Cracked Houses

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

Surely, that's true of some cases. But there's more to it than that.

Much more.


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

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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.

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When Shari and Shane Wilson walked into their first meeting with their new lawyer, they were holding hands.

Shari remembers attorney Jim Eckley's warning. This is a huge strain, he said. "Nearly 30 percent of the couples I represent in construction-defect cases end up getting divorced."

"We looked at him and laughed," Shari Wilson recalls. "We never thought it would happen to us."

But, as lawyers who handle construction-defect cases are quick to explain, there is nothing that can prepare a couple for the stress of fighting to keep their home. It takes a huge toll, financially and emotionally.

"The pressure is horrible," Eckley says. "It crushes relationships.

"Most of the time, if the homeowner stays the course, they do get recompense. But it gets dark."

This, for Shari Wilson, is the dark time.

Five years ago, she and Shane found their lot just two miles down the road from their home in Surprise, in a new development called Greenway Parc.

Kaufman and Broad Homes, better known as KB, offered to build the home and put in a pool for just $210,000.

The Wilsons had no idea that KB had previously run into trouble with government regulators.

The company, which has long been one of the nation's biggest builders, has a history of subpar work, beginning in the 1970s, when it was investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for "unfair and deceptive practices."

According to the consent decree that KB signed to close the case in 1979, the company had promised "top quality homes" -- but actually built houses that didn't even meet minimum standards from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Coincidentally, among the many issues the government cited were soil conditions and cracking foundations.)

In 1991, the Department of Justice smacked the company with a $595,000 fine for violating the order. Once again, according to the Justice Department's complaint, the company had sold homes with a "major construction defect" and then refused to fix them.

More recently, in 2000, one year before the Wilsons contracted with KB, the Arizona Registrar of Contractors briefly pulled the company's license for shoddy workmanship. But, as the Arizona Republic later reported, the builder kept several licenses on file and merely used a different one to keep building.

(KB spokesman Daniel Weidman did not return calls for comment.)

"I had no idea," Shari Wilson says. "It was just a builder."

She soon wised up.

First, the Wilsons found the mold, growing along the baseboards. They were still dealing with that when, about a year after they moved in, they noticed a big crack running across the front porch. No big deal, Shari Wilson thought -- until the rains came.

And suddenly, the front yard collapsed about six inches. At the location of the crack, Wilson says, it heaved, bringing the crack into high relief.

That's never a good thing when kids are running around the place. So Wilson called KB, and the builder sent some people out to take a look. They offered to patch the porch crack.

But Wilson was suspicious. She talked to a friend in the construction industry, who informed her that a front yard collapsing six inches was not something that should be fixed by "patching."

"Tell them you're going to file a complaint with the Registrar of Contractors," the friend suggested.

That did the trick, at least initially. The next day, the builder sent over workers with a jackhammer. They did much more than patch the crack -- they ended up power-shooting dirt under the porch.

Since the day it rained, as it turned out, a gap of more than two feet had developed between the porch and the soil that once sat snugly beneath it.

That wasn't the end of it.

One year later, in 2003, Wilson and her husband pulled up the carpets, hoping to replace them with hardwood floors.

That's when they discovered the 45-foot crack running across the entire foundation.

Apparently, it wasn't just the soil under the porch that had collapsed. The soil under the house had been affected, too.

But when KB sent out a representative to look at the concrete, he insisted it was normal, Wilson says.

That's when the Wilsons hired an engineer. And what he found wasn't normal at all.

It all had to do with the soil.

KB had commissioned a soil report for the development, as required by the state of Arizona. But, the Wilsons' engineer concluded, the company failed to follow the report's recommendations.

The soil report, after all, warned the builders in no uncertain terms: The soil condition "is believed to constitute a serious problem due to extreme settlement potential upon increased moisture content."

In other words: If the soil got wet, it would collapse. In order to build, KB would have to compress the soil, and then keep water from it after construction.

The engineering report, in fact, specifically recommended that before construction, KB needed to compact the soil to 90 percent. And it needed to do so for three solid feet. That way, the foundation -- which sits about a foot and a half deep -- would rest on solid ground, not silty sand that was ready to collapse at the slightest sprinkling.

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2 comments
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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