Freeport, IL – JoAnn Black couldn’t understand why all the windows in her home were soaking wet in the dead of winter. She kept mopping them, and they would just return to the same dripping condition. “Everything was wet. We called the plumber. He found no plumbing leaks. We called our furnace man, and he found no problem in the furnace. Later (we would think to ourselves that) it smelled really bad – of mold,” Black said. Contrary to what many believe, a foul smelling house generally means a moldy house. Some mold victims have stated when they first entered their homes, it smelled, ‘dusty’ or ‘old.’ Generally an old smelling house is a mold house. There is no such thing as a musty smell without a contributing factor, and it is almost always mold.
What she discovered would be the beginning of her family’s nightmare. Black, 58, began poking around nooks and crannies of the home at 1603 Parkside Court that she and husband James, 59, had purchased in June 2004, with the help of an FHA loan and an AmeriDream gift.
The Black’s dream home – the first and only house the two had owned in their 40-year marriage – was loaded with mold. “There was five feet of mold growing up behind my bed. At that point I got really nervous. Mold was growing on all the furniture, in my closet, up the walls, in Dad’s bedroom,” JoAnn said.
AmeriDream is a Maryland-based nonprofit agency that provides financial gifts toward home ownership. Experts say that mold is common in homes, but in high levels the health effects can be devastating. Exposure to some types of common indoor mold can lead to permanent psychological, immunological, pathological and neurological damage to anyone, depending on length of exposure. Due to the severe health implications, it’s also becoming a common theme in legal battles over who’s responsible for its cleanup.
According to a March 2003 article in the trade magazine National Real Estate Investor, real estate experts, who do not want to be held liable, claim they believe it is still unclear how mold issues – which are exploding across the nation. Because the real estate, building and insurance industry are often at fault, they sometimes hire expensive unscrupulous defense lawyers and fight these claims to the bitter end. Due to this, sometimes lawsuits are the end the result, which may be resolved because, for one, experts, including those at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, are still fighting to set guidelines for acceptable levels of mold in homes.
Slipshod Dwellings Yield Increased Profits
Robyn Ice, a toxic tort defense litigation partner at the New York office of law firm Alston & Bird, was quoted in the 2003 National Real Estate Investor article, as saying that about 9,000 mold lawsuits were being fought in the nation’s courts at that time. Ice’s defendants include apartment owners and managers and national construction companies, which are often the most liable with most mold litigation. When polled, many mold victims have been quoted as stating that they would much prefer not to file suit, but are often left with no alternative as the American building industry has been known to manufacture slipshod dwellings in their quest for increased profits and landlords often neglect their tenants and cover-up pathogenic mold problems with paint, floor-coverings, and other camouflage, and often fail to address their ill tenants attempts to have the problem remediated due to the high cost factor. Many mold problems could be easily handled by proactive prevention techniques such as proper building practices, maintenance, and taking care of water intrusion problems as they occur. Insurance companies, when involved, have been known to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs than to pay a claim for fraction of that amount.
Documented Illnesses by the CDC
It’s prevalence and fears of health ramifications to homeowners was also the subject of a report by CDC Physician Stephen C. Redd to a United States House of Representatives committee in 2002. Redd told lawmakers that the CDC knows mold has caused documented illnesses in people exposed to it indoors. There are more than 1,000 types found in homes, about 24 of which are potentially toxic, he calimed. But reports prepared by the Institute of Medicine and presented by Redd state that a link between mold and illnesses such as asthma has been proven, and it can be a problem for people with other respiratory illnesses.
What Redd failed to state was the fact that the Institute of Medicine?s report only intention was to study non-infectious diseases and only the respiratory effects of mold exposure, which is very misleading to the layperson. This false impression has been used as a tool for the defense industry as they use this report to claim that the only proven health effect of fungal exposure is respiratory problems, which is not true. In fact, there have been over 15,000 scientific studies of fungal exposure that demonstrate the permanent neurological, immunological, psychological, and pathological effects of mold exposure. Many of these reports are far more credible than the Institute of Medicine’s report, which by the way, was also funded by the CDC.
JoAnn said, since she moved into the house, she has felt sick with a series of mysterious illnesses that only subsided when she and her husband went away on vacation. Her 87-year-old father, who lives with her, was hospitalized with breathing problems in December, she said. These symptoms are very common with mold. Prior to buying the house, the Blacks say they had a home appraisal from an FHA-qualified inspector based in Rockford but they did not have the home inspected by any other experts. This is a common mistake made by many home buyers. Anyone buying a house should not only have a structural inspection, but also a mold inspection. These inspections should be conducted by two separate companies of the buyer’s choice. These experts should be licensed, insured and fully accredited. Never allow an commission-eager realtor insist on who to hire. Furthermore, never believe their claims that they may know who to hire, or that they know ‘the best.’ Generally, they hire friends in the industry to hasten results and make things appear much different than the facts.
Concerned that mold was the culprit for their illnesses, they began to look for answers. Home inspector Steve Gitz of provided an estimate to fix what he found in their home: lots of mold, in the attic, on walls, in the roof, even on their furniture. Gitz said that mold is a growing problem for homeowners like the Blacks. The bill to clean it up? In the Black’s case, according to Gitz, the estimate was more than $60,000. Common to most cases, the Black’s insurance won’t cover the cleanup, JoAnn said, because their inspectors calimed it was a pre-existing condition. Gitz said mold problems are more prevalent with newer homes which are built more airtight, leaving moisture and heat created by homeowners during cooking and bathing no escape. Drywall, compared to plaster, can foster mold spores. Gitz also strongly recommends that new home buyers get the property inspected by a qualified home inspector.
“Get somebody that’s going to look up in the attic. That’s one of the first places you see a problem. Basements are a concern, especially if it’s finished. If you smell a musty odor, you’ve got a problem,” Gitz said. He advises checking under sinks, especially with dripping faucets. “Inspect a porch or deck, with a door going out there, that’s one of the more common places you’ll see a mold problem.
“Your air-conditioner acts as a dehumidifier. We see people using humidifiers too high in the winter time. If you see water on your windows in the winter, there’s too much moisture in your home.” The Blacks, meanwhile, are angry. They said they feel helpless about their situation and want others to be aware of the mold problem. “We just don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” JoAnn said, urging prospective home buyers to have homes inspected.
Gitz said he sees mold issues – most with still questionable legal remedies – all the time in his line of work. “One of the problems we see, a lot in the suburbs, is a developer will put up 500 homes identical in one subdivision. A year or two later we have calls about mold problems. Once they start a class-action (lawsuit) against a contractor, they go out of business. That’s common. Their warranty is only one year. Then it’s no longer their problem,” Gitz said. Cookie cutter houses with faulty construction are one of the leading factors for mold problems.
As they contemplate their legal options, the Blacks are preparing to move Oct. 1, into a three-bedroom trailer, which is all they can afford. Both live on Social Security for disabilities. John Whiton, an attorney for the family who sold them the home, naturally denied demands by the Blacks that his clients pay for repairs or buy the home back. “They’re hoping to highlight a situation caused by someone else, which we deny,” Whiton claimed.
The Black’s lender, Countrywide Financial, claims to be attempting to help by freezing their current loan payment of $650 per month while the Blacks try to find a solution, JoAnn said. Most financial institutions are not nearly as understanding. Many mortgage companies demand their payments regardless of any mitigating factors, leaving homeowners in a devastating financial hardship. Many financial experts believe this is one of the main reasons that new bankruptcy laws will soon be coming into effect January 1, 2006. This will make it almost impossible for the growing amount of mold victims to be able to ever recoup their losses or get out from under their contaminated houses.
“This was our American dream,” James Black said. “Our first home ever.” As with many others, it will probably be their last.