Cracked Houses

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

There is, perhaps, a reason for that.

In Arizona, a builder must only guarantee a home warranty for two years. After that, the state registrar won't accept a complaint about shoddy workmanship, nor is the builder legally compelled to fix most problems.

(Homeowners can generally file a lawsuit up to eight years after purchase, but lawsuits are no guarantee of remedial action -- and they typically involve major expense.)

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.

Sometimes, the worst cracking doesn't happen until it's too late.

Since the problems are often revealed only after the foundation gets wet, buyers purchasing in the middle of a drought -- like, say, the record-setting one we're in now -- may not notice anything is wrong until it's too late to get it fixed.

James Judge, for instance, noticed his home in Anthem was cracking about a year after he moved in. But though he contacted his builder, Del Webb, to get the place patched, the worst damage didn't show up until after last year's rainy spring.

That's when the doors wouldn't open. And the cracks got so big, he could stick a pen into them.

Now, Judge says, the problems are multiplying. "After the rain, it's just been nonstop cracking."

He didn't even know the state registrar was an option until consulting a lawyer this winter. By then, the house was more than two years old.

It was too late -- never mind that he still had a mortgage that would take decades to pay off.

At some point, people like Judge turn to the Internet. And it's only then -- when, say, they Google "Arizona" and "soil" -- that they find the USDA maps online and realize they're smack in the middle of the red problem zone.

When that happens, the homeowner often ends up on the phone with Philip D. Camp, the state soil scientist for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The callers explain that they had no idea they had soil problems, that the warranty has run out. Maybe the builder told them the problem was cosmetic, and agreed to patch one or two. But now the cracks are getting worse.

"We field some very gut-wrenching calls," Camp admits. "So many people don't know where to go for help."

And he doesn't know where to send them. Once the house is built, all the detailed mapping in the world can't save them.

"These are people who've put their life savings into a home, or saved up for a retirement home here," Camp says, and there is frustration in his voice. "It's really quite sad."


If it weren't for the musty, closed-off feeling in Bernice Kaleta's house in Sun City Grand, a visitor could be forgiven for assuming that Kaleta's just stepped out for a walk.

Dry dishes are tilted neatly in the drainer. Clothes hang in the closet. Perfume bottles are ready to be spritzed at the bathroom counter.

Bernice Kaleta hasn't set foot in this house for almost four years.

This is not her choice. Bernice Kaleta is 89 years old, and even though, until recently, she was spry enough to enjoy daily mile walks, she had no desire to leave.

This was the home where she intended to spend the rest of her life.

She never meant to spend four years shuttling between one apartment and another, living in a constant state of uncertainty, hoping each six-month apartment lease will be the last.

She never meant to spend a good chunk of her social security check on rent, when she and her late husband had saved to pay off their mortgage.

She came to this home in Sun City Grand to be close to her son Ron, a retired middle school teacher who was leaving Michigan for Arizona.

The reason she abandoned this house in Sun City Grand is mold.

The house is infested with mold, according to reports from an environmental services company. And, after Bernice Kaleta lived in it for two years, "I was noticing mental lapses," says Ron Kaleta.

When he took Bernice to the doctor, the doc identified mold as the culprit. He said her immune system was on overload, Ron says, and ordered her out of the house.

In the year and a half since, Ron has ferried her to the doctor's office 143 times for blood work and treatment.

"One hundred and forty-three times," Ron Kaleta says, mournfully. "She's had almost 400 needle pokes. She's been poked so much they can't find her veins."

Part of the problem, it must be acknowledged, was stucco that was applied incorrectly, says Kaleta's attorney, Jim Eckley. (Yes, the same Jim Eckley who's representing Shari Wilson.)

But the other part is expansive soils, and water that got into the house's foundation. Inspectors found a crack in the slab running from the garage to the rear of the house. Smaller cracks, too, run along the window panes and walls.

Closer examination, Eckley says, showed that the main wall had separated from the foundation, probably because of the cracking and settling.

Moisture was coming in -- and that meant mold.

Moisture was the last thing the Kaletas, as lifelong Midwesterners, thought they'd have to worry about in Arizona.

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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

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