South Miami’s gated Davis Gardens neighborhood, built on the site of a former nursery of the same name, is dotted with ceramic barrel-roofed houses, lined with lush old trees, and situated around a pristine community pool and tennis court.
But one of the 34 single-family homes in Davis Gardens has been nothing but trouble since its completion in 1991.
What started as a simple contract dispute between the homebuilder and Davis Gardens’ developer stretched into 22 years of complex litigation that tied up any potential sale of the four-bedroom, three-bathroom house at 6622 Acacia Ct.
“We all just want this thing to be over already,” said Lee Davis, a Davis Gardens resident since 1990 and past president of the homeowners association. “You have no idea what a headache it’s been for us. A 22-year headache.”
At long last, their headache soon should pass. The $565,000 house is under contract for sale, with closing scheduled for Nov. 19.
The day can’t come fast enough for Davis (no relation to the name of the community) or for Rafael Peña, the general contractor who built the home more than two decades ago.
“I can’t believe this is actually coming to an end,” said Peña, 63. “This has been a heavy burden for me to carry all these years. It’s been the case from hell.”
Davis Gardens developer Alex Varveris hired Peña to finish construction of four homes at the height of the 1991 recession for $235,000, according to court records. Peña completed the work, then filed suit in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, claiming Varveris owed him $53,000.
“I had my trepidations about the job, because normally you don’t encounter half-finished homes,” Peña said. “But times were bad, so you took whatever work you could find.”
Not getting full payment from the Davis Gardens job crippled Peña’s JRG Construction, he said. He folded his small business and found employment in the public sector; he’s now the construction management administrator for the city of Miramar.
Peña’s lawsuit dragged on for six years, until a Miami-Dade judge ruled in his favor in 1997, ordering that the developer pay Peña $124,000 — the amount of his original claim plus interest, court costs and attorney fees. Peña said he has not received that money. Attempts to reach Varveris for comment were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the house’s title was bogged down in liens and litigation, making it undesirable and essentially unsellable.
Peña, who procured the title to the home at a foreclosure sale in 1997, reached an agreement with the Davis Gardens homeowners association where they would rent out the home and use the rental payments to cover association fees, upkeep and taxes.
Part of the rent also went to Michael Feinstein, a Fort Lauderdale real estate attorney who has represented Peña since Day One of the Davis Gardens battle.
“This is by far the most-trying case I’ve worked on in my career,” said Feinstein. “My client and I are both exhausted and ecstatic to reach the finish line.”
Feinstein dedicated thousands of hours to the case over the years, through flurries of depositions and hearings and memoranda as well as lulls of inactivity. His secretary retired. Ritter, his law partner, died. But Feinstein trudged on.
“I never considered giving up,” he said. “I’d rather lose than give up.”
But Feinstein and Peña’s opponents also were unwilling to give up.
Attorneys for Varveris filed litigation in 2000, seeking to foreclose the mortgage Varveris’ company bought from Davis Gardens’ original lender. That case swirled through the courts until 2009, when a judge again ruled in Peña’s favor.
Varveris appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal, but lost.
With the court cases finally resolved in April, Feinstein worked with an underwriter to clean up the title for the 2,800-square-foot home on Acacia Court. They soon found a buyer: a University of Miami graduate whose parents live in Davis Gardens.
Feinstein pitched the story to Guinness World Records as the longest real estate closing.
“They said thanks, but it’s not a category of theirs,” he said. “I’ve certainly never heard of a house closing 22 years after being built.”
The proceeds of the home’s sale will be split among the various parties owed money, including Peña, Feinstein and the Davis Gardens homeowners association. Peña is set to receive about $57,000 — less than the amount of his unpaid 1991 contract, considering inflation.
Davis said she plans on enjoying a nice glass of wine once she hands over a check to the homeowners association.
Peña, who has not been to Davis Gardens since 1991, said he’ll use the money to pay bills. He joked about charging Feinstein for the legal expertise Feinstein acquired by working on this case.
“He was a kid when we got into this mess, and now he’s in the big leagues,” Peña said. “I have to say, he surprised me. He proved to be as persistent as anybody I’ve seen. All these years, he fought for me and never left my side.”