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Tax relief isn’t automatic once you report to the Lee County property appraiser’s office that your home has Chinese drywall.

You have to prove it first. That can be complicated and pricey for homeowners.

The house must meet the definition of defective drywall on the state Department of Health’s website. That includes providing documents that may include air quality reports, contractor repair estimates, home inspection and insurance reports, permits and photographs.

The county doesn’t do inspections, just gathers the information, said Bruce Basiliere, a field analyst for the property appraiser’s office who handles all drywall claims.

“When somebody calls me up and says they have Chinese drywall, they have to contact a third party and have a defective drywall inspection,” he said. The county doesn’t recommend anyone. It is up to the homeowner to choose a company.

That inspection could range from just a couple hundred dollars to more than $1,000, depending on depth of analysis and whether lab costs are involved.

Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson began to offer tax relief to defective drywall homeowners in September 2009, the first property appraiser in the state to do so.

The county wants to get an accurate list of homes with the drywall, Basiliere said.

He thinks of his conversations he’s had with people seeking help.

“A lot of people in Lehigh Acres, they have to live in their homes. They have no choice,” he said. “My heart goes out to those people.”

The number of cases has grown from 1,500 to 1,900 over the last four years. The number has grown in part because the range of homes offered tax relief has expanded. The original range included homes built from 2004-2008. The range gradually expanded to homes built from 2001-2010 as new evidence surfaced, Basiliere said.

Also, Wilkinson sent out 50,000 letters to homeowners in 2009 informing them of the proposed tax relief, and many were not received, Basiliere said. Over the years, homeowners got the message and more joined the list, he said.

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Basiliere believes the number of defective drywall homes is closer to 4,000. Some homes are kept off the list because the owners intend to sell it, he said.

Others believe being on the list carries a stigma, especially if they plan to repair the home and sell it.

Ray and Sandra Brotbeck bought a condo in North Fort Myers for $152,000 in April 2008 and discovered it had defective drywall. The builder fixed the home in 2011, and they were trying to sell the renovated home for $145,900. They disclosed the home had defective drywall, but was remediated.

“One recent couple who came by said that while our condo looked beautiful, they were not comfortable with the prospect of living in a place that once had Chinese drywall,” Ray wrote in an email.

On Friday, Brotbeck wrote back to say the condo finally was sold and will close in late May. “We finally were able to find a couple to whom the Chinese drywall wasn’t an issue,” he said. “They recently had a home inspection done, and our condo passed without any problems.”

But the situation is no-win for many Chinese drywall homeowners.

“It’s pretty sad that they spend all this money on this piece of property, and they’re trapped,” Basiliere said.

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