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Crumbling Concrete Slabs Leave Lakewood Homeowners on Edge

April 30, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LAKEWOOD — Fran Goodsell sweeps her floor these days with a rake instead of a broom.

"It's like camping out all the time," said her husband, Bill, 39.

"At our house you need to wipe your feet when you leave rather than when you come in," quipped Fran, 36.

Beneath their good humor, though, is a vein of despair. For nearly two months, the couple--she a psychologist with the Los Angeles County Office of Education, he an aircraft maintenance supervisor for American Airlines--have been living with dirt where their floors used to be.

The reason: an unusually high sulfate content in the soil beneath their house which has caused the concrete slab upon which it is built to literally begin crumbling away. The cure: to remove the slab piece by piece, replace 12 inches of the dirt beneath it with sand over plastic, then cover the whole thing up again with a sulfate-resistant concrete--an arduous process that, if completed by professionals, could cost as much as $70,000.

The Goodsell's insurance carrier--State Farm Fire and Casualty Company--has so far refused to pay for the work. So at least until September, their lives are on hold as Bill devotes more than 40 hours a week to the project while holding down a full-time job and taking meals in the backyard. He estimates that by doing the work himself, it will cost about $15,000.

"It's just terrible," Fran said. "Nobody should have to live this way."

In fact, they are not alone. Since last year, city officials say, the owners of about a dozen of the 132 homes in the 23-year-old Sunshine Homes tract just southwest of Del Amo Boulevard and the 605 Freeway have reported the telltale cracks in their concrete floors which, accompanied by a characteristic white powdery substance, indicate the presence of the destructive sulfates--a salt-like substance derived from sulfuric acid.

The Goodsells, who have canvassed their neighborhood to determine the extent of the problem, calculate the number of homes affected there at more than 100. And in the last year and a half, experts say, similar cases have surfaced throughout Southern California, especially in La Palma where as many as 100 additional homes may have cracked and, in some cases, crumbling floors. Without repairs to replace the concrete slab, the entire structure of the houses can be endangered.

To date, according to the Goodsells, three Lakewood homeowners besides themselves have initiated or completed repairs, a process that can require relocation for as long as a year. Another 25, they say, have made claims to their insurance companies and are awaiting responses. And the rest, they say, have done nothing.

In most cases, they say, the insurance companies have either agreed to pay or indicated their willingness to do so. Prudential Insurance Company of America, for instance--which homeowners say has honored the claims--issues a variety of policies specifically covering or excluding a variety of ills. "We make decisions on a case-by-case basis," said Lou Zuccaro, a staff attorney for the company. "Sometimes it costs you more to investigate the causes of a loss than to pay for it."

But nine affected homes in the tract, according to the Goodsells, are covered by State Farm, which has so far rejected their claims.

Exclusions Are Specific

"There is a specific exclusion in our homeowner policies for the deterioration, cracking or shrinking of . . . cement," explained Michael Bragg, a State Farm attorney based at the company's corporate headquarters in Bloomington, Ill. "People all over the country build homes on soil that is often unstable, has a high alkaline content or (contains) some kind of clay. It has never been (our) intention to cover those kinds of cases where the earth works to damage homes (through) the natural elements that you have to expect when you buy a house."

The Goodsells disagree. In fact, they and several of their neighbors--not to mention dozens of disgruntled homeowners elsewhere--have retained attorneys who plan to file lawsuits on their behalf demanding that State Farm (and in a few cases, Farmers Insurance Group, which also has rejected some claims) pay up.

"We feel that the language currently in existence in their policies covers this particular circumstance," said Robert E. Beekman, a Tustin attorney who represents the Goodsells and more than 20 similar clients, mostly in Lakewood and La Palma but also scattered throughout Cypress, Norwalk and Cerritos. "The (insurance companies') denial letters pick up words and phrases from a multitude of provisions within the contracts in an attempt to exclude things that they never envisioned. But these are all-risk contracts. All perils should be covered, unless specifically excluded."

Problem Is Widespread

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