"I felt warmth when I first walked in here," recalls Rose Ellen Rosier. "The house hugged me."
But nearly four years after she originally crossed the threshold of her spacious, $116,000 home in Glendale's Independence Park subdivision, that embrace has turned into a stranglehold. Today the 59-year-old invalid feels she's being dragged down both financially and emotionally by the dwelling--a house she now claims is literally sinking right under her feet.
"I thought this was going to be my dream house, but it's turned out to be my nightmare," whimpers Rosier, unsuccessfully fighting back the tears that are never far from her eyes. "I wouldn't wish what I've gone through on my own worst enemy!"
Rose Ellen Rosier's own worst enemy may well be the very party responsible for her miseries. Last spring, Rosier filed suit against Watt/Hancock, the Valley homebuilders from which she bought a split-level basement home in 1990. Asking for recision of the contract as well as monetary damages, Rosier alleges that Watt/Hancock was aware that the three-year-old model home they'd sold her was rife with structural defects--problems she'd later learn were common to other basement homes in the neighborhood. Rosier blames many of those defects on severe "settling" problems, an unsettling situation that has caused floors to shift, walls to warp and her nerves to snap. "I never wanted to be a burden on anyone," insists Rosier, a former Lockheed employee from Sunnyvale, California, who moved to the Valley when health problems forced her premature retirement. "That's why I bought this house. This was going to be the place I spent the rest of my life. But now . . . well, just look at this place!"
Even to the casual observer, Rosier's home looks as if it might have been designed by a specialist in carnival-fun-house architecture. Walls buckle and bow. Floors pop under the slightest pressure and appear to be dropping away from the baseboards. The spongy lawn is dimpled with a series of minisinkholes. And in the best tradition of any good roadside "antigravity Mystery Spot," the chain of a free-hanging ceiling lamp doesn't appear to line up with any other vertical angle in the room.
While most of these structural abnormalities are so subtle they can't successfully be captured on film, the "feel" of the house is that everything's just a little "off." In fact, a visitor to Rosier's home probably wouldn't be too surprised if a ball were to roll uphill.
But architectural quirks that might be amusing in a fun house are no laughing matter to the white-haired shut-in, who sank her entire life savings into the money pit on North 75th Drive.
Plagued by severe back and knee problems that force her to rely on a walker, Rosier also suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome that makes it impossible for her to perform all but the simplest household tasks. Unable to even prepare her own lunch, Rosier has sandwiches delivered by Meals on Wheels. Several times a week, she requires the assistance of a volunteer who helps bathe her. Although currently on antidepressant medication as a result of emotional problems she believes stem from anxiety over her house, Rosier continues to feel so frazzled, she recently assigned power of attorney to her nephew Jack Meeker, a clerk at a discount store.
"All my money's in this house," sniffles Rosier, who made a $32,000 down payment on the five-bedroom home and now reluctantly makes monthly mortgage payments of $666. "I'm scared to live here now. I never know if I'm going to wake up and find the ceiling in my bed!"
While there's no evidence to suggest that the roof is in any danger of collapsing, that's one the few structural catastrophes that hasn't befallen the trouble-prone tract home since Rosier and the 25-year-old Meeker took up residence more than three and a half years ago.
Dabbing at her eyes with a tissue, Rosier says, "This whole thing has been a terrible strain on me." But she's hopeful that she and her nephew will receive more satisfaction from the courts than they did from the unnamed Watt/Hancock representative who fielded one of her early complaint calls. "You know what they told me?" sobs Rosier. "They said I was too fat and that's why my house was sinking!"
While Rosier's lawsuit against Watt/Hancock does not go to trial until next summer, the case of the sinking house already promises to become mired in mudslinging. "We have substantially different views of the facts," says David Jordan, the Phoenix attorney who is handling the case for the Los Angeles-based Watt Homes. (Watt/Hancock Homes, one of the biggest builders in the Valley during the late Eighties and early Nineties, no longer exists as an active business entity. The result of a short-lived merger between Watt and the Valley-based Hancock Homes, the company received wide media coverage when it participated in a "Home of Miracles" raffle earlier this year that raised $1 million for Phoenix Children's Hospital.)
Although Jordan declines to elaborate on the suit, papers filed in Arizona Superior Court reveal a classic case of "we said, she said," with both sides contributing wildly divergent tales of the complaints, work orders and subcontracted work whirling around the Rosier residence for the past several years. Interestingly enough, court records reveal that Watt isn't arguing that the house might be sinking as a result of drainage problems. Instead, the company points a finger back at Rosier, claiming she's to blame because she "made changes to the landscaping" and "held animals in her yard which had altered the contour of the yard."
"I've never done anything to the yard," counters Rosier. But what about those rampaging animals that are somehow responsible for changing the contours of her lawn? "Here they are," says Rosier, pointing to three Lhasa apsos that probably have a combined weight of 20 pounds. Rose Ellen Rosier and her nephew began noticing problems with their new home almost immediately after moving in, back in January 1991. Some initially seemed so minor--a hairline crack here, a loose-fitting ceiling lamp there--that the pair didn't attach much significance to them. However, the number of defects and the seriousness of potential associated problems soon began multiplying at an alarming rate. Within a year, the new tenants realized their home's erratic settling process had definitely taken its toll. In early 1992, Rosier complained to Watt/Hancock of a dozen problems, including door frames that pulled away from the walls, a portion of the roof coming loose from the front of the house and a patio slab that brought the outdoors indoors in more ways than one.
"The patio actually tipped toward the house, if you can believe that," explains Rosier. "As a result, rainwater was running into the house, not away from it."
Watt/Hancock eventually dispatched workers to repair it. Already cracking, the new patio slab has been poured in such a slipshod manner that portions of the slab are crumbling into an adjoining basement window well. In addition, a fire-escape ladder leading from the window of a basement bedroom to the patio was installed crookedly. Meeker reports that a firefighter who examined the installation of the ladder doubted that the ladder would hold an adult's weight.
From that point on, Rosier says structural damage began escalating so rapidly that within six months, she had identified nearly three dozen additional trouble spots around her house. In complaints filed with the Registrar of Contractors in June and July of 1992, Rosier's claims included allegations that:
the ground around the basement portion of the house was sinking;
the kitchen floor was buckling;
light fixtures in two bathrooms were scorching adjacent walls;
the floor of the family room was beginning to slope;
an exposed portion of the foundation was crumbling;
chicken wire was popping through chimney exterior.
Much like the fictitious Poltergeist family that learned its new house had been built over a cemetery, Rosier and her nephew eventually discovered that their home's problems are rooted in the ground below.
"As we understand it, the land this subdivision stands on was originally owned by another builder, and they graded it for single-level homes only," reports Rosier's nephew Meeker. "When Watt/Hancock bought the property, they didn't go back and regrade the soil when they decided to build basement homes."
Experts who examined Rosier's home concluded that improperly compacted soil and related drainage problems cause the house to alternately heave and settle with each fluctuation in the soil's moisture content. The constant movement consequently plays havoc with the dwelling's structural integrity.
After sampling the earth surrounding Rosier's basement, a geotechnical engineer with Thomas-Hartig and Associates reported that backfill soil densities ranged from 78 percent to 93 percent, a range "significantly less than the generally accepted 95 percent." An engineer from Speedie and Associates also inspected Rosier's home. Explaining that his company was "aware of similar problems in the area," the troubleshooter blamed Rosier's structural problems on "improper backfill of the basement walls" and deemed the drainage in her yard "not acceptable and deteriorating." The engineer's report also indicated that some of those problems might be alleviated by pumping a groutlike compound under the house--a costly and inexact process that carries no guarantees.
"I don't have that kind of money," frets Rosier, referring to the estimated $16,000 she says it would cost to grout the space under her basement. "And even if I did, why should I be expected to pay? Watt/Hancock built this house, not me." The process of testing the soil uncovered yet more problems. While preparing to drill a hole through the foundation of the living room, the geotechnical engineer discovered the carpeting in the room covered a large fissure in the foundation, a one-eighth-inch-wide crack that ran half the length of the house.
Shortly after that revelation, the engineer was boring through the soil underneath the living-room floor when the drill bit fell off the tool and into a hidden cavity below. The bit had to be retrieved from the cavern with tongs.
"I couldn't believe what was happening," says Rosier. "All I could think of was, 'What will it be next?'"
She soon found out. Curious as to what other surprises might lurk beneath their feet, her nephew later pried up a strip of wood molding that inexplicably crossed the parquet floor at an odd point between the entry hall and the kitchen. He discovered that the molding had been used to obscure the fact that two sections of flooring didn't even meet.
Tracing the fault line, Meeker found that the crack extended into an adjacent closet. As in the entry hall, the closet's fracture was hidden beneath parquet tiles and a piece of molding.
Quizzed about why there just happened to be pieces of molding everywhere the floor of the entryway didn't line up, a Watt/Hancock representative reportedly told Meeker that the spacers had been installed for "decorative" purposes.
"`Decorative' touches on the inside of a closet?!" counters Meeker, who believes the molding is evidence that Watt/Hancock knew of the cracked foundation prior to selling the house to his aunt. "Yeah, right." After investigating Rosier's complaint, the Registrar of Contractors ordered Watt/Hancock to repair 18 separate items. But with the notable exception of a new patio slab, most of those maintanence problems have gone untouched.
"After we saw how Watt/Hancock 'fixed' the drainage problems with our patio, we decided they'd done enough to the house," reports Jack Meeker. "Remember, these are the same people who tried to tell us our floor was popping because we were 'large people.'"
In the unlikely event that Rose Ellen Rosier's house ever does sink out of sight, few of her neighbors will be sad to see it go. Currently surrounded by brown grass, dead foliage and debris, the onetime showplace is a visual blight on the block.
"I'm afraid to water the lawn for fear the moisture's just going to do more damage to the foundation of the house," says Rosier, explaining a decision that has given her house the appearance of an abandoned home. Perhaps believing that the house now looks so bad that it couldn't look any worse, Rosier's nephew is lax in picking up the trash that occasionally blows into the yard from a communal Dumpster down the street.
Not surprisingly, none of this has endeared the lady of the house to other homeowners on the block. Rosier admits having words with a neighbor who'd put her house up for sale; the woman wondered why Rosier couldn't take better care of her home. In another incident, Rosier mentioned her problems with the house to a realtor canvassing the neighborhood; someone later took her to task, claiming her tales of sinking houses would drive down property values. "I never said, 'All the houses are sinking,'" says Rosier, eyes glistening. "I said, 'My house is sinking.' And it is! But nobody wants to hear that around here. Nobody wants to talk about it."
Losing her composure completely, Rosier begins sobbing. "Ever since we moved into this place, it's just been one thing after another, a constant fight."
For a brief time, it had looked as if Rosier wouldn't have to wage that battle alone. About two years ago, a neighbor named Alfred Solomon showed up at her door, asking if she was also experiencing a lot of "settling problems" with her basement home. Learning that Rosier's house was in as bad (if not worse) shape as his own, Solomon invited her to attend a meeting of other basement homeowners in the neighborhood who were in the same boat.
Fueled by their mutual frustration, the handful of outraged homeowners initially considered legal action against Watt/Hancock. But most of the proposed litigation never got past the talking stage, once the neighbors realized how expensive and time-consuming such action would be, particularly since there was no guarantee they'd prevail.
Rosier came out of the meeting more depressed than ever. "I realized it was just me against Watt/Hancock," she says. "I felt like I was Little Red Riding Hood and they were the wolf, just waiting on the other side of the door to get me."
Although Alfred Solomon ultimately did file a suit against Watt/Hancock (an out-of-court settlement in Solomon's favor forbids him from discussing the case), most of the other basement homeowners present at the meeting wound up taking the path of least resistance. Rosier reports that several homeowners decided to cut their losses by putting their homes up for sale. She says another family reportedly disappeared into the night after the basement of their home filled up with foul-smelling water.
"Apparently, they'd contacted [Watt/Hancock] and got nothing but a run-around, so they walked," says Nelson Halles, a neighbor who owns a basement home whose floor plan is identical to Rose Ellen Rosier's home. "The family basically said, 'Mr. Banker, you own this place now.'"
One of the first Independence Park residents to move into a basement home in the subdivision, the engineer has been battling the effects of shifting soil beneath his own home since October 1988, just six months after he moved in. "My experience with Watt/Hancock after I bought the house was that they were only going to do enough to barely get by," says Halles. "And if you didn't squawk, that was obviously good enough." Halles himself squawked so loud that Watt/Hancock eventually agreed to pay to have cement grout injected under his basement. "It filled part of the void, but the void is so big, it didn't get it all," says Halles, who continues to have problems with his house. "I had the ceiling patched a few months ago, but the blamed house is still settling so bad that it's already cracking again."
Halles is currently trying to sell his home, a move he insists has nothing to do with its structural problems. "There's just my wife and I now, and we don't need a five-bedroom, three-bathroom house anymore," he explains. "It's just too damn much to take care of." Halles hopes to sell the house for what he paid for it, even though he realizes that may be unrealistic: Two similar basement homes in the neighborhood sold earlier this year, with the owners taking losses of up to $35,000.
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Rosier should be so lucky. Based on personal observation of the glut of structural problems within the home, a Century 21 realtor seriously doubts there's a market for Rosier's house at any price.
"I can't really state a 'suggested sales price,'" contends realtor Nancy Casner, who toured the house at Rosier's request. "My feeling is that there are still too many homes for people to choose from in all price ranges in all areas of the Valley for someone to knowingly take a chance and purchase [this] home with all the attendant questions."
Like a tortured character trapped in some Edgar Allan Poe tale, Rose Ellen Rosier wanders through her home on a walker, waiting for the June 1995 court date that will determine whether she can flee her Glendale prison and go to live with a cousin in California. "I just hope I can hang on that long," she says plaintively. Asked what she'll do if the case goes against her, Rosier shakes her head. "I can't even let myself think about it."
And if she does win, what will become of her dream house from hell? For the first time all morning, some semblance of a smile crosses Rose Ellen Rosier's face. "They can raffle it off, for all I care," she says. "Win a Watt/Hancock home! Whoopee!