Homeowner wants out

An Ellicott City woman is quite unhappy in a renovated home she bought with county help.

July 20, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's first attempt to use newly renovated older homes as moderate-income housing seemed a godsend to Sarena Goodwin, a working mother of two who bought a three-bedroom historic duplex in Ellicott City last summer for $132,000.

But one year after her family moved into the 1850s vintage building in the 8400 block of Frederick Road, she wants out.

Goodwin has complained about poor heating, mold in the kitchen and a litany of other problems.

"There's no way me and my family could live another winter here. There's no way," Goodwin said. The heat worked so poorly on the first floor, she said, "we couldn't even go downstairs and eat. We had to be bundled up."

The mold came from what Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, described as water chronically seeping through the hillside behind the house - something Goodwin said was hidden behind the kitchen wall. A panel cut from the wall behind the refrigerator by a county inspector revealed a large, empty space and an old stone wall, but no insulation. What appeared to be mold coated the rear of the wallboard.

"I thought something like that should have been taken care of," Goodwin said, though she acknowledged that the home inspection company she hired did not uncover the dampness either.

Other problems cropped up every month she has lived in the house, she said, including an open heat duct left inside the sealed wall of her 13-year-old son Ranard's second-floor bedroom.

It took months of complaints, repeated repairs by renovation contractor Jared Spahn's Old Town Construction firm and a barrage of letters sent to housing officials, County Council members and County Executive James N. Robey to get action, Goodwin said.

Now housing officials and Spahn are planning a bailout that would allow Goodwin and her neighbor to relocate.

Spahn, the builder who renovated the building, said he is sorry about Goodwin's problems and has offered to buy the building back at twice the sale price, fix the problems and either resell the units or rent them out.

"We've made every attempt to make every solitary repair she's asked for," he said, defending the quality of his firm's work. Some problems are the result of earlier alterations that concealed them behind walls. "We didn't put that [kitchen] wall up," he said.

"Her walls on the first floor are stone walls. It's a 150-year-old house," Spahn said, adding that uneven heating is not uncommon in such old buildings. The heating ducts were not changed in the renovation, though a new furnace and central air-conditioning unit were installed.

Vaughan said the county knew nothing of the problems before the homes were sold to Goodwin and Kelly Casper, the other owner, who was out of town and not available for comment. Both buyers had private home inspectors look at the units before buying them in May 2004, Vaughan said.

Goodwin's frequent complaints about dampness and cold led to discovery of the problem in March, Vaughan, said.

Vaughan said estimates to fix the water drainage problem range from $12,000 to $35,000, depending on the contractor, he said - a price beyond the financial reach of the residents.

Spahn said he believes the water is leaking in from a narrow concrete walkway behind the house's second floor, where concrete has cracked. He estimated repair costs at $2,000.

Although the two residents paid $132,000 each for their homes, the appraised value was $190,000 each. To bridge that gap, the county housing commission financed a second mortgage for the difference and as a result owns a minority percentage of both units.

Vaughan said the two units could be repurchased for about $240,000 each - prices that re- flect appreciation over the past year. Once repairs are made, the homes could be sold at even higher prices, he suggested.

"We'll probably be able to at least recoup the money. It's in a very strong market, and a very strong school district." But the primary interest now is to help the residents, he said.

"You learn from prior experiences," Vaughan said, adding that at worst, the residents will come away from the deal with up to $30,000 in equity from appreciation.

In the future, he said, the county will do a "more thorough investigation" of rehabilitated units before agreeing to place them in the program.

Three other older Ellicott City homes have been renovated and sold under the program, which resulted from a bill approved in December 2003 that was sponsored by Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon and east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes.

The idea was to kill two birds with one stone - giving new-home developers another way to satisfy their moderate-income housing requirements and also improve neglected homes.

Howard County law grants builders the right to construct more homes in a project in return for providing free lots for moderate-income houses, which are required in mixed-use, high-density and planned senior communities.

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