Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

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

The video shows different shades of wood composite siding being installed on the house. The Mayraths have since learned that they have three different brands of siding on their house. (Whiton says the materials are interchangeable; Peterson contends that materials from different mills can have varying moisture content and may not perform well together.) The nails used to fasten the boards were too short, and many missed the framing completely, prompting a renailing shortly after the Mayraths moved in. But James says the job still wasn't done right; some of the exterior angles resemble an ocean wave rather than a straight line.

"This is the gang that couldn't shoot straight," he says. "They put the nail gun on 'sprinkle.' We have a lot of nails in this house, but not many of them are attached to anything."

"The people who put on the siding have contracted to do so many houses," Peterson says. "If they get the siding on in a day, they make pretty good money. If it takes them two days, they may lose money. Unless you have really good superintendents and tight quality control, it's moving so fast that it can get out of control."

U.S. Home has offered to replace damaged siding, then renail and repaint the exterior. James Mayrath says it's an offer he would have jumped at three years ago, but he's now convinced that the problems are more than cosmetic. A retired physical chemist, he's prepared calculations indicating that the house doesn't have adequate structural bracing to meet Longmont's 90-mile-per-hour-wind resistance requirements. If he's right, then the framing under the siding needs to be reinforced as well.

Peterson says he can't comment on Mayrath's figures without reviewing the structural engineering plans for the house, which the city no longer has on file. In any case, Mayrath's opinion isn't shared by U.S. Home -- "My feeling is, in all likelihood the bracing is proper," says Whiton -- or by the City of Longmont.

"I don't have a whole lot of confidence in his numbers, because he's not a professional engineer," says Wayne Hoeben, Longmont's senior building inspector. "I have a lot of sympathy for the guy, but it's our feeling that this is primarily an aesthetic issue. We don't feel there's anything wrong with the home structurally."

The Mayrath video ends with what Sonia calls "our Blair Witch Project" -- shaky footage shot by James in the dark attic this past summer as he sought to focus a flashlight on dubious truss workmanship and holes in the gables. But during a walk-through of the house, Peterson discovers features that are even scarier. A mechanical contractor has knocked out bracing on the floor joists in the basement; some of the joists are crooked. "If they're out of plumb by more than few degrees, they're basically worthless," Peterson says.

"The city did mention that they would be more than happy to write a letter saying this house met all codes," Sonia says.

"Well, in my opinion, at this point the city just wants you guys to go away," Peterson replies. "Jefferson County was willing to do the same thing with homes that are currently falling down the hill."

An even bigger surprise awaits Peterson as he heads for the backyard. There's a sixteen-inch drop from the back door to the concrete patio below; a movable six-inch wooden platform serves as an intermediate step. Peterson stares at it wordlessly. "This is against code," he says finally. "You can have no more than a seven-inch rise. And that landing has to be permanent. This is a life-safety issue. They should never have issued a certificate of occupancy with this here."

A quick stroll around the neighborhood reveals that several homes on the block have the same kind of step in their backyards. Peterson shakes his head in amazement. "This is a major violation," he says. "This isn't just one house. It's indicative of the whole subdivison. It's a liability issue -- not only for the developer, but for the city. For some attorney, it's like finding a twenty-pound gold nugget out in a field."

Whiton says he's unaware of the step problem and will have to look into it. He stresses, though, that his company is committed to correcting any problems. "Regardless of whether it's a serious issue or a minor issue, if it's covered by our warranty, it's our company policy to go back," he says. "And if the complaint is justified, we make the repair."

The larger question is how the flimsy step ever made it through the inspection process. "I can assure you that's something we look at very closely," says inspector Hoeben. "Still, there could have been some wooden structure they bolted to the house, and once they got their final inspection, boom -- it's removed."

But there are no traces of bolt holes in the Mayrath patio. Hoeben concedes that it's possible that the inspectors may have overlooked an item or two, such as the suspected framing gap and the basement bracing problem. The city had only three full-time building inspectors at the time the 100-home Markham Farms and several other large projects started pulling permits in the mid-1990s. It now has six.

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