THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- This old house: Roof leaks top list of problems

"At first," Laura Watkins says, "the house appeared old, but in reasonable condition." That was in April 2006, when she moved into a cottage on Jeanne Seering's farm in Greenwood. 

Watkins claims, however, that as the months went by she began noticing problems: cracked windows, holes in window screens, rotten floors, and significant ceiling leaks in almost every room. She further claims that she "repeatedly" told Seering about the leaks, and that Seering "continually" promised to replace the shingles. This was delayed several months due to the weather being "too hot, too windy, or too rainy." 

During the last week of October, Watkins says, Seering began scraping off the old shingles. On November 7, she allegedly stripped the last shingles and tar paper off the roof over the laundry room, covered the bare boards with a tarp, and stopped work for the day. That night, according to the Weather Underground website, Greenwood got 0.69 inches of rain, and, Watkins claims, "water began pouring from the ceiling." She put buckets under the worst leaks and left a note for Seering, who was out, at her house next door– but says Seering later told her she'd mistaken the note for trash and thrown it away. 

Watkins was away the night of November 8, but claims that when she got home, Seering– who was on the roof hammering down new shingles– told Watkins she'd heard "something large" fall inside the cottage. This turned out to be a large section of the laundry room ceiling. The conversation turned contentious after that and ended, by Watkins' account, with Seering's offer to refund her deposit if she wanted to move out– that day, if Watkins desired. She replied that she'd need time to find a new place, but would try to be out by the end of the month. 

Watkins' search was successful, and she gave notice that she'd be out by December 1. When she asked for her deposit, however, she claims Seering refused, saying that Watkins' cats had damaged the cottage and she didn't trust Watkins to clean up properly. For her part, Watkins denies that the cats had done any damage. 

By December 1, Watkins had not only moved out, but filed a warrant in debt in Albemarle General District Court for her deposit plus two months' rent (the time during which the roof was being reshingled). She had also hired Walt Leytham, owner of Commonwealth Inspection Services, to inspect the house on November 28. His report notes numerous serious problems with the cottage. 

Here are the conditions that were rated as "safety hazard– correction is needed." On the exterior of the house, holes to the interior needed to be sealed properly. One part of the crawl space had six inches of standing water. Bare electrical wires in the kitchen were "extremely dangerous to occupants." Mold was growing on the bedroom and closet walls, and "musty mold smell [was] very prevalent in back bedroom." In addition to the collapsed ceiling in the laundry room, the ceilings in all the other rooms were cracked, with mold on the ceiling in the back bedroom. 

Nails showed through the flooring, and the bathroom floor was rotting. There were no smoke detectors; the combination of no smoke detectors and a wood stove, Leytham stated, was "a very dangerous situation." The floor below the toilet was rotting, and the wood had deteriorated so much in the flooring under the shower that it was not safe to use. These were only the most serious of Leytham's findings; he also reported that the roof was in "extremely poor condition, well past its useful life." 

Seering declined to respond to phone calls. Stay tuned; when Watkins' suit has been decided, I'll report on the outcome.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.