Lawsuits, suspensions and state investigation paints strange picture
Heather and Lee Henage thought they were building a dream house on the outskirts of Monroe in 2008. Three years later, the couple and their two kids live in a home with multiple building code violations, while fighting the county in a lawsuit and trying to figure out how they can afford the necessary $162,000 in repairs.
Independent engineers, as well as state inspectors, have gone over the home and found more than 20 major violations of the building and fire codes, at a structure the Union County Inspection Department approved in July 2009.
The Henage house is one of eight that Union County Weekly found with in which homeowners reported numerous construction problems but county inspectors found no violations. The other homeowners declined to comment on the record, and while they allowed a reporter access to see the damage, they asked that the locations of homes not be disclosed. Each family said they were happy to show the issues, but just wanted to get on with their lives.
The Union County Inspection Department did not return a reporter’s calls. County Commissioners Kim Rogers and Tracey Kuehler said they were not aware of the Henages’ lawsuit or the state investigation.
Now Union County has hired a law firm, Charlotte-based Cranfill, Sumner and Hartzog, to respond to the Henages in court, blaming the homeowners for the construction mistakes.
“I thought government was supposed to be there to help people,” Heather Henage said. “I’m learning government and the legal system work very slowly and hardly ever to help people like us. It’s been 18 months of fighting now, and we’re still nowhere.”
The issues with the Henage home at 3859 Lancaster Hwy. form a long list. State inspectors found: There are no support piers under some of the home’s load-bearing walls, including portions of the second story. The exterior doors were not flashed, and the windows not properly installed, allowing water to get inside when it rains. The floors on the first floor are not balanced properly, the roof rafters are not tied to the ceiling joists and the house was not properly anchored to the foundation, among other issues.
County inspectors found none of those problems, but independent engineers hired by the family and state officials, investigating the Henages’ complaint, did. State officials expect to make a recommendation on the case to Code Officials Qualification Board at the end of this month.
State officials issued a report on the house in July 2010. Officials from the Department of Insurance’s Engineering Section and state code board went through the home.
“The house may be unserviceable or structurally unstable,” N.C. Department of Insurance engineer Robert Speed wrote, referring to the lack of support for load bearing walls. “Structural instability is a serious life-safety issue. Humps and sags (in the floor) are unacceptable from the standpoint of serviceability and are likely evidence of overstressed framing members.”
In another building code violation, Speed found the builder swapped out steel beams, specified by the house plans, with wood in multiple places: under the separation between the hallway and kitchen, between the living and dining rooms and under the center of the fireplace. If re-enforced by supports, the lumber would be acceptable, Speed wrote, but he found no supports.
Union County Inspections Director John Reavis signed off on the approval for the home July 9, 2009 and issued the certificate of occupancy.
After getting nowhere with the builder, Tsitouris Homes, which has gone out of business, the Henages filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and asked the Union County Inspection Department to acknowledge the issues in a re-inspection. The county re-inspected the Henage home on Nov. 3 and Dec. 1, 2009 and did not document any violations.
Facing no way of paying for needed repairs, the family sued Union County and the inspector, John Gregory Carehart, citing numerous violations missed.
The county however has a different take on fault.
The Henages’ “negligence was the proximate cause of the alleged injuries referred to in (the) complaint,” Cranfill lawyer Patrick Flanagan said in response to the couple’s lawsuit. “They failed to act as reasonable, careful and prudent persons” and “failed to exercise reasonable diligence and ordinary care to minimize their damages.”
In a list of questions sent to the family, Flanagan refers to the Better Business Bureau complaint filed by the Henages, where they mention “fixing mistakes” made by the builder during the period before the inspector signed off on the building.
“We didn’t do anything to the structure of the house,” Lee Henage said. “I had planned to build the cabinets from the start because I like woodworking and thought it would save us some money. But we didn’t move any beams or remove any walls.”
The Henages say this cosmetic work was done between January and July 2008, a year before Union County signed off on the house. The couple included that information in their Better Business Bureau complaint.
The family said they don’t understand how they can be responsible for missed violations by the inspectors.
“How can I be negligent in the inspection of my home when I didn’t pull the permit, call for any inspections or even speak to the inspectors?” Heather Henage asked. “I hired a builder, fulfilled all the contract requirements and paid the builder in full. How did I do anything wrong?”
Flanagan did not respond to a call from the Union County Weekly.
Not the first time
Others have challenged the work of the Inspections Department. In 2008, Mineral Springs resident John Wentz filed a complaint about the department with the state, accusing the staff of negligence. Upon review, state officials found 11 violations, even though Capehart, the same inspector on the Henage home, had passed the home on final inspection.
Instead of a hearing on the matter, Capehart agreed to three-month suspension of his state license. The day before he started serving the suspension, he inspected the Henage property.
“We did get a complaint from the Henages, and we’re still investigating,” Code Officials Qualification Board public relations staff member Kerry Hall said. “We haven’t received any other complaints, but we are interested, if people are willing to step forward.”
Mullen expects the state investigation and report will be completed this month, and the state board will consider action at its next meeting in April.