And They Built A Crooked House, by Ruth S. Martin



I use to feel sorry because I had no shoes until I met a man
who had no feet. Anonymous

This section is highly personal, more so than the rest of the book. It may help you cope with your own problems or may simply bore you. If you want to stay with the story, please skip to the next chapter.

* * *

Injustices of the world are legend. "Life's not fair" is an all too familiar refrain. We cannot (and do not want to) compare our plight with victims of crime, poverty, disease, or physical trauma. We were fortunate to maintain our health, our jobs, and our sanity throughout this ordeal. Coping was difficult. Nothing about our experience was pleasant and the memory remains a bitter one. A peculiarity I've noticed in other tales of misfortune is omitting or minimizing the victim's real feelings. In print, at least, there is often a softening of the anger and angst that must have been felt during whatever calamity befell the author. Perhaps this is a way to sell books about bad experiences.

`Though Mr. X was imprisoned 30 years for crimes he did not commit, he remains charitable toward his jailers.'
`Despite the constant pain and facial disfigurement, not to mention a six-figure medical bill, Mrs. Y tells her story with good cheer.'
`Mr. Z's story is told with wit and humor, all the more remark-able since he was rendered penniless by dishonest brokers.'
Such glossing over of bad experiences cannot be true to life. I will not phony up our true feelings. We had a horrible experience in every respect; nightmare is an appropriate word. I am sensitive to the fact that millions of people are homeless throughout the world, including in this country, and that millions more live in substandard housing. To people who have no home, complaints about a defective new one must seem callous indeed. But that is not the issue here. If you pay money for an item legitimately bought whether it is a car, refrigerator, television, suit of clothes or a jar of jellybeans you deserve to receive what you pay for. This is true whether you're poor or rich, man or woman, young or old, homeless or live in a Beverly Hills palace. Our story might have greater appeal if I somehow made it funny or lighthearted or `uplifting.' But that is simply not possible. It would be a lie. No matter if you spend $50,000 or $350,000 or 3.5 million, there is simply nothing humorous about a defective new home.

One of my goals with this book is to protect you from the type of nightmare we suffered. I firmly believe that what happened to us can happen to any new-home buyer. If it does, you will find nothing redeeming in the experience. We doubt any middle class family would survive such an ordeal emotionally unscathed. There are people who have almost become psychotic over scratched floors, who have sued over a broken bath tub, who have become despondent over a marred carpet. Given our set of circumstances these people or their marriages would have succumbed in a month. What Cooper and his cronies put us through tested our sanity, our perseverance, and our love for each other.

Above all else, we had to keep the house from affecting our marriage and day-to-day living. There were many lows like the one in December, 1987 when we felt totally despondent and helpless. Major financial loss is not easy to rationalize, especially when it's the value of your home. Had this been a business deal or a specu-lative investment we could have coped much better. Had we invested in an apartment building full of termites, or lost in the stock market because of an unscrupulous broker, we would suffer but it's not the same.

People who invest in apartment houses or the stock market are (or should be) risking money they can afford to lose. But who buys a home with any expectation of losing all their equity? Few people doctors included buy a house with loose change. The oft- repeated axiom that a home is your best investment was, for us, a cruel irony. We could not have imagined a worse investment. How would you, or your spouse, cope in our situation? For nine months you watch in great anticipation as your new home is built. Your children are excited, you are excited. You spend considerable time visiting the construction site, choosing all the things that go into a new house, and then arranging the move.

You sell your old home, obtain a new mortgage for $200,000, pay the developer and move in. Along the way you spend an additional $43,000 on carpeting, landscaping, a deck, finishing the basement, and so forth, bringing your total home equity to $150,000. Within weeks after moving in you discover sloping floors, bowing walls, cracks in the foundation and other defects, most of which the builder seems unable or unwilling to fix. After months of continuous aggravation and frustration, you learn from experts that your home is structurally defective, that it will cost $100,000 to properly fix. The construction defects are so extensive that you will have to move out during repairs.

Before you recover from the shock of how poorly your new home was built, you find that no one accepts responsibility for fixing it. Not the developer who sold you the house, not the builder whose company built it, not the architect who designed it. Your home-owners' insurance policy doesn't cover builder's mistakes so there is no insurance claim. And, since your home is not a business, you can't claim a tax loss. Finally, you can't move even though you want to because all your equity has evaporated. Your only recourse is lengthy and expensive litigation. While pursuing legal redress you obtain a formal appraisal of the house. Since you are in a prime neighborhood the house would be worth over $400,000 if it was not defective. Its actual market value is estimated at $250,000. You put the house on the market with full disclosure, which means all of the consultant's reports and the nature of your lawsuit are disclosed to any prospective buyer; to do otherwise would be illegal and you could be sued for fraud.

There are only two offers, for $200,000 and $202,000. After real estate commissions neither offer will even cover your existing mort-gage. Meanwhile the litigation process grinds on. The builder's lawyer criticizes you in writing for doing "nothing to mitigate the damages...when all of the alleged construction defects could have been remedied within a week." The architect's lawyer makes refer-ence to an offer to fix the house that was never put in writing. The developer, the man who signed the contract and took your hard-earned money, denies all responsibility. Seven months after one structural engineer cost you $3000 for his assessment your lawyer hires another engineer to survey the house, someone who can give more forceful testimony in court. His bill is almost $5000 for two months' work. Your experts and those from the other side meet and actually agree on the major structural defects. Still, no offer to fix the house is forthcoming. Instead, you and your spouse are deposed for over nine hours so the defendants' lawyers can discover something dark and sinister about you, the better to defend their clients. They discover nothing, except that you are totally innocent and only wanted a properly-built home. Still, no offer to fix the house is made.

On the day of trial the defendants, through their lawyers, verbally offer to repair the house. Accepting what will be a $40,000 loss (all legal and some expert fees) you agree, hoping to end the nightmare once and for all. Two weeks later, when your lawyer presents the agreement in written form, they renege and refuse to sign. Trial is then rescheduled for four months later. A year into your case, with no guarantee of the eventual outcome, you are averaging $1000 a week in legal and expert fees. How would you handle such a mind-boggling experience? Would you rant and rave, call the newspapers, picket the builder, scream to the world? You might do these things but you'd get nowhere. Since your case has not been proved in court you could be sued for slander. We had no choice but to fight for our home or give up and fix it ourselves. No rational, sane, honest person would give up. Instead, we fought and fought and fought. But the fight caused us tremen-dous pain and turmoil. Here's how we coped.

  • We had each other. My husband and I were in synch on almost every detail and agreed on every injustice, every stupidity committed by these men. We spent at least an hour a day for over two years discussing and dissecting the case, making fun of the defendants and their attorneys, feeding each other's obsession. It was too much to bear alone. Together it was bearable. Once, after hearing our story, a friend told me: "If this happened to us, we would end up divorced! My wife couldn't take it." Our love survived, or perhaps we survived because of our love.
  • We put the house in perspective. As physicians this was not hard to do. When you deal with the truly unfortunate, the chron-ically ill, the dying, people who have been treated unfairly by nature, you appreciate just being healthy and active. We never lost sight of the fact that our problems were largely material and psychological, and that we had enough inner strength to handle the stress. Three healthy children, a strong family, and our continued ability to work made the ordeal bearable. While we were fighting our case, a friend was undergoing chemo-therapy for breast cancer and another was having a liver transplant. Viewed against life's real tragedies we felt lucky.

    FOOTNOTE. In July 1988 Larry's father became ill with pancreatic cancer. As he lay dying in hospital the house problem slipped into the background of our lives, but we were frequently reminded of it. On his deathbed Larry's father expressed concern for our welfare and our aggravation with the house. "Why won't they fix your house?" he asked. That was the last thing in the world Larry wanted to talk about. That his father had to worry about our house, while he lay dying, was like a knife in Larry. His father died August 12, two months before the trial began.

    A house is a material thing and our losses were potentially recoverable, if not by the court than by working a few extra years. We also felt the psychological trauma would abate with time, once the case was fully resolved. Rationalizations like these helped us handle the stress.

  • We maintained a busy home life. To this end our kids helped us cope, not consciously but just by their presence. The two in school continued to do very well academically, and their friends came over to play as always. Our youngest was only three when we moved in. Living and play-ing with an incredibly charming three year-old girl will melt almost any misery. (The same holds true for a four- and five-year-old, such was the length of our ordeal.) Except for our constant discussion about the house life at home went on as usual. To show the extent of `life as usual,' we allowed our oldest daughter to babysit for Cooper, Jr.'s kids next door. She was asked to do so on numerous occasions and we always let her. Our argument was with the father, not his family. Although we had nothing to do with our next door neighbors socially, we (and they) were always cordial in passing.

    One thing we avoided was harping on our plight to others and `showing off' the house. Except when specifically asked (`How's your new house? What's happening with the lawsuit?') we were largely mum, for several reasons. Most people are sympathetic up to a point but they have troubles of their own and don't want to dwell on yours. Also, most people found it difficult to comprehend the enormity of our potential losses. Our friends simply couldn't fathom a new house constructed so poorly, or a new house that the responsible people refused to fix. Friends could not really help anyway, since a solution to our problem required a court decision. In truth, we wanted to let the world know about Murdock's and Nelson's construction incom-petence and Cooper's vindictive business ethic, but our wish for privacy kept us quiet.

    We were embarrassed to show the house (in many areas walls were down, flooring was removed, ceiling tiles missing all a result of Murdock's aborted repair attempts or our experts' investigations) and so had almost no friends over. From the time we moved in until the trial 27 months later far more lawyers, consultants, real estate agents and builders visited the house than did friends and relatives.

  • We continued to practice medicine. Going to work every day helped take our minds away from the house. No patient suffered because of our domestic concerns. In fact, caring for patients was therapeutic for us. We were as active professionally during this ordeal as ever. It was mainly at night, when we could feed on each other's anxieties, that we felt the most oppressed and depressed.
  • We pursued the lawsuit. Nothing was spared to bring these men to justice. Painful and expensive as the litigation turned out to be, the strength of our legal position gave us hope.
  • We wrote about our situation. We sent numerous letters (initially to the defendants, then to our lawyer) and kept meticulous notes long before we decided to write a book. Writing helped us handle the outrage we felt toward these men and their attorneys. We each contributed ideas and content. Writing was definitely therapeutic.
In sum, our obsession with the house did not prevent us from living and working and loving. Were we millionaires we would have just moved out, bought another house, and let our lawyer worry about the case. The fact that we remained tied to the house rankled us, but we never forgot the difference between what's important (the value of one's home) and what's even more important (health, love, family).

-- continued --