April 28, 2011
The minute Jason and Lauren Hardy saw the pristine house on Piros Drive, they knew their four-month search for a place they could call their own had come to an end.
The house had four bedrooms and three baths — a perfect size to accommodate the young couple, their toddler, and, they hoped, at least one more child. The previous owners had completely remodeled and repainted it. They could see a nearby park from the deck. And it fell into their $180,000-to-$200,000 price range.
“We loved it,” said Lauren Hardy, a stay-at-home mother of a 2-year-old. “It stood out to us. It was perfect.”
They signed a contract to buy the house for $185,000, and about a month later, on March 13, 2010 — after having the house inspected and mitigated for radon — 26-year-old Lauren and 28-year-old Jason were the official owners of their first house.
They immediately began to make it a home.
In went the furniture they’d bought with the money they saved while living with Lauren’s parents in Briargate. Up on the wall went a family picture. Into daughter Kelley’s bedroom went her toys and stuffed animals. Lauren started decorating with dragonfly fixtures and scheduling visits from the cable installer and handyman.
And then, while Lauren was hanging blinds in the basement, she saw the two syringes in a window well.
The Hardys never moved in.
In a scenario that plagues all too many homebuyers throughout the U.S., the Hardys discovered they’d bought a house contaminated by methamphetamine. In this case, the contamination apparently came from people using, not manufacturing, meth. (Click here to read a Q&A on how properties can become contaminated with meth.) No matter; several samples taken from the house tested positive for meth contamination, and not willing to expose themselves to it anymore than they already had, the Hardys haven’t entered it since.
Now, they’re stuck with a $1,114-a-month house payment on a property they can’t occupy, while facing enormous cleanup costs. All their belongings, including the new furniture, remain in the house. Lauren, who learned she was pregnant right around the closing, miscarried a few weeks later.
Lauren’s father, Bob Wenz, has become the couple’s advocate, trying to make things right and hold someone accountable, but it may be a difficult battle to win.
“It’s a mess,” Wenz said.
The Hardys want theirs to be a cautionary tale for anyone purchasing a house in Colorado, and they offer one piece of advice: Spring for the money for a meth-contamination test, because you can’t count on current laws to protect you, and you can’t know for sure what once took place in that property.
“This is a familiar story to us,” said Colleen Brisnehan, environmental protection specialist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “It really is ‘buyer beware.’”
LAWS LOSE BINDING POWER IN BUREAUCRATIC CHAIN
It isn’t that lawmakers haven’t tried to do something about meth contamination in buildings and other property, including cars. A statute that took effect in 2005 to address the growing problem of contamination from meth manufacturing gave the state health department authority to set standards for cleaning up properties. The result was a 21-page document outlining procedures for sampling, analyzing data, cleaning properties, and reporting the results.
Lawmakers later expanded the definition of an illegal drug laboratory to include areas where controlled substances are not only manufactured, but “disposed of, used or stored.” They also passed a statute that requires sellers to disclose meth use or manufacturing at the property, and gives buyers the right to test for meth contamination and opt out of the contract if it tests positive.
But a number of issues still make it difficult for homebuyers to ascertain whether they’re about to purchase a place where meth was made or used:
• Law enforcement agencies don’t hew to the definition of “drug lab” as outlined in the state statute, so places where meth has been used are unlikely to be reported and subject to cleanup regulations, Brisnehan said. The distinction is important in the Hardys’ case; El Paso County sheriff’s deputies made two meth-related arrests at the Piros Drive house in 2009, including one where the suspect admitted using the drug. But the information never went beyond the deputies’ reports, because there’s no policy or requirement to do so, said Sgt. Mike Schaller, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.
• There is no comprehensive database of properties where meth was used or manufactured. The Colorado Springs Police Department maintains a listing of houses where meth manufacturing occurred, but the list doesn’t include properties contaminated from use. And naturally, no list will include places that haven’t been busted, reported or tested. In addition, properties cleaned to standards are removed from lists.
• Sellers can be unaware of meth use or manufacturing in the house, or they can simply plead ignorance, Brisnehan said. And, as the Hardys can attest, buyers rarely think to test for meth. “It wasn’t on our radar,” Lauren Hardy said.
• Cleanup regulations are triggered only when meth contamination is found — and the statutes don’t give any agency, including the state health department, oversight of cleanups. The law allows for establishment of a “governing body” in a city or county to serve as the central clearinghouse on meth cleanups and enforcement, but there are no mandates for those entities to do anything. “They have the opportunity to be involved, but there are no requirements,” Brisnehan said. Without an active governing body to follow through on cleanups, there is no guarantee they’re being done to standards.
Enforcement of regulations also varies from county to county, depending what the governing body is and how much authority it’s been granted by city or county lawmakers. Brisnehan said the Tri-County Health Department, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, has one of the best programs in Colorado. It’s funded by permit and oversight fees, which covers most of the program costs.
“Under their program, they require a (cleanup) permit and will issue the OK when they’re happy with it. They actually take confirmation samples. They review everything,” Brisnehan said.
In El Paso County, the health department’s meth cleanup program was axed in 2009 because of budget cuts, and the agency no longer has an oversight role. When the program was in effect, the department made sure that state clean-up standards were met and documented.
“The local implementation ended up playing an assurance role — that the property owner was putting some thought into who they wanted to work with; they that hired an industrial hygienist; and that there were some standards and expectations to be set on behalf of the contractors,” said Dr. Bernadette Albanese, medical director for El Paso County Public Health.
In the meantime, law enforcement agencies in El Paso County eyeball cleanup documents to make sure all the blanks are filled and signatures are present, “but they’re not doing critical technical reviews,” Brisnehan said.
El Paso County Commissioner and Board of Health member Sallie Clark said she and commissioner Amy Lathen are looking into reinstating a meth cleanup program for the health department, with the hope that funding will become available when the department moves to the new county building and begins to share expenses with other agencies.
“There are certain things a health department should do, and I think that’s one of them,” Clark said.
HOUSE’S DIRTY HISTORY FALLS THROUGH THE CRACKS
Whether stronger regulations or better enforcement would have helped the Hardys is questionable, because so much seemed to slip through the cracks with the house on Piros Drive.
“It’s a circus of errors,” said Wenz, Lauren’s father.
The house, built in 1989, went into foreclosure in July 2009. Wenz said it appears the owners had been renting it, and the renters trashed it.
The bank that serviced the mortgage, Wells Fargo, took ownership of the house, then turned it over to the Veterans Administration, which guaranteed the loan.
Around that time, neighbors were reporting suspicious activity at the house, with people coming and going at all hours of the day. One neighbor, Mary Meredith, called the Wells Fargo office in San Francisco and spoke to someone in the president’s office.
“What I told them was that there was a lot of traffic going in and out of the house,” she said. “We felt there were people who were actually — I guess the term would be squatting — in the house, and we suspected extensive drug use in the house, if not trafficking.”
It’s possible that Meredith’s complaint could have triggered a test for meth contamination and a cleanup, but no one acted on it. Jason Menke, a spokesman for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, says their records show that neighbors called twice in July 2009 to report the property was “not secure,” and Wells Fargo passed along the information to the VA.
“Our records indicate we were made aware that the property was not secure, but there’s nothing specific related to drug use or activity,” he said.
The VA did not return phone calls to discuss what information they were given or whether they had reports of drug use at the house.
A series of arrests at the house in 2009 also failed to trigger any notification of possible meth contamination. In June 2009, sheriff’s deputies went to the house to check on a complaint about barking dogs and arrested a woman for possession of drug paraphernalia.
About three months later, deputies were called to the house again, and encountered the same woman, who admitted she had been “partying heavily the past few weeks,” according to the report. Deputies found meth in the master bedroom and another bedroom. The house was in shambles, the toilets were full of feces, and dog feces littered the basement floor.
In January 2010, the VA sold the house to a limited partnership, Bridge to Prosperity, for $126,000. Bridge to Prosperity then pumped about $40,000 into fixing it up, with the intention of selling it. William Hal Nabors is listed as the registered agent for Bridge to Prosperity, and his wife, Verna, said they had no idea drugs had been used in the house, so they didn’t have it tested for meth. Consequently, they had nothing to disclose to the Hardys.
“It really shocks me to hear this,” Verna Nabors said. “There were no red flags, or we’d have had nothing to do with it. We would never have purchased the home if there was any trace of meth.”
A PLEA FOR THE BANK
TO DO THE RIGHT THING
Wenz has become a pit bull in his effort to make things right for his daughter and son-in-law. He was able to get approval for grant through an Environmental Protection Agency program that provides money for environmental cleanup projects; the grant will pay for remediation of the house, to the tune of about $20,000, but it’s unlikely to cover cleanup of the couple’s belongings. With help from his wife, Suellen, he’s spent countless hours calling cleanup contractors to line up estimates, writing and calling the VA and Wells Fargo, tracking down sheriff’s reports and educating himself on all things meth.
“It’s slow, expensive, exasperating and just generates paperwork,” he said.
His hope was that Wells Fargo would buy back the house after it’s cleaned, trade it for another house the Hardys could move into, then resell it.
“I say to Wells Fargo: You don’t have a legal responsibility, but a moral one,” Wenz said. “You were notified that there was drug use in the house.”
Menke, the Wells Fargo spokesman, said the company’s options are “very limited” because there were no reports specific to drug activity. But he indicated the door isn’t closed to further discussion. “We’re planning on having conversations with Dr. Wenz and perhaps the family,” Menke said in late April, but as of Wednesday, Wenz hadn’t been called.
In the meantime, Jason and Lauren Hardy are still living with the Wenzes and trying to figure out their next move. Jason Hardy, a veteran who was wounded in Iraq, says the VA will take the deed in lieu of foreclosure, and they can walk away from the house, but Wenz said that wouldn’t compensate the couple for the $30,000 they’ve already put into their house payments, improvements and the new furnishings that are unlikely to be salvagable.
Two things are certain: They won’t move into the Piros Drive house, even after it’s cleaned, because, Lauren Hardy says, it gives them the “creepy-crawlies” to know what went on inside. And in the future, they’ll gladly pay for a meth test on any house they want to buy.
“I want people to know that if you’re buying a house, get it tested,” Jason Hardy said. “It’s money well spent.”