Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

When the housing boom hit Longmont, city inspectors missed a few steps.

Like a lot of new house buyers, James and Sonia Mayrath couldn't wait to move into their dream home. They even took a video camera with them on their trips to the construction site, eager to record the building process as it unfolded in an emerging subdivision in Longmont.

Four years later, the Mayraths have had occasion to review their construction video more than they ever expected. Details they didn't have the expertise to recognize at the time are now freeze-framed and studied over and over as they look for clues to how their $227,000 dream became a house of horrors. From its sagging roof line to its out-of-plumb floor joists, their house exhibits a series of miscues that date back to the early phases of construction -- including at least one blatant building-code violation that somehow eluded the builder's own supervisors and the city's inspectors.

"Mistakes get made, but this house is one big mistake from the mud plate up," says James Mayrath. "I should have seen a lot of this stuff, but I wasn't really looking."

The Mayraths' experience is emblematic of how, in the metro area's overheated housing market, new home buyers can be blindsided by a combination of hasty, shoddy construction work and inadequate inspection by overwhelmed local officials.

Their problems aren't as dramatic as those faced by homeowners who have been battling developers over cracked foundations built on swelling or unstable soils ("Did the Earth Move for You, Too?", January 21). But the couple's complaints about warped and improperly installed siding, leaky windows, poor energy usage and the like are hardly minor; some of their concerns raise safety and structural issues that may affect dozens of other homes in their subdivision.

The Mayraths purchased their five-bedroom, two-story house in the Markham Farms subdivision from U.S. Home in the spring of 1995. Since then, representatives of the builder have been back to the house several times to deal with a series of repair issues. "There are many problems with poor workmanship throughout this house," reported one investigator to the Boulder District Attorney's Office in 1996 after the Mayraths complained. The DA's office considered the problems to be warranty issues rather than violations.

U.S. Home has renailed siding, reinstalled windows, repaired a hole in the living-room subflooring and replaced a carpet that was not what the owners had ordered. Last summer the builder, one of the largest producers of tract homes in the country, also replaced the Mayraths' front porch, along with the porches of a dozen other Markham Farms homeowners; the porches were sinking because U.S. Home neglected to install concrete footings when the homes were built. But the Mayraths continue to have a number of disputes with the company, as well as with Longmont building inspectors, about the current condition of their house.

Jeff Whiton, president of U.S. Home in Colorado, says the builder has worked diligently to correct problems for the Mayraths. "They've brought up a number of issues, and every time, we've tried to address them," he says. "They just never seem to be satisfied with what we want to do."

Recently, Westword arranged for an independent expert, Edward Peterson of Annandale Consultants, to inspect the Mayrath residence and review videotapes and documents relating to its construction. Peterson, a construction manager with 28 years of experience in the field, has offered expert opinions in court on behalf of contractors as well as homeowners; he also serves on the planning commission for the City of Lakewood. Here's what he saw:

Early on in the videotaped record of the house's construction, Peterson asks James Mayrath to pause the tape. He points to a large mass of dirt piled against the recently poured exterior wall of the foundation.

"My guess is that those walls are less than a week old," Peterson says. "If they put compacted backfill against the structure at this stage without any bracing, they can do tremendous damage to the wall. About 90 percent of the tract homes in any subdivision will have bowed foundations because of things like this. Over time, that typically leads to small cracks in the foundation wall. Is that a structural problem? It can be."

The tape rolls on. The wooden skeleton of a house emerges from the ground in a matter of weeks, then takes on shingles, sheathing and siding in a matter of days. Mayrath points to a two-foot gap in the framing between a major support beam at the second-floor joists. Peterson suggests that the problem may have been corrected later in construction, but Mayrath is adamant; he's probed the drywall where the gap occurs, he says, and found nothing but air.

"If that's the case," Peterson says, "that's a framing detail that should never have passed inspection. That's a big deal. That's something that won't show in a year or two, but in five or six, that floor will sag from lack of proper support."

(Whiton responds, "Typically, areas like that would be filled in when the framers come back and put in ceiling drops. Just because it was missing when they took the video doesn't mean it wasn't done at a later stage.")

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