EAST MANATEE -- Not long after Brian and Stacy Piazza moved into their new home last fall, they say, their 1-year-old daughter Katelyn grabbed a stairway banister spindle on the second floor and pushed it out and down the stairs. Stacy Piazza was close enough to snatch the little girl away from the gap under the handrail before she could fall through.
The incident was just one of several that have made new home ownership a challenge for the Piazzas. They moved into their house, built by D.R. Horton in its new Rye Road subdivision Del Tierra, in October. Since then, they say they've spent a portion of almost every day dealing with work poorly done or not completed.
Even though they delayed their move-in by several days to allow the builder time to complete work inside the house, dozens of items remained on a punch list to be finished at a later date.
The banister was not one of them because it seemed to be complete. After finding two more spindles that fell out at the slightest touch, the Piazzas called their D.R. Horton representative to ask for a fix. The next day, a workman came to the house and drove nails through the handrail into the loose spindles. It kept them in place, but Stacy Piazza later found sharp, exposed nail heads along the banister. Katelyn cut herself on exposed staples holding the bottom of one of the spindles.
Brian Piazza, a firefighter with the Bradenton Fire Department, said the construction snafu is one of many. After moving in, he discovered wiring to the home's breaker box had been left exposed, one garage door would not close and the attic above the garage lacked access. Those problems have him questioning the quality of the $350,000 house and the builder's commitment to making it right.
When construction workers do come to fix something, he said, the repair can be as bad as the original problem.
"There's a lot of stuff I'm kicking myself in the butt for; things I shouldn't have let them do," Piazza said.
Darren Saltzberg, a division president with D.R. Horton who has been in contact with Del Tierra residents, and D.R. Horton's media department did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the reported construction issues.
Homeowners share problems
The Piazzas are part of a small group of vocal homeowners who bought into Del Tierra in the early months of home sales there last year. Planned to be the site of more than 600 homes, construction in the subdivision got underway last summer. The community is one of a about half-dozen D.R. Horton is building in Manatee County.
These buyers say they have tried to work with the publicly traded Texas builder for months to fix issues ranging from broken casing and uneven tile to missing bathroom sinks and loose electrical outlets. They recently banded together as neighbors to commiserate over the trouble they are having with their homes.
The group's de facto leader is Rebekah Lutsch. In January, she and her husband Chris started posting signs in their front window and on their lawn chastising the builder. One of those signs reads "Based on my experience, I would not purchase a D.R. Horton home!"
The couple, along with their two children and Lutsch's mother Kathleen, moved into the home in late December. At move-in, they knew that a good deal of finish work had yet to be done on the $322,000 home, even though the builder had delayed the closing by more than two months.
They had little choice but to move into an unfinished home. Their lease was up at a home they were renting nearby and they had nowhere else to go on short notice.
The first issue they noticed on move-in day was a thick layer of construction dust and grime throughout the home left by builders and trade workers. More substantial issues included missing shower stall glass, cracked granite countertops and missing lights in the kitchen. Now, over 12 weeks into trying to get these items resolved, Lutsch said she has spent days waiting for workers to show up and hours on the phone trying to get work completed.
Lately, she said, work supervisors and company executives have taken her complaints, but failed to get work done in a timely matter. She also said the company has threatened legal action over her signs through the D.R. Horton-controlled homeowners association at Del Tierra.
Lutsch said she plans to keep the signs up until her home is finished.
"It comes down to what is right and what is ethical," she said.
Down the street in part of the subdivision where D.R. Horton is building its lower-priced, Express Homes brand houses, Lutsch's neighbor, Tina Hoover, is having a similar experience. Walking through her home, she points out missing baseboards, a soft spot in a bathroom ceiling and granite kitchen countertops she purchased after moving in to replace a builder-installed Formica that pulled away from the wall.
Like other early buyers, Hoover's move-in was delayed. Now, five months later, she's still trying to get basic finish work completed.
"I want my house done," she said.
Lutsch, Piazza and Hoover and other homeowners in the group say they hope their issues will be resolved by the time the one-year warranties on their homes expire. But they have worries that go beyond that time frame.
New construction accelerates
Bill Price was one of the first buyers to sign a contract for a home in Del Tierra. He and his wife, Sharon, are largely happy with their home and how it was built, but have spent months trying to get the builder to come back to fix two sections of exposed flashing and a water leak under the lawn.
But as new houses go up almost daily all around his, he is concerned that as construction accelerates, quality may deteriorate. Two homes near his show rippled roofing, something Price said stems from exposure to moisture.
He is concerned that the subdivision could get a bad reputation for build quality. That, he said, could affect the value of his home.
From his vantage point, that is where the subdivision is headed.
"What I see is it's not getting better, it's getting worse," Price said.
Manatee County spokesman Nick Azzara said that the county's building department has yet to receive a resident complaint about the homes at Del Tierra. He encouraged new home buyers who have complaints about construction to call the county's Citizens Action Center at 941-747-4357 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
D.R. Horton was the largest home builder in the U.S. in 2013 based on the number of homes it built. The company is already selling homes in a number of communities in Manatee County, including at Prospect Point, Park Place, Stoneledge, Rye Wilderness and Legends Bay subdivisions. The company's Emerald division is building in the gated East Manatee development The Concession.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.