When a dream home becomes a nightmare

April 17, 1992|By David Enna | David Enna,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Dr. Ruth Martin, a psychiatrist who lives in a Cleveland suburb, didn't set out to be a crusader.

But in late 1985, her life changed. What should have been a happy moment in the life of Ruth and her husband Larry, a doctor, became a nightmare.

They began building a house.

At first, all was fine. But just a few weeks after they moved in, in June 1987, the problems began.

"Pocket doors in the house stopped working," she said. "We noticed cracks in the foundation. All the floors began sloping. Pictures wouldn't hang straight on the walls. The shower leaked. The whirlpool tub shifted in its base. We started getting water in the basement."

The story of these problems, and the Martins' 2 1/2 -year legal battle to get them fixed, is told in Ruth Martin's recently published book, "And They Built a Crooked House" (Lakeside Press, $12.95).

It is a story of frustration. The developer ignored them. The architect told them the problems were "optical illusions." The builder tried a few repairs, but ended up making the damage worse.

"The architect blamed the builder, the builder blamed the architect, they both blamed the developer, and the developer said, 'It's not my problem, I didn't build the house,' " Dr. Martin said. "We had to fight. We said you couldn't build a defective product and then just walk away."

In their lawsuit, the Martins proved the $350,000 house needed more than $90,000 in repairs, because of two serious defects: the center beam under the first floor was built lower than the sides, and the floor joists were undersized and inadequate for the spans they covered.

"Structural experts warned that we couldn't have more than 25 to 30 people in the house at any time," she said. "The structure couldn't bear that weight."

They won the lawsuit. In November 1989, the judge ruled the house was so poorly built that the only solution was "rescission" -- the developer had to buy it back from them at the original price.

"We won, but we lost a fortune," she said.

Because they couldn't prove "overt fraud," they received no compensation for their $55,000 in legal and expert fees. They also lost sizable appreciation they should have had in the home.

Dr. Martin says her book has attracted national attention. "We have been overwhelmed by the response we've gotten around the country," she said.

For home-buyers, it provides a clear warning: Check out your builder and get a solid contract that protects you.

"You need to have a clause that requires binding arbitration in case of a dispute," she said. "And you should have a clause that requires the loser in a legal dispute to pay the legal fees."

For home builders, the book also provides a lesson: This is no way to run a business.

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