Investigative Summary:

Our latest investigation into residential home building takes us to Buda where a neighborhood is struggling with constant water underneath homes. A nearly $50,000 engineering study paid for using taxpayer dollars found the neighborhood is sitting on top of a perched aquifer that’s cracking homes’ foundations. We question the developer and the city on how this happened and what comes next.

BUDA, Texas (KXAN) – When the Whispering Hollow neighborhood was developed, Jimmy Fort, his wife and his children were among the first to move in.

He sold his ranch in Seguin to be closer to his wife’s in-laws.

The new home they purchased would be where they planned to spend the rest of their lives.

blue tape marks a crack in a wall
Blue tape with the date marked ‘early 2018’ next to a crack in Jimmy Fort’s wall. (KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

“This was the first house my wife ever had. She was always moving. She was a single mom — and raised three daughters, and then the cowboy comes along,” Fort said about meeting his wife.

But Fort said living in their Whispering Hollow home has been hard on his family financially and emotionally.

“It’s been rough here.”

A few years after buying a brand new home in the subdivision from developer Ryland Homes in 2008, Fort said he started experiencing problems with the foundation. After a while, he began marking every new crack in his wall and the spots where nails were popping out of the sheetrock.

In 2011, Fort says the builder paid to repair his foundation under his 10-year warranty, according to court records. But despite attempted fixes over the last 11 years, including multiple sump pumps, he said the issues underneath his home continued.

‘I can’t sell this home’

a hole in the ground near the foundation with a sump pump next to it
The sump pump outside Jimmy Fort’s home pumping water out from under his home. (KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

On the day KXAN visited Fort, he showed us the ditches excavators created around the foundation of his home. The standing water was visibly pooling underneath his house — and cracks could be seen in his foundation.

Fort showed his process for measuring and pumping out the water. Before turning on his sump pump, he carefully placed a stick inside and measured where the watermark ends.

“Right now, there are approximately 36 inches of water underneath my house,” Fort said on Feb. 8.

Once he turned on the pump, the water came up through a patch of grass in his front lawn and began pooling in the stormwater drains of his cul-de-sac.

“I come here and put $100,000 down on this house,” Fort said. “Where is my equity? It is a goose egg. I don’t have any equity. I can’t sell this house.”

Jimmy Fort measures the water level in his sump pump located on the side of his home. (KXAN video/Richie Bowes)

‘I had never seen an issue like that’

There are hundreds of homes in the Whispering Hollow subdivision. The problems are littered across the neighborhood — but while some homeowners face virtually no issues, others persistently fight damage to their foundations.

City records show since 2010, 14 homes in Whispering Hollow had foundation repair permits filed with the Building Codes and Permitting Department. A report from the city found several homeowners throughout the neighborhood also had pumps installed to drain the water from under their homes.

Last year, the City of Buda paid an engineering firm nearly $50,000 to figure out where the water was coming from in Whispering Hollow — which city engineers said was also damaging city roads.

The soil evaluation reports done before construction started on the development in 2007 — which KXAN obtained through an open records request to the City of Buda — warned the developer homes built over the clays found in the neighborhood “lead to serious cracking” for home foundations and that special attention should be paid to their design. Groundwater was not encountered when the soil was being tested then, according to the report.

Engineers contracted by the City last year found what was going on underneath Whispering Hollow was much more extreme than problematic soil. Engineering firm AquaStrategies found water trapped in the clay-rich soil under homes — creating a perched aquifer. A perched aquifer forms when water is unable to drain down further into the earth because of a less permeable underground layer and allows groundwater to mound above.

an animation showing water in the ground below homes
Animation showing how a perched aquifer forms (KXAN Animation/Jeffrey Wright)

The wet clays can become mobile and can move under the weight of the house, causing cracks in foundations, according to Hydrogeologist Brian Smith with the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District.

“We have some clay layers between limestone and then more clay,” Smith said. “Whenever you get that combination right at the surface, you can have these problems.”

City of Buda project engineer Angela Kennedy was not with the city when Whispering Hollow was built, but she’s taken the lead in the city’s investigation.

“A lot of it just has to do with the volume of the water. That one particular homeowner just so happens to be in an area where the water volume is the highest and it’s like he is sitting on top of a river under his home,” Kennedy said, referring to Fort’s home.

‘Lennar stands behind every home we build’

In 2017, Lennar Corporation merged with CalAtlantic Homes — a company that purchased Ryland Homes in the years prior.

The corporation would not agree to an interview with our station but provided a statement addressing the issues in Whispering Hollow.

“Lennar stands behind every home we build and honor warranty requests when something is not right. We acquired Whispering Hollow from another builder and have attempted to resolve the concerns of the handful of homeowners who reported issues with the expansive soils that are common throughout the Austin area. Prior to the development of the community, all soil and geotechnical reports were reviewed by the appropriate local government agencies as part of the public approval process.”

‘They don’t know how to fix it’

‘I was wronged along with other homeowners here, and it’s like I told them at city hall, there are places to build homes and there are places not to build homes,” Fort said. “I think somebody messed up and they don’t know how to fix it.”

The city is now considering solutions to the issues being faced by homeowners, which could cost the city anywhere from $7,000 to $525,000, depending on what leaders decide.

“Back in 2007, the city was very different,” Kennedy said. “We had maybe one staff person and the rest were reviewed by external contractors. So, over the years we have started to bring in more city staff and review processes are handled in-house.”

“We are much more capable and proficient at maintaining all the engineering standards that direct the development of city infrastructure,” she added.

In the years after Whispering Hollow was built, city leaders changed ordinances to require builders to submit the results of soil evaluations before being issued building permits. But that is not the standard across the state — and not a part of Texas law.

KXAN looked into the City of Austin’s policies for inspecting home developments as a part of an investigation into a massive Austin subdivision dealing with failing foundations. The City of Austin requires third-party inspectors to submit one-page letters certifying new home foundations but does not require builders to submit soil evaluations as part of the process.

holes near the foundation of the home
The side of Jimmy Fort’s home in Whispering Hollow. (KXAN Video/Bob Osborn)

‘It was wrong to do that

The structural warranties on most of the homes in Whispering Hollow, including Fort’s, are now expired. Engineers with AquaStrategies predict the issues in the neighborhood will likely continue if no action is taken at all.

In 2020, Fort and his family filed a lawsuit against Lennar alleging “after multiple attempts to repair the foundation, the damage on the property still exists” and that their own experts do not think the problems can be corrected. The suit is still ongoing.

“I look at it and say ‘It is a construction defect that the builder knew or should have known and could have remedied the problem a long time ago,’ and now Mr. Fort has spent his retirement and his savings into this home that has a severe foundation issue,” said Fort’s attorney, Alex Hernandez, Jr.

We pulled lawsuits from across the state dealing with home foundation disputes. Since 2013, at least 900 lawsuits dealing with foundation issues have been filed in Texas. The claims range from defective foundations and ineffective repairs to companies seeking compensation for repairs made. The claims can end up playing out in court, mediation, arbitration or dismissed entirely.

Fort said during our interview, he believes Lennar should buy his home and any other property in Whispering Hollow dealing with damage from the perched aquifer.

‘It was wrong to do that, and a lot of people are paying for it at the expense of the people that let this happen,” Fort said.

Lennar Corporation would not comment on Fort’s specific case.

Investigative Intern Aurora Berry, Investigative Photojournalist Richie Bowes, Graphic Artist Rachel Gale, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Drone Pilot Bob Osborn, Digital Director Kate Winkle and Graphic Artist Jeffrey Wright contributed to this report.