Raising the roof over defects

November 17, 1991|By Jube Shiver Jr. | Jube Shiver Jr.,Los Angeles Times

Complaints about housing defects, once mostly confined to builders of low-cost homes in fast-growing suburbs, have spread across the nation in recent months as owners of midpriced and even luxury houses and condominiums complain of shoddy construction.

Jordan Clark, president of the United Homeowners Association in Washington, calls construction defects a "major problem" that has drawn Congress' attention and has sparked homeowner groups from California to Florida to sue inept builders.

"We have leaky skylights, noisy plumbing, cracked foundations and undersized wiring in kitchens," said Leonard Chudacoff, president of the Marina Villa V Homeowners Association, which in August settled a lawsuit against Los Angeles developer Watt Industries for $13 million.

Such problems are the legacy of the 1980s building boom, experts say. So many homes were built so fast that the production overwhelmed housing inspectors, exhausted the supply of skilled workers and taxed the ability of builders to properly supervise construction.

Those problems have been compounded by chemically treated plywood, aluminum wiring, plastic plumbing and other new materials that have sometimes proved faulty. Experts also say that drug use by some construction workers has contributed to the poor workmanship.

"The developers put pressure on contractors to build homes quick and keep down the costs, said Pasadena, Calif., lawyer Lee Barker, who handled the Marina Villa V Homeowners Association's lawsuit. "They hired people who would work for a low wage and didn't necessarily care about quality."

Watt Industries President Ted Cox would not comment on the Marina Villa settlement, which amounts to $104,000 for each of the 125 condos built in the early 1980s.

Other industry officials agree that construction problems are not widespread, saying that housing is one of the nation's most heavily regulated and scrutinized industries. While no national figures are available on housing defects, industry officials say that a very small fraction of the 1.1 million homes built each year have significant problems.

"I have not seen any indication that there is any real rash of quality problems," said William Young, director of consumer affairs for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington.

Critics say that is because the cost of litigation and the shame of finding costly defects after living in a house for years prevents most single-family homeowners from suing builders.

What's more, shoddy builders often disband their company and form another one to avoid paying claims on defects, which range from dangerous lapses such as undersized electrical wiring and weak foundations to annoying and potentially costly problems such as leaky roofs, cracked tile and uneven framing.

But, increasingly, homeowners are pooling financial resources to fight shoddy builders. In hearings in September before the House housing subcommittee, more than 300 owners in five states came to Washington to complain about serious construction defects in their new homes.

"This is a national problem, and it's getting worse -- not better," said Ruth S. Martin, a Cleveland physician who published a book in June that detailed her struggle to get a developer to correct major defects in her custom-built, $450,000 home.

Among the largest and most active groups is the 1,000-member North Carolina Homeowner's Association, formed 2 1/2 years ago "because of all the trouble homeowners in the state have had with builders," said Jim Parker, the group's co-founder and president.

Mr. Parker said that the idea of a citizens group came after he spent $9,000 in legal fees and $5,000 on stopgap repairs in a three-year ordeal to get a North Carolina builder to correct numerous building code violations in his new home. Mr. Parker said that electrical wires in his kitchen were not properly sheathed in metal conduit, pipes backed up with water and sewage, and the home's foundation was not sound.

"What I went through with that builder was worse than the hell I went through in Vietnam," Mr. Parker said. "Before our group was formed, there was no place for a homeowner to turn if he had a problem with a contractor."

In the Washington area, three home builders have set aside more than $17 million to cover the costs of replacing a rapidly deteriorating fire-retardant plywood, whose use had been encouraged by some building codes. But many homeowners are having to sue recalcitrant builders or pay out of pocket to replace the plywood, which the National Association of Home Builders estimates was installed on 1 million roofs.

Drug and alcohol use on the job may also be contributing to defects, experts say.

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