

Once building is complete, the spot that once grew only saguaros is expected to hold more than 21,000 homes -- and as many people as Sarasota, Florida.

But while Anthem's growth is real, and property values have soared, residents haven't been without problems.

Like Shari Wilson, some have discovered, to their horror, that their new homes are showing unexpected damage. Walls are cracking. Doors refuse to open. Driveways split so badly that they need to be replaced -- sometimes, repeatedly.

Blame geology.

Some of the hottest areas for development in the Valley -- including parts of Anthem, Gilbert, and Surprise -- suffer from problematic soil.

Soil that won't stay still.

Soil that expands, and contracts.

Soil that collapses.

And that can't help but have an effect on the foundation resting on it. Not to mention the house sitting on top of that.

Phil Pettice, chief inspector for the Arizona Registrar of Contractors, says that, as recently as 10 years ago, builders consciously avoided areas with expansive soils.

"But then the cost of land became so expensive, they started moving into those areas," he says.

The same thing happened in the Tucson area, says Jack Holden, chair of Arizona Building Officials. (He's the building official in Marana, just north of Tucson.)

"You see the land with poorer soils, 10 years ago, the only thing you'd find there is a farm house," Holden says. "But then the building boom hit, and you had these mass builders come in, and now you've got hundreds of houses there."

The problems have been real.

New Times reviewed files from a dozen court cases, examined two dozen formal complaints on file with state regulators, and interviewed home inspectors, engineers, and lawyers.

We visited homes plagued by cracking and settling, from Sun City to Chandler, and examined photographs of many more. We talked to homeowners who see the damage affecting their biggest investment, and are frightened and frustrated.

Michael Dicks, a Phoenix construction-defect attorney, believes that "thousands upon thousands" of homes have been affected by soil problems -- or will be showing damage in the near future.

Personally, he estimates, he's handled almost 2,000 cases where soils have been a factor.

If a builder has taken shortcuts where certain types of soil are involved, Dicks says, "it's not a question will it have problems, it's a question of when it manifests itself. It's a time bomb, with each home having a different fuse."

Not all are as bad as Shari Wilson's. But that's small consolation to a homeowner who's counting on a home holding its value . . . and is now counting the cracks that seem to expand on a daily basis.

Already, estimates Clarke Booth, who recently resigned after two years as an inspector for the Arizona Registrar of Contractors, soil problems are at the root of at least 5 percent of all complaints the agency receives -- close to 500 complaints every year.

And that doesn't count the homeowners who skip the complaint process and just file a lawsuit. Once the house is up, Booth says, fixing soil problems can be very difficult.

"When it happens, it can be very bad," he says, "and very costly to fix."

Bob Brown's business, Arizona Repair Masons, is one of the companies that gets called in for repair. And while some solutions can be as inexpensive as $3,000 a house, he cautions that it can get much more costly.

The typical fix? About $15,000, Brown says. Bad damage costs as much as $80,000, or even more.

"I just did a house on Camelback Mountain for $250,000," Brown says. "Some of these fixes are pretty expensive."

Business is booming: Brown's company alone handled almost 400 homes last year.

It's no wonder that construction-defect attorneys say that, within the past decade, problems caused by soil have become one of the biggest pieces of their caseload. They've filed class-action suits over the issue in all the major construction hot spots.

Some builders are now busy playing defense, hoping to head off lawsuits before they're filed. Del Webb actually hired consultants to inject chemicals under the foundations of at least 100 homes, according to a filing from the company's attorney.

Beyond the anecdotes, it's difficult to quantify the problem precisely.

The state registrar, which is the repository of around 10,000 complaints each year about home construction, doesn't sort the complaints by type. And the Maricopa County Clerk of Courts does not track the number of construction-defect lawsuits, much less break them down by the nature of the problem.

But what's clear is that this doesn't involve just one development.

There are problematic soils in pockets across the state, and if lawyers like Michael Dicks are to be believed, even the homes that are doing fine today may well end up with big problems in 10 years.

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4 comments
carlsberg.sherri
carlsberg.sherri

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 Carlsberg.sherri@yahoo.com

arvinlexor
arvinlexor

Are you looking for a Concrete Foundation Repair Contractor? If you're a building manager, you know the importance of your building's foundation. Knowing this is only half the battle, the other half is doing something about it.

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