More homes in Wood­land Hills sub­di­vi­sion lack oc­cu­pancy cer­tifi­cates; some failed in­spec­tion

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ri­cardo Gán­dara

Last week, States­man Watch fea­tured an Austin cou­ple who dis­cov­ered their new home doesn’t have the cer­tifi­cate of oc­cu­pancy that the city re­quires — fol­low­ing a fi­nal in­spec­tion — be­fore a house can legally be in­hab­ited. States­man Watch has since learned that the cou­ple have a lot of com­pany: As many as 40 of the ap­prox­i­mately 170 homes that have been fin­ished in Cen­tex Homes’ Wood­land Hills sub­di­vi­sion don’t have a cer­tifi­cate of oc­cu­pancy.

Gir­ija Shan­mugam and her hus­band, Shan­mugam Sam­ba­si­vam, dis­cov­ered they were missing the cer­tifi­cate about the same time they learned that the Cen­tex home they bought in 2007 was built on a for­mer stock pond that the builder had filled in (af­ter re­ceiv­ing a city per­mit to do so). The cou­ple say the house has been plagued by faulty plumb­ing, and wa­ter some­times col­lects in their front yard and drive­way af­ter it rains or when neigh­bors on higher ground wa­ter their lawns.

Now, ac­cord­ing to city records, Cen­tex — which merged with Pulte Homes last year — has more per­mit­ting prob­lems in the subdi-

Con­tin­ued from B vi­sion off FM 969, east of U.S. 183. Thirty homes have ex­pired build­ing per­mits and, there­fore, could not re­ceive a cer­tifi­cate of oc­cu­pancy. A Pulte of­fi­cial said the num­ber of fin­ished homes with­out the cer­tifi­cates could be as high as 40 in the first phase of the planned 580-home com­mu­nity.

“We are tak­ing full re­spon­si­bil­ity to see this through, and it may take us three to four weeks,” said Va­lerie Dolenga, spokes­woman for the Pulte Group. The com­pany is work­ing with the city’s Plan­ning and Devel­op­ment Re­view Depart­ment to bring all the homes into com­pli­ance. The Wood­land Hills homes ei­ther failed fi­nal in­spec­tion or the build­ing per­mits ex­pired, ac­cord­ing to city records.

Gir­ija Shan­mugam and Shan­mugam Sam­baivam are ques­tion­ing who was re­spon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing the cer­tifi­cate of oc­cu­pancy at clos­ing when they bought the home. Their lender was Cen­tex Mort­gage, and the ti­tle com­pany was Com­merce Ti­tle, also a sub­sidiary of the builder, Cen­tex Homes.

Com­merce Ti­tle re­ferred ques­tions to Dolenga.

“We take re­spon­si­bil­ity,” Dolenga said. “I don’t know who has a check box (at clos­ing), but ul­ti­mately, it’s the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the builder.”

The Texas Depart­ment of In­surance over­sees ti­tle com­pa­nies in the state. Agency spokesman John Gree­ley said he doesn’t know whose re­spon­si­bil­ity it is — the ti­tle com­pany or the builder — to bring the cer­tifi­cate to the ta­ble at clos­ing. “But a cer­tifi­cate of oc­cu­pancy or­di­nar­ily would not be a ti­tle in­surance is­sue,” he said. “It’s the lender who re­quires ti­tle in­surance.”

Betsy Bird, spokes­woman for the Texas Real Es­tate Com­mis­sion, said that if the cou­ple had used a real es­tate agent or bro­ker — some­one rep­re­sent­ing their in­ter­ests at clos­ing — the prob­lem prob­a­bly would have been spot­ted.

“A li­censee would have asked for a cer­tifi­cate of oc­cu­pancy, and the builder should have pro­vided it. And if it could not be pro­duced, a li­censee might have ad­vised the home­buyer not to buy the prop­erty,” she said.

“Is the trans­ac­tion le­gal?” asked Gir­ija Shan­mugam, who has asked the builder for a re­fund or to pro­vide them a new home with­out wa­ter is­sues. The builder has de­clined to do so but vowed to ad­dress all their con­cerns and has ex­tended their plumb­ing war­ranty.

“I don’t know,” Dolenga said. “I can ask our attorneys.”

Though Dolenga ac­knowl­edges the im­por­tance of the cer­tifi­cate of oc­cu­pancy, she said that doesn’t mean the home is “not struc­turally sound and liv­able.”

Wendy Mor­gan, a spokes­woman for the Plan­ning and Devel­op­ment Re­view Depart­ment, which han­dles build­ing per­mits, said the trans­ac­tion is le­gal, de­spite the missing cer­tifi­cate of oc­cu­pancy.

“It’s my un­der­stand­ing the (cer­tifi­cate of oc­cu­pancy) for a prop­erty does not af­fect own­er­ship sta­tus,” Mor­gan said. “It af­fects oc­cu­pancy sta­tus and whether that prop­erty is legally oc­cu­pied. The prop­erty owner needs to work with the city to bring it into com­pli­ance.”

Tech­ni­cally, the cou­ple are il­le­gally liv­ing in their home, Mor­gan said.

“Yes, we could ask them to va­cate, but no one is do­ing that,” Mor­gan said. “The builder is work­ing with us to rec­tify the prob­lem.”

The cou­ple’s con­cerns got the at­ten­tion of Chris Werth, di­vi­sion pres­i­dent of Pulte Homes in Cen­tral Texas, who vis­ited the cou­ple late last week.

“He asked us what we wanted. I asked him what he was go­ing to give us,” Gir­ija Shan­mugam said. “He asked about our prob­lems, and I told him ev­ery­thing. I told him we hired a pri­vate en­gi­neer to check our house and foun­da­tion and his re­port con­flicts with a re­port from the builder.”

Dolenga said the meet­ing was fruit­ful, and Werth has of­fered to pay for the pri­vate en­gi­neer. He will meet with the cou­ple later this month to re­solve any out­stand­ing is­sues, she said.

“He told me to trust him and that we’re safe,” Gir­ija Shan­mugam said. “I don’t know.”

Ri­cardo B. Brazz­iell AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Shan­mugam Sam­ba­si­vam, left, and Gir­ija Shan­mugam have met with the di­vi­sion pres­i­dent of Pulte Homes to dis­cuss their com­plaints.

Ri­cardo B. Brazz­iell AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Shan­mugam Sam­ba­si­vam and Gir­ija Shan­mugam found out their home was built on the site of a filled-in stock pond, and have said plumb­ing prob­lems and stand­ing wa­ter are caus­ing dam­age.

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