When Bette Lamb bought a condominium for $43,900 four years ago, she looked forward to building equity and making cheaper-than-rent mortgage payments.
But two years later, major problems turned up in the place Lamb calls home. When engineers came out to assess the damage, they found that termites and water had weakened the walls and floors on several units.
"There's water intrusion, there's termites," said Lamb, 49, pointing to the outside wall of her condo. "If you put your finger right there, it would go right through."
Welcome to the Gardens of Forest Lakes, where water damage on some units is so bad that signs warn residents to stay off their balconies.
The complex, north of Tampa Road and west of Forest Lakes Boulevard, was completed in phases from 1985 to 1987 and consists of 160 two-bedroom, two-bath units.
But what was once considered a good investment for people with low-to-moderate incomes has become a money pit.
No one is sure how bad the damage is, but property managers estimate that it could cost more than $5-million to repair.
The first condominium unit showed damage in September 2001. A resident reported that her wall was swollen. Engineers from Kerns-Whitehouse Associates were contracted to open the exterior walls and to do an evaluation.
They discovered that four of the first 16 buildings they looked at were in bad shape.
"We have just gotten some preliminary pieces of what the damage is," said Ed Winch, building code administrator for Oldsmar. "When the buildings are open to repair, we can tell more of what has to be done."
Who is responsible also remains in question.
Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Beverland, a former owner of a condominium in the Gardens of Forest Lakes, said the units weren't designed well.
"They used wood," said Beverland, who sold his condo in 1999. "They didn't seal it good, and water got behind there and just got everything damp."
Ryan Homes, which was a Pittsburgh company when it built the Gardens of Forest Lakes, left the state in 1990, largely because of too much land and too few home buyers. Despite repeated requests, Paul Columbus, spokesman for Ryan Homes' parent company, NVR Corp. of Virginia, would not discuss the construction of the Gardens of Forest Lakes.
City inspection records show that the property was in compliance with the building codes before a certificate of occupancy was issued.
"The new building codes mandate certain termite protection be done that was not required when the buildings were built," Winch said. "The only thing I can say is, when the building is opened up, we can ascertain at that time if the building was built to code."
It's hard to place blame on any particular entity, said Craig Caldwell, vice president of Condominium Associates, who took over as property manager at the Gardens last year. He said he had documented proof that when problems were reported to management, they were taken care of.
"The history at the Gardens was that there would be a new management company hired by a new board of directors every two years," said Caldwell. "Without continuity of management, it makes it difficult to prove responsibility.
"Poor construction, wood frame construction, termites in Florida _ put them all together and it results in this."
Who is at fault will have to be decided later, said Vanita Hall, the president of the Gardens' condominium owners association.
For now, there are repairs that must be done.
The Gardens of Forest Lakes Condominium Association filed a $5.4-million insurance claim with Southern Family Insurance in August for damage due to collapse, hidden decay or hidden insects.
Bill Berk, an attorney for Southern Family, said that claim was under investigation.
"Some claims are resolved real quickly," Berk said. "Some claims take much longer depending on how much documentation there is."
In July, the condo association assessed all owners at the Gardens of Forest Lakes a $1,050 fee to set up a reserve account. Some residents have not yet paid that fee, Hall said.
But that's not all. The association has applied to several banks for a repair loan of up to $1.8-million. The cost of rebuilding the exterior walls _ the first repair that must be made _ is expected to be about $11,250 per unit.
"Because insurance is taking so long, we have to get the repairs done," Hall said. "We can't allow the buildings to continue the deterioration because eventually it will become a hazard. We have to do repairs.
"(The repairs) will put the building in a safe position, at least," she said. "We should be doing a lot of stuff. We're just going to do the basic minimum. We'll continue with the claim and do the rest of stuff when we get the money."
If the loan is approved, residents will be required to pay an additional $90 a month to repay the debt. And that monthly payment could go up depending on the type of loan the association gets.
Hall said the money would be put in a separate account until construction started and used to make monthly payments to the bank. She hopes repairs will begin in April.
"This seems the least destructive to the members and affordable for everyone concerned," Hall said.
But for residents like Lamb, who makes less than $25,000 a year working as a receptionist, an additional $90 a month is too much to pay. Residents in the Gardens already pay a $165 monthly maintenance fee and a $27-a-month association fee, she said. That's on top of her $501 mortgage payment.
The maintenance fee counts toward work in common areas, such as keeping up the grounds and painting the exterior of the buildings. Lamb said she had been told that the problem with the water and termites was an interior problem.
"The way a condominium works is that the association incurs the cost and charges the unit owners a monthly maintenance fee or special assessment, and that is what is planned," Caldwell said. "They have not collected enough money to pay for these hidden damages."
Matt Pfeiffer, 35, said he was concerned that when construction starts, he'll have to find another place to stay.
The Tampa teacher bought his condo last June for $45,000. While his unit hasn't shown any damage, he said that if he had known about the problems with the condos, he wouldn't have bought one.
"I'm going to pay this money, keep record of it and hopefully, it'll pay for itself once they do the work," he said. "I don't know. I'm just a little upset that what I thought was a good deal is turning out not to be a good deal after all."
A financial burden
Meanwhile, some residents are trying to sell their condominiums.
Seasonal residents Duane and Evelyn Gorham have been trying to sell their second-floor condominium since November. They retired from teaching positions three years ago and spend seven months a year in Oldsmar.
"Everything is fine until we disclose the problems," said Duane Gorham, 64. "It kind of made it so we couldn't sell. We may have to ride it out until they finish the work."
Evelyn Gorham, 65, said she liked the quiet of the place. During the day, she disregards the warning signs and sits outside on her balcony. They are thinking about moving to a villa. Evelyn Gorham has a bad back, which makes it hard for her to climb the stairs.
The Gorhams' condominium hasn't shown any problems.
But that doesn't exempt them from paying the fees.
"I thought paying the $1,050 fee was going to cover the situation," said Duane Gorham. "But I guess not.
"The new plan isn't that bad," he said. "It's not like going out and getting $10,000 from somewhere. I really think once the work is done, it'll be really nice."
But for Lamb, $90 a month is a problem. She recently refinanced her home to consolidate her debt and pay the $1,050 assessment fee, so selling is not an option. Her condominium was appraised last year at $61,000.
"I'm not opposed to their plan," Lamb said. "It's just I don't know how many people will be able to stay here. Financially, it's too much of a burden on some of us."
Hall said that when the insurance claim comes through, the association will pay off the loan, and the residents won't have to make any more extra payments.
"It's really the insurance company that needs to hurry up," Hall said. "They don't cry when they take your premiums, but they do cry when they take your claims."
_ Megan Scott can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or mscottsptimes.com.