Shifting ground has cracked foundations and walls of at least a dozen houses in a Palmdale neighborhood, angering owners, frightening neighbors who fear their property values are at risk and setting off a quarrel with the builder over how many houses he should buy back.
Residents of the 142-unit Santa Fe tract in west Palmdale on Wednesday accused Calabasas-based Griffin Homes of failing to disclose the soil problem to some buyers or to offer fair prices for the deteriorating dwellings.
But Griffin Vice President Marion Kiesling said the company, one of the largest builders in Southern California, has bought back six houses in the past year, and is in discussions to buy back another 12, even though not required by law to do so.
The problem is caused by a layer of clay underlying some houses, which expands when wet, a problem the builder says was overlooked by its pre-construction soil consultant. A new soil consultant said about 15 houses are affected and the builder agrees there are problems with 18. Residents say they are unsure how many houses are involved.
Residents say the problems have cast a pall over their neighborhood as cracks in the houses have worsened, negotiations with Griffin have dragged on, and experts have warned there is no permanent fix for the houses, short of rebuilding them from the ground up.
Even owners of houses found free of cracks are worried that their neighbors' problems will drag their own housing values down, and some are demanding that Griffin buy them out as well. But the company says it will only buy back residences with physical damage, and will not compensate those owners for improvements they have made, such as pools and patios.
"We don't want to have to stay here for years and years while this is being negotiated. I've told them it's extremely upsetting," said Kari Gibson, who began finding cracks in what was supposed to be her family's "dream home" shortly after moving in about 2 1/2 years ago.
Griffin said its original grading consultant failed to recognize the troublesome clay.
The damaged houses are at the southern end of the tract, just southwest of Palmdale Boulevard and the Antelope Valley Freeway. Some back yard patios have been split by two-inch cracks. House foundations are cracking, fracturing walls and joints.
Griffin began sales at the tract in early 1986 and continued through 1987. Residents began complaining of cracked walls almost immediately, they said.
The company initially installed gutters to carry rainfall away from the houses and new drainage systems around some houses, but they only slowed the damage, Kiesling said.
Kiesling said Griffin learned the full extent of the problem only this year after hiring a new consultant, Geolabs-Westlake Village, to conduct tests at 40 residences. But residents said some buyers in 1988 were given documents by the escrow company that asked them to confirm they knew there was a soil problem at the site. One resident said she signed and went ahead, expecting the problem would not be serious.
Given advice by Geolabs that the houses atop the clay layer might never be trouble-free, Kiesling said she doesn't know what ultimately will become of them. Some might be rented, but none would be resold unless permanently fixed, she said, calling it probably Griffin's worst-ever problem with a tract.
Worried residents, meanwhile, are preparing for the rainy season. No lawsuits have been filed yet over the project, but some residents say that might be the outcome. "It's not our fault our house is starting to crack up 2 1/2 years after we bought it," resident Harry Lowe said.