Cracked Houses

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

But that's not what happened.

When engineers hired by the Wilsons ran tests, they found good evidence that the builders had compressed only two feet. And they'd only compacted to 72 percent, not 90, in some areas, according to their report.

Cutting those corners probably saved KB no more than $800 per lot, says Scott Warga, the chief forensic consultant at Phoenix-based National BuildMasters, who frequently does technical work for Wilson's lawyer.

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

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.

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But if you multiply that savings by the hundreds of homes in the development, it adds up to some serious cash.

Unfortunately, it also left Shari Wilson's foundation resting on only six inches of solid soil, and even that soil wasn't fully compacted. A little water would be fatal.

But KB hardly took care to keep the foundation dry.

For example: Building codes require that land slope away from the foundation at a minimum grade of 2 percent.

The builders hadn't done that, either, according to the Wilsons' engineer's report.

So the water didn't drain away from the house.

The soil below the foundation wasn't properly compacted.

The Wilsons' engineers came to a horrifying conclusion:

"[W]e anticipate an additional collapse of the site soils, which is expected to cause further damage to the structure, unless immediate measures are taken."

(KB's lawyers did not return calls for comment. In court filings, the company denies the Wilsons' claims, arguing that it has made "a good-faith attempt . . . to rectify any and/or all alleged construction defects and damages.")

The Wilsons' engineers completed their report a year and a half ago. Because KB didn't cough up the money to fix the house, Shari Wilson says, they've been fighting KB in court ever since.

It's been two steps back for every step forward. Just when KB seemed to be acknowledging the house's problems, Wilson says, its lawyers announced a new strategy: The company would be blaming them on its subcontractors.

It's a pretty common step in construction-defect cases -- but it's a slap in the face to a homeowner who's already been fighting her builder for two years.

"I never hired any of these people," Shari Wilson says. "I hired KB to build me a house. And it's not my responsibility to worry about the people they've hired!"

Even worse: The strategy is sure to slow the case down. A dozen subcontractors will now have to hire lawyers, file responses, and spend hours studying the evidence that's already been in litigation for months.

Wilson had thought Eckley was being dramatic when he talked about couples divorcing.

Then it happened to her. The Wilsons filed for divorce last winter.

"And now I'm stuck in this house as a single mom," Shari Wilson says. "And they still won't fix it."


The USDA keeps a highly detailed database of every type of soil in Arizona. It's not meant for amateurs, but if experienced researchers download the data and type in any given address, it explains what soils are there and what their composition is.

Questions about expansive soils have become so common that the USDA keeps special maps online for both Greater Phoenix and Greater Tucson, color-coded to show the level of soil expansiveness. Much of Phoenix itself is green: low expansion, okay to build. Tempe, too, looks good.

It's mostly in areas of newer growth -- places like, say, Anthem -- where the map turns blood red, which indicates highly expansive soil.

"The soil is so expansive in some of these places, it's like rocket fuel," says Warga, the National BuildMasters consultant. "You just water it a little and watch the house blast off."

Construction-defect attorneys believe there's good reason that places like Anthem, and Gilbert, weren't developed for so long.

"Until recently, the builders didn't really work in the real hot spots," says attorney Dicks. "They did hit areas. But when the building boom happened, they just built like crazy and threw caution to the wind."

Indeed, while the existence of expansive soils is often a shock to home buyers, who have no idea that their house is sitting on "rocket fuel," it's no shock at all to their builder.

Those detailed USDA maps, after all, were compiled in 1968. Long before Anthem was even a blip on I-17.

"This is public information," Booth, the former state inspector, says. "Anyone with even a slight willingness to study the issue can find out all they need to know about it.

"These builders are never taken by surprise," he adds, "although sometimes as a ploy they pretend to be taken by surprise in order to placate the homeowners."

Sure, the department of real estate requires that state-mandated soil reports be made available to home buyers, and even keeps them online. But most of the dozen homeowners who discussed their construction problems with New Times didn't recall getting them, or knowing where to look online.

To a person, they say the developer never raised the issue or told them that the soils were problematic.

It's not like, say, lead-based paint, where it's likely to be disclosed in 18-point type. Even though homeowners could probably stop some of the problems if they knew they were supposed to keep water from their foundation, they aren't given the warning.

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arvinlexor
arvinlexor

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