VA – After 12 years of renting, Larry Butler and his wife, Judit Szaloki, were finally ready to make the leap into the great American dream of home ownership. They found a house they liked, arranged financing, and sealed the deal, thinking their dream had come true.
Their euphoria was short-lived. On a visit two days after the closing, they discovered the house was contaminated with toxigenic mold. Two of their daughters have asthma, and one ended up in the emergency room. Soon other mold-related health problems began to occur.
This all too common American dream-turned-nightmare began February 11, the day after Butler and Szaloki closed on 2207 Wayne Avenue. Over at the new house, Butler discovered the full extent of mold that his real estate agent told him could be washed off with Clorox, the worst possible advice one could give. Unethical realtors nationwide prey on the ignorance of trusting buyers as they dispense illegal and impractical advice, in hopes that their professional demeanor overrides fears and distrust. A classic example is a rather innocent looking, yet questionable binding arbitration agreement that exist in almost every earnest money agreement nationwide. “This binding arbitration agreement is only there to protect realtors, brokers, title companies, and mortgage lenders, sellers, but not the buyer. What many buyers don’t know is that they don’t have to sign it, yet 99% of the time, they do. Most buyers don’t even have a full understanding of what they are signing when they do,” States consumer rights advocate Jim Johnson.
The mold has been removed from the house Larry Butler and Judit Szaloki but in doing so the gutted house is uninhabitable and the couple is preparing for bankruptcy. In this highly publicized story, many people were disturbed by the Butlers’ plight of having to pay a mortgage on a house that made them ill– and not having the funds to clean it up. Unfortunately this incidence is happening almost more often than not.
ServiceMaster owner Steve Taylor donated remediation of the house– a job that normally would cost $30,000– and now declares it mold-free. Unfortunately, getting rid of the mold meant ripping out cabinets, floors, and Sheetrock, and Taylor says the house is still uninhabitable. “The kitchen is torn out, the bathroom is torn out, the basement is totally gutted,” he says.
General contractor Bob Fenwick is determined to get the Butlers into their new home. He’s been corralling everyone he’s done business with over the years to help out with materials or labor to rebuild the interior of the house. “If I could just get a lot of people to do a little…” he says. So far, he’s gotten help from 13 businesses (see below). Both Butler and Szaloki call Fenwick their “guardian angel.” And they repeatedly say how grateful they are to those who have helped them out.
Someone paid the Butlers’ rent for May, giving them a slight reprieve. “I paid half the mortgage,” says Butler. “I still need a couple of hundred.” But cash is what the family does not have. Szaloki’s car has been sitting for weeks at Battlefield Ford, where it needs $2,500 worth of work. They don’t have enough money to pay the $225 bill for having the mechanic look at it.
Butler hasn’t been able to make the payment on his truck in two months. “They’ll probably come pick up my car, sell it– and I’ll still owe money on it,” says Butler, clearly a man on the edge. “We’ve got to go to church to get food,” says the former Marine. “There’s nothing in the refrigerator. I feel like a failure to my wife and kids. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep.”
“They’re on the brink,” says Fenwick. “I’m just hoping to bring them back. The deck is stacked against them. They’re strong people, but they’ve really got an uphill battle. It’s heartbreaking. Both Fenwick and ServiceMaster crew leader Shirley Hodges, who cleaned the house, are dubious that the house’s seller, Steve Dudley, did not know about the mold. “There’s no question that the mold, mildew, dry rot, and wet rot that we’ve found have been there not for weeks or months, but for years,” says Fenwick
Just as in numerous mold cases with unscrupulous realtors banking on buyer ignorance. Butler and Szaloki feel particularly betrayed by their buyer’s agent, Sirlei Kaiser-Ramirez, who they felt was supposed to look after their interests in the deal.
They allege Kaiser-Ramirez told them the mold, which was noted in the pre-sale home inspection report, was no big deal and could be wiped down with Clorox. She referred calls to her Real Estate III broker, Pat Jensen, who maintains the Butlers had sufficient warning of the mold problem.
Judit Szaloki continues her day care, the only source of income the strapped family now has. “Judit is so brave,” says her husband. “I hate to see the sadness on her face after everyone is gone.”
Businesses that have helped with 2207 Wayne Avenue:
Central Virginia Rental
Snow’s Garden Center
Electrical Engineers without Borders
Floor Fashions of Virginia
Classy Car Wash
Albemarle Heating and Air
Airflow Diagnostics Institute