When Tracy Berg and her husband bought their home, they found comfort in buying new construction. But three years later they’re facing major issues including cracked walls, water issues and black mold. Unfortunately, the Berg’s are not alone. 28 other houses in the Fife development of Valley Haven have similar problems. All were built by Highmark Homes and its owner Tom Tollen.
“I don’t ever want to buy another house again because of this,” said Berg.
The homeowners are now suing Highmark and Tollen over their construction issues. In the meantime, they’re wondering how all their homes could have passed city inspection. Perry Fegley, a building inspector for the city of Fife, is the one that signed off on the Berg’s home. He says a developers building plans will not be approved unless it details how each phase will meet code. Highmark is no exception, with the first page of their plans referencing building code. The homes must also clear a 16 point checklist before the city will issue a certificate of occupancy.
“Everything is looked at. When they call for inspection, that inspection is thoroughly looked at,” said Fegley. “So I don’t know what the problem is but yea, I am very upset that anyone has to go through this.”
Inspectors do not sit on the job and oversee the entire building process. Instead, builders call them out once each phase has been completed. So, if corners are cut, an inspector may not see it. Their focus is meeting code, not quality.
“We don’t inspect for quality and people don’t understand we inspect for minimum codes. Quality, craftsmanship, that’s why you pay a licensed bonded contractor, we would hope, to do this for you. But we do our best,” explained Fegley.
Also, it’s impossible to inspect what’s been covered up. In 2014 at a different development, Labor and Industries issued a warning to Highmark for covering an electrical installation prior to inspection. It then cited the company for the same thing the next year. According to Chris Casey, attorney for the Valley Haven homeowners, the code issues extend beyond this.
“We have structural issues that you’re well aware of out there. Those are the issues that fall on their plate. The string of nails that run up vertical should be secured to the studs but are free floating in the wall – it’s easy to see and you don’t need to be an expert to recognize there is a problem,” said Casey.
Inspectors specifically check structural, plumbing and electrical elements. If they fail to catch something, there’s little homeowners can do.
“In WA, unless there’s a specific promise to you, as the homeowner, made by the building officials, they have no duty to you. That is, it doesn’t matter how bad they do their job, you can’t sue them,” explained Casey.
So who’s at fault in all this? In a recent hearing, Highmark’s attorney, Patrick McKenna, argued that code violations shouldn’t be the company’s issue.
“Let’s just assume for the moment, for arguments sake, that the building code violations exist, just for this moment. So what? How does that breach the contract? How does that breach the warranties?” questioned McKenna.
It was a defense that even prompted some questions from Pierce County Superior Court Judge Philip Sorensen.
“I understand that I don’t have a building code in front of me but I can’t imagine there’s a building code in this country that would allow for that kind of workmanship to meet the minimum threshold,” said Judge Sorensen.
So while developer Tom Tollen cruised through neighborhoods in his yellow Lamborghini, Tollen’s homes in the Valley Haven development are, according to Casey, falling apart.
“Someone dropped the ball. I don’t think you have 29 homes with substantially the same defects that could have been discovered during the course of construction,” said Casey.
The attorney for Highmark and Tom Tollen sent us the following statement about our story:
“Highmark strives to build quality homes and is disheartened by its portrayal in the recent media coverage. The City of Fife approved the construction of the homes at Valley Haven. Highmark disagrees with allegations made against it in litigation, and will continue to prepare a defense based on the facts and applicable law.”
As for the home warranties, homeowners tell me they didn’t feel confident having Highmark or Tollen complete the repairs. We asked Tollen to comment about this but he didn’t respond.
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