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Broken Home

Their new house seemed perfect -- until they found the void.


The home of their dreams turned into a money pit for - the Youngs. - JARED  KLAUS
  • Jared Klaus
  • The home of their dreams turned into a money pit for the Youngs.
The dream house was almost a reality. The exterior was finished. The interior was drywalled and ready for paint. Cabinets, flooring, and trim had been ordered. It was October 2002, and Austin and Debbie Young hoped to spend the winter nestled with their four children in their new home.

For a family used to living modestly, the house was a step up, in both style and comfort. The couple -- both engineers at Goodyear before Debbie retired to raise their children -- had poured $250,000 into the spacious Medina County ranch, which sat atop a hill overlooking mega-homes landscaped with Lego shrubs and buzz-cut lawns. In less than six months, they'd watched their house grow from a pile of dirt.

Then they found the void.

"You might want to take a look at this," Debbie remembers the electrician telling her.

He showed her where he had cut away a piece of styrofoam insulation in the basement, revealing a hole in the concrete big enough to stick her arm through.

Debbie immediately contacted Ken Jenkins, the man hired to build the foundation. The Seville-based contractor had been recommended by the company that manufactured her home's wall components. He told her he'd be out to look at the house in 10 days.

The night before his visit, Debbie inspected the problem herself. She stuck her hand into the hole and started feeling around.

Her fingers brushed a large crack in the concrete. Using a small saw, she cut back more of the foam, feeling for the fracture as she worked her way down. To Debbie's horror, the gash ran the length of the 50-foot back wall, exposing dozens of air pockets in the foundation.

She called her architect, Gerald Rembowski, who arranged for structural engineer Don Shelangoskie to examine the walls. Shelangoskie confirmed the couple's worst fears: The entire foundation was riddled with holes, a condition known as "honeycombing."

On a cold December day, Debbie and Austin assessed the damage with Jenkins, Shelangoskie, and Brad Barnes, an engineer hired by Jenkins. The concrete was so weak in spots that it crumbled in her hand, Debbie says. The walls were warped and bowed like vinyl records left in a hot car.

"I could see outside from inside," Barnes recalls.

"It had to be the worst workmanship I've ever seen in the 35 years I've been around construction," says John Malivuk, an engineer tapped by the Youngs to offer a second opinion.

Shelangoskie wanted to replace the concrete in the honeycombed areas, but Jenkins balked, insisting that he could fix the problem by patching the holes with grout. (Jenkins refused to comment, except to say that the Youngs "made very serious allegations about many things, many of them unfounded.")

A month later, Debbie sent Jenkins a letter, asking him to make the recommended repairs. She never heard back. She called and sent more letters, but received no reply.

Looking back, Debbie says that she should have been suspicious of Jenkins' workmanship. She recalls a strange incident that occurred the day after he poured the concrete. Debbie found Jenkins and a worker dumping a mixture of grout and driveway gravel into a wooden chute attached to the basement wall.

"He said there were just a few little voids that he had come back to fill," she remembers.

An engineer's evaluation last year also accused Jenkins of making serious errors when he poured the walls. Although it's standard practice to use a mechanical vibrator to remove air pockets in the concrete, Jenkins did it manually with a metal rod -- to avoid damaging the styrofoam insulation, he said.

The walls weren't even designed properly in the first place, according to the report. Rembowski, who worked for RWL Architects of Fairlawn, planned for only one-sixth the amount of reinforcing steel bars needed for the job. (Rembowski declined to comment.)

As the Young's dream home became dead weight, they faced a tough choice: Walk away and build a new house, or try to fix the one that had been badly botched. The repair estimate surpassed $185,000, not including engineering fees and added interest on the home loan because of delays.

At the advice of their lawyer, Jeffrey James, they decided to fix it. "There were no good options for them," says James. "How do you walk away? You're still going to end up having to pay on the loan."

In an attempt to recoup their losses, the couple filed an arbitration claim against Jenkins, but it was a fruitless pursuit. Jenkins' insurance policy didn't cover his work, and his company, Ken Jenkins Construction, had virtually nothing of value. (He has since started a new company, Westfield Construction, under his wife's name.) Thanks to corporate law, Jenkins' personal assets were untouchable.

So the couple had no choice but to drop their claim. They've since filed a suit against Rembowski and RWL, which is still pending.

For Debbie, witnessing the repairs to her dream home has been like watching a bloody surgery on the Discovery Channel. Workers dug an 11-foot trench around the house and replaced the walls in five-foot sections.

While the couple's house was being torn apart, so were their finances. To pay for the work, the Youngs emptied their savings accounts, cashed out their mutual funds, and took a loan against Austin's life insurance policy. Debbie will also need to return to the workforce, unless the civil suit yields a windfall.

Now, three years after the electrician discovered the void, the house is finally almost done. When asked what he wanted for Christmas last year, Debbie's 12-year-old son replied, "For the old house to be done."

"It's the 'old house' now," Debbie says. "It's been a third of his lifetime."

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