Willowbrook residents in Manatee facing long fight with developer

nwilliams@bradenton.comAugust 8, 2012 

EAST MANATEE -- As the number of Willowbrook condos ruled unsafe by Manatee County inspectors continue to rise, the chances of finding a quick solution seem to be diminishing.

County inspectors deemed at least three homes unsafe to enter on Tuesday, increasing the total to 15 since inspectors began surveying the 270-unit community in East Manatee on Friday.

The unsafe town homes in Willowbrook show signs of sinking floors, loose hand rails and possible water intrusion on the balconies. Water damage to the exterior structures may have also affected interior structures in some cases.

Several homeowners have requested KB Home, a California-based home building company, to buy back their units rather than allow the company to perform repairs. Residents said prior repairs by KB Home did little to correct the damages.

Some say the chances of KB Home immediately buying back the damaged units could take years, forcing homeowners to waste time and money in the battle.

"(KB Home) is notorious for dragging things out," said David Hodges, a private investigator and owner of Fine Tooth Comb Investigations in Jacksonville. Hodges investigates home building cases for homeowners across the country and is currently investigating cases in Manatee.

Janet Ahmad, a consumer advocate and president of Homeowners for Better Building, has worked with several homeowners across the country, including residents from Willowbrook. She said homeowners are fighting an uphill battle against home building companies.

"When people buy a home, they have less protection when they buy a toaster," she said. "I can take a toaster back to Walmart and get it replaced. If my home needs repair, you have to call the insurance company."

Beginning in 2002, Ahmad worked with other homeowners from a Texas housing community built by KB Home to get their homes bought back. The battle reached the Federal Trade Commission, which determined KB Home violated terms of a 1979 consent order and 1991 consent decree relating to binding arbitration clauses. KB Home agreed to pay a $2 million civil penalty and Ahmad said the home building company bought back roughly 500 homes in Texas.Unrelated to Ahmad's situation, in 2001, KB Home was sued by homeowners in Arlington, Texas, for not disclosing information on their homes being built on land used by the military for bombing practice.

The Willowbrook town homes have warning signs posted on the front entrance, alerting occupants and visitors of the danger involved with entering the residence. People living in the 270-unit community have complained of mold and interior damage due to water intrusion.

The Willowbrook condo association is responsible for repairs outside the living area and KB Home has acknowledged receiving a claim from the association. The details of that claim have not been made available.

Ahmad said the most useful tactic for homeowners is to make their concerns known to government officials and agencies.

"I feel very sorry for residents that have been going through this," said Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, who has corresponded with several Willowbrook homeowners. "I would hope KB Home can work out an agreement as soon as possible."

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, will meet with residents today at 6 p.m. to talk about the situation.

Willowbrook was KB Home's first venture into Manatee County. The first models were opened in September of 2006.

Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams

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