Did the Earth Move for You, Too?

Homeowners, builders and legislators are heaving over the Front Range's swelling soils problem.

John Duffy gives one heck of a house tour. It usually starts in his driveway, with Duffy pointing out a support column to his garage, swathed in metal bands that grip the door frames and keep them from pulling apart. He gives the column a shove, and the entire structure groans.

"My 225 pounds are now shaking my three-car garage," Duffy says.
Mysterious forces seem to be at work throughout the Duffy house. Cracks and crevices mark where the driveway is pulling away from the garage, where the front porch is trying to flee the house. A sidewalk that used to slope away from the house now slopes toward it, as does the backyard, sending storm runoff into the basement.

Inside, cracks of up to several feet snake diagonally, vertically and horizontally from windows, columns and joints in several rooms. Most of them are covered in clear tape, to keep the drywall from crumbling onto the carpet, but a few seem fresh even to Duffy. ("This is brand-new," he says, eyeing an untaped fracture in his bedroom wall. "This is taking off.") Window frames look cockeyed, floors tilt, some doors won't stay open and others won't close, like the door to his younger son's bedroom.

In the master bath, which shows signs of extensive tile regrouting, a slight breeze blows through a crack above the bathtub. Heavy ceramic tile in the kitchen has broken into a mess of shards and splinters, thanks to spiderweb cracks issuing from the base of a stressed column. In the unfinished basement, a pipe cap and a drain once level with the floor have reared their ugly heads, poking several inches into the room.

"It hurts to walk through the house," Duffy says. "Every time I take a good hard look, it reminds me of the shape the Duffys are in."

In 1993, John and Patty Duffy purchased their Highlands Ranch funhouse from Writer Homes for $234,000 and moved into it with their two sons. Within months the new home began to shift, pop, buckle and heave. The Douglas County assessor's office now says that the property is worth only $99,303. Duffy says that at night he can lie awake and hear the house creaking and cracking. His home isn't settling. It's rising, like the accursed undead in some half-baked horror flick.

Engineers say the beast actually lies under Duffy's home, in the sandy clay and claystone upon which the house was built. Expansive soils are common to many areas along the Front Range; when wet, the soils swell and can exert thousands of pounds of pressure, cracking foundations, floors and walls. Duffy claims that his house was built in one of the most problematic areas in his subdivision, an area in which the builder was advised that high swelling could occur.

In recent years, as developers have rushed to build entire communities in areas known to contain expansive soils, thousands of homeowners have learned more than they ever wanted to about the treacherous geology of the region. The controversy has triggered several costly class-action lawsuits against major homebuilders from Highlands Ranch to Boulder, as well as a flurry of new regulations in some counties requiring builders to remove swelling soils before construction begins and replace them with more stable dirt or to install structural wood floors that resist heaving, hiking the cost of new homes by a few thousand dollars.

Now state lawmakers are considering new legislation that would toughen existing laws requiring builders to disclose potential soil problems to home buyers. "We're getting a lot of building that's put together real quick without regard for the soils we have," says state senator Ken Arnold, one of the sponsors of the bill. "Maybe it's only 1 or 2 percent of the homes that are falling down, but I think that's too many."

At first glance, Arnold's bill would seem to be a boon to consumers. It triples the token penalty that can be levied under existing law from $500 to $1,500 against builders who fail to disclose potential soil problems at the time of purchase. It also requires builders to follow their engineers' recommendations as to the type of foundation required to correct a soil problem and to supply buyers with a one-page, "plain English" summary of the risks and options available to them. But the issue is a contentious one, and the bill has come under fire from homeowners and builders alike.

"Do they really think they can condense dozens of pages of geotechnical data to one page in plain English?" asks Duffy, who's spent thousands of dollars obtaining his own engineering reports on his property. "This is trying to shift the financial responsibility from the builder to the buyer and subvert the consumer-protection laws."

"It's a Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of bill," adds Scott Sullan, Duffy's attorney, who's represented homeowners in several major lawsuits over expansive soils. Sullan notes that one provision of the bill would exempt builders who follow the disclosure rules from claims of "willful and wanton conduct" or deceptive trade practices. In other words, they'd be immune from punitive damages or triple damages under the consumer protection laws. "The only people who would benefit from that," he says, "are people out to defraud the home buyer."

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