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Leaky Windows Leave Drops of Discontent in Simi Valley

Housing: Developer is spending millions to fix problems in its pricey homes. Displaced owners have so far refrained from suing.

January 27, 2002|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From a tract house on the flatlands below, Afzal Khan watched and waited as Centex Homes built a fashionable new neighborhood on the wind-swept hills overlooking Simi Valley.

Finally, he bought a Mediterranean-style, two-story house for about $500,000--neither the smallest nor the largest in the 180-house Silverthorne subdivision.

That was in 1999.

"It's a beautiful home," said Kahn, an electronics engineer for TRW. "Just what I wanted, a bigger house on the hill."

Then the first big storm of the season blew through in early 2000.

The rains seeped under a French door on a second-floor deck. Kahn first noticed the puddles in his downstairs breakfast nook. Then he saw moisture on the ceiling. And a carpet was soaked.

"It was a new house," Kahn said. "But the windows were leaking."

The same thing happened at several other Silverthorne homes. Then last winter, as the subdivision neared completion, another blustery storm began to reveal the true scope of the problem.

So far, tests of about 100 houses--now valued at $600,000 to $1 million--have found that faulty window welds fail to hold out the water to varying degrees, from pinhole-sized leaks to severe ones.

Centex, one of the nation's largest home builders, is buying back three houses for a total of more than $2 million after water leaks, plumbing defects and other problems prompted homeowners to ask for full financial relief, company officials said.

Centex has stripped the exterior of eight other homes to the wooden support studs, relocating families for three to four months while replacing wall lathing, insulation, stucco and about 35 windows per house. The cost has been hundreds of thousands per house including relocation expenses, according to Centex. Extensive repairs to a few more homes probably will be needed, officials said.

Dozens of other houses have also undergone minor repairs.

"The stars really lined up on this one," said John Ochsner, Ventura-Los Angeles region president for Centex. "Just a number of things came together, but the real crux that caused us the most problems are these window failures. We do not have problems like this in any other subdivision in our region."

After the extent of the problems became evident last year, Dallas-based Centex notified all 180 homeowners that it would test for leaks in every Silverthorne house if requested. The tests are expected to continue through this summer.

"As many as 100 homes were leaking, and we've had a few homes with significant problems," Ochsner said. "But we've made the repairs, and we've put [owners] back in their homes. I think they'll tell you they're very happy they bought a home from Centex because we stand behind our work."

What is unusual about the Silverthorne situation, in fact, is not only the number of problems but that complaints apparently have been resolved so far without the filing of any lawsuits.

A couple of homeowners have hired attorneys but have not sued, Ochsner said. Nor has Centex sued a subcontractor that provided what the builder considers faulty windows.

"If a neighborhood becomes stigmatized, that's not the best solution for our homeowners," Ochsner said. "Centex is taking the lead, because it's not right to ask our homeowners to wait [for repairs]."

Kathryn Calafato, a member of the Silverthorne Homeowners Assn. governing board, gives Centex credit for responding to complaints, but says she's surprised a class-action suit has not been filed.

"It is a nightmare," Calafato said. "The poor guys have to move out for three or four months. The question is, did Centex have good quality control in place or not?"

Calafato's home was tested for leaks last week, and workmen told her the windows are watertight. But she still wonders if the debilitating headaches and sinus problems she has suffered this winter are the result of leaks that spread mold in her walls.

"If there's mold, I have some serious questions," she said. "I've been very sick this winter. And they bought out one of the houses because two children got sick because of mold."

Ochsner said that while two homeowners with sick children have complained of mold-related problems, an expert hired by Centex found mold levels inside their houses no higher than outside.

Still, Centex is buying back a Silverthorne home that sold for about $685,000. The owner hung a banner from the house last October, declaring it a "4,000 sq. ft. Centex home we can't live in for health reasons!" He offered to sell the home for $975,000; the agreed sale price has not been disclosed. The banner has been removed.

The owner moved from the house last week. But Ochsner said tests found no evidence that the residence was a "sick house."

"When somebody puts up a banner like that in the neighborhood, not only are the neighbors concerned, Centex is concerned," Ochsner said. "And they may hold a lot of leverage over us even if we do not agree there is an underlying problem."

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