Mold forces family to flee home

Article Courtesy of The Herald-Tribune

By Josh Salman

Published October 3, 2014

SARASOTA - From the driveway, it's the kind of home that holds family dreams.

Two stories sit on a grassy, corner lot that overlooks a pond, just a short walk to the community's pool. Stucco is adorned with decorative window shutters, and tropical landscape fences off the neighbors. Muffled shouts from young children playing can be heard throughout the small gated community.


Two ceramic garden gnomes still stand by the front door, their grins reminding Shaun and Jennifer Carlson of better days.

In the garage, a mountain of white trash bags store the couple's belongings, and a young girl's metal scooter leans against a wooden kitchen table darkened by mold.

Blotches of mold also can be seen throughout the abandoned house.

For the past two years, the Carlsons and their three children have battled constant illness, financial distress and emotional turmoil as mold overtook their home.

“We didn't think we could afford a new house. It was a nice step up,” Jennifer Carlson said. “We thought we were making a good decision, but then very quickly, it all crashed down on us.”

For that, they blame builder D.R. Horton, which they claim failed to remediate the mold spores quickly enough.

In a written statement, the national homebuilder stands by its response to the outbreak. The company says it has taken appropriate steps to find a solution and that most of the mold has since been remediated.

Jen and Shaun Carlson stand outside their former home in the Palmer Oaks subdivision in Palmer Ranch with their children Declan, 2, Arabella, 7, and Dillon, 4.


“We did not develop the lots in Palmer Oaks; however, we are committed to resolving the drainage issue for our homeowners,” the company's statement said. “The satisfaction of our homeowners is a top priority, and we are committed to superior customer service and providing families with quality homes and neighborhoods in the Sarasota area.”

Originally from Chicago, Shaun and Jennifer Carlson met while attending the University of Illinois. After graduating in 2002, they moved to St. Petersburg, where Shaun Carlson got a job.

At the time, Jennifer was studying for a master's degree at the University of South Florida.

They rented an apartment for a couple of years and bought their first home in 2004 in Apollo Beach, a suburb south of Tampa.

Jennifer Carlson commuted daily to her job as a social worker for the Sarasota County School District.

The couple eventually decided to move to Southwest Florida, to enroll their children — now 7, 4 and 2 — in Sarasota schools.

In 2012, as the area's residential market was shaking off the Great Recession, they jumped at the chance to leverage their buying power with a new home from a respected builder.

The Carlsons fell in love with a four-bedroom home in Palmer Ranch, a golf-course community they didn't think they could afford, built by D.R. Horton.

Measuring 2,508 square feet, it was an unfinished model, which meant they could customize it to their liking with granite counters and interior paint colors.

Though they had flawless credit, their savings were limited. They put $5,000 down and paid another $5,359 toward the balance, closing in August 2012, property records show.

The house cost $296,000. To make the deal work, they borrowed $290,628 from DHI Mortgage Co.

“They made it seem like ask, and we will give it to you,” Shaun Carlson said. “But from the day we moved in, there were problems.”

The first real signs of trouble came in the form of water rivulets running across the floor.

Wind howled through windows and their dishwasher had to be replaced. Within the first few months of ownership, the couple had to have their air conditioner adjusted 10 times.

But they decided they could live with the problems, which were mostly covered by their warranty. At the same time, they began feeling comfortable amid Palmer Oaks' single-family homes and townhouses.

“School would get out, and the kids would be riding bikes in the street,” Jennifer Carlson said. “We hosted Halloween parties, a New Year's bash and even a Christmas celebration.

“Everyone had brand-new homes, so they were excited. We all tried to be social, have fun and make it work.”

But by Christmas 2012, the family was concerned that something was terribly wrong with the house.

Normally healthy, they were all getting sick a lot.

The kids had vicious coughs. Fungus infections blanketed their tongues and throats. At times, yeast would build-up in their ears and spread to their legs.

Jennifer Carlson was hit hardest. To keep her rashy elbows secret, she wore long-sleeved shirts even on 85-degree afternoons.

One son had serious allergic reactions. Doctors could not pinpoint a cause.

“I had a headache every day,” Jennifer Carlson said. “That was the first time in my life I couldn't protect my own children.”

Signs of damage also started appearing.

Cabinets dipped and bubbled. Unused drinking glasses stored in cupboards began to look dirty.

The family called D.R. Horton to report the problems, and learned that at least a half dozen other homes in the community were experiencing similar issues.

The builder sent an engineer out to a drill hole in the yard, which would become saturated following a storm. Everyone suspected mold.

By February, the builder agreed to remediate the kitchen. Crews gutted cabinets and found mold growing underneath. They carved a slice from the granite, and pulled the refrigerator out.

Tests taken in March revealed 15,050 fungal spores in the kitchen air, primarily a form of penicillium. Their son is allergic to the medicine Penicillin.

“That would be definitely considered by industry standards on the high end,” said Luis Mahiquez, owner of Lightning Restoration, who was told the results of the tests. “You can do remediation until you're blue in the face, if you don't fix the problem, it's going to keep coming back. It all comes down to getting the moisture under control.”

The family moved into a hotel while the kitchen was replaced. The builder also installed French drains to help curb moisture levels.

“We had a fixed home, and it did feel much better,” Jennifer Carlson said.

But within a month, tests showed mold had returned — and spread upstairs.

“It's very unusual to go to a site on a home that new,” said Chris Hayes, who ran tests on the house for Donan Engineering Co. “They had issues like not enough exterior grade, and the air conditioning was not functioning correctly. There also were issues with moisture in the cabinets downstairs. Trying to nail down the source was tough on that one.”

D.R. Horton contends that the moisture was a result of soil conditions and a shallow water table — not due to improper grading.

Jennifer Carlson said D.R. Horton promised to fix the house, regardless of the cost.

The Carlsons wanted the builder to instead buy it back from them. D.R. Horton refused.

In early May, the company had a different firm run new air tests. The results once again came in showing a “very heavy” presence of mold spores.

But D.R. Horton now says those results were “were indicative of normal living conditions and there was no presence of concentrations of fungal spores.”

Jennifer Carlson asked one of the technicians what he would do, if it was his home. She recalls that he said he would not spend another night in the house.

An air quality specialist for the Sarasota County Health Department also advised them to leave — and leave all their possessions behind. 

So they did. They bought outfits at Walmart to get by, and left everything else — including family portraits and sentimental heirlooms.

“That was the worst night of my life,” Jennifer Carlson said.

The family then filed a complaint with Sarasota County, and a claim with their insurance company for the value of their belongings.

But Cypress Property & Casualty refused to cover the losses, claiming the homebuilder was responsible because of “improper design and construction,” according to a June 2013 report.

The Carlson children went back to the house just once, to say good-bye to their dolls and dinosaurs.

In July 2013, D.R. Horton organized community meetings to gauge the severity of the problem.

The company proposed a pilot fix that would install a new drainage system, and it pledged to repair all of the damage to impacted homes.

The proposal required homeowner association approval because it would involve work on the community's common areas, which the builder no longer owned, as well as a modest long-term maintenance cost.

Following the advice of their attorney, the homeowners' association cited legal problems with the language in association documents regarding permits and other regulatory agencies. Negotiations on the improvements dragged out for several months.

Stuart Francis, the president of the association board, declined to comment when reached by the Herald-Tribune. Community manager David Kirk also declined comment, and several other board members did not respond to calls or emails.

“When the modified drainage system is complete, D.R. Horton plans to address other outstanding items resulting from the ground water issue in Palmer Oaks,” the company said in a written statement.

As for the Carlsons, because they were unable to pay their $1,730 monthly mortgage on the home they were no onger living in, they received a notice of foreclosure in late June.

Court records show they filed a cross-claim against D.R. Horton regarding alleged construction defects, as well.

After leaving their Palmer Ranch home, the Carlsons rented a small, furnished condominium that cost more than what they had paid on their mortgage, the family said.

The family eventually moved again, to Nokomis, where they now live. To make ends meet, they have turned to a food pantry for the first time in their lives.

Attempts to sell their home through a short sale have been unsuccessful.

“Construction defects are not all that uncommon, but this is more extreme than most,” said Christopher Staine, a Sarasota attorney who represents the Carlsons. “It's a difficult situation.

“The question now is, how will D.R. Horton make them whole?”