By HERB BOOTH / The Dallas Morning News
August 13, 2006
MIDLOTHIAN Homeowners in three subdivisions here have given their homebuilder, Choice Homes, a choice of its own: Either fix their structurally damaged houses, or build them brand-new ones.
And after years of complaints in some cases, an executive with Arlington-based Choice Homes has agreed to meet Monday with Midlothian city staff members to see what can be done to address the homeowners' concerns. Among them are faulty foundations, inadequate drainage, cracked walls, high water pressure and buckling streets.
About a dozen homeowners from the subdivisions, which are all less than six years old, brought their issues to the City Council last week.
Daniel Couture, chief operating officer for Choice Homes, said his firm wants to be responsive to individual homeowners.
"Obviously, we were a little taken aback by the report," said Mr. Couture, referring to news accounts last week about the situation. "In regards to current Midlothian concerns, our team will attempt to resolve legitimate issues. I will be personally reviewing those cases."
Midlothian Mayor Boyce Whatley said the city would respond within the next couple of weeks to homeowners' concerns about high water pressure and poor road conditions.
Mr. Whatley said the clay soil in the area "expands and contracts a lot." He added that the city has beefed up construction standards to guard against such structural problems since these subdivisions were started.
But Sherry Freeland and Rodney Washington who both addressed the council Tuesday night said nothing short of a new home would satisfy them.
Ms. Freeland said her main concern is drainage.
"My house is not saleable. They came in and did some berm work, but it's still not right," said Ms. Freeland, who paid about $160,000 for the 1,900-square-foot home that sits on a half-acre lot.
Mr. Washington said he's put in three driveways in the six years he's lived in Overlook Estates.
"Look at this," said Mr. Washington, picking up a piece of concrete from his original driveway. "They used chicken wire instead of rebar."
In addition, Mr. Washington has several cracks in his brick home and foundation, and a sloped living room floor in which a soccer ball rolls until hitting a wall or piece of furniture.
Mr. Washington said Choice Homes has sent repairmen but "all they do is cosmetic stuff. None of the things they did were long-term fixes."
Matthew Benedict, another Choice homeowner, can't open his back door.
"I'm a first-time homebuyer," said Mr. Benedict, 27. "What's my home worth now?"
Janet Ahmad, who heads up HomeOwners for Better Building, a San Antonio-based watchdog group, said residential taxpayers make up the bulk of the tax base and that it's time someone represented them.
"Too many cities are influenced by the homebuilders because they bring in the money, but it's the people paying taxes" whose voices need to be heard, said Ms. Ahmad, who attended the council meeting last week.
Mr. Whatley said maybe the alternative for the disgruntled homeowners is through the courts. However, at least in Ms. Freeland's case and many others according to Ms. Ahmad litigation is not an option because Ms. Freeland signed a contract with Choice Homes that waives her rights to a courtroom. She must pursue arbitration.
But Ms. Ahmad and the Midlothian residents object to that process, which funnels them through the Texas Residential Construction Commission. She said a recent state comptroller's survey showed 86 percent of those who confirmed construction defects through the commission process did not get their homes repaired.
"The TRCC is owned by the industry," Ms. Ahmad said. "This is a state agency where there are foxes in the hen house. People need protection for what will be the biggest purchase in their lives."
TRCC spokesman Patrick Fortner said more than 90 percent of the third-party inspections the agency has done because of complaints indicated some kind of construction problem.
Mr. Fortner said that after TRCC officials saw news accounts last week of the Midlothian troubles, they wrote a letter to Choice Homes asking the company what steps they were taking to rectify the situation. But he said that up until then, the agency had received only two complaints from Midlothian residents.
"I would encourage any homeowner who has a problem to contact the TRCC," he said.