HILTON HEAD ISLAND -- A lawsuit alleging defective stucco work on Sun City Hilton Head homes has been granted preliminary class-action status and could include more than 4,000 homes in the gated community.

Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Baxley ruled last month that attorneys representing Sun City couple Anthony and Barbara Grazia could also represent thousands of other homeowners possibly affected by stucco problems. The ruling prevents the courts from getting clogged with nearly identical lawsuits, including 140 individual cases alleging defective stucco already pending, he said.

The Grazia's suit originally was filed against South Carolina State Plastering LLC.

State Plastering filed a third-party complaint against developer Del Webb Communities Inc., builder Pulte Homes Inc. and designer Kephart Architects Inc., making them part of the lawsuit by alleging they were responsible for some or all of the damages.

Improper stucco application can cause water damage, mold and rot.

The S.C. Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision in October 2010, ruling the Grazias could apply for class-action status.

The suit originally alleged negligent construction on more than 2,500 homes in the community. However, during months of hearings, the plaintiff's attorneys determined that State Plastering applied stucco to about 4,300 Sun City homes from late 1998 to July 2007, according to John Chakeris of Chakeris Law Firm of Charleston, one of four lawyers handling the case.

After wording is determined, a notice will be sent to the thousands of other homeowners who will become part of the suit unless they opt out, Chakeris said.

The class-action order is qualified as "preliminary" to comply with the state's "Right to Cure Act." That law requires a homeowner to give 90 days notice of the intent to file a lawsuit over construction and lays out a timeline for a contractor or subcontractor to assess the situation and offer repairs, money or other solution.

If a lawsuit is filed without that notice, the court must delay the suit until the contractor gets the opportunity to fix the problem.

To comply with the act, the defendants have some time to inspect each home in the class-action suit and offer a solution, according to Baxley's order.

Attempts to reach lawyers for the defendants were unsuccessful.

James Zeumer, Pulte vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, wrote in an email that the company is reviewing the decision.

"In an earlier ruling, the courts dismissed a similar motion against PulteGroup," Zeumer wrote. "We are in the process of reviewing the decision, but as it applies to South Carolina Plastering, it would not be appropriate for us to comment at this time."

Bob Flaherty, a private home inspector who lives in Sun City, said he encounters water intrusion and mold as a result of defective stucco in more than 30 percent of the homes he has inspected in the community.

"Pulte has been very responsive in getting them fixed," Flaherty said. "My understanding is they're fixing 10 houses a week."