Soiled Hands

It's no surprise that builders take shortcuts to make money. What might shock you: Government officials -- from regulators to legislators -- do little to stop them

House of cards. Since homebuilding is the state's main economic engine -- and since a home is the biggest investment that most local families will make -- you might assume Arizona government officials take great pains to make sure construction here is done right.

You'd be wrong. The state Legislature has repeatedly conceded to the wishes of the big developers that fill its members' campaign coffers with fat checks. They've been focused on making it harder for homeowners to get the relief they need from bad builders.

And while the agency that's supposed to protect consumers from shoddy construction does a decent job of resolving homeowner complaints, it really doesn't do anything to discipline or educate the big builders who just keep making the same mistakes.

Fact is, thousands of Valley homeowners have been affected by bad soils here. And, as we reported in "Cracked Houses" last week, most of the problems that result from the soils in question are highly preventable. Instead, builders are taking shortcuts that save them a few grand per house, at the most. While those shortcuts won't affect everyone, they do doom a percentage of homeowners to major problems.

The state has pretty tough policies in place to regulate architects, home inspectors, and engineers. But builders have learned that if they screw up a new home, the only discipline they have to face is, eventually, fixing it.

And that's only if the homeowner decides to take on a fight.


Melinda Westcott might have been okay with the cracks, even though they ran along almost every seam in her home, even though they were multiplying every week.

But then the front door wouldn't open. And insulation started falling from the walls.

And then came the crickets, streaming from the ceiling like Biblical locusts.

Melinda Westcott was not okay with the crickets.

Westcott, who is director of nurses at an assisted living center, purchased the home on St. Exupery Drive in 2004 to be near her grandkids. Her son and his wife had moved their young family to Anthem, northwest of Phoenix on I-17, and Westcott thought it would be nice to buy a small second home in the neighborhood, in addition to her place in Prescott.

Anthem was booming. The once wild desert had become suburbia, almost overnight, with row after row of orderly houses. Every one seemed to sell in minutes.

Worst case scenario, Westcott thought, it was a good investment.

She had no idea how bad the worst case scenario could actually be.

She didn't know that her $191,000 home had been built on soil that swells when wet, and that the swelling would be powerful enough to make the edges of her foundation curl.

Literally.

Which pushed up the walls, which pushed up the roof. Which cracked the walls. And jarred the door frames.

And let crickets creep out of the wall cracks -- coming with such frequency that Westcott, a fastidious housekeeper, finally gave up and, after spraying them with Raid, let their little cricket carcasses accumulate in piles along the baseboards.

"I killed two of them this morning," Westcott explains, showing off the most recent additions with a grim smile.

Even worse?

Though her house was clearly falling apart, and doing so within the two-year warranty, Westcott was on her own.

Her builder denied that the problems were serious.

And while state regulators disagreed, their job was to remain more or less neutral in the dispute.

Make a complaint against an architect or a home inspector in Arizona, and state regulators will investigate. Complain about a lawyer, and the bar association will do the work.

Complain about a builder? You're fighting on your own.

That's true even though Westcott's builder, Del Webb, knew that soils in Anthem were causing problems just like the ones she was experiencing.

And even though the builders' own engineers had allegedly recommended ways to keep foundations from curling, to keep walls from cracking, and to keep houses like Westcott's from falling apart -- the builder chose not to make the fixes.

Not just on Westcott's house, but on as many as hundreds of her neighbors'.

It's some pretty serious stuff, the sort of action that cries out for government attention.

But no one in power appears to be taking the problem seriously.

Not the state Legislature, which has been busy making it harder for home owners to sue their builders -- and keeping complaints about builders off the Internet and closed to the public.

Not the Arizona Registrar of Contractors, which has focused on rooting out unlicensed contractors, the fly-by-night repairmen who do $1,000 jobs and have a tendency to disappear before the work is done. At the same time, the agency is giving a free pass to the licensed guys, even though they're at the root of what are often more serious complaints.

And certainly not the Arizona Department of Real Estate. That agency's task force is at work on a roster of recommendations for Governor Janet Napolitano, recommendations that may be designed to ease quality control on new developments.

That's right, ease it.

At a time when customer satisfaction with Valley builders is dropping precipitously.

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