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

The engineering report wasn't the only document Cobarruvius dug up and added to his Web site. There was also a list of more than 800 Houston-area homes with the same window problems.

Cobarruvius' name and address were on that list, and so were those of his neighbor, Kevin Jolibois, whose windows were not only the same leaky type, but were among the very windows tested by Knight in preparing their report. Ryland never disclosed the results of the engineering report to Jolibois either, even after he took the homebuilder to court. Jolibois had complained early on about the windows, and while most of his neighbors agreed to have the storm windows installed, thinking they were getting an extra value, he says he protested in writing on a work order that he accepted the "fix" only as a stopgap measure.

But after the stopgap stretched to three years, and Ryland told him the company had done all it intended to do regarding the windows, Jolibois sued under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The engineering report didn't materialize during discovery, but Jolibois eventually settled. Again, a nondisclosure agreement came attached to the resolution, but Jolibois will say that the settlement more than paid for him to have his windows replaced.

He also says, "If I'd had that report, I never would have settled."
And if Cobarruvius and dozens of other Ryland owners interviewed for this story had known about the engineering report, they could have at least known what to expect from their windows over the next several years.

Remember the report's warning about increased heat trapped between the storm and interior windows? That heat has wreaked havoc on Cobarruvius' house. With the storm windows on the outside and the original windows in place, a greenhouse effect is created in the airspace between, causing rubber weather-stripping to peel away from the panes, and hastening the disintegration of the already faulty bonding of panes to frames. Cobarruvius' Web site contains pictures of windows with thumbs and rulers fitted into the gaps. Though the storm windows mostly prevent rain from coming in, they're not designed to be airtight, so there's little to stop the flow of air and dust into the house, and little to stop the flow of conditioned air out of it.

While the windows are probably the most galling complaint, they're hardly the only gripes Cobarruvius has compiled in his report to the attorney general's office.

His house, and thousands like it across the state, is sheathed in Masonite Hardboard siding, which was recently the cause of a national class-action suit because the siding absorbs water on exposed faces, causing it to swell, buckle, and discolor. In extreme cases, the siding simply rots right off the house.

The class-action suit affects homes built since 1980 by Ryland and any number of other builders (Ryland has since ceased using Masonite siding in favor of a product called Hardi-Plank), and the settlement affords affected homeowners up to three reimbursement claims over a 10-year period. The settlement has been poorly publicized, however, and Cobarruvius thinks that Ryland and other homebuilders should have a responsibility to inform customers that their homes were built with defective materials, but Ryland has made no effort to do so. Cobarruvius thinks that's probably because the terms of the settlement don't indemnify Ryland for using the soggy stuff in the first place, thus opening the homebuilder to defective construction suits of its own. Cobarruvius won his, though he didn't get as much money as he would have liked.

That's hardly all. There's the issue of the Louisiana Pacific Oriented Strand Board sheathing, a plywood substitute installed as a roofing platform and floorboarding on thousands of homes by Ryland and other builders that was recently on the losing end of yet another class-action suit over defective materials.

Cobarruvius and his cohorts aren't lawyers, and they can't yet prove that they've been sold a bill of goods, but they've amassed a pile of evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, that suggests that may be exactly what they bought.

When Cobarruvius bought his home, Ryland's promotional literature was packed with the company's motto at the time: "Built for Life." He's saved some of those pamphlets, because he thinks they're funny, and because they anchor his current favorite play on words: "Built for Litigation." The joke comes courtesy of neighbor Roger Mahoney, who is one-third of a recently dismissed class-action suit against Ryland over the window problem. A judge ruled in Ryland's favor, stating that the statute of limitations had expired, which you'd hardly think should apply to a product "Built for Life." (Ryland's public relations officer Ann Madison parsed the phrase as meaning "Built for Living.") The company has since abandoned that phrase for its current slogan: "America's Home Builder."

Ryland was founded in Columbia, Maryland, in 1967. It has since opened operations in 270 communities, in 23 divisions, in 20 states. Since new in-house accounting measures were implemented in 1986, Ryland estimates it has built some 8,000 homes in the Houston area and another 4,000 in and around Dallas. Ryland's promotional literature assures buyers that the company has "done one thing especially well--we've listened to our customers." Ryland has listened, they say, because they "want relationships with our customers that last a lifetime."

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