Special Reports

Homeowners warn prospective buyers

Caveat emptor is Latin for "let the buyer beware."

That's the lesson a group of Maple Shade homeowners want prospective new home buyers to learn from their crumbling east-side Wichita subdivision.

Beware. Do your own homework because in the under-regulated homebuilding business in Wichita, you're on your own if you buy a new home, the homeowners say.

"You buy a $140,000 house that you think is OK and the seller's just gone, never to be heard from again. And that's OK," said Will Thomas, an Air Force pilot whose $140,000 home is cracking apart in the Maple Shade development near Webb and Harry.

There are gaps in the way the city building codes protect new home buyers — a lack of basic soil testing and slab foundation inspections, a city inspection department influenced by the builders, an arbitration system with builders hearing complaints about other builders.

That's the largest of many frustrations before a group of people who've lost most of their money in the crumbling homes.

"There's nothing to protect anyone in Wichita," said Larry Medlin, who lives in another Maple Shade home plagued by workmanship issues. "It's not just us. It's the people who loaned us the money. Everyone's screwed."

To a homeowner, the Maple Shade group believes they've been abandoned by the city and the Wichita Area Builders Association: Abandoned by a system tilted by years of political lobbying to make it easier for builders to hold down construction costs.

"Help us," said Thomas' fiancee, Chelsee Andersen, her voice rising. "It's ridiculous that these houses are five years old and you've got houses across town that are 100 years old and they're fine. It just doesn't make any sense."

It seems a buyer has more protection with a new car than a new home in Wichita, said Steve Garner, whose three-year-old home has already begun cracking.

Kansas law requires that a builder receive 90 days to repair or pay for any defective construction before a homebuyer can file a lawsuit.

"I paid $147,000 for my house and got a one-year warranty. When that ran out, everything became my responsibility," Garner said.

"But I could go buy a brand new car today for $35,000 to $45,000 and you're going to get a 10-year warranty," Garner said.

Wichita city officials acknowledge they could have responded quicker to the Maple Shade problem, which started with a complaint in 2008.

But city officials defend the protection its building codes offer homeowners, calling the crumbling homes an isolated problem.

"I don't think we've abandoned them," Mayor Carl Brewer said. "We're talking about this all week. I see how they feel that way because it's a huge investment and they don't know what to do. This is the first time we've had something of this nature."

Clint Miller did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

In a written statement responding to the Eagle's initial November stories on Maple Shade, Miller said it's the first time he's seen major structural problems with his houses.

"We are as baffled by the situation as you are," he said on Nov. 12 in a statement. "There may be a number of contributing factors, and not just one thing that has caused the damage.

"Our hope is that we can come to a fair solution in this case, and take steps to prevent any similar issues in the future."

City and builders officials have tried to deflect blame back on the Maple Shade homeowners and their private home inspectors, saying that's where the system failed people like Betty Wiens, Garner, Thomas and Andersen.

Medlin laughed at the notion.

"I can't blame the home inspectors," he said. "They can't come in here into a home that's already built and dig under a foundation to see what's there.

"They can't cut out parts of the slab to see if there's actually steel in there and if the foundation's been prepared right underneath.

"They can't take down the Sheetrock and see if the walls are actually tied together or if they're being held together with Sheetrock and tape."

Thomas agreed.

"Do your homework," he said. "You can't trust the seller's disclosure ... I won't trust the home inspector before I buy the house. I'll go through it with a fine tooth comb and look at every nook and cranny, talk to the neighbors, look for everything."

"I wouldn't have a problem with Clint if he would stand behind the product ... and that's not happening," Garner said.

"As long as the city codes let him build this kind of a house... then where are you?

"Even if the new regs for the slabs and the soil get done, if nobody follows it, the Wichita consumer is still going to get screwed."

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