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

Ryland also touts the personalizing touches--from design to service--that come with its divisional offices and local service representatives. "Local teams make the difference," one pamphlet says. But when Cobarruvius sent one too many complaint letters to his local Ryland team, the response included the suggestion that "if you have any more questions or concerns, please contact our corporate attorney, Timothy J. Geckle, in Columbia, Maryland." Later came the news that this same corporate legal counsel "has advised Ryland employees to refrain from any conversations with you on this matter."

Likewise, calls to Texas-based Ryland officers were referred to a corporate press spokesman in Maryland, who reiterated that Ryland stands by its storm-window solution.

"Obviously, Ryland is committed to building homes of the highest quality," the spokesman said. "We would not have been in business for more than 30 years if that had not been a philosophy that we had put in place and followed. We would not have more than 150,000 homeowners at this point. We offer our homeowners one of the most comprehensive warranty programs in the industry. We meet our warranty and service agreements with our customers. They're very well defined."

Houston attorney George Pain, who specializes in suits against homebuilders and has dealt with Ryland's attorneys on several occasions, agrees that "Ryland is not a bad outfit compared with some others. I work with their lawyers pretty well. They seem to have the attitude of 'OK, we screwed up, we made a mistake, we want to do the best we can to get out of it and not make any further mistakes.'"

But Pain admits that attitude usually kicks in only after a lawyer has been retained. "Oftentimes the homeowner deals with underlings. Supervisors, construction supervisors, people at the lower levels. At the lower levels, they don't want to admit that anything was done wrong to their higher echelons."

Cobarruvius understands that a house is a complex piece of construction that will sometimes malfunction. All he ever expected is that a company that prides itself on customer service would make good-faith efforts to satisfy legitimate customer complaints. And that, to his mind, is all he never got.

He's joined by dozens of Ryland homeowners in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, few of whom think that the defects they've discovered in their homes are the result of any malicious action by Ryland. What their complaints all boil down to is this: The service they've gotten from Ryland has been so odious that many have simply given up and chalked their experience up to, well, very expensive experience.

"It's almost as if," said one Ryland owner who didn't want his name used, "they try to make the whole process of getting a problem solved so difficult that, in the end, you'd just rather not even call them at all."

The Better Business Bureaus in both Houston and Dallas second that idea with files that report, in part, that Ryland "has a pattern of not settling complaints to the customer's satisfaction."

Ryland spokesperson Ann Madison reports that the homebuilder has been in negotiations with the Houston BBB since July. While this story was being written, the BBB changed its report to the inconclusive news that the organization is "in the process of developing information" on Ryland, and "does not have a report at this time." (The Dallas BBB's report remains as quoted.)

"Any large publicly held company is going to have complaints on file, legal issues from time to time," Madison explains. "We wish that we could please everyone. We're glad that we can please the majority of our buyers."

That's not good enough for Cobarruvius. Maybe Ryland can't please everyone, but he, at least, demands satisfaction.

"I want the attorney general to review this," says Cobarruvius. "They should make a decision. I've volunteered my time to go and help them do that. Ryland, I don't think they ever will do anything for me. I want them to tell me what's wrong with the windows and help me fix it. Instead of standing behind their product, they want to stand behind their attorneys.

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