Leaks, mold, electrical problems, tilting floors: Some hurricane survivors discover their new homes are falling apart

By: - December 5, 2022 12:42 pm

This floor is not level in the Johnson’s home. (Photo courtesy Johnson family)

This floor is not level in the Johnson’s home. (Photo courtesy Johnson family)

For privacy reasons, Policy Watch has identified the homeowners only by last name, or by their request, withheld their name altogether.

Ms. Johnson’s toilet has sat, unconnected to any plumbing, in the middle of her master bathroom for more than a year.

Mold is blooming in her master bedroom closet, caused by a leaking shower. The water pressure is low, and her floors are uneven.

Her contractor, Persons Services has not fixed the issues since 2021, Johnson said. And the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency, also known as ReBuild NC, has failed to hold Persons accountable.

“They haven’t done anything,” Johnson, who survived both Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence, said. “I’m just getting the runaround.”

Multiple hurricane survivors told Policy Watch that after they moved into their homes, the structures began to fail: cracked sheetrock on the walls, badly fitting doors and windows, poorly installed septic systems and air conditioning units, and plumbing problems. 

As of May of this year, homeowners had filed more than 1,000 workmanship complaints to the ReBuild NC against their general contractors, state records show. Some of the complaints were determined to be unfounded or the result of homeowner negligence. But many required contractors to fix the issues.

The problems are not only the fault of one contractor, but several, including Thompson Construction and Rescue Construction Solutions, according to homeowners interviewed for this story, as well as state documents. Persons and Thompson did not return emails seeking comment. Rescue President Sheila Brewington issued a statement through a crisis communications firm: 

“All houses built through the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency are under warranty. If a homeowner has an issue or concern regarding the construction of their house during the warranty period, they contact NCORR. NCCOR then decides if the issue falls under the scope of the warranty and notifies the contractor as needed. Rescue Construction Solutions adheres to the warranty standards set by the program and, when advised of warranty issues, we address them in a timely manner.”

Troubles with warranties, inadequate inspections and shoddy workmanship

ReBuild NC homes, whether renovated or built anew, come with warranties, depending on the type of construction:

  • All homes have one-year warranty on materials, equipment, completed systems, such as heating and air conditioning, guaranteeing that they are “free from defects due to faulty materials or workmanship,” a ReBuild NC spokesperson told Policy Watch in an email.
  • For new homes, the structural work is guaranteed for 10 years from the date of final inspection.
  • New homes and manufactured homes, such as modulars, also have two-year systems warranties. 

However, if a problem was not within the original scope of work approved by the state and the homeowner, then those repairs are not covered by the warranty.

Each home has “quality control and milestone inspections” by ReBuild NC staff, a spokesperson for the agency said in an email. These checkpoints are designed to get storm survivors back into well-built, safe and resilient homes as quickly as possible.”

Yet several homeowners told Policy Watch that their ReBuild NC inspectors often performed only cursory examinations of their homes, at various phases of construction.

A Lenoir County homeowner said ReBuild NC inspectors ignored his request to inspect his attic, where most of the damage occurred. He’s been out of his home for three years. His initial contractor was Persons Services; now it’s Rescue Construction Solutions. Recently, the homeowner said, he arrived at his home to pick up the mail when two men who appeared to be teenagers arrived to work on the house as subcontractors without supervision.

A Pender County homeowner told Policy Watch the inspector spent less than five or 10 minutes at their damaged house and seemed not to listen to their concerns about a leaking roof and mold. The family, who survived Hurricane Florence, were recently moved by the state into a motel after living in their dilapidated modular home since the storm hit in 2018.

Mr. Jones of Robeson County said he tried to tell his inspector about his roof. “He’s got a notepad,” Jones said, who moved into his house in 2019. “He doesn’t open any of my electrical panels, never looks in the crawlspace or the attic. It took seven minutes.

Contractors left the toilet disconnected in Ms. Johnson’s master bathroom. It has been like this for more than a year. (Courtesy photo)

“It was the only time anyone came out during the whole process,” Jones, who works in construction, said. “There were no quality control checks, zero contact from ReBuild until they were ready to close on the house.”

Thompson was the primary contractor for Jones’s home. He said he observed subcontractors making construction errors even before he moved into his renovated house. 

Exterior paint was found to contain asbestos, and is legally required to be removed because exposure to the material can cause cancer. There are specialized asbestos abatement firms who do this type of work for ReBuild NC contractors.

“You cannot just hire some guys to do this,” Jones said. “But the same crew that did the demolition did the asbestos and they weren’t certified to do that scope of work.”

And the crew didn’t actually remediate the asbestos. “They didn’t remove it,” Jones said. “They painted over it.”

Jones said he told the ReBuild NC inspector about the asbestos, but was ignored.

The plumbing also leaked while the home was under construction. “I could hear it,” Jones said. “Water was pouring under the house all day, ruining the subfloor and insulation. I’m calling and pleading that people are breaking things with no intention of fixing them. I called ReBuild to no avail.”

Several homeowners said they contacted their case managers and ReBuild NC about shoddy workmanship, but their situations remain unresolved. In some situations, the homeowners said they received no response at all.

Mr. Godwin of Robeson County, whose contractor was Rescue Construction Solutions, said when he turns on his hot water the lights flicker until he shuts it off – an indication of an electrical problem. 

“The doors don’t fit. The refrigerator never cuts off. The air conditioning is nailed to the side of the house, and when it kicks on, the whole house vibrates.”

Local inspectors are scheduled to revisit his house; ReBuild NC has been to his home twice, Godwin said. “The state guy said someone would fix it, but no one did.”

Homeowners also attend the final walk-through before receiving the keys to their house; county or city staff also inspect the houses to ensure they meet building code. One Sampson County homeowner told Policy Watch that her house failed a county inspection three times. The air conditioning system didn’t cool the home; the drip edge on the roof – important to keep water from infiltrating the foundation below – was missing.

Cumberland County officials said of the 15 properties they inspected in their jurisdiction – unincorporated areas – they “didn’t get a sense of poor workmanship.” In Fayetteville, however, where hundreds of houses are either being renovated or rebuilt, city inspectors have failed homes more often. One homeowner said her house failed its energy efficiency inspection three times, before finally passing after the contractor re-caulked the windows.

And some of the problems emerged after the county and ReBuild approved the inspections – but within the warranty period.

Ms. Murphy, who lives in Bladen County, moved into her home in 2020. Since then, her septic system has malfunctioned. Dirty water from the washing machine backs up into the dishwasher, she said. In the summer, sewage pools on the ground above the septic tank and flows toward her drinking water well.

She said she contacted the health department, who sent an inspector. “He said it wasn’t done right.” Murphy paid to cover her well to keep the sewage out. 

Since the warranty has expired, she said, “they told me I would have to fix it. I’m retired. I’m on a fixed income.”

Scrambling to hire more inspectors as delays mount

In May, the state Department of Insurance entered into an agreement with ReBuild NC to conduct building code inspections formerly done by local officials. The change occurred for funding reasons, Jason Tyson, communications director for the Department of Insurance, said.

After Hurricane Florence, the state legislature mandated that there would be no costs for permits related to the repair of storm damage. “This effectively removed funding the local jurisdictions would have needed for additional staff to support the increased demand,” Tyson said.

State agencies requested funding from the legislature to pay for one inspector and two trainees in the 30 counties included in the disaster declaration; the state would match 25% of the cost, and federal funding would cover the rest.

State lawmakers did not appropriate the funding, but ReBuild NC used $5 million of its disaster recovery funds to pay for a scaled-back version: seven trainers and 14 trainees.

However, ReBuild NC’s chronic construction delays have also delayed the new inspection program.

“This was slow to start as the projects have been few and far between,” Tyson said, “but trainees are being trained.”

Trainees have addressed other issues in counties outside of the disaster area, at the Insurance Department’s expense, Tyson said, “while waiting on additional projects” from ReBuild NC.

After a year of what Jones described as a “constant battle,” he eventually stopped the construction crew from working on his home after they accidentally sprayed white paint on his new black tin roof.  “Had they got up there that day the paint would have been easier to get off. But they didn’t. I nagged them, and the next day they’re on my roof, with rags and paint stripper. There were white swirls on the roof. I told them to leave.”

Jones said ReBuild NC then threatened to sue him to make him repay the cost of the repairs done to that point. Ultimately, the state backed down. “These were bullying tactics,” Jones said.

Over the next two to three months, he caulked the windows, repainted the drywall, fixed the plumbing and repaired other parts of his house. It cost him $5,000 plus time off work. He still needs to reinstall insulation.

The primary contractors are taking the subcontractors at their word, and there is little quality control by the state, Jones said. “They don’t know what’s really being done or not being done.”

What to expect next:

The Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery will meet Wednesday, December 14th to further scrutinize ReBuild NC

Location: Legislative Building Auditorium, 16 W. Jones Street, Raleigh. The hearing begins at 10:00 a.m.

Live audio will stream online: https://www.ncleg.gov/LegislativeCalendar/

In advance of the meeting the public is encouraged to submit comments to the committee: https://www.ncleg.gov/RequestForComments/41

Questions: contact Haley Phillips at [email protected]

Read NC Policy Watch’s investigative series “Unnatural disaster

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.