By ANDREW MARTIN
The New York Times Published: September 17, 2010
Linda and Randall Hunter own their dream house in Plant City, Fla., with an oversize master bedroom, granite
countertops in the kitchen and a screened-in pool.
Jeff Mayfield, of Louisiana, holding silver he said was tarnished from contaminated drywall.
The problem is they cannot bear to live there. For the last several months, the Hunters have been camped out in the side yard in a trailer — uncomfortable mattresses and all — because faulty drywall left the house smelling awful.
“Living in the trailer is no easy thing,” Ms. Hunter said. “But I count my blessings that I have someplace to go.”
The Hunters are among thousands of homeowners in 38 states who have been searching for alternate housing because of worries about drywall in their homes that emits sulfur fumes and, many believe, makes them sick.
Many of the homeowners have bought or rented a second home, an expense that has pushed some to the brink. Others have had no choice but to sell at a big loss. Still others have continued living in their homes with air-conditioners running full blast to hold down the rotten-egg odor.
“My property right now has no value — it’s toxic,” said Aiasha Johnson, 30, a school teacher who lives with her husband and two children in Deerfield Beach, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale. Besides running the air-conditioning, Ms. Johnson said she painted the walls frequently to mitigate the smell.
“I can’t sell it. I can’t do anything,” she said.
Complaints about the drywall, or wallboard, which was mostly made in China, first surfaced a few years ago, and hundreds of lawsuits have been filed in state and federal court to recover money to replace it. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has received 3,500 complaints about the drywall and says it believes thousands more have not reported the problem.
But so far the relief has been negligible. Most insurance companies have yet to pay a dime. Only a handful of home builders have stepped forward to replace the tainted drywall. Help offered by the government — like encouraging lenders to suspend mortgage payments and reducing property taxes on damaged homes — has not addressed the core problem of replacing the drywall. And Chinese manufacturers have argued that United States courts do not have jurisdiction over them.
“They are hiding behind the ocean,” said Arnold Levin, lead lawyer in a lawsuit against the manufacturers of Chinese drywall in federal court in New Orleans.
The contaminated drywall contains higher levels of sulfur than regular drywall, and it emits hydrogen sulfide gas that corrodes metal and wreaks havoc on air-conditioners and other electronic equipment as well as wiring, according to federal officials and homeowners. Most of it was installed in homes after 2004, when supplies of American-made products were limited by a housing boom and post-hurricane reconstruction.
Homeowners complain of health problems like difficulty breathing, runny noses and recurrent headaches. The federal government has found no definitive link between the drywall and illnesses, but has nonetheless recommended that homeowners gut their homes and replace the drywall and wiring, a process that can easily cost $100,000. The Hunters had lived in their newly built house for only three and a half years, but during that time they experienced one problem after the next, from an inexplicable chemical odor to appliances that constantly malfunctioned.
The Hunters decided to buy the trailer — it cost $18,000 — after their insurance company told them it would not cover their home for vandalism or theft if they moved. They are now gutting their house with their own money and hope to eventually recoup their expenses in court.
“The trailer is a life raft,” said Ms. Hunter, 57.
A few dozen of the cases have been linked to American-made drywall, but the vast majority of the problems are tied to Chinese drywall, federal officials said. One of the major Chinese manufacturers, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, is in negotiations to settle with homeowners.
“There’s no question that the goal of the company is to assist homeowners to get their homes fixed,” said Steven Glickstein, a lawyer for Knauf. “We just want to make sure the repair costs are reasonable and that all parties that are involved make their fair contribution.”
But as the court case in New Orleans demonstrates — roughly 5,600 homeowners are suing 1,600 or so defendants, including manufacturers, builders, installers and insurers — the wait is expected to be long, leaving most homeowners to fend for themselves. One of them, John Willis, is trying to get used to living with little or no access to credit, the result of stopping payments on his contaminated house. A lawyer, Mr. Willis, 44, said he and his wife, Lori, built their dream home in Parkland, Fla., also near Fort Lauderdale, at the end of 2006 and paid $906,000.
Besides chronic electrical problems, he said his family had experienced a variety of health woes; the older of his two sons, Brannon, had so many sinus infections that he was hospitalized. Once he discovered the defective drywall, Mr. Willis said he made arrangements to move into a rental.
Since then, Mr. Willis said his family’s health had improved and his house was sold by the bank in a short sale for $315,000. But he said his credit was now shot, and he worried that debt collectors might come after him for the roughly $500,000 that remained on his mortgage.
“We’ve never really lived without credit before,” he said. “It’s going to be an adventure.”
In Louisiana, Jeffrey Mayfield, 32, said his wife was pregnant with their second child when they discovered Chinese drywall in their home in Madisonville, a New Orleans suburb. Her doctor urged them to move, so they bought a second house. But Mr. Mayfield said paying two mortgages had become so onerous that he had considered bankruptcy, foreclosure and most recently, a short sale.
“It’s getting to the point where I’m going into credit card debt because I can’t afford to pay two mortgages and all my bills,” he said.
Nearby, the Chiappetta family has been forced out of their home for the second time in five years. Hurricane Katrina destroyed their previous home in St. Bernard Parish, and defective drywall has taken their replacement house in Madisonville.
The Chiappettas stayed in the house for nearly six months after discovering Chinese drywall, but Kevin Chiappetta said concerns about his wife’s and daughter’s health gnawed at him.
“Every day we stayed here I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ ” he said. They moved into a rental house last spring, and Mr. Chiappetta says he has become “a professional grass cutter and bill payer” maintaining two homes.
As hard as it was to regroup after the hurricane, Mr. Chiappetta, 45, said the drywall problems were worse. He got a check from the insurance company a month after Katrina and started making plans. This time, he said, there is little he can do but wait. “We just want to one day start with the rest of our lives,” he said.