Cracked Houses

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

One of the first major housing developments for senior citizens, Sun City had a national name, and a reputation for quality, even as the original development was followed by offshoots: Sun City West, Sun City Festival, Sun City Grand.

Ron Kaleta didn't know enough to be suspicious.

He remembers discussing the options with the salesman. After talking about this and that, the salesman asked about gutters.

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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"Do we need them?" Ron asked.

"Well," the salesman replied, laughing, "we get seven or eight inches of rain here a year. What do you think?"

Kaleta was never the kind of guy who wanted to file a lawsuit. He recalls, back in Michigan, slipping on ice in front of a Chinese restaurant. He was disgusted when a stranger rushed up and offered himself as a witness, just assuming Kaleta would want to sue.

That wasn't how he lived his life.

But Kaleta was appalled by what happened with his mother's house. Her builder, Del Webb, hired a company to clean the mold, but wouldn't hire someone to test after the cleaning, to make sure it was gone, Kaleta says. (The Kaletas eventually hired their own testing company; the mold was still there.)

And Del Webb wouldn't deal with the other issues, Eckley says. Once Ron Kaleta hired a lawyer, the lawyer got a copy of the soil report. And that lawyer, Eckley, told him that the builders knew the soil had the potential to expand.

They knew they were supposed to keep moisture from the foundation. They knew that gutters were a good idea. They knew they were supposed to slope the lot away from the house.

They just didn't do it.

Del Webb's attorney, Roger W. Strassburg, referred all questions to a company spokeswoman, Jacque Petroulakis. Petroulakis declined an interview, but issued a written statement saying that the company, a division of Pulte Homes, is "fully committed to customer satisfaction and quality."

Because the case is in litigation, Petroulakis wouldn't discuss specifics. She noted only that Del Wbb wants "whenever possible to work with homeowners to avoid litigation and address their issues directly."

In court filings, the company has blamed the problems on its subcontractors.


As construction experts tell it, expansive soils aren't a death sentence. They just need to be acknowledged and dealt with.

In particular, houses built on expansive soil need extra-strength foundations. And they need techniques to keep water from the foundation.

The problem is that builders fail to do it.

This isn't, for the most part, a case of a lousy subcontractor doing a sloppy job, construction-defect lawyers say. These are design flaws -- and ones that, for the most part, saved the builders a few bucks.

Take the matter of grading. In most cases, municipal building codes require a 2 percent slope away from the house. The idea is to channel water downhill, away from the foundation.

But builders know they can fit more houses onto the acreage if they keep yards small -- and a 2 percent slope in the side yard requires space.

So, says Phoenix attorney Dicks, they'll just ignore the report and put in a lesser grade.

"I just did a case where 90 percent of the homeowners got a grade of less than 0.2 percent," he says. "Not 2 percent. Point-two percent. Well, you can imagine where the water's going to go."

A joint 2003 study from the National Association of Home Builders/American Society of Home Inspectors found that a full 42 percent of home inspectors reported drainage not sloping away from the house as a problem they've witnessed. Pettice, the chief inspector for the state registrar, says it's a major problem his staff sees.

Same issue with gutters. The International Code Council, which writes the rules that govern construction, doesn't require gutters on new homes unless the house has a basement.

But the state-mandated soil report often notes that the builder needs to channel roof runoff away from the foundation. That means gutters, and a downspout, Dicks says.

It's another recommendation that mostly goes ignored.

After all, while the cost of gutters is estimated at less than $2,000 per house, the builder may well be multiplying that cost by every house in a development the size of Sun City Grand.

That adds up.

Ken Walsh, a professor of construction engineering and management at San Diego State University, was a practicing engineer in Phoenix for almost nine years. He says that builders aren't eschewing gutters out of ignorance -- it's a risk they've calculated and decided to take.

The fact is, Walsh says, even in areas with highly expansive soil, not every home will be affected. The soil can vary significantly even from lot to lot in the same development.

Maybe, in a group of 100 homes, 10 will have cracking and two will have serious problems. That still means 88 are more or less okay.

And while extensive testing would likely reveal exactly which lots will develop problems, the state doesn't mandate testing on each site, only that there be one test for the development.

Builders today, Walsh says, don't make money by carefully planning each site.

They do it by building hundreds of homes in a row, homes that are more or less identical.

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arvinlexor
arvinlexor

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