In April, Donald and Wanda Frowick made a disturbing discovery about their two-story, $1.8 million waterfront home.
Almost every room on the first floor was illegal.
The bathroom, the wine room, the game, hobby and work rooms - all had been built below the base flood elevation and were in violation of federal regulations.
Faced with having to rip out hundreds of square feet of what they thought was habitable space, the Frowicks are suing the previous owner and top real estate firms the Toni Everett Co. and Keller Williams St. Pete Realty.
"I spent probably in excess of $300,000 in improvements on the property not knowing all this was going to happen," Donald Frowick said Wednesday.
According to the suit filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court, general contractor Scott T. Cramer built the 5,337-square-foot home for himself in St. Petersburg's Tierra Verde area in 2001. Sometime after getting a certificate of occupancy in early 2002, Cramer allegedly finished out the first floor with a kitchenette, bathroom and several other rooms all connected to the rest of the home via a grand hallway, elevator and staircase. But because the first floor was low enough to flood, the only legal uses were for storage and for parking in the garage.
In 2010, the county's Building and Development Review Services Department notified Cramer that he had violated Federal Emergency Management Agency rules by converting the ground floor to habitable space. It gave him until July 2013 to remove or correct the violations.
Cramer took out the kitchenette but made no other changes, the lawsuit says. In 2011, working with the Toni Everett Co., he sold the home to the Frowicks after representing on a sales contract that he did not know "any fact that materially affects the value of the property including violations of governmental laws, rules or regulations," the lawsuit says.
"The Realtor I bought the house from told me that (Cramer's) father lived underneath the house and the county made him (Cramer) take a kitchen out," Frowick recalled. "We assumed if that was the case, it would be good to go."
The Frowicks added a pool, spa, storm shutters and patio area before getting the notice in April that the property had an open violation.
"Three years elapsed before we were notified, and the notice was addressed to Scott Cramer, not to me," said Frowick, speaking by phone from another home he has in North Carolina. "It's kind of like the county dropped the ball on this whole thing."
Glenn Wardell, division manager of the county's building services, said there is a big enough backlog of violations "that it takes time to process them."
Cramer, whom the Frowicks accuse of fraud, could not be reached for comment. The suit alleges negligence by Keller Williams St. Pete Realty, the Frowicks' agents, and the Toni Everett Co., in failing to disclose that the house did not comply with codes.
Had the Frowicks known, they said in the suit, they would not have bought the property, which has "drastically diminished in value'' because of the violations.
Rachel Sartain, managing broker of Keller Williams St. Pete Realty, said she could not comment. Everett called the suit "a frivolous thing."
"There's no truth to it at all. The title company would not have closed the deal if it had any code violations."
Everett is one of Tampa Bay's best-known real estate agents, specializing in high-end condos and single-family homes. According to her company's website, "She single-handedly began the million-dollar house market in Tampa, breaking the first million-dollar condo sale on Bayshore (Boulevard) and first million-dollar house sale in the most prestigious neighborhoods of Tampa."
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.