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Foreclosure’s building problem

Foreclosures are up 93% from last year, and at the same time questions are arising as to whether construction quality suffered as homebuilders worked at lightning-fast speed to keep up with demand during the housing boom.
Building projects surged during the housing boom that ran through much of this decade.
Building projects surged during the housing boom that ran through much of this decade.Gene J. Puskar / AP
/ Source: Business Week

She wasn't an investor. She didn't have a subprime mortgage. But when Jordan Fogal's house became uninhabitable, the 62-year-old grandmother says foreclosure became her best alternative.

Fogal's troubles began when she and her 72-year-old husband, Bob, moved to a new housing development near Houston in 2002. That first night in the new house, the dining room ceiling collapsed. Bob had pulled the plug in the Jacuzzi tub upstairs, and 100 gallons of water came crashing through the ceiling downstairs because the plumbing drains were not connected.

"That was a preview of coming attractions," Fogal says. Later, the roof and windows leaked, the yard flooded, the shower walls started bowing out, the floor in the kitchen started sinking, and mold began to grow all over the house. The smell was terrible, she recalls, and eventually Fogal's doctor ordered her to leave the house because of the dangerous mold levels. A construction company hired by the Fogals estimated that it would take $150,000 to repair everything. "I could afford my mortgage payment, but I couldn't afford $150,000 in repairs," says Fogal, who had a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at the time. The home — appraised at $408,000 the day the couple bought it — ended up selling for $234,000 at a foreclosure auction.

"All of this time, I was begging the builder to fix these problems," Fogal recalls. But, she says, they only showed up to about 25% of the appointments she made. "That's absolute nonsense," says Tom Thibodeau, president of Tremont Homes and then-president of the Fogal home's builder, Tremont Custom Construction. "We tried everything we could to fix this house, and she refused it. She only wanted us to buy the house back."

The only original problem with the Fogals' house, Thibodeau says, was a roof leak that was neglected and led to a myriad of other problems. "She would like everyone to believe the house was foreclosed on because of the defect," he says. "But by neglect, she let the leak go and other problems manifested from the leak."

More than a subprime problem?
Fogal's case is not an isolated incident. Greg Cole, a homeowner in Georgia who runs a gripe site at, says he is on the brink of foreclosure after dealing with structural problems and leaks that have led to elevated mold levels. He, his wife, and his two children now take antibiotics every day, he says, because of the high level of mycotoxins — a toxin produced by fungi — in their blood. Elizabeth Dziedzic, a Realtor in Orange Park, Fla., says the deficiencies in her home make it impossible to sell for the amount it would take to pay off her mortgage balance. "There are only few events that are as devastating to a family as the loss of the family home to foreclosure," she says. "I guess this would be a price my family will pay for trying to achieve the American dream."

Foreclosures are up 93% from last year, according to Irvine, Calif.-based Web site RealtyTrac. At the same time, questions are arising as to whether construction quality suffered as homebuilders worked at lightning-fast speed to keep up with demand during the housing boom. It has become increasingly common for homeowners across the U.S. to share personal stories about defective construction through Web sites and blogs.

"Everything you read says that the rise in foreclosure has to due with subprime lending," says Nancy Seats, president of Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings, a nonprofit consumer protection group for homeowners dealing with defective construction. "But [defective construction] absolutely has something to due with the rise in foreclosures. There were absolutely investors that pushed up the price of housing, but there is no question that there are home buyers that were taken in and scammed big-time."

Why not just sue your builder when an irreparable problem arises? Homeowners usually don't have the right to. Most new-home sales contracts state that the customer must go through arbitration before they can even think about bringing their complaint to court.

There is little question that foreclosures are up, but it's difficult to discern if construction problems are a key reason. Web sites such as RealtyTrac and do not keep track of the reasons why people are defaulting. "While it certainly is adding to the foreclosure inventory, I hesitate to say that it is driving the rise in foreclosures," says Rick Sharga, vice-president for marketing for RealtyTrac. Fueling the foreclosure spike, Sharga says, are the slowdown in home sales, massive defaults on subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, and regional conditions such as overbuilding and speculation.

Dissatisfaction with new homes is rising by some accounts. According to the 2006 Construction Quality Survey by Portland, Maine-based consulting company Criterium Engineers, the number of new homes with "significant problems" rose to 17% in 2006 from 15% in 2003, with individual projects in some areas having defect rates as high as 50%. Water intrusion continued to be the No. 1 reported problem, with poor installation of roofs and windows reported to be the primary cause.

Living the nightmare
According to a study conducted in April and May by Rating Insights, a consulting firm that runs the consumer-rating Web site, 14% of consumers expressed dissatisfaction with their builder and 20% said they would be unlikely to recommend their builder to friends or family. "These percentages are not much different from what consumers report in other industries," says Rating Insights President Jonathan Smoke. However, "even though the percentages may stack up well to most industries, a nightmare experience with a home is not as easy to recover from as a bad experience with a telephone company or even an automobile manufacturer."

For Jordan Fogal – who receives phone calls and e-mails each day from homeowners across the country facing foreclosure because of building defects — the effect of shoddy construction on the greater housing market is difficult to downplay.

Fogal has spent the past three years living in a two-bedroom apartment, devoting all of her time to helping out other homeowners by posting about her experience on the Internet and picketing in front of her builder's new developments. This past June, she testified before Congress about the unfairness of binding arbitration agreements.

"I have not had a Christmas tree, I have not had the grandchildren over," Fogal says. "We have nothing but boxes, we live in boxes. But all I do is listen to these people all day long and I think, 'O.K., I can't stop.'"