Builder faces homeowner backlash
Hundreds begin to organize, consult lawyers over leaks

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

Posted October 16, 2004


Tom and Wendy Moore bought a vacuum cleaner that sucks up water after Hurricane Frances drenched the inside of their $165,000 home in east Orange County during Labor Day weekend.

They put it to good use three weeks later, siphoning off 40 gallons of rainwater that they said Hurricane Jeanne pushed through the cinder block walls and into the living room of their home in the Rybolt's Reserve neighborhood.

"We were quite alarmed," said Tom Moore, a 36-year-old high school teacher.

Their apprehension turned to anger when officials from Ryland Group Inc., a Fortune 500 home-building company based in Southern California, told them they would not pay for the ruined carpet, warped baseboards, mold and repairs to the exterior of their 18-month-old house.

The reason: Like many other home builders in Central Florida faced with complaints of leaky walls and water damage, Ryland maintains hurricanes are extraordinary events that void any warranty claims.

The bottom line, said Marya Jones, Ryland's corporate spokeswoman, is that the hurricanes caused the problem, not Ryland's construction techniques.

All new homes come with a one-year warranty that provides free repairs for virtually any anomaly, from improperly hung doors to uncaulked windows. Homes also have a 10-year warranty covering structural integrity, such as a broken foundation or crumbling walls.

Ryland isn't the only large-scale production builder that has upset buyers by balking at fixes in the wake of three hurricanes that hit greater Orlando within a six-week period. The Orlando Sentinel, WESH-NewsChannel 2 and county building officials have received hundreds of homeowner complaints about Ryland and other builders as well.

But Ryland appears to be the only company facing widespread, unified opposition. Hundreds of owners in 12 Ryland communities have banded together to complain, going so far as to consult attorneys and create a Web page dedicated to their water woes.

Ryland's Jones released a statement saying the company shares the frustrations of customers dealing with the aftermath of three hurricanes:

"The water intrusion is a result of prolonged periods of hurricane-force wind-driven rain on an exposed exterior wall. In many cases, this caused water to saturate the block wall and puddle on the floor next to the wall."

The complaints by Ryland homeowners and others have become so numerous that county building officials throughout Central Florida have launched an investigation. They have not assessed blame yet, but they say no wall should leak.

Guntis Lambergs, a 48-year-old mortgage loan officer who owns a 6-month-old Ryland home where water seeped in, is one of the organizers spearheading the homeowners' battle against Ryland. In that capacity, Lambergs said, he knows of at least 500 homeowners in the greater Orlando area who complain that their Ryland-built houses have been harmed by sieve-like walls, as well as windows, doors and roofs that failed to keep out water.

"All we want is for Ryland to do the right thing," said Lambergs, who paid $268,000 for his house in the Eden Isle subdivision near Windermere in west Orange County.

Ryland, a publicly traded company, is one of the most popular builders in the region. It expects to sell 1,500 homes this year, up from a record 1,300 houses last year. Prices typically range from the mid-$100,000s to around $400,000.

Jones, from Ryland, would not discuss individual criticisms leveled by the builder's customers. She recommended homeowners file claims with their insurers. But many homeowners said insurance companies contend water seeping in walls is not covered.

"The building must be damaged to allow all the water to enter," said Hugh Cotton, who has sold homeowners insurance in Orlando for 55 years.

In other words, Cotton said, a tree must fall on the house or a window must be blown out by high winds before insurance kicks in.

Justin Glover, a spokesman for the state Department of Financial Services, which regulates the insurance industry, recommended homeowners check their policies for what is covered. Some insurers might come through, said Glover, who added that his agency has logged no complaints from homeowners about leaking walls.

But disgruntled Ryland homeowners don't think insurance companies should be held accountable. They say Ryland should.

That sentiment was unanimous at a recent gathering of more than 75 Ryland homeowners in the North Shore at Lake Hart development in southeast Orlando: Ryland was responsible for -- and should fix -- the mess left behind by the hurricanes. They also want the walls waterproofed so they aren't washed out by the next hard storm.

"I'll never buy from Ryland again," said Richard Lindgren, a 23-year-old retail investigator who, with his fiancée, purchased a $234,000 house.

Their 13-month-old house leaked long before the hurricanes, during which rainwater breached walls, windows, doors and the roof, Lindgren said. Carpeting and drywall have been ruined, he said, along with $7,000 worth of kitchen cabinets.

Building officials from county and city governments throughout Central Florida are investigating the growing number of water-intrusion complaints filed by new homeowners from Ryland, along with other production and custom builders.

The most prominent theories from these building officials are: watered-down paint that is too thinly applied to the exterior walls to provide protection from rain; cracks in the stucco-like covering of the walls; sloppily applied mortar in the joints between the blocks; rain that was driven up and into roof ridge vents and overhangs.

The problem for government officials is that the state building codes offer no guidelines for the use of paint or the cement-like material that is spread over the block.

No one can say for sure how many homes had their interiors doused by the three storms, but the Orlando Sentinel and WESH have received more than 600 phone calls and e-mails from unhappy homeowners. The Sentinel and WESH last year conducted a study of more than 400 homes built in 2001 and found 80 percent of them either had cracks that could allow water to penetrate windows, foundations and stucco, or had experienced leaks and mold.

At the Eden Isle subdivision, Cynthia Wilkins devised an experiment to determine what she suspected caused her living room to puddle. The 36-year-old graphic artist pointed her garden hose on the exterior wall -- about four feet away -- turned it on to a light spray and waited.

Little more than a half-hour later, the block on the inside was stained with moisture. Within an hour, it was dripping. She could plainly see the results because she had pulled away the insulation and drywall, both of which were saturated by Jeanne.

The walls, she concluded, were not sealed to keep out water. "Now I know why I rented so long," said Wilkens, whose house cost $280,000.