COLUMN ONE : High Cost of Housing Bargains : Complaints of shoddy building practices promise to turn the Inland Empire's housing boom of the 1980s into a fertile area for homeowner lawsuits in the 1990s.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anthony J. Shubin was in the garage checking out his boat when he heard what sounded like gunshots. Next, he was on the ground, gasping for breath and in pain.

Shubin was not hit by gunfire, but by his garage door, which slammed shut after the springs failed. So serious were his back injuries that he could not remain in his truck-driving job and now lives on disability pay.

After the accident last year, Shubin sued the developer who built his San Bernardino home and the contractor who installed the garage door, thus joining a growing list of homeowners who are complaining about--and suing--developers of "affordable housing" in the burgeoning Inland Empire.

Shubin, 37, lives in one of several troubled tract developments in this region east of Los Angeles that has emerged as a mecca of less-expensive housing for people who work in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Many young families have moved to San Bernardino and Riverside counties in search of a way into the Southern California home market. The inland counties, whose total population has swelled by 680,000 since 1985, were a long commute, but the bigger homes, bigger lots and lower prices seemed worth the hassle.

But as affordable housing has gone up, so has the frustration and anger of buyers. They complain of shoddy building practices--cracked foundations, lousy drainage, faulty plumbing, bowed doors. Experts cite builders who cut corners to cut costs, overworked building inspectors who do not have time to properly inspect, and a lack of skilled contractors in areas of strong demand for new homes.

The problems are getting attention in Sacramento. The Legislature recently passed two bills to toughen disciplinary procedures for negligent contractors and set up the state's first certification standards for municipal housing inspectors. The bills have been sent to Gov. George Deukmejian.

Although most builders are competent, the "bad ones . . . are giving the industry a black eye," said State Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino), the bills' sponsor.

Affordable housing doesn't have to be poorly built, but frequently it is, especially in fast-growing areas like the Inland Empire. "Poor quality and affordable housing often go hand in hand," said Joseph Donahue, a real estate attorney in Newport Beach.

The Inland Empire, some observers say, is turning into a case study.

A housing boom has turned what was once a quiet desert outback into one of the fastest growing regions of the state. About 70,000 single-family houses have been built in San Bernardino County since 1985 as the population has surpassed 1.4 million. The housing boom of the 1980s now promises to turn the Inland Empire into a fertile area for homeowner complaints and litigation in the 1990s.

In the Verdemont section of San Bernardino, homeowners were so disgruntled with their houses that they posted signs of protest in their front yards last year. Among the complaints were uneven floors, faulty plumbing and inadequate wiring. A spokesman for Monnig Development, which built the houses, said the firm had "responded in a reasonable manner to any reasonable complaints." He declined further comment.

Colton Mayor Frank A. Gonzales last year sharply criticized the workmanship in a project known as Paradise Hills, built by DEHH Corp. Homeowners had complained to Gonzales about items from bowed doors to cracked floor tiles after they were unable to get the builder to fix the problems.

Gonzales cited DEHH as the primary reason why the city of Colton recently passed an ordinance requiring all builders to put up a deposit of $350 per house to assure that new homes are built to the buyers' satisfaction. "Our experience with this company has been terrible," Gonzales said.

Henry Stanger, president of DEHH, said that 39 houses in Paradise Hills had "cosmetic" problems, almost all of which have been fixed.

Although complaining about new houses is hardly rare, the cost of litigation has typically prevented homeowners of modest means from suing, real estate experts say.

But litigation at times has proved effective. Thirty-four property owners in Riverside County recently joined forces and negotiated damage awards of nearly $100,000 per house from Kaufman & Broad Home Corp., the state's largest single-family home builder. In a lawsuit that dragged on several years, the Riverside homeowners charged that their houses had construction defects, causing the upstairs floors to slant. Kaufman & Broad settled the case this year by paying the homeowners about $3.3 million, not including attorneys' fees.

The injured Shubin and 191 of his fellow homeowners have sued Forecast Corp., the San Bernardino County firm that built the housing tract several years ago. With that many single-family homeowners as plaintiffs, the legal action is believed to be the largest of its kind ever filed in California.

The tract, known as Meadowood, has about 300 homes. The homes there sold in 1986 and 1987 for well under $100,000, a bargain price by the standards of coastal California, where housing prices are the highest in the nation.

However, aggrieved homeowners say the Meadowood houses are badly built throughout, with poor plumbing and defective garage doors, cracked foundations and bad drainage. The suit also alleges that sales agents failed to disclose that the neighborhood is located in a high-wind fire area and is adjacent to an earthquake fault.

"It's a horror story," said Donald Kipp, a field representative for Sen. Ayala who visited Meadowood at the homeowners' request. "Those people bought those homes in good faith, and the homes are now crumbling."

Forecast Corp. officials defend the Meadowood homes, adding that they will buy the houses back if the homeowners are able to show the dwellings have major construction defects. "We will make that a standing offer," said Jim Previti, Forecast's president.

Critics have singled out the city of San Bernardino as having been particularly lax in overseeing its new-home construction boom. Until 1988, the city inspected new homes only superficially, according to James Mulvihill, professor of urban planning at Cal State San Bernardino. "They had drive-by inspections and sometimes not even that," Mulvihill said.

Larry E. Reed, San Bernardino's current director of building and planning, agreed that the city's inspectors used to have trouble keeping pace with all the new houses going up, but inspections have improved recently as the city beefed up its supervisory force.

According to Reed, Meadowood was inspected by an experienced employee who found nothing unusual. "The inspector did say there were some framing problems that had to be worked out," Reed said, "but other than that, it was a run-of-the-mill development." Reed declined to name the inspector.

Forecast Corp. is a 19-year-old company that has built more than 6,000 homes in Southern California. A recent article in the Homebuyers Guide, a monthly magazine in Southern California, touts Forecast as a firm that offers "first-time buyers the highest standards of craftsmanship at reasonable prices."

Jim Rankin, executive vice president for Forecast, predicted that the homeowner lawsuit will not survive close scrutiny. "This is not a valid lawsuit," Rankin said. "We intend to fight it all the way."

Outside opinions vary about the quality of Forecast's construction. Tom Kohl, who heads the local chapter of the Building Industry Assn., called the company's work "very good." Others, however, have harsher assessments. "They've tried to improve," said Mulvihill, "but they have a long way to go."

The garage roof of a Forecast home recently blew off in Fontana, an incident that was well-publicized locally, but the firm declined to foot the $14,000 repair cost. Company official Rankin said the roof had blown off in a 110-m.p.h. wind, adding: "We can't protect against acts of God."

The problems at Meadowood have been emotionally disturbing and financially draining for the property owners, typically young couples with young children.

"When you own your own 'Money Pit,' it's not funny," said Geraldine Wong, a spokeswoman for the homeowners, referring to the movie about a young couple whose home falls apart. "It's a tragedy."

In one case, a major pipe break flooded Janice Lawrence's kitchen floor just before Christmas last year. "When you have to come up with $400 (for plumbing repairs) just before Christmas, it makes it kind of difficult," Lawrence said. "We don't have beaucoup bucks. We live from paycheck to paycheck."

Private housing inspector William H. Irvin, who was hired by the homeowners, called the construction problems "many and varied. . . . The quality is just terrible."

The houses in Meadowood were sold through sales agents of Great Western Real Estate--an affiliate of Beverly Hills-based Great Western Bank. Great Western Real Estate and 10 of its sales agents were named as defendants in the lawsuit, filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court.

The homeowners say they were never told about the neighborhood's earthquake, wind and fire dangers. The homes are located 1 1/2 miles from the San Andreas Fault, Wong said, and some are on the site of a fire that destroyed 280 homes and killed four people in 1980.

Meadowood property owners are particularly upset about the fierce winter winds, which race through on their way up the El Cajon Pass. The winds are so strong that they have flattened walls and prevented residents from opening their car doors, homeowners say.

Great Western officials declined comment, but Rankin defended the sales agents, saying such disclosures were not necessary and would have only hurt sales of the homes. He noted that earthquake faults are common, that the fire occurred several miles away and high winds are a fact of life in that part of the county.

"It makes common sense that if you're going to move somewhere, you should be familiar with the weather there," he said.

Rankin conceded that the company had severe problems with garage-door springs--including the ones that led to Shubin's injury 16 months ago. Scores of defective springs have had to be replaced, he said.

Shubin has also filed a personal-injury suit against Forecast and Master Overhead Door Co., the Riverside firm that installed the garage doors. Master Overhead officials could not be reached for comment. The company's phone was recently disconnected.

"I'm going to be in (physical) therapy the rest of my life," Shubin said. He has had to give up his hobbies of weightlifting, skiing and playing basketball with his son.

"I've put on 40 pounds because I can't do anything," he said.

Shubin's comments echo those of other homeowners.

"Come on," he said. "You expect the homes to be built up to code."

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