The day April Skelton got to see the inside of her new manufactured home on a county island in east Mesa, she was handed the key and a roll of blue painter’s tape. The tape, she was surprised to learn, should be used to mark every blemish she found in her $140,000 home.
She says her shock soon turned to anger when the roll of tape proved too short. There was a crack in the tub. The faucet on her shower was missing. The railing of her front porch was crooked. Air vents were dented.
“The first thing I saw when I opened the door was this,” says Skelton, pointing to a photo of a chipped corner on her wall. But Skelton and her husband were not the only residents disappointed with their home at McGavin Ranch, a 55-plus community on Sunland Avenue.
There were several others with problems. Like the Skeltons, they felt the manufacturer was not responding promptly. The Skeltons and other buyers claim they never did walk-throughs until after closing on their homes. Palm Harbor Homes, the company that built the houses, has since apologized and pledged to fix the problems.
But that hasn’t calmed angry, skeptical residents. Now, Skelton and at least seven other homeowners have filed complaints with the Office of Manufactured Housing against Palm Harbor and MGN Homes, the seller that also owns Mc-Gavin Ranch.
Those complaints are still under review, and MGN Homes says it has decided to stop dealing with Palm Harbor Homes due to the complaints.
McGavin Ranch is a small retirement community comprised of 179 lots, 50 of which hold Palm Harbor homes. The residents’ frustrations came to a head earlier this month when more than 50 people attended a meeting organized by the Skeltons.
Residents spoke about various problems, from moving in without working electricity to finding crooked or broken blinds. Only three said they felt satisfied.
“It took a whole year to get our doorbell to ring,” said Goldie Murphy, who purchased a model home about a year ago. “When neighbors would ring their doorbells, ours would go off.”
Ken Clay, a vice president of field operations at Palm Harbor Homes in Tempe, stood before the crowd and apologized for the delays in fixing the problems. He explained his company is dealing with several issues that have led to a backlog affecting many customers in the region.
Clay says the Dallas-based company has gone through a number of challenges at the local level which have extended the average wait time for complaints to 45 days. The company has managed to get it down to 23 now, but it’s still longer than the normal waiting period of about two weeks.
“It was the ‘perfect storm,’” Clay said of the company’s recent woes. “It was a mess.”
As a policy, the company normally won’t fix cosmetic complaints once a walk-through is completed and residents have signed the inspection paperwork. Due to the unusual delays, however, he has agreed to redo walk-throughs with residents who have outstanding concerns. He says the company will even agree to fix things on homes with expired warranties, as long as the request is within reason.
“Some of them had very reasonable complaints,” Clay says. “Some of them were overzealous.”
Manufactured houses must undergo multiple inspections by the federal government, the state, local officials and the companies themselves.
Clay says he’s frustrated residents have filed complaints against his company after he’s gone out of his way to respond to their concerns, and he questions whether some had an agenda.
“I’m feeling attacked,” he says.
But residents are not channeling their unhappiness only at Palm Harbor. They also are angry with MGN Homes for selling them houses in need of repair.
Under Arizona law, a walkthrough to check for problems isn’t required when someone buys a house.
But if a company offers one, certain procedures must be followed, says Gary Grounds, deputy director of Arizona’s Office of Manufactured Housing.
A cosmetic walk-through must be done within 30 days of the purchase. Buyers have 120 days to report more problems, and manufacturers have 90 days to respond.
In paperwork MGN Homes gives to residents, the company pledges a “pre-closing” walkthrough. But residents say they never got a walk-through until after closing and weren’t allowed on the property while Palm Harbor was assembling the homes because McGavin Ranch management threatened a $1,000 fine against anyone who entered.
One complainant, Betty Wiernega, says she didn’t find problems until after moving in.
“That’s when I found cracks in tubs, the shower walls, grout all over the tile floors,” she says. “I feel we should be able to go in any time and check. Back in Wisconsin when we had our house built, we could check every day,” she recalls.
And Murphy says she never got a walk-through.
Nancy Fisher, a comptroller with MGN Homes, acknowledges the company promises a “pre-closing” walk-through, but she says the timing of the walk-through shouldn’t matter. When customers make their first payment, that money is nonrefundable.
“The timing of the walkthrough is a moot point,” Fisher says. “The home is theirs.”
Fisher says the company has since struck the walk-through pledge from its paperwork. She also notes that the company bans people from the property while assembling the home because of liability concerns.
She adds that MGN Homes was disappointed in the craftsmanship of the housing.
Industry experts say it was unusual to hear of a community with so many complaints over quality.
Palm Harbor Homes and MGN Homes both have satisfactory ratings with the Better Business Bureau, and Palm Harbor received the 2006 Manufactured Housing of the Year award.
Last year, there were only nine complaints filed against Palm Harbor with the state Office of Manufactured Housing — a number that Grounds says is “really good.”
Bill Trottier, executive director of the Manufactured Housing Industry of Arizona, says he thinks the issues at McGavin Ranch are a “fluke” for Palm Harbor.
The meeting where Clay spoke to the residents demonstrates good faith on the company’s part, he says.
“What that tells me is the company is sincerely interested in wanting to help the people because companies just don’t do that.”