Soiled Hands

Page 5 of 11

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.)

The attorneys who met with Westcott both suggested she organize her neighbors into another class-action case. The builders would fight any suit tooth and nail, so it simply wouldn't be cost-effective to represent one woman alone.

In class-action cases, it's the lawyers who generally cover the litigation costs, which makes them a much more affordable option.

But that seemed like a lot of work for an uncertain payoff -- and Westcott didn't really want to file a lawsuit anyway.

Her best option, she decided, was the Arizona Registrar of Contractors.

That agency, which licenses homebuilders across the state, also accepts complaints about their work.

If a builder fails to fix a house to minimum standards, the state can suspend its license or even issue a fine.

In April, Westcott filed her complaint.

A few days later, the state inspector issued his report. He found cracking, settling, and bad drainage. He confirmed that Westcott's windows and doors were out of kilter and that insulation was falling from the attic into the rooms and closets, according to his report.

And, he wrote, "the foundation is moving or warping."

He gave Del Webb 15 days to fix the problems, the required time under the state's policy. If the company didn't fix them, it could lose its license.

It sounded good, from Westcott's perspective. But it was really just the first step in what would prove a very difficult process.

Had Melinda Westcott been pursuing a case against, say, her landscape architect, she could have rested easy. A state agency would have done the work for her.

It's different for the builders.

The Arizona Board of Technical Registration licenses professionals like home inspectors, architects, and engineers. And like the Registrar of Contractors, the agency takes complaints from the public.

But from that point, everything is different.

Kathryn Fuller, the board of technical registration's investigations manager, explains that if Westcott made a complaint against an architect, her agency's staff would investigate.

If the staff determined that the architect's work was deficient, they'd bring him before an "enforcement advisory committee" of his peers.

The peers ask questions and probe the case; Westcott would simply be one of the witnesses.

From there, the committee could recommend discipline. It could be as much as $2,000 per violation -- and, Fuller notes, a single case can involve multiple violations.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske