Mold in house grows into dueling lawsuits

Brent and Beth Hartford stand in front of what they called their dream home in Milbridge, Maine. The Hartfords are being sued by the home's distributors, North East Homes of Ellsworth, for the cost of the home, while the Hartfords have countersued, saying the home was constructed incorrectly, allowing mold to bloom. Brent Hartford said the home is making his family sick and is asking for reparations.
Brent and Beth Hartford stand in front of what they called their dream home in Milbridge, Maine. The Hartfords are being sued by the home's distributors, North East Homes of Ellsworth, for the cost of the home, while the Hartfords have countersued, saying the home was constructed incorrectly, allowing mold to bloom. Brent Hartford said the home is making his family sick and is asking for reparations.
Posted Oct. 12, 2010, at 1:06 p.m.
Photos supplied by Beth and Brent Hartford showing the mold in the second story of their house.
Photos supplied by Beth and Brent Hartford showing the mold in the second story of their house.
Photos supplied by Beth and Brent Hartford showing the mold in the second story of their house.
Photos supplied by Beth and Brent Hartford showing the mold in the second story of their house.

MILBRIDGE, Maine — About 2 a.m. one morning, Beth Hartford bolted out of bed and awakened her husband.

“It’s in there,” she told him. “I know it is in there.”

Brent Hartford cut a hole in a bedroom wall and discovered his wife was right — mold was growing inside the walls of their home.

“I could almost hear it,” Beth Hartford said.

The Hartfords say their home was constructed incorrectly, which allowed water to run inside and fostered a mold bloom that has resulted in health issues for two family members.

The mold and health problems are now part of dueling lawsuits filed in Washington County Superior Court in Machias — one by the home’s supplier, North East Modular Homes of Ellsworth, and a countersuit by the Hartfords. The modular home company wants its money for the house while the Hartfords maintain that the mold issue has prevented them from obtaining financing.

Caitlyn Hartford, the couple’s 16-year-old daughter, has been exhibiting asthma symptoms — last year she missed 75 of 180 school days — and Beth Hartford became unwell also, with symptoms the family’s doctor has attributed to the mold.

“We’re quite close to just packing up and leaving,” Brent Hartford said in a recent interview.

That is just what the couple should do, Rob McKenney, president of NEMH said in a separate interview recently.

“In essence, they are squatters,” he said.

McKenney said the couple was to be paying on the home while financing issues were settled but they have not paid a single dollar, according to McKenney’s lawsuit.

“I’m paying for their house, and have been for almost two years,” said McKenney, who also denied that the home was improperly built. “I pay for their home and they are suing me over an issue they caused.”

McKenney, whose lawsuit seeks the house and the property as well as reimbursement for the payments he has made on the home, states that “Hartford caused the problem” when he finished the interior of the second story himself.

The Hartfords have countersued stating, “The mold growth is the result of a design defect in the roof and attic framing of the home and installation of the venting system.”

The Hartford’s attorney, Teresa Cloutier, said that contrary to NEMH’s independent consultant, an engineer hired by the Hartfords concluded the “mold growth is a direct result of an improper air flow through the passive vent system.”

In an assessment included in the court documents, Peter Tuell, of CES Engineering of Brewer, wrote, “It is our opinion that the Hartfords have done a good job completing the upper level finishes, including sealing off the access hatch into the attic.”

“The question here is how do we get them a healthy house?” Cloutier said. She said the family has paid more than $60,000 out of their own pocket in repair and medical bills. She said the countersuit is asking for possibly a new structure, all out-of-pocket expenses and personal injury claims.

“This house, which was supposed to be our dream home, has only brought us grief,” Beth Hartford said. “If I could sell it, I’d do it in a minute.”

Cloutier said there is a condition in the real estate market called “mold stigma.”

“It would be easier to sell this house if a suicide had taken place here,” she said.

According to the Hartfords, the couple over two years ago contracted for a one-and-a-half story Cape from NEMH for their property in Milbridge. The Hartfords did the landscaping, put in a foundation, built a garage and a deck. Brent Hartford also agreed to do all the finish work on the second story, which includes two bedrooms and a full bathroom.

The new modular home, which was manufactured by Ritz Craft in Pennsylvania, was set on the foundation in September 2008 and the Hartfords and their daughter moved in the next month.

Twelve days later they discovered a mold problem on the second floor, between the floors and the walls, according to the Hartfords’ lawsuit.

After they notified McKenney, the Hartfords and NEMH agreed to hire an independent engineer to seek the source of the mold.

Engineer Dan McGraw inspected the home in November 2008,  and states in McKenney’s lawsuit, “The home is designed and constructed properly for ventilization. I believe that the condensation that has occurred is from the incomplete insulation and drywall work that has overwhelmed the attic space from the infiltration of warmer air.

“In other words, Hartford heated an unfinished space, the temperature dropped below freezing, the temperature differential caused water in the air to condense on the underside of the roof, and this generated mold after the home was installed. Thus Hartford caused the mold.”

But the Hartford’s countersuit states that Tuell of CES Engineering later determined that “the roof’s ridge vent had not been installed properly allowing water to leak into the attic space. A follow up inspection revealed extensive mold buildup in the attic space on roof sheathing and framing members.”

As per the original agreement between the homeowners and the modular home company, NEMH financed a construction loan of $146,000 for the home with Machias Savings Bank and when construction and installation were complete, the Hartfords were to obtain a regular mortgage.

The closing on the property was scheduled for Dec. 24, 2008, but Brent Hartford said in his lawsuit the family was unable to get an appraisal completed because of the mold problem.

His lawsuit further states that on Dec. 13, a major rainstorm poured water into the upstairs bedroom and closet.

On Dec. 15 — two months after the Hartfords said they first discovered the water issue — NEMH sent a subcontractor to fix alleged faulty ridge vents. That contractor discovered a significant amount of mold and water damage, according to both lawsuits.

“Basically, the upstairs never dried out,” Brent Hartford said.

On Dec. 23, repairs were made to the ridge vents and the closing was postponed.

“We couldn’t get an appraisal until the mold was abated,” Hartford said.

In January 2009, using their own property insurance, the Hartfords’ lawsuit said the roof and front walls of the home were completely removed.

“It took a week,” Hartford said. A sag in the ridgeline was fixed, Sheetrock replaced, and a cleaning company was hired to scrub the entire attic and spray the house with a mold inhibitor.

But the mold has since rebloomed and is still spreading through the house, according to the Hartfords.

The couple has sealed off the attic and run hepafilters throughout the house, and does not use the upstairs bedrooms or bathroom.

The poor housing market has also limited the couple’s options to finance or sell the home, according to the Hartfords’ lawsuit.

“We tried for months to get refinanced,” Brent Hartford said. “Because of the mold, we can’t even get an appraisal and without an appraisal, we can’t get refinanced. Not a broker, agent or certified appraiser will appraise this house.”

Meanwhile, McKenney said, he has been paying the mortgage on the home. “I’ve made 24 mortgage payments and they haven’t paid a dollar,” he said.

Beth Hartford said she has become afraid of her own home.

The mold “just keeps growing and growing and growing,” she said.

No date has been set for the court case.

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