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Lee County's defective drywall homes may get break

Jul. 18, 2009


Plug in: Share and receive info on Chinese drywall

1:10 A.M. — Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson wants to give a property assessment break to owners of homes built with Chinese drywall.

Wilkinson said he will send about 50,000 letters July 27 to owners of single-family homes built during the years the tainted drywall was imported.

The letter was still in draft form Friday.

"We're working on it. We know there's a problem," Wilkinson said. "We're taking a proactive position similar to what we did in Hurricane Charley."

After Charley, those with a damaged home had their assessments lowered by the cost it took to fix the home, called in appraisal terms, "the cost to cure," Wilkinson said.

Drywall assessments would be reduced by the amount of money it takes to fix the problem.

One dilemma is figuring out exactly what years the drywall was used, he said. That will determine how many homeowners will get letters.

Estimates have placed the imports between 2004 and 2007.

But David Krause, toxicologist for the state health department, has found at least two homes built in 2001 with the drywall. Other reports say the product was still being used in construction in 2008.

The depth of the problem will determine the effect on the tax rolls, Wilkinson said.

Property values plunged an average of 22.7 percent in Lee County this year.

About 7,500 homes in Southwest Florida are estimated to have the drywall, but the number specific to Lee County is unknown.

"If we have half of that it wouldn't surprise me," Wilkinson said.

Another problem is that the clock is ticking toward Aug. 14, when new Truth In Millage, or TRIM, notices, snapshots of property owners' tax bills, will be mailed.

"The TRIMs will not recognize any reduction due to Chinese drywall," Wilkinson said. The notices start printing by Aug. 1.

But even after the notices are sent, his staff may be able to come up with a policy for this year, based on a percentage reduction, Wilkinson said. A second TRIM notice would then be sent.

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The drywall was imported because of a domestic shortage caused by a building boom in the wake of the 2004-05 hurricanes.

The drywall corrodes copper air conditioning coils and other metal items including TVs, jewelry and wiring inside electrical outlets.

Some residents in homes with the drywall complain of health symptoms including headaches, raspy throats, breathing problems and nosebleeds.

Federal and state environmental, consumer and health agencies have not determined if it causes health problems.

"We know there's an impact on the value of some homes," Wilkinson said. "Many people have been forced out of their homes."

The national building industry estimates it would take $100,000 to remove drywall from a home - at this point the only way known to fix the problem.

Lennar has set aside $39.8 million to repair the damage in 400 homes in Florida, an average of $99,500 per home.

But does the property have zero value?

Wilkinson said he doesn't believe so. Even if you tear down a house with drywall, you have to consider the entire property, he said.

"The land has value," he said.

Wilkinson doesn't want all 50,000 letter recipients to believe they will get a reduction. They will have to provide documentation they have drywall damage, he said.

The homeowner will complete a survey. Documentation would be a copy of whatever information they have about the problem in their home, Wilkinson said.

For example, did state or federal agencies visit and test the home? Do they have photos of damage or test results? Do they have a contract to fix the problem?

Residents can e-mail documentation to a new address that also will be on the property appraiser's Web site:

Staff will have to confirm whatever information is presented before any reduction can be taken, Wilkinson said.

Mai Kim of Lehigh Acres said a reduction in assessment will not help.

She is behind in her mortgage in a house she believes has defective drywall. Her home was tested in March by her builder, Engle homes, but she hasn't received the results.

"I don't have $100,000 to fix it," she said. The assessment reduction is good for people if they have the money.

"But even if the tax is reduced," she said, "I cannot stay in there."

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