BRUNSWICK - If toxic mold in your home is a problem, you may be better off calling Ghostbusters than most of the regulatory agencies in charge of protecting consumers, judging by one woman's story.
More than six months ago, The Record published an account of a town resident who was forced to leave her home because the toxic mold that had infested it was slowly poisoning her and her teenage daughter, a problem that was not disclosed before the sale was closed.
Now, Kristine Choma, a 38-year-old single mother who works as a project analyst for the Progressive Insurance Co., says she's in much the same position today as she was then.
Apart from the $105,500 Choma borrowed from M&T Bank to buy the 6 Magill Ave. home in early 2004, she owes for the furniture that fills the home, which she abandoned after a year, $10,000 for other furniture she bought to fill her Colonie apartment after abandoning her home and other bills.
She estimates that $32,360 in property was abandoned, in addition to gifts and items of sentimental value, plus a new $7,000 roof that failed to stop water from entering the home.
Choma said she was forced to abandon the home because she is allergic to the Stacchybotris and Aspergillus strains of mold, both of which are toxic. The mold began to show up six months after she bought the home in visible swaths, first in her hallway and then throughout the two-story home's second floor.
Exposure to the mold caused her hair to fall out, memory loss, headaches, peeling eyelids, nose bleeds and a fungal infection that covered her face with red blotches. Her daughter, once an Averill Park track star, also suffered respiratory problems, but both women's symptoms subsided once they left the contaminated home.
Her homeowners' insurance company, Allstate, denied a claim last year, calling the mold infestation a condition that existed before Choma bought the house, discounting her claims the inspector she hired before the closing never mentioned the infestation. M&T is now moving to foreclose, Choma says, expecting what good credit she has left will be ruined.
She stands to lose her one remaining possession, her truck, because she made too large of a cash down payment and her many creditors feel entitled to this $6,000 in equity even though she still owes part of the truck's cost. She is also currently being audited by the Internal Revenue Service for an income tax return.
"Mold is specifically excluded from being covered by a policy" as it is not considered "a sudden and accidental loss" such as a tree falling on a house, which would be covered by a typical homeowners insurance policy, Allstate spokeswoman Jaclyn Darrohn said.
Though the initial inspection found nothing, the structural engineers she later hired to inspect the home didn't need more than a glance to determine the dormers that had been added to the the second floor at some point were sinking, compromising the structural integrity of the roof and letting in moisture. Choma blames the structural deficiency for the mold, which she believes was deliberately hidden from her before she bought the house.
She now feels cornered, with little support from the public sector, while her creditors line up to divide what they can of her remaining assets.
M&T Bank, which loaned her the money to buy the home, went as far as to suggest on July 27 that she sell the home with full disclosure of its problems for its assessed value of $30,000 and pass the funds along to them in exchange for writing off the $70,000 balance, an offer Choma refused.
Selling the home without full disclosure of its problems, as Choma claims was done to her, is grounds for a charge of fraud.
Since the family who sold the house to Choma have not been charged with a crime, their identities are being withheld.
Choma believes three other buyers approached the former owners but backed away after seeing results of engineering reports. Their identities may be in a file compiled during an investigation by the state Department of State. She believes she could prove she was defrauded if she could reach these persons and confirm they were told of the home's problems while she was not, but she has been unable to obtain access to the closed file.
She credits Brunswick Building Department employee Ron Neissen with helping her most by not condemning her home. The town has since declared the building, which is prone to flooding, unfit for occupancy.
Between June 17 and 21, Choma sent letters to senators Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gov. George Pataki, state Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, Rensselaer County Legislature Chairman Neil J. Kelleher and 11 other legislators, and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
Only Schumer replied in writing, Choma said, with a form letter thanking her for her concern with environmental protection but making no indication her letter was actually read.
But on Friday, less than two hours after a reporter's call to Schumer's Washington, D.C., office, a staffer in his Albany office called Choma's cell phone to relay an offer from the senator to write a letter to the IRS on her behalf, should she ask for this assistance.
The only time that phone number was sent to Schumer's office was in the June letter. She said believes the letter was kept on file without action during the interceding months.
A Schumer staffer said Friday they were now in touch with Choma and "aggressively seeking any opportunity to help" on the federal level, specifically with her IRS audit, which Choma blames on a tax preparer's error.
"This is obviously a very distressing situation for Ms. Choma and her daughter, and we will do everything we can to help," including by contacting the state Department of Banking and federal Department of Health and Human Services and possibly even arranging pro bono representation by an attorney, Clinton said through her press office Friday.
Only one of the county legislators replied via telephone, saying "there was nothing they could do for me, but they would keep me in their prayers." County officials say their hands are tied.
The state Bureau of Consumer Fraud, which she reached out to through Spitzer's Web site, advised her to pursue a settlement in small claims court. But Choma says the maximum of $5,000 she could recover wouldn't even cover her legal fees, let alone make a dent in her debt associated with the house.
The state Department of State was silent, while a state Health Department staffer assured her mold couldn't make her sick, but advised her to stay out of the home anyway, Choma said.
A specialist hired by Choma told her it was the worst case he'd seen in a decade.
# # #
Pure Air Control Services, Inc.