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In November, John and Mary Jo Rossini began noticing black grit on their kitchen counters.
When neighbor and certified home inspector Bob Flaherty examined the house in Sun City Hilton Head, he found moisture levels behind their stove three times higher than expected. The black grit was mold, and it was eating through the walls, Flaherty said.
"Where water had gotten in, mold started to grow ... You could put your hand right through it; it was that rotten," Flaherty said. "They lost the structural integrity of the house. The studs were full of mold -- they were spongy soft. There was so much moisture in the wall we opened that spots almost had running water coming out of it."
Although the Rossinis' home is an extreme example, mold has occasionally turned up inside the walls of homes with stucco exteriors elsewhere in the Lowcountry.
Mold thrives in damp conditions where it has something to feed on, like wood, Flaherty said.
The culprit at the Rossinis' home, according to Flaherty, was stucco improperly applied when the house was built in 2006. The Rossinis moved in that December, John Rossini said.
According to George Hutchinson of Spring Construction in Bluffton, moisture intrusion from some types of stucco imperfections can be prevented by inspections done before the outer coats of stucco are applied.
Beaufort County requires these inspections, said Arthur Cummings, director of building inspection and code enforcement. They weren't enough to protect the Rossinis' home, however, and it is unclear whether theirs is an isolated incident.
When John Chakeris, a Charleston-based attorney, attempted to build a class-action lawsuit against Pulte Homes in 2008 for improper stucco application on Sun City homes, about 700 homeowners wanted to join the suit. But the court refused to handle it as a class-action case. On Thursday, Chakeris said he is representing about 140 Sun City homeowners in ongoing lawsuits over stucco problems against Pulte Homes or SC State Plaster, the contractor Pulte hired to do the stucco work.
After inspecting 30 Sun City homes for pockets of moisture that can lead to destabilizing mold, Flaherty, a retired mechanical engineer, said he found four with problems severe enough to require at least part of a wall to be replaced and three with more minor issues.
These findings prompted homeowners at a Crescent Creek neighborhood meeting May 17 to ask Derek Morgan, a Pulte Homes representative, whether the Sun City developer would inspect all the homes in the neighborhood, said Mary Jo Rossini. Morgan said no, according to Rossini.
Caryn Klebba, Pulte Homes spokeswoman, said homeowners asked representatives of the company to attend the neighborhood meeting, but could not confirm the topics discussed.
"Unless we found something that we believed was a possible issue in other homes, we would not inspect all homes in a community based on an issue at one home," Klebba wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. "We encourage any resident who believes they have an issue with their home to contact us. In our opinion, we have not found a reason to inspect all homes."
Pulte began repairing the damaged walls of the Rossinis' home Jan. 26, and as of Thursday, only small touch-ups remained, John Rossini said. Pulte has borne the repair costs under the Rossinis' five-year warranty agreement, according to Klebba.
Flaherty encouraged homeowners to have their walls inspected. If they discover problems after their warranties expire, "they're on the hook" for what could be a lot of money, he said.