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Drywall keeps owners in limbo

MANATEE — Ryleigh Jo Baker just celebrated her first Christmas, but it wasn’t in the house that her parents envisioned.

The 6-month-old celebrated in a sparsely decorated rental house near Myakka City, not the Palmetto house that Joe and Brittany Baker have owned since 2006 — and abandoned earlier this year.

The reason? It contains defective Chinese drywall.

“It’s been stressful,” Brittany Baker said. “It’s been non-stop stress for us.”

The couple is among at least 40 Manatee County homeowners whose lives were turned upside-down in 2009 because of the imported product.

Some have moved out because of health concerns, while others remain in their tainted homes, unable to afford to simultaneously pay rent and a mortgage. Some have fallen into foreclosure.

For most, their lives remain in limbo as 2010 approaches.

They still don’t know what’s causing the drywall to emit sulfuric gases, or what damage it’s doing to their bodies and their homes. They still don’t know who to hold responsible for the defective drywall — the builder? The manufacturer? The supplier? The Chinese government? Nor do they know when the drywall will be removed from their homes, and who’s going to pay for it.

“It’s the worst kind of limbo,” said Bruce Steckler, a Dallas attorney who is among more than a dozen lawyers representing homeowners in a consolidated class-action federal lawsuit over Chinese drywall. “Some have been suffering for close to two years, with no resolution in sight.”

As 2008 turned to 2009, the drywall issue largely was limited to sporadic but seemingly unrelated complaints by Florida homeowners of foul odors, corroded electrical wiring and air-conditioner coils, and headaches, sinus problems and breathing difficulties.

But the chorus of complaints grew. The Consumer Product Safety Commission received its first drywall complaint on Dec. 22, 2008; that number had grown to more than 800 by July 2009; and as of last week, more than 2,700 from 36 states and the District of Columbia had filed complaints, the agency said.

In Manatee, the issue originally surfaced in Lakewood Ranch’s Greenbrook Village section and has since been reported in at least 10 other subdivisions: Aberdeen, Carpentras in the Villages of Avignon, Crystal Lakes, Fairways at Imperial Lakewoods, Greenfield Plantation, Greyhawk Landing, Heritage Harbour, Palma Sola Trace, River Plantation and Waterlefe Golf & River Club.

The issue has drawn intense attention from the media and state and federal officials, who launched what has become the single-largest consumer-product safety investigation in U.S. history.

It also has become one of the largest court cases in recent years, as hundreds of individual homeowner lawsuits have been consolidated into a single massive case before a federal judge in New Orleans.

Caught in the saga are home-owners like the Bakers.

The couple moved into their three-bedroom, two-bath home in the Carpentras subdivision in July 2006. A month later, the air-conditioning system failed.

It was fixed, only to fail again. That happened several more times during the ensuing three years.

But it wasn’t until a service technician mentioned during a May 2009 repair visit that Chinese drywall might be the culprit. A few days later, a home inspector confirmed it.

That was enough to convince Brittany Baker, eight months’ pregnant at the time, to move in with her in-laws while Joe Baker was undergoing U.S. Army training in Colorado.

The stress would only escalate, Brittany Baker said.

At first, she worried the drywall would affect her unborn baby’s health. “Luckily she’s healthy,” Brittany Baker said.

There was the struggle to get the builder, deMorgan Communities, to admit it has used Chinese drywall in the Bakers’ house — followed by its contention that it, too, was a victim and couldn’t do anything for the Bakers.

There were the break-ins — at least five, by Brittany Baker’s count — at the unoccupied house, with thieves taking everything from leftover food to camping gear. A neighbor who interrupted one burglary found the thieves had left behind suitcases full of items, including an urn containing her father’s ashes.

’That was the biggest stress, the house being broken into over and over,” she said.

Then there were the financial worries. The Bakers wondered if they could continue to keep paying the mortgage on a home they no longer felt safe to live in and, if they couldn’t, whether it would jeopardize Joe Baker’s security clearance and assignment to MacDill Air Force Base.

After making arrangements with the Army, the Bakers stopped paying the mortgage and moved into the rental house last month.

“We really can’t afford to rent a house and pay the bills and pay a mortgage on top of it, but we have to, to make sure our daughter is safe,” Brittany Baker said.

Like many others, the Bakers hope to get some relief through the courts.

They are among more than 2,100 homeowners who are suing Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd, a Chinese drywall manufacturer, and more than 600 homebuilders, suppliers, distributors and installers in the massive federal class-action lawsuit. More than 30 Manatee homeowners are among the plaintiffs, and deMorgan is among the defendants.

The case is expected to go to trial in March as part of a series of bellwether cases designed to narrow legal issues such as liability.

With a troubled 2009 almost behind them, the Bakers say they hope the court case and the new year bring resolution for them and others affected by Chinese drywall.

“We just want them to find a solution, any kind of solution, that will fix the problem,” Brittany Baker said. “We just want a house we can live in.”

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.