Did the Earth Move for You, Too?

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

Klass, who had previously lived in Georgia, California and Massachusetts, bought her house from Village Homes in 1995. At the time, she received a brief summary report that stated the soils in her neighborhood "exhibited zero to very high swell potential." But she says that she also received verbal assurances from the Village people that her property was fine and that she was given no opportunity at all to consider something stronger than a conventional concrete slab foundation.

"I was told, 'You don't need a structural floor--your property's great,'" she recalls.

But then she started to see cracks in her driveway and her house, six degrees of separation between her and her porch, and a basement floor that was movin' on up. She refers to her back deck as the Titanic ("It just lists upward"). Her summary report indicated that no water was found in the holes dug for the piers supporting her house, "but if I dig one foot in my backyard, I hit a lake."

"The builder says they'll eventually fix it," she says. "I have two letters saying that once the movement stops, they'll repair the house. But does it ever stop?"

Last summer Klass received another letter from a Village Homes executive, asking her to sign a confidentiality agreement that would prevent her from talking to any third party about her situation. Any breach of the agreement "shall entitle Village Homes to liquidated damages in the amount of $5,000," the letter stated.

Klass refused to sign. "They were asking me to sign away my First Amendment rights," she says. "If that's a condition of fixing my house, that's coercion."

Village Homes vice president Don Eley says it's customary for builders to monitor slab movement before replacement and points out that some movement is expected. As for the company's confidentiality agreement, "That's related to the litigation climate we have in Colorado," Eley says. The agreements allow Village to quietly extend assistance to some buyers beyond what the warranty calls for, he explains.

After months of dealing with the builder, Klass began seeking out structural engineers herself. "One of them told me never to buy a house in this state that isn't at least forty years old," she says.

Scott Sullan says the homebuilding industry is doing more now to address soil problems before they start simply because insurance companies are requiring them to do so; a structural wood floor installed at construction costs an extra $2,500 or so, while retrofitting after upheaval has occurred can cost $40,000 or more. "Clearly, 'buyer beware' simply isn't good enough anymore," he declares.

Duffy hopes he can persuade an arbitrator to adopt a similar view when he visits Duffy's forlorn home next month. "It's scary to have one man making the decision about the biggest investment of your life," he says. "Fortunately, the house does all the talking."

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