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


I wrote this book in part to help others, particularly people who contemplate buying or building a new home, or even adding to an existing house. We built our dream home and now live to regret it. Reaction to our story tends to fall into one of two categories: disbelief or rationalization. The latter reaction comes mainly from lawyers, builders, architects, and hard-core businessmen; they have an "explanation" for everything and profess not to be particularly shocked by what happened to us (even though it has never happened in this state before, to anyone's knowledge).

An architect: "I understand there was some under-designing, but your architect is not representative of the way we do things. We try to make sure the builder doesn't screw up."
A builder: "Yes, your builder made a few mistakes. But he's a nice guy and just trusted his architect."
A lawyer: "A contract is only as good as the people behind it. You were just unlucky with the man behind yours."
Another lawyer: "You were caught up in a system that doesn't provide a fair remedy for breach of contract."
And another lawyer: "You think you were treated badly by the legal system? You were lucky. You got to trial."
And another lawyer: "I am sure your judge probably did his best within the constraints of Ohio law."
A businessman: "Even though this was your home, it was basically a business deal. In the business world people renege on contracts all the time."

A larger group of people, those not inured to the dog-eat-dog world of legal maneuvering, contract law and incompetent builders, display quite a different reaction from these professionals.

Many ordinary homeowners: "Why did [the defendants] act so stupidly as to jeopardize their reputations when for far less [than spent in defense] they could have fixed your house?" and "I don't understand. How can there be no penalty for defective construction and reneging on a contract? That makes no sense!" and "This is an incredible story. Doesn't the law recognize the value of one's home?" And from several potential buyers of new houses: "After what happened to you we're not moving!"

So what is the story that has elicited such strong reaction? In 1985 we contracted to design and build a $300,000+ home on a wooded, two-acre lot in a fashionable Cleveland suburb. The house was completed a year later and we moved in. Then the nightmare began.

Our first nine months in the house were marked by continual frustration with the builder. Despite our verbal pleading and writing him several lengthy letters, he could not or would not repair numerous, obvious construction defects. Only after this aggravating experience did we learn that our home was structurally defective. From top to bottom, the entire house had not been built right.

Detailed surveys by a consulting engineer, architect and builder at our expense determined that it would cost approximately $100,000 and take several months to fix our new home. The house needed new steel beams, new flooring, new drywall. To make matters worse, we would have to move out during the repair period.

The developer -- the man who sold us the house, hired the architect and builder, and guaranteed the house in writing -- refused to respond to our plight. Even though his son lived in the house next door, the developer ignored letters from us and our lawyers, notwithstanding his signed contract.

The builder, whose construction company actually built the house (under contract from the developer), blamed most of the problems on the architect. The architect, a man we had not hired, at first denied there was any structural problem, calling obviously sloping floors an "optical illusion." Our construction contract, a document we thought protected us in the event of major problems, proved worthless; it was simply ignored by the man who signed it.

Thus began a legal battle that resulted in one of the largest residential construction cases ever to come to trial. By the time of trial we had lost every dollar of home equity and appreciation -- over $200,000 -- and had incurred an additional $59,000 in legal and experts' fees. In terms of emotional involvement and sheer, un-remitting aggravation, the toll was beyond calculation.

We believe our sad result can happen to anyone building or buying a new home. Too late for us, we now understand how the whole affair could have been prevented, both the defective construction and the legal nightmare that followed.

I began this book as a simple narrative, a story of how we unknowingly contracted with the wrong people to build our dream home and then had to sue because of major defects no one would fix. As the case dragged on the legal battle itself became a major issue. Not only was our home built defectively, and not only did those responsible refuse to repair it, but the legal battle for redress was a monstrously expensive, wholly disappointing and enervating process.

We became pawns in a legal system that makes it almost impossible for plaintiffs to come out financially whole in a civil dispute. Our case exemplifies the awful truth of civil litigation, at least as regards residential construction: it is a no-win situation. If you are unfortunate enough to lose property or money by the actions of irresponsible or incompetent people, our system of litigation will likely not provide you with an equitable outcome. You may win legally but chances are overwhelming that you will lose mightily in the pocketbook.

Thus there are two stories in this book: one, about incompetence and irresponsibility in residential construction, unfortunately all too common in America today; the other is a detailed account of a large civil lawsuit and what it means to have your day in court when the dispute is "only" over money.

Without exaggeration, there is no other book like this one in print or on the internet. My book should become mandatory reading by every lawyer, architect, builder or real estate agent who becomes involved in residential real estate. Partly because these professionals are so woefully ignorant of the pitfalls of building and selling a new home, bad people will continue to fluorish, and to cheat the good people who put their hard earned money down for a new home. And we know - as emphatically as we know anything on this earth - that the legal system will not be there to protect the victims.

We wish with all our heart that we had never built a house with these incompetent, mean spirited, dishonest men. We wish beyond measure that we had no book to write. But we did build with them and we do have a story to tell.

Ruth S. Martin

Note: After reading Crooked House, you may also want to read the sequel: Crumbling Dreams.