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Disgruntled homeowners take to the Web to battle a giant homebuilder over complaints of shoddy workmanship

When John Winkler bought his new home in 1997, he knew what he was looking for--a friendly, stable neighborhood and a house constructed by a reputable builder. Being in Mesquite, as in Texas, as in the land of endless, blistering summers, he also wanted a home that wouldn't cost a fortune to keep cool.

He found a neighborhood he loves, anyway. As for the rest, Winkler's home-buying experience with the nation's fifth-largest homebuilder was, to say the least, less than satisfying. More precisely, Winkler, like dozens of other customers of Columbia, Maryland-based Ryland Homes, thinks he was screwed.

Ryland's promotional literature claimed the model of house Winkler purchased possessed a "high-efficiency air conditioning and gas central heat by Carrier." The problem is that, in this context, the Department of Energy and the EPA define "high efficiency" as a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, or SEER, of at least 12.0. Winkler later discovered that his unit had a SEER of only 10.0--the federally established minimum efficiency for installation in new homes.

Winkler demanded a replacement. Ryland's response: No.
Ryland claimed that Winkler knew what he was getting when he closed on the house. "High efficiency" was a generic "term of art" used "innocently" by Ryland Homes, "and that the 12.0 SEER unit was an available upgrade for which Winkler had not paid," the builder responded. The only problem with that argument is that the federal government established the definition of exactly what constitutes "high efficiency" in 1992. John Winkler, who's worked in the commercial air-conditioning field since 1983, has a hard time believing that a homebuilder of Ryland's prominence went five whole years with no knowledge of the required specifications for its products.

Winkler calls this a case of bait-and-switch that may affect dozens of homes in his Stonecrest neighborhood.

"There's wording to cover every bit of the process," Winkler says of the contracts and closing documents entailed in the purchase of a home. "And the homebuilder wrote it. So have a lawyer look at it, even if you have to pay someone to do it. It'll be worth it."

In other words, caveat emptor--let the buyer beware. If Winkler learned that lesson a bit late, he wasn't the first Ryland customer to do so. Nor is he the first to complain loudly and publicly about what he believes is mistreatment at the hands of Ryland. Winkler and other dissatisfied Ryland customers have taken to the Internet's World Wide Web to chronicle what they believe is mistreatment by the builder.

Perhaps none of them has done so quite as forcefully as the Houston area's John Cobarruvius, who has fashioned the Internet into a sling to try to fell Ryland.

Or, if that doesn't work, there's always the Texas attorney general.

No way is John Cobarruvius even going to think about selling his home.
The location is good, for one thing, anchored near the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Clear Lake City's Bay Knoll development outside Houston. Then there's the floor plan--two stories with soaring ceilings, lots of windows, and a spacious playroom on the second floor.

Cobarruvius, his wife, and their two children have settled in since the couple bought the house, the family's first new home, for $110,000 back in 1989. They have no intention of leaving, and that's a good thing. If Cobarruvius were to try to sell the house, he'd have to face the question of whether it's even worth what he paid for it nine years ago.

Cobarruvius' house is pretty much a lemon without wheels.
Cobarruvius, who works at NASA's Johnson Space Center, is an animated man with a tendency toward good-natured profanity. He also possesses--or possessed, anyhow--an instinct to trust, as when he told his wife, in earlier house-shopping days, that "there's no way the third-largest homebuilder in the country is going to screw us." He was talking then about Ryland Homes, which stands today as the nation's fifth-largest homebuilder, and he remembers his comment with the self-effacing rue of the poker player who couldn't identify the sucker at the table, and only much later realized that this meant the chump was he.

This did not make John Cobarruvius a happy man. In fact, as things kept going wrong with his Ryland home, as faults and defects made their presence felt, John Cobarruvius became so unhappy that action became inescapable. He complained and negotiated and insisted and wheedled. He sued twice, coming away with a 1-1 record in court and a deathly fear of lawyers. He taught himself in the process that the little guy has little chance when confronted with the legal firepower of a national homebuilder.

Cobarruvius didn't know how to go about tackling a behemoth that he felt had done him wrong, but he knew computers. He had one at home. He'd been wanting some time to learn to build Web sites, so that's what he did. The address is www.orbitworld.net/johncoby, and it's a sight to behold: dozens of pages of carefully documented and cross-referenced photographs of his lemon house, his correspondence with the builders of the lemon house, lovingly scanned court papers, and chronologies of frustration and disappointment.

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