Upset military couples demand answers from builder

By TED BOOKER | Watertown Daily Times, N.Y. | Published: September 18, 2013

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — Military families say construction workers have fixed only some of the flaws at modular homes they bought in February at Deerfield subdivision, and they’re impatient after waiting for seven months with a laundry list of unfinished repairs.

Spouses whose husbands are serving in Afghanistan still have numerous flaws in their new single-family houses at the site off Route 37 in the town of Pamelia, which cost from $210,000 to $240,000 apiece. An array of flaws was revealed during tours of two homes Tuesday: blatant surface cracks, gaps between walls and flooring, air bubbles and insulation problems.

Five military couples were forced to wait for up to three months to move into their homes this winter because of a construction delay caused by National Grid. Developer Beacon Asset Managers, Jacksonville, Fla., paid for families to stay in hotels during that period. But those already-upset couples weren’t happy campers after seeing construction flaws when they finally took possession in February.

The four-bedroom unit owned by Jessica and Eduardo Ramos at 9947 Aspen St., for example, has about 30 white spots on walls that workers covered with spackling to hide surface cracks. Some cracks still have to be fixed, Mrs. Ramos said, and spots have to be sanded and painted.

During a tour Tuesday, Mrs. Ramos also showed how insulation installed in the crawl space below the first floor droops almost to the ground and is falling apart in some areas. A large puddle on the concrete floor suggests water is leaking.

The Ramoses, who bought the house for $240,000 and hoped to raise their two children there, said they haven’t gotten the dream house they anticipated when they signed a purchase agreement last summer with Hunt Real Estate, Watertown. Construction workers have replaced flawed wooden floors and the kitchen countertop, Mrs. Ramos said, but much still needs to be done.

“This is poor craftsmanship,” Mrs. Ramos said while pointing to a large crack in the wall that was caulked. “I don’t see how this could be acceptable in a new house. And most recently, we were told that no one’s going to paint the walls because all of our stuff is in here.”

Mr. Ramos, who spoke about problems Tuesday during a phone interview from Afghanistan, claimed the developer is taking advantage of military spouses who’ve repeatedly spoken out about problems without any success.

“We’ve been reporting and reporting and reporting these problems since the beginning,” he said. “And I feel that they’re taking advantage of military spouses that are home alone while husbands are overseas. Work crews have left the houses that need to be repaired to work on new homes, and there’s plenty of work to be done on houses they’ve already put up.”

The majority of construction flaws are in the first five modular homes installed at the site, built last October through February. At that time, subcontractors completing work reported to Stephen P. Jellie, an independent builder from Black River who was hired by property developer Wimbledon Construction Properties LLC, Maryville, Tenn. Wimbledon was hired by Beacon Asset Managers, the project’s leading developer, to install the modular units. Units are built by Clayton Homes at a plant in Lewiston, Pa., before they are shipped to the north country. The general contractor responsible for ground work is Cunningham Construction, Cazenovia.

Mr. Jellie — who serves as the deputy fire chief at the Fort Drum Fire Department — worked part-time at Deerfield from late November through May. But he resigned after it became apparent the project had numerous problems.

Construction flaws “occurred because the houses were shipped during the middle of the winter, and there were no utilities to use,” he said. “Generators were used to temporarily heat the houses and were shut down at night. The work crew wasn’t familiar with the project, and they had about 500 small paper cuts during construction. You can bleed to death with 5,000 paper cuts, but there weren’t significant issues with the houses. But it was somewhat shoddy craftsmanship, and these are (expensive) homes. I had identified 15 to 20 problems with each house when I turned them over to Wimbledon.”

Now, the point of contact who responds to homeowners’ complaints is Todd J. Schultz, an independent builder from Adams who was hired this summer by Wimbledon to oversee construction after Mr. Jellie resigned. Mr. Schultz has hired a crew of about 10 local construction workers to install modular units.

Mr. Schultz said Tuesday his work crew stopped building new units about three weeks ago to focus on repairs needed at the first five houses installed at the site. Those repairs were previously not a top priority, he said, because work crews were busy installing houses for other military families who already had signed purchase agreements.

It’s a problem “when you have people who are staying in hotels for three months and are already upset with problems when they move into their homes,” he said. “But that delay had a domino effect, because we had more families in hotels waiting to be moved in. That’s why this wasn’t our priority for a time. We had to put out our fires as we got them, and now we’re going through and fixing these little problems at houses. When you talk about stress cracks, that’s a normal problem in a modular house.”

The subdivision now has 14 single-family homes and two duplexes. In total, the developer plans to build 29 single-family units and 39 duplexes.

Flaws at the five houses are expected to be repaired over the next month, Mr. Schultz said. But when asked about the Ramoses’ house, he suggested that additional repairs might not be warranted.

“I don’t want to comment, because that’s a whole different deal,” Mr. Schultz said.

Robert L. Sipple Jr., managing partner for Beacon Asset Managers, said Wimbledon Construction has done its best to respond to homeowners’ concerns.

“The builder is addressing these items, and it hasn’t pulled up stakes and left these people in the vapor. I went through the Ramoses’ house myself in April and saw everything on the list was fixed. But then she finds more items and generates a new list. Most of these things are minimal cosmetic items, and I know her house has been painted twice over.”

Kentucky natives Tiffany D. and Robert C. Sprague, both 24, moved into their house in February after Mrs. Sprague gave birth to their daughter. The couple stayed at the Comfort Inn in Watertown for three months before moving in, when they then noticed problems. One of the most glaring flaws, Mrs. Sprague said, is a large indentation line in the ceiling that indicates where the modular unit was connected. Air bubbles are also on the ceiling, along with numerous surface cracks in the walls.

“There are blatant lines running along the ceiling, and it looks like it’s going to fall down,” she said. “This is the first house that we’ve bought, and we don’t have the energy to fight against them. They’re acting like we’re stupid when we talk about the problems. No one can sit on the couch near the living room window because it’s so cold, but they say it’s normal because it gets cold up here in New York.”

She said she hopes construction workers will make repairs before her husband returns from Afghanistan in January.

“We’re treated like we’re being whiners, but we’re just asking for work to be done properly,” she said. “What I want accomplished by speaking out is to light a fire under their butts to finish the work.”


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