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The never ending story
Monday, 01 January 2007

Family, builder at odds over unfinished house
Bliss, his wife Mary and their three children are spending their second consecutive holiday season at his parents' home in Lenox Township because of ongoing construction woes at their house in Warren. Every corner of the house leaks," John Bliss said. "You can go in and on certain days the walls are bleeding water." The general contractor, Pinch Construction, of Richmond, acknowledges the prevailing problem is moisture that has led to mold throughout the single-story house.

Family, builder at odds over unfinished house

 January 1, 2007

John Bliss feels like he and his family are homeless.

Bliss, his wife Mary and their three children are spending their second consecutive holiday season at his parents' home in Lenox Township because of ongoing construction woes at their house in Warren.

Plans to expand their house, on Gilbert Avenue, from 800 square feet to 1,800 square feet have been a renovation nightmare, the Blisses said.

"Every corner of the house leaks," John Bliss said. "You can go in and on certain days the walls are bleeding water."

The general contractor, Pinch Construction, of Richmond, acknowledges the prevailing problem is moisture that has led to mold throughout the single-story house.

The two sides disagree on the cause and who bears responsibility.

The family said improper roof construction, poor vinyl siding installation and a water-logged crawl space for a house built below grade are the problem.

Wayne Pinch, owner and president of the construction firm, blames inadequate insulation by one of his subcontractors. However, he asserts the couple played a contributing role.

"Do you think I like seeing a family be put on the street?" he said.

"I have conscience. I'm an honorable


The Blisses took out an $80,000 home equity line of credit to pay for the expansion. They boosted it to nearly $95,000 and have spent it all. The financing plan they reached with Republic Bank was to convert that debt into a mortgage when the expansion was completed and they had a certificate of occupancy in hand.

The rift with the contractor, and mold on walls and ceilings may prove insurmountable. The bank won't grant a mortgage.

"The appraiser was in here three minutes and said the house is worthless," John Bliss, 43, said.

Enter attorneys, demands and counteroffers on both sides and you have a stalemate with both sides smarting.

"We're hoping for a miracle," Mary Bliss said.

In addition to not having a place of their own, the Blisses face monthly loan payments of $700. They strap on masks when taking anyone through the house (their youngest son suffers from asthma and cannot go inside).

They have tossed a sofa, chair and other mold-tainted furniture that they kept in the garage, onto the dirt outside. Some things remain covered inside, and other belongings are at a neighbor's home while the family resides with relatives.

"We don't have the funds to rent space to put our stuff," said Mary Bliss, a 43-year-old secretary at Wolfe Middle School in Center Line. "Our whole life was in there."

The Blisses accuse city inspectors of inadequate inspections and not checking on the progress of construction when they had concerns. At one point, a fed up John Bliss tossed photos at a Warren Building Department administrator and said: "Because of you, this is what's happening to our house, because you won't come out."

Pinch said he has virtually shut down his business. He insists the mold is not his fault and that he has corrected past building code violations.

Staying put

John and Mary Bliss paid off their house in 1996, 11 years after moving in.

Approximately two years ago, the family talked about moving to a bigger house. Sons Joshua, 18, and Aaron, 17, and 14-year-old daughter Melanie, wanted to stay put in Warren. Their parents considered demolishing the 800-square-foot house and having a company build a modular home. But the cost was a bit too expensive, and when the Blisses told their lender the bank referred them to Pinch Construction for an expansion.

Total projected cost: $109,000.

The family and Pinch agree the work progressed nicely during spring and summer 1995. According to Building Department records, an inspector in June 2005 rejected -- and later approved -- the footings for the new parts of the house because a septic tank had to be removed. Three months later, the rough construction failed inspection because of 13 items, records show. Those were corrected, and the city OK'd that stage of construction.

Disputes arose between the Blisses and Pinch, leading to a "field check" in October 2005 that revealed parts of the crawl space sit below the surface grade.

"Our house is basically sitting in a hole," said John Bliss, a 43-year-old vendor for Variety Foods.

Pinch, however, accuses Bliss of interfering with subcontracted tradesmen and asking city inspectors to check the progress of work before the company was ready.

"The worst nightmare a builder can have is a homeowner who won't go away" while construction is ongoing, he said.

Pinch alleges the Warren coupled waited too long to contact Consumers Power to hook up natural gas, resulting in a delay to late autumn 2005 before heat was available to keep new drywall from cracking. To hopefully dissipate the water in the crawl space, the furnace was installed -- but without proper ducts.

Moisture on floors and walls became obvious.

The construction company and the family hired various experts.

While the Blisses cry foul and point to structural problems, Pinch theorizes a gap around the insulation between wall studs caused the infiltration. But his insulation subcontractor disagreed and ongoing wetness puzzles others, he said.

Walls in the living room have been torn down and the insulation sits piled on the floor. Mud and water remain below the floor in the crawl space. Bedroom walls are tainted with mold.

Two court battles

The dispute wound up in district court last spring, when the building department cited Pinch Construction. The company was fined $2,500.

The matter later moved into Warren's new "blight court." An inspector alleged Pinch created "unsafe conditions" at the home and failed to comply with construction plans. On July 27, Administrative Hearing Officer Dean Ausilio levied $330 in fines and costs. More significantly, he ordered Pinch to post a $94,579 compliance bond -- the amount spent by the Blisses with the company.

No Pinch Construction representatives attended the hearing. Pinch said he was unaware of the proceeding.

Pinch has not posted the bond. He didn't exercise his option to appeal Ausilio's ruling within 28 days.

Since then, Warren has made no attempt to flex its municipal muscle.

"We thought the blight court ... was going to work," Mary Bliss said.

"I understand the situation she's in," said Jeffrey Schroder, an assistant city attorney. "She's frustrated. We sympathize with her."

Schroder said Warren's lawyers and administrators will meet this week about how to proceed.

"We're going to discuss our options. We haven't made any decisions yet," he said. But he added: "Our intention is to enforce" the blight court ruling.

The upcoming blight court hearing may not provide a solution for the Blisses. Schroder pointed out the city's case is based on tickets Pinch received for failing to obtain work permits at the Gilbert Avenue house, and that the citations may not impact the construction dispute.

No agreement

The couple and the builder could not agree on a resolution as late as two months ago. According to a July 20, 2006, letter from Pinch's attorney, Franklin West, to the couple's first lawyer, the builder offered to make a dozen "modifications." Those included removing and reinstalling vinyl siding; replacing the first 8 feet of exterior lumber and weather-guard sheeting; removing and replacing all shingles; finishing electrical and plumbing work; replacing the floor where necessary; installing the concrete driveway; final surface grading; and installing floor covering.

West stated that Pinch reports that all mold -- including some black-colored mold -- is non-toxic. The attorney also recommended the couple could use approximately $14,000 the bank could provide, in order to contract "with whomever they select to satisfy their apprehension concerning the mold."

"They turned it down. They screwed themselves that day," Pinch said.

The Blisses deny they rejected the proposal.

Through their new attorney Joseph Vengalil, the couple replied in an Oct. 25, 2006, letter: "The mold resulted from your client's failure to protect the home from moisture during construction, and he should fix the problem and complete his work." Furthermore, they requested 22 additional repairs, replacements or reimbursements the couple considers "vital."

Pinch said he has not seen that list of demands.

"Their foundation is fine," Pinch said. "If the (sump) pumps were running, there would be no water in their foundation.

"They can take me to court. I don't think there's anything I can do for them. I don't know what to do," he said.

The Blisses have not filed a lawsuit against Pinch. Mary Bliss said they initiated a complaint against Wayne Pinch's builder license with the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth. A state-required inspection found 29 building violations, according to a city report provided by the Blisses.

They find it ironic that so many problems were documented Dec. 11 by a Warren inspector when far fewer were noted by city workers in the last 18 months.

Steven Sternicki, the inspector who authored the Dec. 11 report, could not be reached for comment.

According to the Labor and Economic Growth Department's web site, Wayne Pinch has been a licensed residential builder for 10 years. He faces no "open" complaints and has not faced any disciplinary action by the state. His license expires May 31, 2007.

Pinch said his is a small company that has built more than 150 homes, most of them modular. But he suggested his firm has been hurt by the construction slowdown amid the state's lagging economy, suggesting he does not have deep pockets to absorb any costs with the Bliss house.

"Pinch Construction Inc. has closed its doors," he said.

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