Expanded probe of drywall problems urged

MANATEE — Another federal lawmaker has added his voice to the call for investigation into defective drywall found in Florida homes.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, has requested an expanded investigation to include the Office of U.S. Trade Representative and the Federal Trade Commission, which works to prevent unfair and deceptive practices, according to a statement released Friday.

Buchanan called for the agencies to join the others already involved in the investigation — the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Environmental Protection Agency — after learning defective drywall manufactured in China was reportedly installed in homes in about 25 states.

“Florida’s 13th Congressional District, which I represent, has some of the highest concentrations of imported Chinese drywall found so far,” Buchanan said in the request. “Some homeowners have complained about the foul odors generated by this imported drywall, expressed concern that it might be a threat to the health of young children in these homes and noted that the drywall may have damaged other aspects of their homes, such as the framing or electrical wiring.”

A national advocacy group based in Washington D.C., America’s Watchdog, works with an alliance of attorneys, and claims that health risks are associated with the defective drywall.

Thomas Martin, president of America’s Watchdog, said the organization has received reports from physicians that some Florida children living in the homes with defective drywall have emphysema, a chronic lung disease can be caused by exposure to long-term smoking or chemicals.

The group is also advising homeowners not to sign onto agreements with builders to do to work on their homes.

“If this stuff is all over the house and it’s in the plywood, the trusses and studs there is no way you’re not going to replace the drywall and it still not be a sick house,” Martin said.

So far in Manatee County about five neighborhoods have problems with the defective drywall including, Heritage Harbour, GreyHawk Landing, Crystal Lakes, Fairways at Imperial Lakewoods and Greenbrook in Lakewood Ranch.

Builders in Manatee County that have used defective drywall include WCI Communities, Taylor Morrison and Lennar Corp.

Lennar, developer of Heritage Harbour, has been proactive in relocating residents in order to make the repairs.

But some residents have hired attorneys after signing a work release for Lennar, to make sure the home is independently inspected.

Alan Tannenbaum, a construction lawyer for Levin Tannenbaum, represents clients in Heritage Harbour who had already moved out of their homes so that work could be done on the house.

Tannenbaum, who ordered work stopped on one home at Heritage Harbour early this week, questioned Lennar’s “lack of transparency” concerning the extent and approach to making repairs in the home.

Many questions about the affects of the drywall on other parts of the home are still unanswered. Some experts have said that even after removing the drywall the gasses may be absorbed into all the wood, leaving a bad smell in the home. Whether the wiring had been affected was among other questions that needed to be answered, Tannenbaum said.

“One of the problems is that the science has not just caught up with the facts,” he said.

Tannenbaum also disputed the waiver that Lennar had given to residents to sign before the work was performed. Typically, most warranty work is done without requiring a signed release, he said.

“It was a good first step by Lennar to pull the drywall out and take necessarily repairs. It certainly seems more than what the other builders are doing, “he said. “What’s disappointing about Lennar’s approach is that in order to do that, they obligated the homeowners to execute a release in advance which is unusual.”

The problem, he said, was that residents didn’t have much choice other than to sign the waiver. They either signed the waiver for Lennar to do the work or they decided to stay in a deteriorating home.

“We’re taking the position that it was null and void because it was coerced,” he said.

In a written exchange between Lennar’s attorneys and Tannenbaum, Lennar denied the idea that the agreement was “coerced.” The clients were “free to refuse or negotiate” the agreement and were given an opportunity to discuss the agreement with Darin McMurray, division president.

Lennar also maintained that the work done on the home was beyond warranty obligation.

“Indeed, Lennar’s commitment to perform these extensive repairs and its provision of the additional warranty undoubtedly constitute adequate consideration and are just a few of the ways Lennar has demonstrated its unwavering commitment to its homeowners,” the letter said.

In addition, Tannenbaum raised questions about how the waiver addressed health impact, personal property claims and diminished value to the home, because of the notoriety of the drywall problems.

Lennar, which maintains that the drywall does not cause any adverse health effects, said that the customers were able to pursue alleged personal injury claims against the company.

Lennar also said that the value of the home would not be affected since it would return the home to the client in “substantially new condition.”

“If anything,” the letter stated, “Lennar’s commitment to stand behind its homeowners as well as the additional warranty Lennar is providing will add value to your client’s home.”

Jessica Klipa, Herald staff reporter, can be reached at 708-7906.