Mimi Kim wasn't too worried when she noticed the roof of her Hermosa Beach home had a few broken and warped tiles. The FireFree roofing--one of the selling points of the four-bedroom house she bought last year--came with a 50-year warranty.
But when she called a roofing company to make what she thought were minor repairs, she learned that problems with the tiles had resulted in a class-action lawsuit and settlement.
"The biggest problem was hanging over our heads," Kim said. "You wait all your life to buy something big like a house. Then finally you put down all that money and learn that a key, important thing may not be the most durable."
Once billed as an ideal alternative to wood shake roofs, FireFree Rustic Shake, Quarry Slate, Colonial Shingle, Quantum Shake and Quantum Slate panels offered high fire protection and came with some of the longest-term warranties available.
Within just a few years of installation, however, the cement and cellulose fiber tiles on homes in Northern California and throughout the Pacific Northwest began to warp and twist.
Though there's no evidence that the faulty tiles present an increased risk of fire, they have damaged the appearance of homes and they pose increased chances of leaking and other problems.
A Contra Costa County Superior Court judge awarded an $18.6-million class-action settlement in June to homeowners of FireFree roofs manufactured and installed from December 1993 to November 1997.
Homeowners with failing FireFree roofs covered in the suit have until Jan. 15, 2007, to file claims.
Representatives of Re-Con Building Products said that defects in the company's FireFree products seem to affect homeowners only in damp climates. But others warn that the twisting and warping that has occurred on roofs in the Northwest could foreshadow problems for Southern California homeowners. Some, like Kim, don't want to find out the hard way.
The suit in Contra Costa County could affect several thousand Southern California residences, estimated David Birka-White, an attorney for plaintiffs in the class action. "In dry areas, the product may still be deteriorating, but the pace of the degradation is slower."
The roofs cost an average of $15,000 to $20,000--more than twice as much as flammable wood shake, which comes with no warranty.
"You had a product that was designed to resemble wood shakes: It had the look, it had the best fire rating and it had the longevity in the form of a warranty," Birka-White said.
While initial tests showed the FireFree roofs to be ideal, said Mike White, vice president of customer service for British Columbia-based Re-Con Building products, "Mother Nature provided the real test."
As homeowners in the Pacific Northwest saw the tiles begin to warp, warranty calls inundated the maker.
"Re-Con was making good on claims. They obviously felt a responsibility to their customers," Birka-White said. "But their resources essentially dried up."
The class-action lawsuit enables the company to use insurance money to cover damages, which White and Birka-White agreed was the best way to take care of homeowners.
"It's good to know that if there's something wrong, they're going to fix it," said Kim, who paid to have her tiles repaired and has filed to participate in the class action.
The company stopped manufacturing the FireFree tiles in 1997. Its new product, Polymer Modified Fiber Cement, offers the same Class A fire-protection rating but has shown no signs of deterioration. Said White: "The new product has been fairly well received, and the future is looking bright."
To learn more about participating in the class-action lawsuit, visit http://www.firefreeclaims.com or call (800) 966-3696.
June Casagrande is a Santa Monica free-lance writer.