Engineer: 'Stabilized' doesn't always mean 'fixed' for sinkhole properties

- If you're living in a home that's advertised as a repaired sinkhole home, do you really know how secure it is?

A home that has been "stabilized" might not necessarily be safe from sinkhole damage in the future.

Since a sinkhole swallowed two homes Friday in Pasco County, we've been contacted by people in the business of fixing those holes, concerned that what happened there could happen to thousands of homes in our area.

They explained that a lot of homeowners opt to stabilize their homes, for tens of thousands of dollars less, while skipping the more expensive method of fixing the actual sinkhole.

Friday's sinkhole swallowed two homes on Ocean Pines Drive in Land O' Lakes. It wasn't without warning. Records show a 50-foot-deep sinkhole on one of the properties was remediated in 2014 for $30,000.

A company by the name of Helicon installed 33 underpins, stabilizing the home's foundation. At the time, the insurance company engineer had also called for grouting, to fix and fill the sinkhole itself, at a price estimated over $100,000. Helicon's President went to the sinkhole on Friday, explaining that the client just went with underpinning.

"That does nothing, absolutely nothing to remediate any sinkhole conditions or loose soils that may be around the property," said Helicon President Jay Silver.

Essentially, it fixed the home, not the hole. It's not all that uncommon in the Tampa Bay area.

"It's massive, the number of homes out there, I would estimate, are in the thousands, that have underpinned only, where homeowners believe they are in a home that has been properly repaired and stabilized," said Darrell Hanecki, a Geotechnical Engineer at Hanecki Consulting Engineers, Inc. "Underpinning is generally not a repair for a sinkhole."

While searching some addresses on the Pasco County Property Appraiser's website, you'll see the word "Stabilized" next to "Sinkhole activity." But, if you pull records on remediation activity, you may read a line like this: "original investigation called for grouting, was deviated to underpin by homeowner."

"If you look at the report that was filed for that repair, it will say it was not intended to stabilize a sinkhole," Hanecki said. "I don't object to homeowners being allowed to do what they want with their home. But, at the same time, if you don't fix a sinkhole the way it was recommended, you shouldn't be allowed to sell that house as a repaired sinkhole home because it's not."

Under Florida law, home sellers must disclose sinkhole activity. But, homes are being sold with the understanding that the sinkhole was fixed with just underpinning, when there's still a hazard underground.

"We see it all too often," said real estate attorney Scott W. Fitzpatrick. "Maybe that owner wasn't around when the repair was done. And, they move into the house and lo and behold, they discover additional problems down the road."

These problems show themselves in a number of ways.

"Stair step cracks in the side of the house, the floor of the home cracking, cracking on the walls inside the home, doors not opening or shutting properly," Fitzpatrick explained. "The best thing the seller can do is fully and fairly disclose and if they tell the buyer what is lawfully required, then, the seller is in a pretty good spot at that point."

Hanecki stressed that buyers must know their risks and that "stabilized" doesn't always mean "fixed."

"Even if county records show it's stabilized, that's an error in a lot of cases," Hanecki said. "You want make sure you are following the original engineer of records' recommendations. If you underpin and you don't do grouting, know that what happened at Lake Padgett could happen at your house as well and you don't want to be in that predicament."

Hanecki said that, only in rare cases, where there's very shallow rock, for example, is underpinning, effective by itself.

Bottom line - before you move in, some investigating on your part could save you a lot of trouble down the road. The Clerk of Courts has engineers' reports for all sinkhole repairs. It'll be filed under the name of the homeowner at the time the work was done, not necessarily the current seller.

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