Man who bulldozed house seeks to build court case

February 08, 1992|By Jay Apperson

The house in Severna Park was to be their dream home, but Jack and Virginia Stephens thought the builder was doing a shoddy job.

So they bulldozed the place, knocking down the half-built rancher and carting away the debris.

The builder insists there was nothing wrong with the house that couldn't be fixed, that the problems were all in Jack Stephens' mind. Mr. Stephens -- and his attorney -- say the house was a disaster.

"It's just like you went to Hechinger's and went to the bargain binthere and got all the wood you could and gave it to high school kids and gave them hammers and nails and told them to build a house," said the attorney, T. Joseph Touhey Jr., describing the now-demolished house for a jury.

Yes, a jury. Two years after the house was torn down, an AnneArundel County Circuit Court jury is being asked to decide whether builder Lance Germanos owes the Silver Spring couple the money they paid for the house and subsequent costs -- including $12,000 to raze it -- or whether the couple owes Mr. Germanos money for lost profits.

The jury, which retired to consider its verdict for two hours Thursday and all day yesterday, will resume deliberations Monday morning.

Mr. Germanos and his parents, Emil and Nancy Germanos, who sold the land to the Stephenses and are co-defendants in the suit, say Mr. Stephens couldn't decide what kind of house he wanted. They say he is a fussbudget who knows nothing about building.

"He wanted perfection, and he didn't understand you don't get perfection in a house, at least not for the money he was willing to pay," theirlawyer, Lynn T. Krause, told the jury. "We didn't build the trusses with walnut or mahogany, but you don't have to. They just have to hold up the house."

And noting that the Stephenses had rejected an offer for a refund, Mr. Krause described Mr. Stephens as "the most unreasonable man I've ever come across in the umpteen years I've been practicing law."

"We weren't going to let this guy cosmetically cover up these problems and dump them on someone else," Mr. Stephens explained. "We wouldn't be able to sleep."

Mr. Stephens, after hearing Mr. Krause describe him as unreasonable more than a dozen times in closing arguments Thursday, left the courtroom smiling. "I expected that," he said.

It all began in 1987 when the Stephenses approached Emil and Nancy Germanos about buying a $73,000 lot in Ben Oaks-on-the-Severn. They wanted to build a retirement home near their only son, who lives in Pasadena. They agreed to hire Lance Germanos to build the house as a condition for buying the half-acre lot. Emil Germanos was hired to design it.

Mr. Krause said the Stephenses signed to pay $147,000 for a 3,600-square-foot house but then asked for a house that was 40 percent larger for the same price.

And when the house started going up, the Stephenses started complaining. They said the basement slab had a crack in it. They said blocks in the foundation walls were not properly laid. They said inferior wood was used in the trusses and joists.

The Germanoses said the slab had only hairline cracks, which are to be expected. They said any other problems were normal for the construction process and would have been corrected had they been allowed to finish the house.

After months of squabbling, the Germanoses offered in March 1989 to refund the Stephenses' money, plus interest.

In January 1990, Mr. Stephens had the house bulldozed as he stood by and watched.

Neighbor Gene Fox recalled that the demolition took about four hours. "It happened so fast I don't think many people even knew about it," he said. "People went to work in the morning and came back and the house was gone."

"We were shocked," said Mr. Germanos.

Mr. Krause says Mr. Stephens knocked down the house to destroy the evidence that it was, in fact, soundly built. He reminded jurors that county inspectors had approved the house; Mr. Touhey responded by questioning the competency of county inspectors.

In the suit, the Stephenses charge the Germanoses with breach of contract, breach of warranty, negligence and engaging in unfair trade practices. They also charge Lance Germanos with dipping into an escrow fund and stealing $29,000. Although Mr. Germanos has denied the charge, his lawyer told the jury he is "not a good businessman" and was not aware of all of his legal requirements as a custom home builder.

The Stephenses are seeking at least $186,000 -- the cost of replacing the home, plus expenses, including demolition -- as well as punitive damages. In their countersuit, the Germanos are demanding $14,000 in potential profits that disappeared along with the house.

The Stephenses say that no matter the outcome, they are glad they fought the Germanoses.

"It has cost us a fortune," said Mrs. Stephens, "but we would do it all over again."

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