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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Builder's promise to fix Chinese drywall home rescinded

TAMPA - The advertising for new townhomes at Sabal Pointe in Tampa is enticing: "No Surprises." "No costly out-of-pocket repairs or replacement." But Jamie Driskell, 27, ran into both when she discovered toxic Chinese-made drywall late last year. She said the builder, Rottlund Homes, promised to replace it but recently sent her a letter saying it can't afford the repairs after all – even as it installs drywall in the new homes in her neighborhood. "You're building brand new town homes as soon as I come into the subdivision, but you're sending me all of these letters indicating that you don't have any money," Driskell said. "Who does that?"
Driskell is finding herself in the wake of Florida's toxic drywall problem, where not all cases are dealt with similarly. Some builders have chosen to replace the caustic drywall imported earlier this decade from China. Others went bankrupt, leaving devastated homeowners to pick up the enormous bill. In Driskell's case, however, the builder's offer was apparently rescinded. Some homeowners have gone to court to sue manufacturers or importers, but with limited success at remuneration. Driskell bought her home near U.S. 301 and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in 2007, when many builders imported drywall from China. The material emits a corrosive gas that tarnishes metal and smells like rotten-eggs. But even more troubling, some experts say, is that the gas may cause health problems. The federal government advises anyone with Chinese drywall replace it. But that's costly - on average $100,000. So Driskell was relieved when Rottlund offered to move her out and replace the bad drywall. "My ceiling fans have to be replaced, my carpet has to be replaced, my washer and my dryer, my stove, everything, all my wiring," Driskell said. "So they were going to move me out. I had to find temporary housing in order for them to come in and repair my home." But in exchange for the repairs, Driskell had to agree to sign a contract with the builder. A clause in the contract meant Driskell promised not sue the builder later for anything related to the drywall. Driskell signed the agreement in December. One week before the move-out date, the builder said it needed 60 more days to get financing in order. But when that time ran out, Rottlund sent another letter informing Driskell that it was unable to secure financing and didn't know if it would ever be able to fix her home. "I was devastated," she said. Calls to Rottlund were not returned, but the builder's lawyer, Jeff Paskert, said it comes down to insurance. Rottlund's insurance company, he said, is covering repairs on some of the builder's Chinese drywall homes, but the policy it had when it built Driskell's home didn't cover defective drywall. "Rottlund just doesn't have the funding for the Driskell home," he said. Rottlund isn't the only builder to use the toxic drywall. Some builders, such as Lennar and KB Home, have replaced drywall. Others, though, have either gone out of business or say they can't afford it. What's unusual about this case is that the builder indicated it would fix the home and then changed its mind. So what about that contract? Paskert said the builder never signed it. He added that it doesn't plan to hold Driskell to her promise not to sue. "Rottlund doesn't see the contract as binding," he said. But Driskell does. She said after she signed the agreement and mailed it to the builder, Rottlund started following the contract. It notified her of a move out date, she said. It also mailed her the first of the agreed $1,500 payments, money that was supposed to help cover expenses somewhere else while the builder repaired her home. She has a canceled check to prove it. Shari Olefson, a real estate lawyer Fowler White Boggs, isn't involved in this case but said if the builder performed according to the contract, most judges would agree the contract was in place. "Once you start performing, it doesn't matter if you signed it or not," Olefson said. "If the builder purposely didn't sign and still performed, then there could be something more sinister going on." Driskell isn't the only homeowner in her neighborhood with this issue. Fred Muth, who owns the townhome next door, said he received the same letter in May, informing him that Rottlund was unable to fund repairs. Muth, however, was much further along in the process than Driskell. He signed his agreement before Driskell and had already vacated the home. When that happened, he turned his keys over to the builder and received three payments before his letter arrived in the mailbox. They're still paying the electric bill, but I don't even have access to my home," Muth said. And since it was a rental home, he not only has to deal with the uncertainty of fixing the drywall. He has a loss of monthly income to deal with, too. "It's a real mess," Muth said. "But I feel even worse for Jamie. This is her homestead." Driskell said she's at a loss as what to do. She was anxious to move out of the home and stop breathing in the drywall gas. Now that she's stuck in the home, she worries about long-time health problems. Some experts have said the gas can cause headaches, nosebleeds and respiratory problems.

"It's so depressing because I thought I was doing the right thing," Driskell said. "Everyone always said to get started in life you should invest in a home." sbehnken@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7804 Twitter: @TBORealtyCheck

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