Manatee building inspectors probe KB Home Willowbrook construction
BRADENTON - After years of insisting her condo was built using shoddy construction methods, Roxanne Miller finally has the attention of Manatee County building inspectors. "You can walk on the floor and can feel the soft spots on it," Miller said. "You know there's major issues; you can smell the mold." Miller isn't the only one in the Willowbrook condominium neighborhood who says KB Home sold a lemon of a house and won't make it right. Many of them are learning they have limited recourse because of a no-sue clause in their purchase contracts. Neighborhood leaders say at least 60 homeowners claim they have problems. Many say they have complained for years, but received only "band-aid" repairs from the builder. Recent storms sent some balconies crashing to the ground, causing county officials to deem 21 of the units unsafe. They continue to inspect homes.Now there are new allegations that the problematic construction may go much deeper than unstable balconies. A general contractor, hired by Miller to find out why her condo had so many problems, said he found scores of construction issues in her home. That contractor, Michael Hamilton of CMM Commercial Contractors, Inc., said he found outside wall boards not nailed down, missing hurricane straps and mold deep within walls. Hamilton fears the other condos in the neighborhood were built the same way, and that may explain leaks and mold complaints from neighbors. "I feel people are in danger," Hamilton said. If faulty construction methods were involved, that means county inspectors missed the problems during the construction process. C.J. Dupre, a building official for Manatee County, has questioned Hamilton's findings and said Hamilton contaminated the scene when he tore down drywall without a permit. Even so, the county agreed his report and allegations warranted a second look. When the inspectors showed up last week, about a dozen concerned neighbors met them at the home and followed them through the inspection process. "They're not telling me anything at this point," Miller said. "I'm hoping that they are going to find the issues that are wrong, and not try to cover it up." Three county inspectors went through the home one day, taking pictures and pushing on walls. "I need to look at it and investigate into it, and just look at it and see where we are," Dupre said on the way out of Miller's home. KB, one of the nation's largest home builders, and a big player in Tampa area home construction, said it wants to repair the units. Some residents, though, say they've had enough repairs and want the builder to buy back their homes. KB has said no. Miller's case ended up in arbitration earlier this year, and she won — sort of. The arbitrator agreed that her home was infested with mold and ordered KB to repair walls and get rid of mold. However, the award didn't address other issues, such as her floors, which Miller says are rotten because of the mold. Miller has not allowed KB to make additional repairs yet because she says she want the whole house fixed or bought. Miller said she learned her sales contract requires arbitration instead of allowing her to sue. She and other residents said they had no idea the arbitration clause was in their contract. "We can't litigate because we're under arbitration, under our contracts," said Nick Sommer. "Our hands are tied." Consumer attorney Eric Seidel says that's usually not good news for the buyer. "An arbitration clause always puts the consumer at a disadvantage because, No. 1, you're taking away or at least giving away your right to your day in court before either a jury of your peers or a judge," Seidel said. "Instead, you're replacing that with somebody the company thinks would be good to decide the case." Seidel recommends homebuyers try to negotiate with builders to drop the clause. Otherwise, when the unthinkable happens, you may be stuck. Meanwhile, Miller said she regrets going forward with arbitration because it did nothing to help her. She said she spent her life's savings on the legal fight. "It breaks my heart," Miller said. "I cry a lot. I paid cash for this house. This is my dream home, and they've destroyed me financially, physically and emotionally."
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