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


Sloping Floors And More

We moved to our new home on June 17, 1986. The first defects we noticed were relatively minor. It is amusing that we were so concerned about little problems at the time: sagging shelves in a built-in bookcase; dimmer switches not installed in the specified locations; pocket doors that didn't fit their frames properly. Also, the back yard had not yet been graded, and we had large trenches where the tractors had cleared some trees for a sewer line.

I made note of all the items needing attention and called Murdock. I was cordial. He was cordial. Murdock promised to fix everything. "Don't worry. I'll take care of it," he said, a response soon to become a familiar refrain. Compared to 1987, the summer of 1986 was a honeymoon. The house was new, everything mechanical seemed to work, and we viewed all the problems as minor and fixable. In August, still excited about our new home, we took a long-planned vacation with the kids to Chautauqua, New York.

* * *

In early September I noticed that the laundry room floor sloped. I figured the sloping must have occurred after we moved in, perhaps from the weight of our washer and dryer. We certainly never appreciated any sloping before. Also, I found water marks on the basement ceiling tiles; the master bathroom shower leaked every time we took a shower. We tried using the bathtub, but when it was filled the entire tub shifted in its cradle, threatening to spill water on the floor. The tub had not been properly installed and was unusable until fixed. I emptied the tub and next day called Murdock. "Don't worry, I'll take care of it," he said.

One day in late September Larry went to hang a picture on a kitchen wall. The sides of the frame stuck out because the wall bowed outward. Our pictures had always hung flush with the wall in other houses; the picture frame was straight. From September through early December many more defects were found. Murdock did manage to fix some of the minor problems. For the major problems (sloping floors, leaky shower, bowing walls) he either made no repair attempt or sent out disgruntled or incompetent workmen, who only made things worse. By early December it became apparent that Murdock was not following through as promised. Despite the numerous repairs still needed, he seemed unwilling or unable to get the problems fixed. His workmen in one trade would blame the problem on some other trade, or they would look at the problem and say it couldn't be fixed, or they would not even show up when scheduled.

In the beginning we were irritated and frustrated, but not alarmed. After all, Murdock was still building houses in the area, he was not bankrupt. In fact, he seemed busier than ever. And when-ever we called to complain he would always assure us: "Don't worry, I'll take care of it." Perhaps Murdock just needed a little more pressure to follow through on his promises.

* * *

In December 1986, after several months of frustration and disappointment with the pace of repairs, we decided to write Murdock and Cooper a letter listing every item needing correction. The letter would serve as a record should these men ever deny knowledge of the problems. Also, if Murdock saw a printed list of defects he could respond, "Hey, that item doesn't need fixing, you're wrong about that," and we'd at least know there was a dispute. If there was no stated objection then presumably he agreed with our list and would eventually fix the items.

We also wanted Cooper to know what was happening with our house. Although Murdock never denied that repairs were his responsibility, in our eyes Cooper was ultimately responsible for the house. Our contract said so. Also, there was no way Cooper was going to get the extra $850 with these problems outstanding. Some-one as greedy as Cooper would surely light a fire under Murdock. Or so we thought at the time. At this point we did not anticipate a lawsuit and had not even discussed the problems with Schroeder or any other attorney. Naively, we thought a well-written letter to Murdock and Cooper would prompt some action. After all, they had built our house and we had a contract. Fixing our house seemed to be a fairly straight-forward proposition at the time.

Our first letter went out December 15, 1986. The letter was totally non-threatening and very clear as to what the problems were. All we asked was that they be fixed. A few days after mailing the letter we went to Florida for a week, to visit Larry's parents. Without knowing it at the time our December 15 letter was the first salvo in a major legal battle to get our new, custom-built house repaired.