FOX 4 Investigates: Case of the Crooked House
By Paul Adrian
Video Report: Fox4 Investigates The Crooked House
PROPERTY VALUE - NEGATIVE <$20,000>
To neighbors, the Winquistâs woes seemed poetic. One gave Jim and Anne the framed nursery rhyme that holds center stage on their fireplace mantle.
Jim Winquist read, âThere was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile." He flinched as he continued, âhe found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.â
When Jim and Anne moved into their new Granbury home last year, it looked fine. But they soon discovered they had the same problem as the man in the rhyme.
âHe bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse. And they all lived together in their crooked little house," Winquist quoted.
The poem rings too true to the Winquists, because their contractor built their new home on a crooked slab.
Roll the dogâs ball in the living room and it will do a u-turn midway returning to the person who threw it.
"It'll go out the front door if you let it," Winquist explained.
While a boomeranging ball is a neat floor trick, it is not a good investment.
The Winquists put more than $300,000 into their new home. Yet, one year after construction, the Hood County Tax Appraiser valued it at minus $20,000. Thatâs minus $20,000 because thatâs what it would cost to tear down the home.
"It was amazing,â Winquist said. âI'd have to pay somebody 20 grand to take this place."
Winquist filed a complaint with the Texas Residential Construction Commission. State Law requires a formal complaint be filed with T.R.C.C. before any other legal action can be taken. This commission was part of the tort reform legislation passed by state legislators in 2003.
The State sent an inspector who found a variation of 14 inches over 95 feet of slab. The standard for a level slab is plus or minus Â¾ of one inch.
Independent structural engineer, Michael Lee, agreed to review the state report for us. He doesnât know either the homebuilder or homebuyer.
"I cannot imagine a scenario where construction would proceed on a house once a builder knows it is so far out of level,â Lee said.
He said the home would suffer both functionally and aesthetically, which has been the Winquistâs experience.
Walking from one room to another is like walking through a funhouse; visitors can feel the floor drop beneath their feet.
All the furniture in the home leans downhill, making some drawers slide open without any help at all.
Structurally, cracks keep appearing, splitting the walls both inside and out.
Thereâs no easy fix. Since the walls were built on a slab that had already tilted, leveling the slab now would leave the Winquistâs with crooked walls.
âThe house can be fixed, but it would take an extreme case of reconstruction,â structural engineer Lee said. âBy that, I mean taking the walls down so the floor can be reconstructed in a level position and starting over."
However, that was not what the Stateâs inspector thought. He found lots of problems, but when it came to the big one, the slab itself, that was âin complianceâ with state standards.
The homebuilder, Steve Ely, offered to repair the problems listed in the report.
âWhatâs the sense in doing that?â Winquist asked. âItâs not going to change the slab.â
Elyâs attorney wrote Winquistâs attorney, âWe give no credence to Mr. Winquist's statements that the foundation is defective and the residence has no value." He quoted the stateâs finding that, âthe foundation was in compliance.â
When I phoned Ely to ask him about the house, he quickly hung up on me. So on a rainy day, we found Ely as he walked to his truck after lunch. I asked him why he had built a house on a slab that was fourteen inches off level.
âThat is still being done and investigated by the TRCC," Ely responded as he climbed into the cab of his pickup. I pressed him again for an explanation. He said, âGet out of the way!â slammed the door and drove off.
Ely was right though. Weeks after the state report came out, the TRCC reopened the case.
Winquist thinks he knows why, âAbout fifteen minutes after I told them you were coming to visit with me, oddly enough, they found some paper work that had been missing for 39 days, and misfiled, and ten minutes later I had it faxed here and the case was being reopened .â
T.R.C.C. Executive Director Duane Waddill explained, âWe went through the file to make sure all the i's were dotted and the t's were crossed and we found an appeal in the correspondence section of the file and so we processed it and moved it to the front of the line."
That appeal letter was not from Winquist. He had missed the deadline.
It was from Ely, the builder.
Weeks earlier, his attorney wrote the T.R.C.C. that Ely "is not asserting an appeal," but wanted to respond to three repairs recommended by the state inspector.â
Waddill told me there was no way to simply add the responses to the file without opening up an appeal. When pressed on what he thought about his original inspector finding that a sloping slab met state standards, Waddill responded, "I am confident in my appeal process and I am confident the final report comes out with the right thing."
A few days after our interview, the T.R.C.C. reversed course, called the slab out of compliance, and recommended that it be made level.
"This is the epitome of what we see in the process," Dallas attorney Brent Lemmon said.
Lemon doesnât know the Winquists, but he does know the T.R.C.C., having represented both builders and buyers.
"Sometimes it's referred to as the builder protection act, because that was basically the purpose for establishing this Commission. So, I don't think it's fair and I don't think at this time that it's something that should be required of homeowners."
The T.R.C.C. complaint process took seven full months for the Winquists. Thatâs more time than it took to get the house built and is still no guarantee of success. If the Winquists and Ely fail to agree on the repairs, his house building contract requires him to go before the Hood County Builderâs Association for binding arbitration.
Ely is a member of the Associationâs Board of Directors.
The Associationâs President, Andy Wall, framed the Winquistâs house.
Winquist is not confidant.
"Texas is like just shooting fish in a barrel for builders. We're a game preserve, kind of, and the builders are the hunters,â Winquist said. âBest way I can put it."
As it turns out, Builderâs Association President Wall says the Association does not do arbitrations and has ordered Ely to take the clause out of his contracts.