More Problems And Letters
On return from Florida we found that neither Cooper nor Murdock had responded to our December 15 letter. We didn't expect a written reply, but did expect Cooper to motivate Murdock when he read our letter. But the new year arrived and there was no communication from either man. In early January I called Jim Nelson and told him our problems. We had no suspicion that Nelson's design was defective, and only wanted his help in getting the house fixed. At the time Nelson's culpability, if any, seemed to rest only on the fact that he had inspected the house during construction. After my phone call Nelson contacted Murdock and they both came to inspect the house. Nelson seemed undisturbed by what he observed, and wrote us a long letter on January 9 about our complaints. He placed most of the blame on bowed and unlevel joists and specifically excluded structural or design inadequacy. About the laundry room floor he wrote:
Concerning the uneven dining room floor:
Concerning the kitchen wall and bowed pocket doors:
Nelson concluded his letter:
So there it was, a detailed, well-composed letter from our architect. He saw the problem as bowing joists and warped door frames which, if correct, placed the blame and solution back with Murdock. But what about the "optical illusion" of the sloping kitchen floor? To our eyes and feet the floor obviously sloped. Was Nelson's level level? Except for this one observation, most of what Nelson wrote seemed to make sense. In any case, we just didn't know enough to challenge him at the time.
In retrospect, we had illusions but they were not optical. Our illusions were that these men knew what they were doing and that the defects were easily correctable. Mainly because of Nelson's letter (he is an architect) we still didn't suspect major structural defects. The problems seemed fixable if Murdock would just mobilize his workmen. Murdock's company built the house, so why couldn't he fix it? We would deal with the kitchen floor later. First, Murdock had to follow through on Nelson's recommendations.
Several workmen showed up at the house in mid-January. They fixed the joists along Nelson's guidelines but that didn't help. The laundry room floor still sloped. A few other minor repairs were made, then work suddenly stopped. We were beside ourselves with frustration. What's wrong with our house? Why can't they fix it? In the midst of growing frustration, on January 23 my husband received the following brief letter from Jake Cooper, typed on stationery with the heading `Cooper Construction - Builders and Developers.'
For six months Cooper had made no attempt to visit the house or inquire about how things were going, even though his son and grand-children lived next door and he visited there often. This lack of interest seemed even more bizarre considering our December letter, which Cooper had simply ignored. From our experience the previous June we knew Cooper was prone to callous behavior. His January letter showed no change in this regard. On January 24 Larry sent Cooper the following letter, by certified mail:
Only a vindictive or stupid man would ignore us now. Cooper ignored us. Until sued six months later he continued to ignore every letter from us and our lawyers. Our second letter to both Murdock and Cooper, dated January 24, 1987, began:
There followed an updated list of defects three pages long, followed by our last paragraph:
We now viewed Murdock as lacking integrity, not just because he wouldn't fix the house but also because of his defensive posturing. For example, he had commented to others "she is never home when my workmen come," a blatant distortion. I was home for every scheduled repair, even taking off from my morning job when neces-sary. In truth, Murdock's workmen sometimes showed up without an appointment, and then found no one at home. More often, they did not come when scheduled. I wasted many hours waiting for work-men who never showed. Another oft-repeated phrase, "I do what my architect tells me," suggested that he, Murdock, had played no important role in building our house. He also commented to workmen that we were "picky," as if our complaints were trivial.
To preclude any lying by Murdock (to whom? an arbitrator? a jury? We didn't know, but did sense major trouble ahead) I began writing down every encounter with him or his workmen, in what I came to call my `Log of Daily Frustrations.' We also began an album of 35 mm photographs that showed every visible defect. In February, and again in March, we rented a video camera and nar-rated a tour of the house, room by room. The daily aggravation was becoming unbearable. Murdock didn't seem to understand anything about the house, his workmen seemed incompetent or disinterested, and Cooper refused to respond. Each day seemed to bring another disappointment with our new home. It wasn't supposed to be like this! Why were these men treating us so badly?
With some reservation we called Schroeder, our contract attorney. We had sent him copies of our most recent letters but had not spoken with him since the flap over the $850 in June. After hearing our plight he agreed to write a `lawyer's letter' to Murdock, telling him in effect to fix the house or suffer possible legal action.
"Will you also send a copy to Cooper?" we asked.
"Sure," he said. "I have no problem with that."
Schroeder's letter went out to Murdock and Cooper on February 12, 1987.
Murdock left for a week's vacation the day Schroeder's letter was mailed, so there could be no response for at least that long. Meanwhile our anger continued to build, largely over Murdock's ineptness and excuses. Now anticipating a lawsuit, we felt it imperative to document everything in yet another letter. Murdock was not going to get away with lying to cover his mistakes. On February 20 we sent him our third letter; it began:
Although our letter was clearly posturing for a legal assault, should that become necessary, we were also trying to appeal to whatever pride and concern for reputation Murdock possessed. A copy of this letter also went to Nelson and Cooper; we included the following paragraph, to make sure the developer also understood our position.
Appended to the letter was my five-page-long `Log of Daily Frustrations' that I had kept since the beginning of the year. (We naively thought that a detailed, written account of Murdock's ineptitude would somehow make him want to fix our house and avoid a legal battle and publicity. The thought was naive because the same character flaw that led him to build a defective home also caused him to deny any responsibility for the result). My log detailed how workmen who promised to come never showed while other workmen often appeared unannounced, when no one was home. I quoted masons who said the basement cracks were "not our responsibility," and documented the day and manner in which carpenters damaged our dining room wall when they jacked up the floor from below. I noted every time that I called Murdock about our problems and every time he responded with "Don't worry I'll take care of it" and then never did. Following is one excerpt from my log for a typical day in February 1987.
On February 21, shortly after Murdock returned from vacation, Gene the plumber called to say he was prepared to finish the shower repair. Murdock had known about the shower leak for almost eight months. Nelson had told him how to repair it (by replacing a rubber liner beneath the floor tiles and building up the threshold under the shower door), but instead Murdock had sent workmen who repeat-edly misdiagnosed the cause and made some worthless repair. Finally, in mid-January, after months of slow leakage, Gene took off the shower door, removed an area of tiles and checked the rubber liner. It had a hole in it! The liner was replaced but the door remained off because the threshold needed to be raised. (For about five weeks we had to use the upstairs shower. Our tub had long since been rendered unusable due to slippage in its cradle, a problem Murdock never attempted to remedy.)
"Gene, are you going to fix it the way Nelson specified?" I asked. I wanted assurance that the job would be finished properly.
"Yes, I'm not going to take any shortcuts. I'm going to raise the threshold eight inches."
"Why weren't the rubber liner and threshold fixed after we found the leak last summer?"
"We do the simpler things first," Gene responded.
Or the cheapest, I thought.
The shower was repaired along Nelson's guidelines and it never leaked again. Other major defects, including the faulty pocket doors, ill-fitting tub and sloping utility room floor, didn't fare as well. On February 26, as a result of Schroeder's letter, Murdock and his head carpenter, Tim Brown, came to the house. Now Murdock seemed both anxious and eager to please. The scene was comical. First, they looked at the crooked pocket door frames. This was a new set that had been installed in January, in an attempt to correct the ill-fitting pocket doors. These frames bowed out also, so much so that the workmen had never bothered re-installing the pocket doors.
"Tim," Murdock asked plaintively, "Can you fix them?"
Tim thought for a minute, then said, "These aren't going to work. We'll have to use metal frames."
"I don't care," Murdock retorted. "Can you fix the doors with metal frames?"
"Yeah, I guess so," said the carpenter.
He did not instill confidence, and Murdock didn't seem to understand what was wrong with the door frames. Why were both sets of wooden frames crooked? Could something be wrong with the floors? The ceilings? Murdock didn't know. Still, we were so happy that Murdock was responding (at last!), we were willing to let them try anything. What about the sloping laundry room floor? Messing with the joists hadn't worked. About Nelson's second choice, latex flooring to even out the slope, Brown and Murdock didn't think it was necessary (too expensive?). Instead, they would install a new plywood floor. They went through the rest of the house, Murdock acting like the impatient boss who wants something accomplished and doesn't care to be bothered with the details. `Fix this, correct that. Just do it, Tim.' Mr. Brown, who was not involved in the original construction, seemed rather awed by the amount of work needed on a just-completed new house. Over the next few days the second set of pocket door frames was removed, wood moldings were stripped from various parts of the house and tile and flooring ripped up, all in preparation for the `final repairs.' Although no repair had been completed by all this activity we were encouraged: at least Murdock was responding.