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Mobtown Beat

When a House Is Not a Home

When Laverne Mayers Bought her House, She Thought She was Making a Good Investment--Until the Place Started Falling Apart

Ken Royster
Nightmare Home: Laverne Mayers stands beneath a hole in her ceiling exposing the problematic plumbing pipes that leaked sewage into her kitchen.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 2/25/2004

Last December, 43-year-old Laverne Mayers and her 16-year-old son, Cedric, were using the bathroom at their neighborhood gas station because the plumbing in their new house--which they'd just moved into on the first of that month--wasn't working. In fact, one day while Cedric was brushing his teeth, water containing fecal material gushed from a leaking pipe in the upstairs bathroom down into the kitchen. Today, the Mayers family still can't take showers at home, and they order takeout meals because of the lingering smell in the kitchen that they sometimes refer to as their "wasteland."

Mayers thought she was making a wise investment last October when she bought the house at 614 E. 43rd St. using insurance money she collected after the untimely death of her 11-year-old son, Sheldon, who died of carbon-monoxide poisoning during a brutal snowstorm in February 2003 when he and some friends tried to escape the cold by hanging out in a running car.

But the experience of homeownership, which she thought would be one way to help memorialize her son, quickly became a nightmare for her when she started having problems with her dream home. Mayers says she agreed to buy the home last year after meeting with a man named Antonio Almenara, who at the time worked for a firm called Patuxent Development and Co. She says she met put a deposit on the house in April, agreeing to make the purchase based on a contract stating that the company would repair the plumbing, flooring, foundation, and ventilation system of the house. The repairs were to be completed by Nov. 14, 2003.

"When I walked in, it looked like somebody had just moved out," Mayers says. "I knew the walls needed painting, but I didn't know that the floors were bad, the electric was no good, and the foundation was crumbling."

Mayers paid $72,000 for the home that she today calls her "money pit." Records from the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation reveal that Patuxent, a Las Vegas-based company doing business in the city as 614 43rd Street Land Trust, purchased the property from Pledged Property II in April 2003 for a mere $19,000. Pledged bought the property from former owner Esther Cherry for $22,750 in 2002.

Like many of the properties in the immediate neighborhood, 614 E. 43rd was assessed for more than it actually sold for when Patuxent bought it. Records indicate that the property was assessed in 2003 at $49,650. Assessments for many properties in the neighborhood also hover in the $50,000 to $60,000 range. However, in the past decade, only a handful of the buildings have sold for that much. In fact, most of the homes that have been sold in Mayers' neighborhood in recent years reflect prices of about $40,000 or less. Though she didn't realize it at the time, Mayers now says she believes she was taken advantage of when Patuxent sold 614 E. 43rd to her for such a high price.

Mayers didn't hire a buyer's agent to negotiate the deal on her house; rather, she says, Patuxent did everything. Almenara arranged for Mayers to use the company's own appraiser and mortgage company. As a result, no one was obligated to look out for Mayers' best interests, and no one to pull "comps"--an industry abbreviation for quotes on the value of comparable homes in the neighborhood--on her behalf.

"[Buyers] should always have their own buyer's agent whenever they buy a property," says Naji Rashid, an owner of Remax real estate in Parkville. Rashid says buyers who don't have someone looking out for their best interests are put at a great disadvantage in real-estate transactions, "especially . . . in this [seller's] market."

But Mayers says she wasn't aware that she should have had someone besides Patuxent assisting her in the purchase.

"I didn't hire a seller's agent because I didn't know any better," she says. "Almenara told me not to worry about anything--that he would take care of everything."

Fortunately for Mayers, she did hire her own home inspector to examine the property just before settlement. Patuxent's appraiser Pat Sweeney had appraised the property at $72,000, but Mayers' home inspector discovered that the house needed extensive repair work. The inspector's report indicated "foundation water damage, mold growing in the kitchen, cracking and crumbling of roof paper, and holes throughout, warped floor, etc." Mayers says Almenara agreed to have Patuxent Development fix these and other problems the inspector noted by Nov. 14, one month after the settlement date. Mayers agreed to the compromise.

Because she couldn't afford to pay both her rent of $444 and her new monthly mortgage of $645, she moved into her new house in December, still hoping that Almenara would hold up Patuxent's end of the deal. Mayers says some of the necessary work was completed as the months went by, but many of the agreed-upon repairs were not done. Of the work that was finished by contractors, Mayers says it was "shoddy."

"When they [Almenara] guaranteed that they would fix everything, I took them at their word," she says. But when water started leaking from pipes, her heating system stopped working correctly, the ceiling separated from the wall in her son's bedroom, and she discovered electrical wires wrapped around plumbing structures, Mayers didn't know what to do. She says she tried to enlist Almenara's help, and he assured her that the company would address the problems.

"But he didn't fix everything," she says. "And any thing he did fix, doesn't work properly."

In January, David Holt, co-owner of Comfortable and Reliable Contractors of Abingdon, says he was working on a neighbor's house in Mayers' neighborhood. He says Mayers came out of her house and approached him, crying, and begged him to help her fix the mounting problems that were making her house unbearable. Holt agreed to take a look, and he says he discovered numerous issues. For example, he says, in an effort to repair the home's plumbing in the bathroom, the seller's workmen cut through a floor joist in the second floor.

"By Maryland state law," Holt says, "you're only supposed to cut one-third out, and they cut three-quarters to get a pipe in."

The result? "If you go up and stand in the bathtub and wiggle, you can feel the bathtub about to fall through the floor," Holt says. "And the same with the toilet."

Holt also noted problems with the house's flooring and electrical system. He cited exposed wires in the first-floor ceiling, for instance, where water had gushed from the bathroom above.

"I'm surprised she didn't have a fire when the water dripped on top of it," he says. Holt says helped Mayers out by making some of the most pressing repairs to her home free of charge.

"It was the worst workmanship that me and my partner have ever seen since we've been in this business," says Holt, who's been in contracting for 15 years. "And the hard part is, she doesn't have money to go out and hire a lawyer, et cetera. I went in there and spent a whole day with the plumbing, just to help her out. Just so she can use the toilet. It's really sad what the seller did to her."

Mayers says she now feels she was a victim of property flipping--the practice of buying houses on the cheap and reselling them at inflated prices to unsuspecting homebuyers. According to the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, it is common for property flippers--usually real-estate speculators or developers--to discourage new homebuyers from using independent agents to represent them. Rather, according to the Attorney General's Office, flippers are likely to control all aspects of the transaction, from showing to mortgaging to making repairs. Though the state and city have cracked down on property flipping in the past several years, the practice has remained prevalent in Baltimore. Last year U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) announced that property flipping had been reduced in the city by 59 percent, but residents of many lower-income neighborhoods say they still see friends, family, and neighbors being preyed upon by such predatory real-estate practices.

According to information released by Mikulski's office in October 2003, a house is considered "flipped" if it is bought and sold for a higher price on the same day, or if it was bought and resold within six months for a markup of 50 percent or more. Patuxent bought the East 43rd Street property in March, the transaction was recorded in April with the state, and it was resold to Mayers for a 200 percent markup seven months later--just past the six-month cutoff point for it to fit the formal definition of flipping.

However, Mayers says, she put a down-payment deposit of $500 on the property on April 26, just a month and a half after Patuxent purchased it. Then, Mayers says, she was told that she had to "wait for a while to actually purchase the house." She says she waited six months between the down payment and finally signing a contract on Oct. 16. At settlement, closing costs for her home were more than $5,000.

When contacted about the sale of Mayers' house, Antonio Almenara told City Paper that he did not actually sell the house to her, but that he was just acting as a trustee for Patuxent. "I am not involved with the seller any longer," he said.

When asked about the value and condition of the property, Almenara said "there was an appraisal for $73,000 that was ordered by the bank. I don't recall which [bank]."

Almenara maintains that appraisers came up with that number by comparing Mayers' house to the values of other renovated properties sold in that neighborhood in the six months prior to her purchase. But Mayers' records show that the two comparisons the appraiser used were for houses seven and 15 blocks away.

When asked about the issue of flipping, Almenara said that his old company just happened to get a good deal on the house, which was not inhabited when it was purchased from Pledged Properties last April.

"A house that is uninhabited will obviously sell for less than a house that is renovated," Almenara says. A property that has been uninhabited for an extended period of time will likely require more extensive renovation, he says, pointing out that the property was assessed for $63,170 as of Jan. 1--up from $49,650 in 2003.

"So the value is absolutely there," he says. "I have no doubt whatever. . . . There's a lot of sales activity going on in the Waverly section that is impacting that general area."

His take on Mayers' complaint that she was the victim of a real-estate scheme? "Laverne Mayers is lying," he says. Almenara says the company gave her a new roof, new windows, a new furnace, an updated bathroom, updated electric, new paint, new light fixtures, new carpeting, a new back porch, and a semifinished club basement.

"She had a home inspector come in, we made the repairs, and she signed a document that indicated she was satisfied with the condition of the house," he concludes.

Mayers' response to Almenara's charge that she's lying? "All I can say is the truth will come out," she says. "I took Mr. Almenara at his word--which apparently is worth a lot less than this overpriced, underrepaired house."

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