Manatee County building inspectors say at least 21 condos in the Willowbrook neighborhood, near Lakewood Ranch, are unsafe because the balconies could cave in.
Some residents say they've complained about rotting floors and mold for years. But their builder, KB Home, has failed to offer a permanent solution.
Neighborhood leaders say at least 60 homeowners say they have problems. So recently, they have taken to the street to protest and sent thousands of letters to elected officials and the media.
KB, one of the nation's largest home builders and a big player in Tampa area home construction, says it wants to repair the units.
Some residents, though, say they've had enough repairs and want the builder to buy back their homes.
Now, there are new allegations that the problematic construction may go much deeper than some rickety balconies. A general contractor, hired by one homeowner to find out why her condo had so many problems, said he found scores of construction issues.
"In my opinion, as a general contractor, and from the codes that I know, from the way things are done, this is just a major, major, major problem," said Michael Hamilton, of CMM Commercial Contractors, Inc.
Hamilton said he couldn't find the source of the homeowner's mold issue without tearing out drywall in some rooms and inspecting the construction.
He says he found outside wallboards that were barely nailed in, mold deep within some walls and hurricane straps, required by law, missing.
"All these 2-by-4s, top and bottom are supposed to have a strap, a hurricane strap, especially at this elevation," Hamilton said, pointing out his findings. "This is the third floor. If you have a wind on the ground floor of 100 (mph), it would probably be 120 (mph) up here."
KB declined to answer questions about the condos or Hamilton's findings.
The company issued this statement:
"KB Home is making repairs in the Willowbrook community, and stands ready to immediately address the remaining homeowners' concerns once they provide access to the impacted homes. We continue to work closely with the Willowbrook Association to ensure there is an appropriate protocol that will allow us to make the necessary repairs."
Hamilton said he worries that what he found shows the other condo owners who have complained need more than their balconies repaired. He says the condos are not fixable.
"In my opinion, the only way this can be fixed is to totally gut the interior, strap it properly, get rid of all the bad wood, take the windows out and reset them, take the floors out, reset them, the kitchens out, the bathrooms out," Hamilton said. "If you work the numbers on that, KB could build new (homes) for less than it would cost to fix it."
An even bigger problem than construction, Hamilton said, is that Manatee County building officials didn't catch the issues early in the construction process.
Manatee building inspectors disagree with Hamilton's assessment and say the only problem is some of the balconies.
"These entire structures are not unsafe," said C.J. Dupre, Manatee County building official. "Only walking out on the balcony is unsafe."
Dupre says Hamilton tore down the drywall, and dismantled part of the condo, without a permit and without the consent of the condo association, which owns the buildings.
Therefore, he said, nothing he found can be used as evidence against the construction quality.
Even so, Manatee officials plan to take a look for themselves at the unit Hamilton reviewed today.
Meanwhile, the owner of that condo, Roxanne Miller, is living out of state.
She said her condo made her sick, and she moved out in April 2010 on the advice of her doctor.
She said that she hired Hamilton to tear out drywall because she wanted to know what was wrong. KB, she said, did only "band-aid" repairs.
"I have black mold that sent me to the hospital with respiratory problems multiple times,'' Miller said. "I can't live there, and KB refuses to fix it."