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When the Truth Almost Falls Between the Cracks


We'd found it. After six months of schlepping and searching, countless discouraging setbacks and daily meditations on the merits of homeownership--on a brilliant day in March of '97--we found our house.

We'd been unbelievably lucky, having bought about 10 minutes before housing prices skyrocketed and about two minutes after interest rates started to fall. Our timing had been exquisite.

On Father's Day that year, we moved into our 75-year-old Spanish charmer in Highland Park. That August we started noticing cracks in the house--hairline cracks that hadn't been there when we'd moved in. At least they hadn't been visible.

We weren't too worried. It was an old house on a hill and had survived earthquakes and flooding. And besides, the inspector had assured us that it would be there for another 75 years (barring "The Big One").

By early October, two of the cracks were an eighth of an inch wide, and a quarter-inch crack had appeared outside near the base of the back wall. We started to get concerned, so we hired a licensed contractor to allay our fears.

The contractor took a look at our house, inside and out, sighing and pointing out tiny new cracks we had yet to notice. Without having any additional reports to substantiate his claim, without even crawling under the house--two things that we later learned should have been red flags--he "reluctantly" informed us that he'd "been in the business 30 years and seen this type of thing too many times before. . . . Your soil's liquefying."

He said it would probably cost a minimum of 40 to 50 grand to keep our home from sliding off the hill. He threw the word "liquefaction" around so many times that I dreamed that night of molten lava rivers coursing beneath our foundation, our house collapsing inward and disappearing into a boiling black hole.

It was as if we'd learned of a friend's terminal illness, hearing that our house would soon lie blocks away unless we could get our hands on a dozen high-interest credit cards.

We called our real estate broker and left panicked messages. We called our inspector and left angry ones. We called friends, who offered sympathy and red wine while I cried and my husband searched for the greater meaning. Then we decided to get a second opinion.

Licensed, recommended contractor No. 2 brought a slide rule as equipment. I liked him. He was soft-spoken, slow talking and seemingly earnest.

He did the same once-over as No. 1 and told us our house was uneven. That much we already knew. We had bought it knowing the floors were bowed and that, structurally, it didn't mean a thing. But here was contractor No. 2 with his slide rule talking emergency surgery to the tune of $80,000. Sensing our disbelief, he gave us the name of a "good building lawyer" and told us that perhaps there was the possibility of a lawsuit.

The next day we contacted the lawyer and told him that we couldn't afford him, let alone the staggering repair costs. He said that in such cases as ours, it's hard to prove that the previous owner purposely covered up structural damage, especially since we'd been given a satisfactory inspector's report. And unless there was written evidence from the city regarding earthquake damage or that we were living on an undisclosed tract of liquefying soil, there was not much we could do.


At this point, I was ready to sue everyone involved in the sale of the house. I would, personally, break into concealed documents at City Hall and hire a private eye if necessary. But what I did was spend hours on the phone with building and earthquake agencies in Los Angeles. There was no documented earthquake damage, no known problem with the ground soil, nothing we could blame our situation on except bad luck. We decided to get one more opinion before chalking up our losses and moving on.

On a recommendation from our broker, we called a construction company that she cautioned us was "the Cadillac among construction companies." It had the reputation as one of the best and as one of the most expensive, she said. At this point, my husband and I figured that we might as well get the Cadillac.

Our Guy (as I affectionately came to refer to him, in lieu of "savior") from company No. 3 took a long, slow look at our home as we trailed him, barely breathing. He changed into coveralls, crawled under the house, then met us back in our dining room.

Pointing to the widest of the indoor cracks, he confirmed that the crack had indeed been previously repaired but also said the repair was a standard and legitimate practice for sellers, provided that there was no intent to conceal actual damage. He also said the crack had probably been there for years.

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