By Juliet Martinez
Struggling homeowners who need expensive repairs can be vulnerable to predatory tactics, as ProPublica uncovered when they investigated HomeVestors, famous for their “We Buy Ugly Houses” signs. Although the franchise's marketing promises a quick, easy cash sale, the HomeVestors approach targets vulnerable homeowners and those in desperate situations.
In May, ProPublica released the results of their investigation with stories of HomeVestors franchises buying homes – often from elderly people who had paid off their mortgages – at far below market value. The sellers said the buyers told them their properties were worthless, or, in one case, that their hoarding problem would lead to the city taking their home away, which was untrue.
“You were always lying to them. That’s what we were trained,” Katie Southard, who owned a franchise in North Carolina, told ProPublica. “There was a price that you could pay, but you would always go lower and tell them that was the price you could pay.”
ProPublica reported that HomeVestors franchises used heavy-handed legal tactics against sellers who got cold feet. One elderly woman with dementia signed her Los Angeles County home over to a HomeVestor franchise, but her adult children tried to cancel the sale because she was not capable of understanding the contract. The franchise filed paperwork with the city to block a sale to another buyer.
A HomeVestors spokesperson said in a statement that the cases ProPublica's investigation highlighted were not representative of the more than 71,400 homes its franchises bought since 2016.
“We do not discriminate or target our advertising to any specific demographic groups based on age, race, or socio-economic status,” the company said. It removed several franchises from its system and is investigating the cases to “determine appropriate action” in light of ProPublica's reporting.
Real estate investors, also known as flippers, are not licensed like real estate agents and their work is largely unregulated. In contrast, real estate agents are required by law to represent a homeowner’s best interests. State laws, licensing requirements and an industry code of ethics clearly define a real estate agent's responsibilities.
If your home needs repairs to get up to code, see the home repair resources on Page 18.
Spray insulation: buyer beware
Spray foam insulation’s selling points are strong: It is an excellent insulator that can be installed in as little as a day without removing drywall. And with the Inflation Reduction Act’s tax rebates for home weatherization, demand for this treatment in Pennsylvania's aging homes may be rising.
But spray foam insulation carries serious risks, as the Vermont-based news outlet VTDigger reported in May. It works well if applied perfectly, but perfect conditions can be hard to achieve. If applied in less-than-perfect conditions, spray foam can trap moisture, leading to water damage like rotting framing and toxic mold.
The home's residents can suffer as well. When a contractor applies the foam, they wear a mask and respirator, combine two liquid chemical components and spray them into the house. The components combine to form the foam, but if the ratios are not right or the components do not fully react, toxic fumes can persist long after the foam has cured and hardened.
One of the liquid components is isocyanate, a known cause of occupational asthma. The other component includes amine catalysts and polyol, which irritate the respiratory system. Amine catalysts can also cause eye and skin irritation. The flame retardants added to this component to meet building codes accumulate in the body faster than we can flush them out. Studies have shown chemical flame retardants disrupt the body’s hormonal system and may cause cancer.
Building science experts recommend spray foam insulation for old, rubble-stone basements and cellars, but nowhere else inside a home, VTDigger reported.
While Pennsylvania requires home improvement contractors to register with the state, spray foam insulation contractors are not specifically licensed or regulated, so their level of training and knowledge of the risks can vary widely.
Juliet Martinez is the managing editor of The Homepage.