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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.

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.

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."

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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