Books by and thrown at builders

March 01, 1997|By Andrew Ratner

WITHIN HOURS of a vote by the Home Builders Association of Maryland to adopt informal guidelines to help home buyers, a man named Evan Al-Chokhachy described in a Delaware courtroom how a Maryland builder scammed him and sliced up his life as a buzz saw cleaves plywood.

He had to take a second and third job to recoup some of the his contractor stole. He and his wife needed health care for illness aggravated by stress. And he watched his teen son drift in with the wrong crowd when the family was forced to live in a crummy apartment in the interim.

''Our family has been devastated by this criminal's actions and will be forever affected by his crimes against us,'' he testified.

The trial and home builders' vote last month were unrelated, but notable, events in the checkered history of home-buyer protection in Maryland. The state historically has been reticent to DTC safeguard consumers from fraud or faulty work when buying a home.

Real-life "Tin Men"

Barry Levinson dramatized some of the abuses in ''Tin Men,'' his movie about siding salesmen who deceived Baltimoreans in the '50s. Real-life rip-offs eventually prodded the state to license home-repair contractors.

But builders who erect whole houses largely operate free of such controls. Aggrieved buyers are left to their own devices, that is, their savings, to pursue a lawsuit.

That situation improved some a decade ago, due to Mr. Al-Chokhachy's builder, Jerome J. Kendall. At least that's his name now. He changed it from Jerome Knoedler after he had absconded with deposits and orphaned half-built homes from Reisterstown to Ocean City.

State legislators were moved to make such acts a felony. And the tiny Eastern Shore town of Secretary enacted its first building code after the builder left a faulty project there. Opined the town's mayor, ''I'd love to see that sucker get 50 years.''

Knoedler was sentenced last month to eight years without parole in Delaware, where he had signed a contract to build Mr. Al-Chokhachy a home.

It was sheer coincidence that builders in Maryland that same week became the first in the country to endorse a guidebook of standards published by their parent trade association.

Friendly paper tiger?

The industry's effort to police itself is admirable, but a paper tiger. Its book is helpful, but isn't much more than a fancy sales brochure unless a builder agrees to include the guidelines in a written contract with a customer.

The contents also reflect the schism between the builders' view that new-home failures are often due to homeowner negligence and the consumers' sense that if a new structure was meant to disassemble in a few years Bob Vila would have hosted a TV series titled ''This New House.''

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. fields 300 grievances against home builders a year -- among the state's top 10 industries for complaints. Most cases involve construction defects. While builders correctly note that buyers bear responsibility for investigating their purchases, finished new homes can mask internal problems that don't become evident for years.

Del. Wade Kach of Baltimore County says greater protections for new-home buyers may be introduced in the legislature next winter. The builders' lobby is certain to fight any such move. Their association's consumer-friendlier tack under new president Dwight Griffith will help their cause.

Still, thousands of buyers feel defenseless in the high-stakes game of home-buying. And as Mr. Al-Chokhachy can attest, a judge's gavel is not the most efficient tool for fixing a house.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/01/97

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