SPRING HILL, Fla. (WFLA) — Victoria and Adam Cooper bought their dream home last December. The 3,096 square foot home on 2.4 acres in Spring Hill seemed to have everything they were looking for. There’s lots of room for their children and new granddaughter and a gorgeous swimming pool overlooking a private pond – perfect for their disabled adult daughter’s aquatic therapy.
But their new home at 18735 Bonnie Dr. came with a dangerous secret: The previous homeowners had already been paid out $155,000 in an insurance settlement in October of 2013. Liberty Mutual hired engineers that confirmed sinkhole activity under the picturesque pool. There were also cracks showing up in the home and a “soft spot” in the living room floor.
“I can’t sleep at night,” Victoria Cooper said. “This is a nightmare.”
Our 8 On Your Side investigation found Clarence “Chuck” and Mary-Grace Surrena filled out the customary real estate disclosure form when they sold the house to the Coopers. It is against Florida law to fail to disclose facts that “materially affect the value of the property being sold and that are not readily observable or known by the buyer.”
However, the Surrenas checked “no” to sinkhole questions about settling and sinkholes and about receiving an insurance settlement.
8 On Your Side found the Surrenas moved 109 miles away to a sprawling estate at 230 East Panama Rd. in Winter Springs, near Orlando. We went there for answers, but Chuck Surrena wasn’t interested in answering questions and showed no compassion for the Coopers.
“I have no comment, you’ll have to talk to my lawyer, period,” Surrena said.
Now, the Coopers are left with the mess the Surrenas did not fix. Cracks, covered by fresh, thick paint, are now bursting open. The pool, once a hangout for the Coopers’ son and his high school football team, is cracking and leaking. They are afraid to allow family and friends to use the pool.
The Coopers are furious, especially after learning that the Surrenas concealed the insurance settlement.
“An even bigger lie was that you benefited from your own insurance company, plus then you benefited from us on something that was our dream,” Adam Cooper said. “It’s not fair. It’s not right.”
Not only are the Coopers stuck with a sinkhole house, but now they’re struggling to pay for a massive mortgage payment. Their insurance company discovered the sinkhole weeks after closing and dropped them. Then their mortgage company forced-placed their insurance because homeowner’s insurance is a requirement for mortgage companies. Without it, the Coopers would be in default and at risk for foreclosure. Their mortgage payment shot up by $750 a month. Plus, this forced-placed policy wouldn’t even cover damages if there was a problem with the sinkhole.
“We’re not sure how long we can make that payment,” said Victoria Cooper.
The Coopers hired Tampa attorney Josh Burnett, who filed a lawsuit late last month.
“In a case like this, it’s clear the system let the Coopers down,” Burnett said.
How to check for evidence of a sinkhole on your property
Sinkholes can be a horrible surprise, especially if they were not disclosed by the previous homeowner.
However, with a bit of detective work, you might be able to learn about past sinkhole problems on your property.
- You just need to check your county’s circuit court records.
- Find out the name of the person who previously owned your home or property.
- Then, search your county’s circuit court records department for the previous homeowner’s name.
- Look for drilling permits that would be needed by anyone before digging to check for a sinkhole.
- You should also look for a ground report that would be filed by an engineering firm.
In the Coopers’ case, the only hint of a problem was hand-written note on the disclosure form. The Surrenas scribbled a few lines about a “small depression” near the pool. But they describe it as no big deal, saying the pool doesn’t leak and “it would be, in my opinion, a waste of money to repair and very costly.”
But get this: That form wasn’t given to the Coopers until after they had already closed on the home, and after they were dropped by the insurance company because of the sinkhole. They say the real estate agent for the Surrenas, Karen Sherwin of ReMax Sunset Realty, showed up with the disclosure form, asking them to sign it so she could complete paperwork for her broker.
“I said, ‘No way,'” Victoria Cooper said. “I feel like everyone in this process failed us.”
Meanwhile, law enforcement has shown an increased interest in going after sellers who break the law by not telling the truth about sinkholes on disclosure forms.
Another 8 On Your Side investigation into a sinkhole that wasn’t disclosed led to criminal charges and a jury trial in October.
That sinkhole was at a home about four miles away from the Coopers’ home. In that case, Glenn and Kathryn Jasen pocketed $153,000 and did not fix the sinkhole problems under their home. Instead, they moved and also checked “no” on sinkhole questions on their disclosure form.
A jury found the Jasens guilty in early October of wire fraud. The charge comes with a maximum of 20 years in prison. They await sentencing in early January.
Meanwhile, our 8 On Your Side investigation into the sinkhole at the Coopers’ home – and all the real estate professionals who failed to catch it – continues. Part 2 of our investigation is scheduled to air Wednesday at 11 p.m.