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



Money is always there but the pockets change; it is not in the
same pockets after a change, and that is all there is to say about money.
Gertrude Stein
The transition wasn't easy. Incredible as it may seem, Cooper continued to get rewarded for his material breach of contract. First, Tom had to argue strongly to let us stay in the house until the end of June, when most people who sell their homes during the winter are ready to move out. Cooper wanted us out sooner and the Judge thought the end of May was reasonable, but school is not out until the middle of June. Tom finally prevailed and we were allowed to stay until the end of June. Then Tom had to argue for us to pay "only twenty-five hundred" per month rent after the title transferred. Cooper was initially demanding $3500/month! After $2500 was agreed to, Cooper a few days later upped the ante to $2700 to "cover the taxes." Tom said we had no choice but to pay the new demand. Otherwise, he said, Cooper could force us out before we had someplace to go.

On February 6, in the midst of all these negotiations, Tom came over to the house and stayed about two hours. He came just to talk, to hash over the case. At one point he asked us: "Suppose another couple come to me with house problems as bad as yours. What should I tell them?" Larry and I had often discussed the same question ourselves. Given the awful truth of defective construction which the builder refuses to fix, what should the immediate legal strategy be? Larry was ready with an answer for Tom: "File a lawsuit immediately. Don't discuss settlement, don't have meetings, just file the lawsuit. That way they know you mean business and the owners won't lose as much in real estate appreciation if the case is tried quickly." We thought this was a good answer but Tom didn't agree. "No," he said. "That's not what I would recommend. I would tell them to fix the house and forget about it. It doesn't pay to sue, to go to trial."

Before we could express our astonishment he added: "Your case was unique. You couldn't fix the house without moving out. But if the owners could fix their house, that's what I'd tell them to do. Fix it and forget about it." That, dear reader, is one experienced litigator's assessment of your chances in court if you ever buy a defective home.

* * *

Fortunately we were able to find a suitable home by the deadline. In late February we purchased a 20-year-old split level in an adjacent suburb, for $340,000. Although a nice house, in size and amenities it doesn't compare with what we built in 1985-86. Besides being older it is smaller, with no first floor master bedroom, a smaller garage, an unfinished basement, no deck and an almost treeless lot. In 1985, when we decided to build our dream home for $350,000, this split level would have sold in the mid-$200,000 range. Still, we are thankful to have found it; this house was one of the less expensive homes on the market in early 1989 and is in a very nice neighborhood. Too bad we had to spend $160,000 `extra' to get here. Cooper obeyed the court order and didn't try any last minute tricks. Title to the defective house transferred March 15, 1989, and Cooper received $2700 per month until we moved out on June 22.

* * *

Throughout the spring we continued to feel oppressed by the legal outcome of our lawsuit. Paying an exorbitant rent to Cooper was one reason. Another was the fact that Murdock continued to advertise widely about "quality construction." There seemed to be nothing anyone could or would do about his (and Nelson's) demonstrated incompetence. In April an article appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about another builder who had constructed some defective homes in a different Cleveland suburb. That community had actually taken away his building permit! Still, according to the article, this builder refused to fix any of the houses and blamed the defects on others (a familiar story). He was being sued by a couple who owned one of the defective homes. The article quoted the builder's lawyer, who turned out to be none other than Murdock's original attorney, the one who wrote our contract lawyer back in March 1987 that we were "very verbose." After reading the lawyer's comments in the news article I felt compelled to write a letter to the editor, which was printed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer April 24, 1989 (below; the headline was added by the newspaper). My letter turned out to be the first in a series of articles and public statements about our house, which have culminated in this book. My first letter met with much favorable comment, from friends as well as casual acquaintances. There was no written response from anyone. I do not know what happened to the case.


I sympathize with the plight of the [homeowners], whose home was defectively built. The builder's attorney...should become the victim of an incompetent builder; then he wouldn't make such inane comments like "On a big ticket purchase like a home, there's always going to be some disputes," and "People expect perfection in a home, and there is no builder in the world that can build a perfect home." Our new home was also designed and built defectively, affecting every room in the house. The responsible people refused to fix it, and as a result we had no choice but to file a lawsuit, perhaps the largest case of residential construction malpractice ever tried in Ohio. A lawsuit is no picnic and homeowners don't file them without good reason. We won our lawsuit (November 1988), and as a result the contractor who sold us the house was ordered to buy it back, a first for Cuyahoga County in anyone's memory. In granting us recision the Judge referred to our house as a "fiasco" and noted that "the time and cost to repair is enormous in light of the price paid and the guarantees made." But we really lost: three years of our time, untold aggravation, and well over six figures. The court did not grant us one dollar in reimbursement for our legal or experts' fees, and the developer only had to pay us what we paid for the house three years ago. Thus we lost every dollar of appreciation. A legal decision whereby the winners become the losers only adds to the pain of a defective home. [Builder's attorney] should hold his comments for the courtroom. The [Homeowners] have enough aggravation awaiting them without their complaints being trivialized by absurd generalizations.

Ruth Martin

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