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


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:

[The floor] is settled approximately 3/4". Upon examining the joist in the basement, it was noted that these joists were slightly below the level of the adjacent joists, and could possibly be raised to eliminate...settlement in the laundry room...The other way to correct the sloping floor is to remove the washer and dryer, lift the sheet vinyl, and install a tapered latex floor leveling compound...As I stated, there is no real structural problem, other than warping and deflection of joists, which is due to the natural characteristics of wood.

Concerning the uneven dining room floor:

The hump in the dining room floor was caused by a bowed joist in the basement...which has warped out of its original shape [and] has caused the floor to raise up in the dining room. The remedy is to actually cut this joist and reduce its structural integrity, to allow weight placed on the top to bring the floor back to a more uniform condition. Once the floor has been leveled, a secondary structural member should be nailed on to the face of the cut joist to reinforce it and renew the structural integrity of that joist.

Concerning the kitchen wall and bowed pocket doors:

I examined the kitchen floor area and the optical illusion of the floor sloping was not present when examined with the level. The floor areas in the kitchen and eating area are consistent with accepted standards in residential construction. The bowed wall condition in the eating area was caused, I believe, by the warping of one of the slats contained in the framing of the pocket door...One of these slats on the side of the pocket door frame warped and pushed the drywall out. The drywall must be removed from this wall in the area adjacent to the door and the casing at the door should also be removed. The warped slats should be removed and replaced with true lumber and the drywall reinstalled, finished and painted.

Nelson concluded his letter:

While I was in the basement I checked the structural beams and columns for level and plumbness, and have determined that there are no major structural problems in the basement. I have discussed these items with Frank Murdock and he assured me that he will correct any of these problems, so please notify me as to his progress. If you need any additional assistance or explanation please contact me. [Signed, James R. Nelson]

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.'

Dear Dr. Martin: Please recall that there is a balance due me of $850.00. In our discussion last June I agreed to wait until the first of the year for payment. If [sic] is now that time and I would appreciate your remittance. Very truly yours, Jake Cooper

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:

Dear Jake, Just received your letter. Either you didn't receive our last letter, or you did and have responded with extreme insensitivity and callousness. This letter is being sent registered, so there can be no question about your receiving it. Enclosed is a copy of the first letter (dated 12/15/86), and also a second letter we have just prepared for you and Frank Murdock. The second letter updates the large number of construction defects apparent in our new home. You may not feel responsible for these construction defects, but your name is on the contract and the checks were made out to you. I assure you that, legally and every other way, you are as responsible as is Frank T. Construction. We intend to pursue these problems and see that they are corrected. If you wish to discuss this matter further, call me anytime. Better yet, come over and see what kind of house you helped develop.

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:

It has been seven months since we moved to our new home on Pelican Road. This is the second letter we have sent both of you in recent weeks concerning the need for repairs to our new home. It is unfortunate that we perceive a lack of concern on your part; however both the architect (Mr. Nelson, who has filed a report of his own) and several workmen have indicated that the structural problems are in need of definite correction, and are not minor. We know that legally both of you are responsible for these construction flaws. Legal redress is the last thing we wish to seek, however. We sincerely hope the two of you do not renege on your responsibility (and your signed contract) and that you will facilitate correction of the many structural flaws that have become apparent since we moved in. As in the last letter, we are listing below items still in need of repair. Again, all of these items have been communicated verbally to one of you (FM).

There followed an updated list of defects three pages long, followed by our last paragraph:

As stated before, and as is evident to any construction person, some of these defects affect the structural integrity of our house. We fully intend to pursue correction of these problems. It is unfortunate that the slow and inconsistent pace with which you have so far responded, and the apparent callousness of some of your workmen, necessitate certified letters and threat of legal redress.

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.

Dear Mr. Murdock: [The Martins'] major complaint is that attention to [these problems] is sporadic...Apparently several of [the workmen] have made matters worse...My letter to you is to urge that you turn your prompt and immediate attention to addressing the Martins' problems with the house...My suggestion is that you allocate men and resources for a period of two weeks in order to accomplish this task. Unfortunately, if the situation is not corrected by April 1, 1987, as an outside date, then the Martins will have to consider other remedies which they may have at their disposal.

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:

Problems with our house continue, despite your repeated promises that "everything will be taken care of...don't worry." In fact we do worry, and are concerned that you are still either unable or unwilling to hold to your promises and correct the many construction defects. In addition to two lengthy letters from us that detail all the construction problems, you have also received a January 9 letter from Mr. Nelson that discusses some of the major defects, and a Feb 12 letter from Mr. Schroeder...For the record, we want to remind you that not only are there numerous problems yet to be corrected (an updated list supplied with this letter), but that your efforts to correct the mistakes have so far been desultory, erratic, and in some instances have resulted in more damage to the house. Your construction company was able to build this house in less than 8 months (Nov 1985 to June 1986), but in the same period of time you have been unable to make any significant repairs. This single fact strongly suggests a lack of sincere effort on your part, an unbecoming trait in a builder who is still constructing in this area.

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.

Although Mr. Cooper appears to be a silent partner in this matter (neither answering nor acknowledging any of our correspondence), his name is on the contract and in fact checks for the basic contract price of the house were paid to him. It is odd that a person who accepts checks for over $300,000 for a new home should display not the slightest interest in the quality or soundness of the home he has sold. We can only assume Mr. Cooper has severed all relationship with you and your company, and is trying to distance himself from this construction fiasco. Nonetheless, we intend do hold him equally responsible by every legal means available to us. Neither of us has ever sued anyone, nor do we want to begin now. We plead with you, for the sake of our home, the sake of your reputation and your future business in this community, to please obtain some competent workmen and devote sufficient time and energy now to finishing our home.

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.

Thurs, Feb. 12 Spoke to Murdock in the morning. He agreed the kitchen and the mud room floors will be fixed. After talking to (the tile man) and (the plumber), Murdock is now ambivalent about following through on Mr. Nelson's plan for the shower. Murdock feels that Nelson is an architect and doesn't understand: "He (Mr. Nelson) is not out in the field." Murdock then said he would be out of town for a week. Murdock stated that the tile man, the plumber and the carpenter will be in touch with me this week (while he is out of town) to set up appointments. I called Jim Nelson to explain what is happening with the shower. He was not in but he returned my call and I explained what had transpired with Murdock regarding the shower repair. He told me that he no longer works much with Murdock. Mr. Nelson is adamant that his is the only way to correct the shower so that it will not leak in the future [this is now 7 months after we first reported the leaking shower]. Nelson still believes the house is very much structurally sound. I shared with him my frustrations over the problems and how this kind of mishmash has been going on for months. (The plumber) was scheduled to come to the house between 1 and 2 PM. He never showed up.

* * *

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.

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