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Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014
Politics

Tampa woman fights back against shoddy construction

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— Angela Gray spent $200,000 building her dream house, but what she ended up with is a nightmare.

Gray, 45, said she is bankrupt from trying to win compensation for shoddy workmanship on the house she had built on land she owned near Plant City. Though she filed a lawsuit nearly nine years ago against the general contractor on the project, Mark Hall Homes, she has yet to get a court date.

In the interim, Gray said she racked up $100,000 in legal fees and is now reduced to representing herself in the lawsuit. The stress of her long fight broke up her marriage.

“It cost me my family, my friends,” Gray said. “I don’t even have a car.”

The problems started within a year after the house was built in 2005. Rain started seeping in the wall on an upstairs balcony, soaking through drywall and eventually rotting the wooden floor trusses under the second floor.

The moisture expanded the wooden doors, activating the security system’s alarm over and over, until a frantic Gray ripped it out. She watched helplessly as the stucco covering the outdoor walls cracked and chipped, the bright yellow fading to an off-white.

“Everybody that’s been here has said this is the worst house they’ve ever seen,” Gray said.

The general contractor on the project, Mark A. Hall, is licensed by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation as a certified building contractor. He also works as a traffic signal and systems manager with the Florida Department of Transportation. Hall did not return phone calls to his office and his home.

Independent contractors Gray paid to inspect the house have verified shoddy workmanship and failure to follow building design plans.

One of the more glaring examples is that the home’s garage is built 2 feet off center.

“There were evidently errors in simple measurements,” said Chris Miller, owner of SunCoast Inspections since 1992. “And the building techniques were severely deficient, which allowed a lot of moisture to enter the building. One of the primary codes is you must not let water re-enter the building; he did virtually none of that.”

Miller’s report, complete with photographs, details dozens of other code violations and bad workmanship. They include missing soffit flashing at different points on the roof, allowing leaks; a chimney cap that is not centered, leaving an inch-and-a-half gap between the cap and the stucco; and stucco thinner than required under building codes.

The toilet in an upstairs bathroom was installed off-center so a user’s shoulder is pressed into the wall.

“The place is junk; the whole thing is a calamity of errors,” said David H. Payson, a state-licensed general contractor Gray brought in to install a new balcony.

Payson said that when Gray complained to Hall about the massive leaking around the upper deck, the contractor sent workers to apply tar and other kinds of “gunk” in a futile effort to halt the inflow. Finally, they covered the deck with tile, which Payson said aggravated the problem by creating an even greater drop-off between the wall and tile where water could flow in.

“A first-year journeyman would have done better,” Payson said.

Gray also paid Richard Kiddey, owner of Arkay Engineering in Lakeland, to inspect the house. Kiddey’s assessment: 80 percent of the problems with the house were “shoddy workmanship” and 20 percent were deviations from the construction drawings.

“They didn’t really build the house by the plans,” Kiddey said.

Hillsborough County Building Services records show the county issued a certificate of occupancy for the house on June 23, 2005, after a full slate of inspections. Several items were “red tagged” because they did not meet code requirements, but they were approved soon after.

Gray said she thinks a cozy relationship between county inspectors and builders is the reason no one flagged the shoddy craftsmanship in her home.

“They passed stuff that should never have been passed,” Gray said.

In March 2008, six county building inspectors were brought up on disciplinary charges for performing inspections on construction work before contractors got necessary permits. None of the six inspectors was among the inspectors listed on county reviews of Gray’s house in 2005.

During the county’s investigation of these so-called “courtesy inspections,” several of the accused employees said the practice was condoned by management during the building boom in the early and mid-2000s.

But Payson, the contractor Gray hired to put up the new balcony, declined to blame the inspectors. Payson said they concentrate strictly on code violations, not poor workmanship.

“They are not quality control,” he said. “Their job is to make sure enough rebar is in the footers and all the tie-downs are in place.”

Gray recently succeeded in having the judge in her lawsuit disqualify himself due to statements he made, including the observation that if she could not afford $3,000 for arbitration between herself and Hall’s insurance company she could not afford a trial.

“I didn’t want a new judge, but I had no recourse when he told me I couldn’t have a trial,” Gray said. “It would never have gone to trial; it would have sat on the books for another nine years.”

Gray said Hall’s insurance company, Auto Owners Insurance, would not chip in to help pay for a chief arbitrator.

Jonathan Zaifert, the attorney representing Hall and Auto Owners Insurance, did not respond to a phone call and email. Questions submitted to Auto Owners were not answered.

msalinero@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8303

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