House leaves owners with a sinking feeling

Damage: After buying a new home in 1996, a Pasadena couple watched as the house began to sink. They are seeking compensation from the developer.

April 21, 1999|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

From the first month they moved in, when 12-foot-long cracks ran the length of the outside walls, something about Rich and Brenda Puderbaugh's brand-new suburban cul-de-sac home didn't seem quite right.

Maybe it was the way the windows seemed to slope in the middle or the way the outside stairs pulled apart from the house, leaving a crack between the doorway and welcome mat. The couple would stand on their lawn, staring with their heads cocked first to the right, then to the left, looking for the root of the distressing feeling that something slow, something awful, was happening before their eyes.

Six months after buying their first home in April 1996, a $140,000 two-story house in Pasadena, Mr. Puderbaugh went into the basement to put together his fish tank. When he filled it, the water was at least 3 inches deeper on one side of the tank than on the other.

The couple ripped out the carpet in a panic, pulled boxes and furniture from the wall. The basement floor had fallen 3 1/2 inches from the walls on two sides of the room. That's when they realized what was happening.

Their house was sinking.

"We were shocked. We were just stunned," said Mr. Puderbaugh. "We just couldn't believe what was happening to us."

From that moment 2 1/2 years ago, the Puderbaughs have been on a frustrating and mostly unsuccessful crusade to get an explanation -- and restitution -- from Mandrin Construction Co., the developer.

During that time their house has kept sinking. The walls are falling in on themselves. Beams are straining to hold in place.

Last month, after attempting to impose a gag order on the Puderbaughs, Mandrin settled out of court with the couple and agreed to pay $30,000 in restitution and buy back the house by April 5.

They still have not.

Since realizing what was happening, the Puderbaughs have watched as their foot-thick concrete basement floor broke into two pieces with an inch-wide crack running the length of the house. The bathtub near the family room splintered as it was caught in the pull between the dropping floor and the upright plastic enclosure. The stairs inside the house have separated from the entrance hall wall, like the outside stairs.

Each week during the past two and half years, Mr. Puderbaugh has walked into the basement to examine pipes that no longer fit into the slots carved for them as the walls sink deeper. Even the kitchen countertop wouldn't stay in place.

They have bought cartfuls of tape and sealant and putty trying to keep walls, floors and ceilings in place. They began calling it the Frankenstein House.

"It seemed like every week something new would happen," Mr. Puderbaugh said on a recent day in his basement. "It was the house from hell."

"It got to the point where we couldn't stand being here," Mrs. Puderbaugh said. "We just wanted to stay out, go out. We never ate here anymore."

They called Mandrin, sometimes several times a day, demanding answers but they say they never got any. "We'd call them and call them and then, at a certain point, they just started hanging up on us when we called," Mrs. Puderbaugh said. "We offered for them to come to our house, to see for themselves that this was really happening. But they wouldn't."

The Puderbaughs went to them. But what they say Mandrin Construction President Milt Horn told them at their meeting irks them.

"He said, `Not to make light of it, but it's just a split foyer,' " Mr. Puderbaugh said.

`Matter has been settled'

Contacted at his office, Horn disputed that his firm has been slow to respond to the Puderbaughs' complaints or that he called their home "just a split foyer."

He said the company will buy back the home, but the Puderbaughs' lender did not get the paperwork to them in time and sent it to the wrong address.

"If I don't have the paperwork, there's not much I can do about it," he said. "This is ridiculous. This matter has been settled. We are doing everything we can to expedite the process."

The Puderbaughs hired an engineer in mid-1997 to look at their house. They knew when they bought their plot in 1996 that they had picked the drainage lot, the area in subdivision construction where water and sediment left from building neighboring homes is collected. But the couple liked where the house on Dero Drive would be situated, and the woods behind it.

They also knew Anne Arundel County law requires developers to fill such lots with sturdy, approved compounds.

Their engineer found that the developer had filled the lot with biodegradable organic material -- most likely garbage -- and soft soils. To test the material, engineers use a large machine to pound a cylinder into the ground. In the Puderbaughs' basement, the couple watched as the engineer pressed it into the ground holding up their house with his hand.

`Aware of the situation'

Internal records from Mandrin Construction show that company officials might have known about the problem before the Puderbaughs.

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