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

Sometimes, as in the case of Melinda Westcott's home, the foundation is tough enough to stay together -- but the pressure forces it to curl up at the edges.

That can be just as bad: The walls, lifted by the curling, jar the roof. Cracks still develop. Leaks, too, are common, which can lead to mold.

Expansive soils are common in some of the hottest spots for new construction (see "Cracked Houses," March 16). Construction defect lawyers have filed class action suits in Mesa, Gilbert, Surprise, and, of course, Anthem, which has been rocked by soil problems. (To see a complete map of areas affected by bad soils, go to http://www.az.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/soils/shrinkswell.html.)

Chris Prickett, now a home inspector.
Peter Scanlon
Chris Prickett, now a home inspector.
Read the entire series.
Alana Machnicki/Three in a Box
Read the entire series.

Indeed, according to the man whose company poured most of the foundations in Anthem, Jim Bebout, Del Webb was fully aware of bad soil there years before building Westcott's house.

Bebout, who owns Bebout Concrete, detailed the timeline in a letter to Del Webb dated last November.

By 2001, Bebout wrote, his staff had noticed that "inordinate repair requests" were coming from Anthem. The repairs were focused on "cracking flatwork and slabs, beyond what is considered normal, and necessitating significant repairs or replacement."

In his letter, Bebout alleged that Del Webb's engineers recommended using thicker slabs to prevent problems in the future.

But, he wrote, Del Webb wouldn't listen.

"Webb rejected proposals to increase the thickness of the flatwork, citing cost concerns," Bebout wrote.

According to Bebout, it wasn't until lawsuits were filed that Del Webb finally began implementing better-designed slabs.

Jacque Petroulakis, a Del Webb spokeswoman, notes that Bebout's letter only came to light because of litigation -- suggesting that the circumstances may make his claims suspect.

After Del Webb was sued in an expansive soils case in Sun City Grand, the builder turned around and sued its subcontractors, including Bebout. It was at that time that Bebout filed the letter in court, along with an affidavit detailing similar concerns.

"We dispute these allegations," Petroulakis wrote in an e-mail to New Times. "We work with professional geotechnical and construction engineers in designing our homes. The structural integrity of our homes is beyond question and is well documented."

But regardless of what happened with Westcott's foundation, several things are clear: Del Webb knew it had a problem in Anthem.

And rather than address Westcott's complaints, Del Webb chose to downplay them.

This is what happened:

Since Westcott had only been living in the house for a few months when she noticed the cracking, her two-year warranty was still in effect.

And so on January 14, 2005, five months after she'd moved in, Del Webb sent two consultants to St. Exupery Drive to take a look.

Ten days later, Anthem's general manager, Diane Brennan, sent Westcott a letter, summarizing the consultants' findings.

There was some soil movement, Brennan wrote, but "long term movement evident in your home should be minimal."

Brennan noted that one of the men who examined Westcott's home, Ken Mulder, "a structural engineer," had found cracking due to the foundation lifting.

But, Mulder had added an important caveat. Brennan reported: "[T]he structure of the home appears to be performing satisfactorily and within design parameters."

Mulder, Brennan added, felt that some of the cracks were unrelated to the soil. They were "more likely related to normal material shrinkage common with new construction in our region."

Brennan concluded with an offer: The company would repair the drywall. And, "as a gesture of goodwill," Brennan wrote, it would install gutters on the home.

Westcott was livid.

"Gesture of goodwill!" she scoffs.

The letter made her angry, but she was positively livid after doing some online research. As it turned out, Ken Mulder wasn't a structural engineer.

He wasn't an engineer at all.

As a company staffer later admitted to her, she says, they'd "misstated" Mulder's credentials.

(Petroulakis, the Del Webb spokeswoman, notes that Mulder has been an executive at an engineering company for 20 years. Also, she says, the other man who inspected the home for the company is, actually, an engineer.)

By that point, Westcott had concluded that accepting the company's offer of gutters would not be enough to fix her house.

She'd consulted a lawyer or two.

They had told her that she needed more than a few patches. If she didn't replace the soil under the house, they said, or treat it so that it stopped swelling, there was no point in making repairs.

But Del Webb -- as evidenced by its "gesture of goodwill" -- was hardly volunteering to make that happen.

And while a major class-action lawsuit was pending over the soil problems in Anthem, Westcott discovered her problems too late to get her home included in it.

The lawsuit, filed in 2003, is still ongoing. But it involves houses built in the first phase of Anthem construction, in 2001. Westcott didn't even purchase her home until 2004.

By that point, as is required by law, the judge had already closed the case to additional homeowners.

(Doug Lusson, the attorney handling the case for the homeowners, did not return calls for comment. Del Webb's attorney, Roger W. Strassburg, referred calls to the company's spokeswoman, Petroulakis.)

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