AUSTIN (KXAN) – When Maria Lopez, an elementary school custodian, bought a brand new house in 2016, she was leaving a troubling living situation.
The home she lived in for nearly 30 years was damaged in a flood in 2013 – and again in 2015. The next year the City of Austin purchased her home as a part of a buyout to relocate people living in the Onion Creek floodplain.
When she moved into her new home in the south Austin development Lennar at Bradshaw Crossing, she hoped for a fresh start. But Lopez said soon after moving in, she began noticing cracks growing in the corners of her walls.
“They would say ‘no,’ that ‘it’s OK. That’s normal’,” Lopez said in Spanish about her calls with the developer, Lennar. “But I insisted.”
Copeland Engineering, an engineering firm registered in Texas, conducted an inspection on Lopez’s home for Lennar, inspection records show. The engineer had taken pictures of the cracks in her walls and of the gaps growing in her driveway.
But at the end of the report, the engineer concluded her concerns were “cosmetic” and that her foundation was not structurally a problem.
“It was frustrating,” Lopez said.
Lopez said after the inspection, the cracking got worse. She says again she kept calling, insisting Lennar take another look.
A year later, the inspectors returned to Lopez’s home on behalf of Lennar, inspection records show. This time, engineers found it needed repair. They recommended the developer lift her home three inches above the clays it was built on, according to the report.
Lopez’s struggles with her foundation are not unique in her neighborhood. Email after email sent to KXAN from homeowners in Lennar at Bradshaw Crossing detail cracking in walls of their homes and driveways, and the slow-going process to get repairs covered under their warranties.
‘Negligent’ construction in Bradshaw Crossing, lawsuits say
Lennar built hundreds of homes in Bradshaw Crossing in the last decade. In 11 years’ worth of records, KXAN Investigates found 49 different homes in the neighborhood had city permits filed for foundation repair.
In that same timeframe, three families sued Lennar over foundation problems in the Bradshaw Crossing neighborhood.
In two lawsuits from 2019, families alleged Lennar was “negligent” in building their foundations and “failed to honor their warranties.” The judge in one of the cases ordered the matter to arbitration, a confidential process to resolve a dispute outside the court system. Lennar asked a judge to order the other case into the arbitration process as well, but a final determination has not been made.
A different couple who lived in Bradshaw Crossing sued Lennar in 2011. The couple said in the lawsuit four years after buying their new home, it started having plumbing problems because of foundation issues. The homeowners dropped the case later that same year after Lennar agreed to pay them a settlement and repair their home, according to court records.
Lennar repeatedly denied our request for an interview with its regional president, Rob Hutton, who oversees the building and sale of homes throughout Texas. A spokesperson said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
“We have built thousands of homes in Austin, and we stand behind all of them, including those in Bradshaw Crossing. We will repair any home that does not meet the commitment we made to our buyers,” said Lennar Corporation’s Vice President of Communications Danielle Tocco in an emailed statement.
Lennar offered multiple buyers 10-year structural warranties on their homes, lawsuits filed in Travis County show. As a part of accepting, homebuyers are required to settle disputes over what should be covered under their warranties in mediation, and if not settled, go to binding arbitration — which means the homeowner has waived the right to a trial and will accept a neutral third party decision as final in the case.
Lawsuits against Lennar that have made it before a judge have, in some cases, ended with the court ordering the case to be handled in arbitration, court filings show. In one of the lawsuits filed against Lennar, a Bradshaw Crossing homeowner said the American Arbitration Association would require the homeowner to pay an initial filing and final filing fee; both of which were over $7,000. The homeowner said in court records the cost of arbitration was “completely unaffordable” for his family and would effectively force him to drop his case.
Nick Brudowsky, an Air Force reservist, moved into his home in Bradshaw Crossing in 2014. His home was built in 2006.
The cracks in Brudowsky’s home are noticeable. The cavity in the rock siding of his home is big enough to put a finger through. The break in his driveway stretches the width of his garage door, and the concrete closest to his home sits an inch higher than the concrete nearest the road.
Unlike some of his neighbors, he’s tried to avoid jumping into a legal process that could cost more than the repairs he needs to make to his home.
“This type of stuff was scary to me: to have an unknown fee with an unknown outcome, and just hope for the best — and maybe I would end up getting nothing out of it,” Brudowsky said. “A lot of my neighbors were also taking care of things on their own, and I just followed suit.”
‘Bad clays’ in Texas
Geotechnical engineering experts say Texas, and Austin specifically, is known for having particularly problematic soil for building single-family homes.
“In Texas, let me tell you, the particularly bad clays are pretty much along I-35: Dallas, Ft. Worth, Waco, Austin,” said University of Texas Professor Jorge Zornberg, a geotechnical engineer.
Experts say expansive clays are prone to absorbing water, even underneath a home. During rainy seasons, the clays will swell, and when there is a dry season, the clays will shrink. The problem, according to Zornberg, is when the foundation has not been designed to withstand the soils they are built on, it will swell and shrink with the ground — and often land unevenly.
Zornberg says failures in home foundations can be avoided when developers test the soil on the lots where they build and then design the foundation to accommodate the issues they find.
“The problem with foundation design is that no one sees it,” Zornberg said. “You do not see it until you have a problem, but if you have a problem, your nice windows and ceiling and columns — they may be significantly compromised.”
Nicholas Bressi, an Austin attorney who has sued Lennar and several other developers related to construction, said the foundation failures being experienced in Bradshaw Crossing are not unique to Lennar developments.
“The problem with track builders, or someone coming in and building 100, 200 homes in a neighborhood, is they are not going to do 200 soil tests,” Bressi said. “They typically do a pattern sampling throughout the 200 tracked areas, which may include 50 samples. If you are building 200 homes and are doing 50 samples, it is Russian roulette what you are building on.”
In Texas, developers are not required to submit the results of soil tests to local municipalities. In Austin’s building code, developers are required to hire a third-party engineer licensed in Texas to inspect a home’s foundation during the construction process and that engineer must submit a one-page letter certifying the foundation. While the letter may reference unique soil conditions on a particular lot based on that engineer’s judgment, the City does not require developers to submit soil evaluation results as part of this process, a spokesperson told KXAN.
The City of Austin provided no records of Lennar submitting the results of soil evaluations done at Lennar at Bradshaw Crossing. KXAN requested the results of the soil evaluations done throughout the Bradshaw Crossing development from Lennar but it did not provide the records and did not specify how it does its soil testing. The company also did not share, when KXAN asked, how many families have tried to make claims under its warranty for foundation repair.
Maria Lopez said Lennar is now getting her foundation repaired under her warranty. Workers are removing the soil from underneath her home and adding 45 heavy stakes, or pilings, underneath to support the foundation — a full underpin, the building permit shows.
It’s a relief for Lopez, who said she spent the entirety of the buyout from her previous house on her dream of owning another home. Lopez’s daughter, Michelle, who has helped translate for her mom throughout this process, says it’s been frustrating to watch.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the community have to deal with these issues when it’s such a small, hardworking community that deserves better,” Michelle Lopez said.
‘Don’t wait’ for more cracks
Engineering experts say while foundation design can be hard to visualize once a home is built, the effects of foundation failure will be easy to spot within your home. If you are a homeowner, look for cracks in bricks and drywall.
Legal experts stress the importance of inspecting potential issues as soon as you catch them. Be sure to read your home warranty, which will likely instruct you on how you need to file a claim under your warranty. It could be mailing a formal notice to the developer through certified mail or logging the claim on a website.
“When you see one crack, don’t wait until you have 10 to call someone,” Bressi said. “Most people don’t think about periodic maintenance or inspection of your foundation. Call a home inspector. Call an engineer, immediately, if you think you have an issue.”
Inspections and testing are also critical on the front end, according to Zornberg. Prospective buyers can hire an engineer or home inspector to investigate the home’s foundation before purchasing a new home. For newer developments, Bressi says, request the builder do site-specific testing on the lot you purchased before construction begins and ask it to provide the results.
Investigative Photographer Richie Bowes, Investigative Intern Addie Costello, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Reporter & Assignment Editor Chelsea Moreno, Digital Director Kate Winkle and Graphic Artist Jeffrey Wright contributed to this report.