Cracked Houses

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

They don't have time, or money, to engineer each individual home precisely for the lot it's being built on.

And their other solution -- building every house for the worst-case scenario, as if the soil were highly expansive everywhere -- is flawed for a similar reason.

"If a builder said, 'We're going to solve this problem, and have the best engineered solution so that these homes have no problem,' most of the homes in Arizona would be very overbuilt," Walsh says.

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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And that adds to cost.

And though better foundations might make more owners happy in the long run, it doesn't solve the problem of how to attract buyers when the builder down the street is offering granite countertops and a Jacuzzi for the same price . . . and both foundations look the same.

Instead, many builders' solution, Walsh says, has been to take the chance that some homeowners -- people like Bernice Kaleta -- may end up very, very unhappy.

Even when, in fact, it means ignoring their own engineers.

Take, for example, Bernice Kaleta's two-bedroom in Sun City Grand.

Typically, in construction-defect cases, the problems are apparent. Builders can't say they don't exist, so they blame their subcontractors.

And subcontractors, who are dependent on the builders for their livelihood, hire a lawyer to defend themselves, but don't really fight with fire, homeowners' attorneys say.

But something interesting happened in Bernice Kaleta's case, two years after she filed suit.

The soils report for Kaleta's property called for a post-tension slab, which is basically a foundation that's specially designed to withstand more pressure, like the pressure a home feels if it's on expanding, or collapsing, soil. But the builder, Del Webb, had instead used a floating slab, which is cheaper -- but likely to crack and move under the pressure of expanding soils.

Del Webb blamed the subcontractor. In this case, it was a local company called Bebout Concrete, according to court filings.

But this time, Bebout wasn't silent.

In January, Bebout's lawyer filed an affidavit noting that his company hadn't ignored the soils report. Instead, it had taken its direction from its employer, Del Webb.

Del Webb had gotten the soils report. And then, Bebout claimed, the builder had talked the engineers into running more tests -- and agreeing to a cheaper slab instead.

(Petroulakis, the Del Webb spokeswoman, declined to comment on Bebout's allegations.)

"I can tell you I was in meetings with various people from Del Webb with the soil engineers," Bebout explained in a deposition for the Kaleta case obtained by New Times, "where Del Webb was vehement about the fact that they did not want to spend the extra money on post-tension slabs."

And they didn't just do it at the Kaleta house, Bebout said.

They did it across parts of Sun City Grand, on hundreds of homes.

And they did it, Bebout alleged, in other Del Webb projects, like the sprawling development northeast of Sun City: Anthem.

Anthem has been plagued by soil problems. Nearly a dozen complaints have been filed with the Arizona Registrar of Contractors. There's a class-action suit pending.

All those problems, if Bebout is to be believed, could have been avoided.

According to a letter also entered into evidence by Bebout's attorney, Del Webb became aware of the soil problems in Anthem around 2001.

"Recommendations were made at the time to resolve the slab problem by revising the design criteria of the slab design," company president Jim Bebout wrote. "Webb rejected proposals . . . citing cost concerns over the proposed redesigns."

Kaleta's lawyer, Eckley, says the more expensive foundation would have cost Del Webb only about $2,100 per house. (Bebout did not return calls for comment. His attorney, Steven Harrison, declined comment because the case is still ongoing.)

"They trashed her health for $2,100," Eckley says.

Even when the builder insisted on using the less expensive foundation, Bebout had another idea. Bebout suggested building special barriers around the foundations to keep moisture out, according to his letter, and even offered to do it for about $150 per home.

Again, Del Webb said no.

"[I]n its fervor to save money, Webb rejected the proposal, citing the additional cost of $150 per lot as being unreasonable," Bebout wrote, "and instead elected to do nothing to mitigate the threat of slab moisture infiltration."

It was a stunning piece of information, even if it only confirmed what attorneys like Jim Eckley had long suspected.

It meant that the foundation problems weren't an accident.

It meant that they could have been avoided -- possibly for as little as $150 -- but Del Webb refused.

"This is the kind of stuff being done behind closed doors," Eckley says, jubilant.

For all the importance of the filing, though, Bernice Kaleta was not there to celebrate. A few weeks after the affidavit was filed, she had a heart attack.

She spent four days in February at the Del E. Webb Memorial Hospital. She's currently at a rehabilitation center.


Ron Kaleta wasn't the kind of guy who filed lawsuits, yet he, along with his mother, ended up filing one.

He also wasn't the kind of guy who sees a shrink. But he did.

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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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