Couple’s dream home became a nightmare

Sink hole slowly swallows Air Force vet’s home. ‘We have nowhere else to go.’

In 2006, Cindy and Tony Finnell had been married 43 years. Tony, manager at a body shop in Douglasville, was retired from almost a quarter century in the Air Force, having served at airfields across Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. They were caring for Cindy’s elderly parents, so instead of renting a house as they had for most of their four decades together, they decided to use Tony’s VA benefits and buy a home. They found what they were looking for in the 2500 block of Rockmart Road in Villa Rica.

“It was just what we needed,” Tony explained. “Because of Cindy’s parents, we couldn’t have a house with any stairs. This was perfect.”

Carroll County building inspectors had given the home their stamp of approval. A Veterans Affairs inspector gave his okay. The Finnells even hired an inspector of their own who said there was no reason for them not to buy the one-story frame house. And so they did.

Eight years later, the Finnells are trapped in a house that is literally sinking into the earth, much in the way their case is sinking through the cracks.

“The house was supposed to have been built on a six-inch, one-piece slab,” Finnell said. “But when the concrete in the garage started crumbling, it was clear that the slab was only an inch-and-a-half thick.”

The house began to collapse last year, eventually crushing the septic lines underneath. The master bath filled with sewage and became unusable. Raw sewage spilled into the yard and drained underneath the house, causing it to sink even faster. The walls cracked. The paint peeled. The front door became a load-bearing wall, immovable, inoperable and dangerous.

“What if we had to evacuate?” Cindy asked. “What if there was a fire?”

By that time, her father, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, had passed away. But the home’s deterioration was so disconcerting to the Finnells that they moved her 95-year old mother to Alabama. They called plumbers, electricians and foundation repairmen. In each case, they were told not only that there was nothing to be done, but that the house was unsalvageable.

“There is no way of remedying the slab without totaling entire house,” wrote Andy Powell of Alchemy Polymers after an exhaustive examination of the fast-settling home. “The house not repairable.”

Then, pointing a finger at the builder, Powell wrote, “It appears the builder cut a number of corners pouring the slab and foundation. How this passed any inspection is also a big question.”

Builder Scotty Hicks, however, denied he took dangerous shortcuts in building the Finnell’s home between 2004 and 2006.

“I’ve built 47 homes and there’s never been anything wrong with them,” Hicks said. “I built (the Finnell’s house) above code.”

Hicks declared bankruptcy in 2012, dissolving his two-man company and making himself virtually immune from litigation over the Finnell’s crumbling house.

Carroll County Chief Building Inspector Randy Foster said Hicks probably wasn’t at fault for the disintegration of the Finnell’s home, although he said it’s a remarkably rare case.

“I’ve been doing this for about 18 years and no, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Foster said. But he pointed to the joists in the ceiling and the depth of the pilings on which the home was built.

“I found absolutely no loss of structural integrity,” he said after examining the house. “It must be something below grade that’s causing the issue.”

Pat Combs, general manager of Aquaguard Foundation Services, agreed. “It could be potentially sitting on top of an old trash pit.”

That appears to be the case. Structural engineer Brian Reid at Macon E. Gooch III Building Consultants, Inc., based in Auburn, Ga., conducted a survey of the Finnell house and found that it was built on top of a disposal pit.

“We believe that it was a trash pit used to dispose of chicken and cattle carcasses,” he said. “There’s no way the builder could have known that. It happened back when that land was used for agriculture.”

While that may absolve builder Scotty Hicks, it doesn’t fix the sagging foundation in the Finnells’ home. In fact, it may hinder that effort.

Tony and Cindy tried to file a claim with their insurance company. But the agent, citing the cause of the damage to their home as a sinkhole, completely denied their claim, pointing to a clause in the couple’s policy.

“They said, ‘Sorry about that. We don’t cover it,” Tony said. “They didn’t care.”

The Finnells then contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs. In a rare move, the VA forgave its portion of the Finnells’ loan. But that was only 25-percent of the $149,900 purchase price. The 71-year old couple is still on the hook for approximately $100,000. Letters from their mortgage lender, BB&T, indicate the bank is willing to let the Finnells walk away from the home without foreclosure. But there would still be a price to pay.

“They’re willing to give us what’s called a ‘deed in lieu of foreclosure,’ but they want us to leave by February tenth or the deal was off,” said Cindy.

But the Finnells would have had nowhere to go. Under terms of the BB&T deal their stellar credit rating would have been trashed and they would have been stuck with a tax bill for more than $30,000 — “earned” income in the form of loan forgiveness. And by walking away from their mortgaged home, in spite of its condition, the Finnells probably wouldn’t be able to buy another house for at least three years, given the black mark it will leave on their credit score.

“At our age, we bought this house thinking we’d be here until we died,” lamented Cindy. “Now it looks like we’ll lose all of it.” The couple decided to decline the BB&T offer.

Throughout it all, Tony said he and Cindy have kept up their house payments.

“We’re trying to do what’s right. We’re going to live up to the contract as best we can. We thought the bank would understand this isn’t our fault. But at this point, it hasn’t worked,” said Cindy.

Aquaguard General Manager Combs and engineer Brian Reid are now spearheading an effort to save the Finnell home.

“I’m not doing it for the publicity,” Reid said. “This man is a veteran. We simply have to do something for him.”

The lights in the cracked and twisted home have started to blink. Tony said it’s the wiring, which is beginning to buckle under the increasing structural strain. He’s afraid that will eventually lead to a fire. With doors that stick and windows that won’t open, he and Cindy are worried that they might wind up trapped in the house if it begins to burn.

“The house is dangerous,” Tony sighed. “It needs to be demolished. But right now, we have nowhere else to go.”