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

He found similar Web pages documenting dream-home dreams gone nightmarish with Ryland customers in San Antonio and Dallas (Winkler's is at http://home.worldnet.att.net/~jpwinkler/index.htm), and linked to those sites as well. At the top of the opening page, he quoted the Houston division president of Ryland: "Please feel free to visit any Ryland neighborhood and ask the Ryland homebuyers about their experiences."

Cobarruvius thought this was just hysterical, and he wasn't about to wait for some random advice-seeker to knock on his door. "Well, in that case," comes his peremptory reply, "look here."

Plenty of people did. And it turned out that a lot of folks, many of them first-time homeowners like Cobarruvius, were turning up remarkably similar problems with their Ryland homes. Cobarruvius kept adding pages to his Web site, expanding his research, compiling a file of cohorts and community activists until he became a Johnny Lemonseed of the Web, sowing informed discontent and consumer awareness. And so Cobarruvius came to understand that he wasn't alone. He also learned that when life gives you lemons, you could make lemonade, but it might be more effective to compile--with Winkler's help--an inch-and-a-half-thick sheath of documentation, title it "A Request for Review of the Building Practices of Ryland Homes of Texas," and deliver it to Texas Attorney General Dan Morales' office.

It all started when Hurricane Chantall hit the Texas coast in August 1989, just months after Cobarruvius had moved into his brand-new home. By the time the storm petered out, Cobarruvius' carpets were soaked with water that blew right in past the panes. Most of his Clear Lake neighbors in new Ryland homes, he found, had the same problem, and so did Ryland owners from Pasadena to Richmond.

Ryland sent representatives to survey the damage. The company's Houston South Division sent out letters a week after the storm informing homeowners that Ryland's insurance carrier would be available to determine what, if any, damage may have resulted from "failure of our products." Ryland eventually repaired the water damage, but the letter went on to say that the homebuilder would be meeting with the window manufacturer--the Dallas-based General Aluminum--to determine the cause.

The next letter from Ryland came two weeks later and said that the homebuilder and General Aluminum had met and decided to test the windows in some houses where leakage had been reported. "All leaks will be noted," the note read. "Glass will be removed, new bedding applied, and the glass replaced. Where necessary, new glass will be installed."

Almost a month later, Ryland issued another letter to homeowners. After further consideration, Ryland had concluded that there was a "more complete and effective solution to this problem." Ryland was going to install storm windows over the leaky windows. The letter apologized for the delay, but asked homeowners to recognize the importance of a "total solution to the problems."

Signatories Ray G. Woodruff, then-vice president of operations for the Texas region, and James C. Black, then-division manager of the Houston South Division, further touted the storm windows' "additional energy-saving benefits" and concluded on a reassuring note, urging homeowners who "are approaching or have passed the one-year warranty period" to "be assured that Ryland Homes will honor its commitment to take care of the items you have called in."

John Cobarruvius didn't know what else to do, and he didn't know why not, so he took the storm windows.

But there was something that Ryland didn't tell him. Following the flood of leaky-window complaints, Ryland had commissioned Kingwood-based Knight Engineering Services to determine the cause of the leakage. On October 20, 1989, Knight came back with a report that leaks around individual windowpanes were a result of incomplete bonding of the sealant between frame and glass, especially on some panes that were cut so small as to have no overlap with the frame. It found leaks to the inside of walls, because many windows had no sealant at all in the lower corners. It found framing defects in the connection between the inner and outer frames of windows. The report concluded "it is probable that these multiple-pane windows will be a continual source of major leakage for the homeowner," before recommending that the defective windows be replaced with sturdier, single-pane window halves.

Ryland's storm-window idea got a lukewarm endorsement. "The storm windows appear to be an acceptable method of covering the defects of the General Aluminum windows. However...the enclosed space between the windows may also cause higher temperatures that could become an additional problem for the sealant."

Cobarruvius didn't see the report until December 1996, when he took a break from jury duty to research Ryland's courthouse history and found the report in a document warehouse, where it had been filed after Ryland used it in its own suit against General Aluminum. That suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and with a nondisclosure agreement that prevents both parties from discussing its results, but what it said to Cobarruvius was that Ryland had hidden relevant information from him. By the time Cobarruvius had the information in hand and tried to sue Ryland to fix his windows, a judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired.

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