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Homes Built Quickly Haunt Buyers : Owners of Houses Put Up in Hours Find Flaws, Headaches

Times Staff Writer

It began as a light-hearted publicity gimmick.

To advertise the talents of San Diego’s then-lagging construction industry, a house-building contest was held in October, 1983, on two vacant lots in Paradise Valley. With television cameras rolling and sportscaster Ted Leitner providing jovial commentary, two teams of 300 workers furiously constructed two three-bedroom houses in the breakneck time of 2 hours, 52 minutes and 31 seconds.

The stunt briefly garnered nationwide media coverage, including a spot on the television program “That’s Incredible,” and was quickly forgotten.

But, for the people who say they unknowingly bought those two homes, the matter is not easily forgotten and far from humorous.

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“They have really done a number on us,” said Angie van Gaasbeck. She and her husband, Charles, bought one of the three-hour homes for $90,000. “We just wanted to own our own home. It’s supposed to be the American dream. It’s turned into a nightmare for us.”

Angie van Gaasbeck said problems began soon after she and her husband bought the house in May, 1984, when the Navy transferred him to San Diego from Northern California. On their first night in the house, the hot water pipes burst, flooding a bathroom, she said.

The slab the house sits on is uneven and cracked from end to end--the result, Angie van Gaasbeck claims, of poor grading and workers using quick-drying concrete that was poured while extremely hot. Other problems include a flawed roof, mismatched paint, buckled walls, crooked door frames, a backyard that floods with every rain and a faulty sewer that causes unpleasant odors to waft into the house, she said.

Similar complaints have been made by the owners of three other homes on Latrobe Circle that were involved in the speed-building competition. Two of the homes were built in six hours during a “practice” session before the actual contest.

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One of the practice houses was bought in May, 1984, by Roberto and Cindy Guasch, who said they had no idea about their new home’s origin. The other six-hour house was bought in August of that year by Brad and Kathy Galtney, who also found their new home to be seriously flawed.

“We don’t even open this door,” Kathy Galtney said, pointing to a hall closet next to a bathroom. “The odors in there are really bad. It’s embarrassing. . . . My biggest worry is that we seem to be having earthquakes more regularly. Even though the inspector said it was sound, there’s always that worry: Is this house going to fall on me?”

The Guasches have filed suit seeking complete repairs against builder Charles Koon, the Building Industry Assn. of San Diego and the Homeowners Warranty Corp. The Galtneys and the Van Gaasbecks say they intend to sue. Koon and the BIA arranged the speed-building contest and Homeowners Warranty insured the homes against major structural defects.

The other house built during the contest was purchased by Jim and Bernice Eash, who have said that although their home has some of the same flaws as their neighbors’ houses, they consider it “livable” and are not planning any legal action.

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Brad Galtney, Charles van Gaasbeck and Roberto Guasch are all current or former members of the armed forces who bought their homes under Veterans Administration financing. All three were first-time home buyers who were new to the San Diego area.

“They were desperate to sell and we were desperate to buy,” Angie van Gaasbeck said. “I really didn’t want to rent because I couldn’t see paying all that money for nothing.”

All three women said they chose the homes because they liked their design, which gave them a greater sense of spaciousness than other 1,500-square-foot dwellings. But the idyll of their brand-new suburban homes was disrupted a few weeks after they moved in, when a neighbor told them about the contest.

“I said, ‘That’s incredible,’ it’s not physically possible,” Angie van Gaasbeck said, adding that the truth finally hit home when she watched a videotape of the event. “When I first saw it, I just couldn’t believe it. It took me forever before I could watch that damn thing without coming unglued.”

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The families have said they received numerous promises from Koon that all of the houses’ defects would be corrected. But more than two years after buying the houses, they say, many serious flaws remain.

Cindy Guasch said she told Koon repeatedly about a dip in one corner of her living-room floor. At first, she said, she was told that the carpeting in that area of the room did not have padding. When a carpet company came to her house and told her the problem was the house’s uneven slab, Guasch called Koon in to take a look.

“He told me I was being overcritical, that there was nothing wrong with the house,” she said. “He told me to just put a chair in the corner and you wouldn’t even notice it.”

Kathy Galtney said Koon gave her similar advice when she complained about a warped wall, telling her to “put something on it to camouflage things so nobody would notice.”

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Koon was unavailable for comment despite repeated calls to his office this week. A BIA spokesman declined comment on the houses.

Besides making their lives inconvenient, the problems with the houses have kept the homeowners from taking advantage of declining interest rates. Only one family--the Guasches--has been able to refinance their home loan, and then only after they spent almost $5,000 to grade their backyard and install a drainage system.

“I work for a mortgage company and refinancing these houses is something you can’t do,” Kathy Galtney said. “I can’t even get a loan from the company I work for.”

Putting the homes on the market is not an option either, they say, because disclosure laws would require them to tell potential buyers of the houses’ myriad problems.

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The Van Gaasbecks and the Galtneys said they also tried to remedy their problems by filing claims with Homeowners Warranty Corp., which holds the warranties on the properties. After months of evaluations by engineers and claims adjusters, the company offered the Van Gaasbecks $10,000 and the Galtneys $14,000, the families said. Both families rejected the settlements.

“It was an insult,” Kathy Galtney said. “We are going to sue Homeowners Warranty because of bad faith. We assumed we would be protected. I worked with them eight or nine months, and it got me nowhere.”

Staff members with Homeowners Warranty’s San Diego office referred all questions to the firm’s headquarters in the District of Columbia, where a spokeswoman gave a far different account of the situation.

M.J. Brenne, the company’s public affairs manager, said the responsibility for problems occurring during the first two years after the homes were constructed rests with the builder, adding that she had heard Koon was being more than fair with the homeowners.

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“It’s my understanding that in this case the builder has offered to buy back the houses,” Brenne said. “In that case, he’s going above and beyond his warranty responsibility.”

Kathy Galtney said she and her husband do not even want to sell their home back to the builder, that they only want it “brought up to specs.” Cindy Guasch agrees, saying her family has no intention of moving.

“This is my home,” she said. “Even though it’s crooked and it’s not right, it’s still mine. I don’t want to move; I just want them to have it made right. Besides, if I sell it, he’ll just turn around and sell it to somebody else.”

Angie van Gaasbeck said that Koon has never offered to buy her home but that she desperately wishes he would.

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“We’ve asked them to take the house back, and that’s exactly what we want,” she said. “I want out. I really do.

“If we ever had a fire, I would (fight off) the firemen and roast marshmallows in the fire.”


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