SPRING HILL — When it's your last big purchase and you're spending a hefty chunk of your retirement savings, you take your time.
You have your college-age son fly in from Texas and ask him: Would you want to visit us here with your wife and kids? Would you want to inherit this someday?
Steven and Judy Patterson thought they had found the perfect home in Sterling Hill. Then, two days before their closing in mid April, a second inspection confirmed their fears.
The unusual smell inside wasn't only because the new house had sat empty since 2006. The home was riddled with defective Chinese drywall.
Home inspector Tom Herman said the problem of Chinese drywall is so new that a lot of home buyers and homeowners don't know what to look for. In fact, inspectors often miss it.
All the Pattersons know is they won't be buying their dream home. And they want to educate others about the problem.
"I loved that house," Judy Patterson said. "It really broke our heart."
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During the housing boom between 2004 and 2007, millions of pounds of drywall were imported from China to meet the high demand. The drywall has been associated with a rotten-egg, sour or chemical odor, particularly when exposed to Florida's humidity and heat.
Test results released last month by the Florida Department of Health indicate that Chinese drywall releases volatile sulfur compounds.
People say the drywall has caused sinus problems and nosebleeds. Some have complained of headaches and breathing problems.
The drywall has also been linked to the corrosion of copper pipes, causing some homeowners to replace their air conditioning units. Others have expressed concern over the discoloration of jewelry or brass.
The Department of Health Web site says there is no data suggesting an imminent or chronic health hazard, but the department is continuing to assess potential human health hazards.
Nevertheless, some homeowners have moved out of their homes, and a few builders in the state have begun replacing the drywall. Lawsuits have been filed, and the state Attorney General's Office recently released a warning about scams related to drywall detection and remediation.
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The defective drywall, which is made from the naturally occurring mineral gypsum, has been found to contain five times as much organic material as normal drywall. It may have been used in 100,000 homes nationally and 35,000 in Florida, according to the Associated Press. No one knows just how big the issue will be for homeowners, or for the housing market, which has just begun to show signs of picking up.
"It's very new," said Marilyn Pearson-Adams, president of the Hernando County Association of Realtors. "As a profession, we need to be paying attention and doing our due diligence to determine if it's going to be an issue."
The state Department of Health has received more than 300 complaints from concerned homeowners. No official complaints have been filed from Hernando County. Pasco County has had two registered complaints, Citrus one and Hillsborough 16.
Dudley Hampton, president of the Hernando Builders Association, said worried homeowners should call their builder and ask about their drywall provider. Many local builders have already done so, and determined that their drywall didn't come from China, he said.
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For the Pattersons, whose purchase fell through after their second inspection, their dream home might have been a nightmare. Herman, the inspector, estimated a fix might run $50,000 to $60,000.
"I had never heard of Chinese drywall in Hernando County," said Terisha Miller, the Realtor working with the couple since last fall.
"It was a brand new house — never been lived in. (But) we kept coming back to the smell," she said.
After Judy Patterson and her husband retired from Texas Tech University last year, they moved to Florida to be closer to extended family. She had worked as student adviser in the engineering department.
"I spent 26 years teaching ethics and professionalism to engineering students," she said. "This is an ethical dilemma."
She is concerned about the other vacant houses in the neighborhood. What if they have the drywall, too?
"How ethical is it for us to (remain quiet if we) know that there could be 27 more houses like this, or little old people like us who move in and get sick?" she said.
Some days she wants to stand on a street corner with a sign warning people about the defective drywall and encouraging them to have their homes checked.
But this experience hasn't changed their mind about Florida.
They recently made an offer on another home, and hope this one passes inspection.
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.