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OF THE UNREGULATED HOME BUILDING INDUSTRY. TO ENCOURAGE STRICT
REGULATION AND STANDARDS ON THE LOCAL, STATE AND NATIONAL LEVELS. TO
PROMOTE AND SUPPORT CONSUMER PROTECTION AND THE PASSAGE OF THE HOME LEMON
LAW THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY.
The new homes of greater Orlando are riddled with problems
large and small -- everything from major cracks in the
exterior walls to leaky windows and roofs; rooms that are too
hot; and toilets that aren't even anchored to the floor.
A yearlong investigation by the Orlando Sentinel and
WESH-NewsChannel 2 into new-housing construction in the region
uncovered a systemic lack of quality control by builders who
are producing too many homes too fast, with not enough trained
workers and inadequate oversight.
"They're falling behind, and they're doing the work quickly,
without any real thought to it," said Ron Resch, a private
home inspector with nearly 40 years' experience in residential
construction and a paid consultant to the Sentinel and WESH.
The investigation's findings are based in large part on the
first statistically valid assessment of new-home construction
ever done in Florida and likely the nation. Engineering
students at the University of Central Florida, trained by
Resch, inspected 406 homes built in 2001, randomly selected
from the nearly 18,000 new homes sold in six Central Florida
counties that year.
Those inspections found leaks, cracks and bad weatherstripping
around windows and doors in 64 percent of the houses; major
wall, floor and deck cracking in 61 percent; significant
cooling/heating system problems in 50 percent; mold in 20
percent; and poor drainage in 18 percent.
Just as bad, in the eyes of many homeowners, the inspections
found a consistent lack of attention to detail, fit and
finish. Almost 80 percent of the houses had flaws such as
corners that weren't square; interior walls with cracks and
nails popping out; rooflines that sag; sliding screen doors
that fall off their tracks; and cabinets with shelves that bow
because proper supports were not installed.
"It's pretty sad. You look from the exterior, it looks nice.
But it's disturbing [on the inside]," said Henry Wright of his
$107,000 house in Winter Garden.
While these homes are not collapsing or likely to blow over in
a hurricane, their condition leaves some experts wondering
what they'll look like in 10 or 20 years, as cracks inevitably
widen and systems begin to age.
"Obviously, the future looks somewhat bleak for these homes,"
said Don Rattner, an architect, educator and master planner
based in New York City.
"A fine wine gets better with age," said Resch, the son of a
home builder who followed his father into the business. "These
homes will not age well."
Given the area's furious, record-setting pace of residential
construction since the late 1990s -- as many as 23,000 houses
will be built this year -- there is little to suggest that
houses built before or after the sample year studied by the
Sentinel and WESH are any different.
Builders largely discount the findings of the Sentinel/WESH
inspection, saying most of the problems uncovered are of
little consequence or the result of poor maintenance by
Alan Parrow is director of marketing, sales and design for
Pringle Development, a Leesburg builder of active-retirement
communities. After reviewing inspection reports of 11 of his
company's homes, he said of the problems: "By and large, they
Parrow dismissed leaky air handlers in five homes as
"acceptable" -- but promised to fix significant cracks in the
stucco of one.
The newspaper and television station also turned over to the
Home Builders Association of Metro Orlando on Sept. 18 its
inspection records from 157 homes built by the region's 10
largest builders, a week in advance of a scheduled interview.
But the builders canceled -- and subsequently refused to
answer any questions about the inspections.
"They don't see what the problem is," said Susan Blexrud, a
spokeswoman hired by the Maitland-based association.
Coping with flaws
Starting with Thursday night's newscasts and today's
story, the television station and newspaper will offer a
series of independent reports about new-home construction in
Orange, Seminole, Lake, Osceola and parts of Polk and Volusia
The series will show that most new-home buyers are forced to
contend with myriad flaws when they take possession of the
biggest investment most of them will ever make.
The buyers count on their builders to provide them with a
solid, problem-free home -- and that does happen. There are
dedicated builders and construction workers plying their trade
every day in Central Florida. They shake their heads at what
they see happening in their industry.
"Nobody has any pride in their work anymore," said Bill Lang,
a small custom builder who works largely in Lake County.
The problems invariably can be attributed to builders
overwhelmed by demand and relying on a labor force that is
mostly unskilled -- many are undocumented Mexican migrants --
as well as poorly supervised and overworked, according to the
Sentinel/WESH inspections and interviews with homeowners and
dozens of tradesmen and public officials.
"There is not the quality control that needs to be there. . .
. There's too much pressure to get stuff done immediately,"
said Jeff DeBoer, director of Osceola County's Building
The rush to finish one job and move on to the next has
resulted in countless homeowner requests for repairs. Of the
100-plus homeowners interviewed by Sentinel and WESH
reporters, most said their builders had returned one or more
times to fix faults. Almost all owners, however, said they had
to complain numerous times -- and many remained unhappy with
Almost 80 percent of the houses in the survey were
constructed by what's known in the industry as production, or
tract, builders. The rest were produced by small custom firms
with local ties.
Generally, the same problems showed up in both production and
custom homes. But there were not enough custom homes in the
survey to draw statistically valid conclusions about the
quality of the work.
Most of the large companies have dominated markets across the
country, just as they have become the major players in greater
Orlando since entering the area during the late 1970s and
Among the prominent national or regional builders represented
in the Sentinel/WESH investigation are Cambridge Homes, Centex
Homes, David Weekley Homes, Engle Homes, DR Horton, Landstar
Homes, Lennar Corp., Maronda Homes, M.I. Homes, Morrison
Homes, Ryland Group and U.S. Home.
Those 12 built 185, or 46 percent, of the homes in the
Sentinel/WESH database. Although several custom builders
discussed the survey with the paper and station, these
production companies refused repeated requests for comment.
Cambridge executive William Orosz, in a letter, termed
"inaccurate" two flaws found by inspectors and said none of
the owners of the 12 houses inspected had sought warranty
repairs for the faults noted by the Sentinel/WESH inspectors.
After reviewing the reports, Orosz added, "We . . . find most
to be issues of homeowner maintenance, often the arbitrary
opinion of the inspector or items that are traditionally not
covered by a homebuilder's warranty."
Ron Pecora, whose public-relations firm represents the
home-builders' association, described the attitude of the
other builders: "They're mad. They don't believe they'd get a
Price didn't matter
The Sentinel/WESH inspections, conducted over six months
by specially trained industrial-engineering students at UCF,
found the price of the house mattered little. Defects were
found in the cheapest house in the survey, $69,000, and the
most expensive, $1.9 million. Both had leaky windows and
cracks in the walls.
The students' detailed reports, each a minimum of 12 pages,
were fed into a computerized database that aggregated results
for the 406-house sample. Findings included:
More than six in 10 of the houses checked -- 247 overall
-- had major cracks in the walls, the garage floor, concrete
decking around the house, driveway or sidewalks. Wall cracks
can allow water and moisture into a house, leading to mold,
termites and rotted wood. Decking and driveway cracking are
unsightly and, eventually, can require expensive refinishing.
Experts say the most common causes of exterior cracks are
building on foundation pads before they have thoroughly dried;
poor compaction of the underlying soil; laying block walls
with little or no mortar in the seams; and applying too thin a
layer of stucco. Driveway and decking cracks could be the
result of poor compaction or watered-down concrete.
More than 60 percent of the houses had at least one window
or door problem, typically a leak, cracking around the frame
or bad weather-stripping.
Of the houses with faulty windows, almost half had cracks in
the exterior wall or in the interior drywall surrounding at
least one window. An additional 39 percent had windows with
caulking that was cracked, dried or thinly applied. Twenty
houses had windows with active leaks.
Resch maintains the window problem is largely the result of
hurried workers jamming hardware into openings that aren't
square, or failing to caulk them properly.
"They just stick them in there and move on," he said.
Almost 80 percent of the houses had at least one
finishing/workmanship flaw, ranging from unanchored toilets
(25) to cabinets without middle supports (68); smoke detectors
that did not work or were not properly positioned (42); and
unsightly air-handler disconnect switches installed in the
living area, usually a hallway (122), rather than being
Brenda DiTullio has several bowed walls in her $152,000 Centex
home in south Orange County. A schoolteacher, DiTullio said
she wished she had paid more attention to the finish details
of the house before moving in.
"You don't see everything on the walk-through," she said.
"You're all excited, 'Oh, the new house.' "
Five in 10 houses had a problem with the heating and
cooling system, ranging from leaky and crimped ductwork to
corroded vents and air handlers. Often, that resulted in one
or more rooms being at least 5 degrees warmer or cooler than
the rest of the house. A difference of 10 degrees was a common
Twenty percent of the homes with spotty cooling and heating
had at least one duct with major bends, including 17 with
curves of more than 90 degrees. Such major crimps greatly
reduce the amount of cooled or heated air that is pumped into
Henry Wright said he can go from hot to cold just by leaving
one bedroom and going to another in his Winter Garden house
built by Maronda.
"It's pretty sad," he said.
Mold, which can cause respiratory problems, was in 20
percent of the houses. It was found most often on the exterior
ductwork of the air handler that moves cooled or heated air
through the house; near windows and doors; or in bathrooms.
One house even had mushrooms growing on the carpet near a
leaky sliding-glass door.
One in five houses had roof flaws, ranging from leaks to
"shiners," or nails not covered by the shingles, to wavy
rooflines caused by warped decking or incorrectly installed
trusses. Shiners can lead to leaks if left uncovered by a
shingle or tar. Wavy roofs can cut years off the life of
shingles, most of which carry a 20- to 25-year warranty.
Fifteen houses had roofs with active leaks.
Eighteen percent of the houses had poor drainage, meaning
there often was standing water in the yard, the driveway or
patios. Some lots allowed rainwater to run toward the house
rather than away, an apparent building-code violation.
The price of the house made little difference. Houses in
the Sentinel/WESH database were divided into three categories:
$125,000 and less; $126,000 to $225,000; and $226,000 and
more. Mistakes, both in number and severity, were almost
equally divided among the three groups.
The cumulative effect of such shoddiness can, over time,
result in higher maintenance costs, lower resale values and a
worn and faded-looking housing stock, industry experts say.
"It's almost like a planned obsolescence," said Rattner, the
Adding to the problem is that new owners are less likely to
maintain a house riddled with faults than one in good shape,
said Stephen Roulac, a strategy adviser to builders and
developers worldwide and the author of the forthcoming book
362 Housing Mistakes and How To Avoid Them. According to
Roulac, a new homeowner will not take as much pride in a
poorly built house and is more likely to neglect it, thus
making an already bad situation worse.
But Roulac, Rattner and others say homeowners are partly to
blame -- for tolerating shoddy construction. New-home buyers,
they say, worry too much about the price per square foot
rather than quality, leading to the "big box, small lot"
layout that characterizes many new subdivisions.
"If you want a lot of space [at a low per-square-foot price],
you end up having less quality," Roulac said.
Flaws not noticed
Almost all the new homes and subdivisions of Central
Florida ooze with curb appeal. They look great from the
outside, the yards landscaped, the streets with gentle curves.
But a closer look reveals a different picture, one that their
excited new owners often don't see and their builders don't
want to talk about.
Nate Young, a retired Army sergeant, was working in his home
office earlier this year when he bumped against the front
wall, which features a large, rounded window. The wall felt
soft to Young and, upon closer inspection, he noticed a
pinhole leaking sawdust. Then he saw a small, winged insect on
A year and a half after moving into their $233,700 house in
southeast Orange County, Young and his wife, Pam, discovered
they had termites. The exterminator told them the insects had
come up through a crack in the foundation to feast on wood
that was wet because of a leaky window.
"We were pretty mad," said Pam Young, who moved into her home
in the Estates at Summer Lakes during September 2001.
Their builder, Landstar, brought in a repair crew that killed
the termites, tore out and replaced bad lumber in three walls
and caulked the window for leaks.
Just to be safe, the Youngs took a garden hose and soaked more
than a dozen other windows in the house. They all leaked.
"In the bedroom, in the top corner, it poured in," Pam Young
said. "There was a big gap."
Landstar, which declined repeated requests for comment,
stopped the leaks with caulk, Young said. She said she's
satisfied with the results.
Wall comes down
David Carrasquillo had an even bigger water surprise. He
was showering one day when he sat down on a corner bench in
the stall. He leaned against the tile wall -- and broke
through the wall.
"I didn't do anything rough, just laid back," recalled
Carrasquillo, whose $122,800 house in DeBary was 8 months old
at the time.
It turned out the tiles were not sealed properly, causing the
wall behind them to become waterlogged. Carrasquillo and his
wife had moved into the Springview subdivision in September
The builder, Cosmopolitan Homes, repaired the damage, though
Carrasquillo cites other problems that have gone unfixed. His
screened-in back patio often is wet because the yard slopes
toward the house, not away from it as specified in the Florida
building code. He has loose tiles along the bathtub in his
master bathroom, and he had to repaint part of his house
because it was badly faded.
"I'm not very happy. I can tell you that much," said
Carrasquillo, an electronics repairman.
Cosmopolitan Homes did not return repeated calls for comment.
Hard to get repairs
Maureen Amorini also has a water problem. Her builder,
Morrison Homes, can't seem to fix the leaky roof in her Lake
"Every time we have rain, it gets worse and worse," the
She moved into her $377,000 house in August 2001. Not long
after, she noticed water trickling into her garage, at first
discoloring the paint, then causing it to bubble and peel off.
Morrison has tried to repair the leak three times, even
applying tar over the suspected hole. The repairs have not
taken, said Amorini, who is waiting for Morrison to try a
Amorini's two-story home also has numerous cracks in the
exterior walls and pool decking. Several floor tiles in the
house have cracked and been replaced, too.
Morrison officials, who would not comment, have told her
settling cracks in tiles, walls and the deck are normal and
nothing to be worried about.
Amorini echoes a lament heard from virtually every new
homeowner interviewed by Sentinel and WESH reporters: She said
her builder is reluctant to come back to the house to fix
"For the most part," she said, "you really have to fight with
New homeowners should not expect a change in attitude or
quality until the "equivalent of the California [governor]
recall occurs in housing," consultant Roulac said.
For that to happen, he and other experts said, buyers will
have to demand better construction and be as particular and
informed about their homes and builders as they are about
their cars. No one, Resch said, would buy a new car with a
scratch down one side, yet people routinely move into homes
with numerous faults. If they notice the problems at all, he
said, they trust the builder will fix them before the warranty
But in Central Florida's go-go housing market -- nearly 18,000
new homes have been built and sold in each of the past three
years -- builders and their subcontractors are hard-pressed to
keep up with construction schedules, let alone go back and fix
"Our whole culture is in for the quickest payback," architect
Rattner said. "People want the fastest return they can get.
The builders are doing that job. They get in and they get out.
. . .
"It all ultimately boils down to values."
Dan Tracy can be reached at 407-420-5444 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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