Fast, Cheap and Out of Control
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.")
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.
"When you're trying to deal with the volume we were dealing with," Hoeben says, "it was not uncommon to have 30 to 35 addresses to do a day. I'm sure there were things that we should have caught that we just didn't have time to see. That makes the eventual owner of the home something of a victim, I guess."
The Mayraths say they're determined to see their house brought into compliance with the building code. "James and I are from Kansas, and maybe we're naive in a lot of ways," says Sonia. "The way we grew up, a handshake is a man's word. We were too trusting, and [U.S. Home] has a very glossy sales pitch."
Homebuyers have to take additional measures to protect themselves in a market as hot as this one, Peterson says. He recommends that buyers hire their own inspector to monitor the construction process, note problems as they arise and get them corrected before the project is done. "You shouldn't rely on city inspectors to be looking at quality issues for you. If you're going to invest $200,000 in something, it makes sense to invest another five or six hundred dollars to get an independent, outside inspector that's qualified to do this."
Hoeben says his office hasn't received an unusual number of complaints from Markham Farms homeowners. He doesn't know if the Mayraths got stung with an unusually poor product, are just hard to please, or suffer from "bad karma or something." But he, too, urges consumers to do some aggressive research of their own before investing in a new house.
"There are some builders who place a high priority on turning out a quality product," he says, "and others who are more concerned about the bottom line. They find a way to cut corners, and customer satisfaction isn't high on their list. There's always someone waiting in the wings to buy what they produce."
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