As the Fairfax County home building industry feverishly digs out from its construction recession, a conflict of expectations over workmanship often arises between builder and buyer when the new homes are occupied.
Many of the people who have recently purchased homes for what they think are "upper-bracket" sums say it is difficult to understand why they must move into messy homes with leaky basements and windows, bubbly kitchen tiles, paint-spotted appliances and hardwood floors and cracked bannisters, walls and stairs.
It is also hard for them, they say, to understand why they must then suffer the "hassle and delays" in getting these inconveniences repaired by the builders.
"When you're buying a $73,000 home, you don't want excuses, you want what you're paying for," said Mary Beth Cox, who recently bought home built by Ryan Homes Inc. in the Cardinal Glen subdivision in Springfield.
"I was told my house was the cheapest and I shouldn't really expect so much," said patricia Cooney, whose new home in the Signal Hill subdivison built by Edward R. Carr & Associates Inc. has a leak that drips onto her dining room table."But isn't $65,000 more than peanuts.?"
Joseph Cox, a Department of Labor employee in maritime safety who purchased a home in Cardinal Glen, said there were no major structural defects in his house, "but it's all the little stuff. Ryan builds thousands of homes and to them, a crack in a bannister is a little thing but to the person who buys the home, you'd like one (a bannister) that looks new. It's like buying a car with a scratch on the side."
"Generally, the house is built OK," said Robert Berman, president of the civic association at Winston Knolls in Springfield where the homes constructed by Centex Homes Corp. now cost about $70,000. "But the problem is the finishing - the things people see," he explained, citing the example of plastic floor covering that is placed over nails and other debris, thus causing cracks and indentations.
The things that are wrong with new homes "are vexing to the consumer, but not essential to his safety," said Fairfax builder Carr. "Overall, the home owner is getting a better home than he used to get. Some things in a new home are not as high in quality (at they used to be) but some are higher," Carr said.
The finish, paint, wallboard and wood trim are not as good, for example, but the appliances, heating systems and utilization of space are better, Carr explained.
"We give them as perfect a home as they'll get," said construction foreman Bruce Niswonger of Ryan, which says it is the largest single-family home builder in the Washington area. "There's no way to build a totally perfect home."
"I wish every customer who moved into a house could find everything perfect, but they don't because we make mistakes," Carr said.
Though Fairfax officials and builders say new home-owners' complaints are a constant and recurring problem, the county's Consumer Affairs Department reports a 43 per cent increase over the last fiscal year in complaints in their "home builders and improvement contractors" category.
In at least three subdivision, McLean Knolls, Winston Knolls and Carol Square, home owners have grouped together to meet with county officials to complain about a builders alleged delay in correcting what they saw as deficiences.
Some believe that the bigger price tags on homes have lowered people's complaint threshold. "People are paying so much (for homes) it's hurting them. So they look for everything that could be wrong," said county building inspector James Lowery.
Others like Carr say that today's home-buying family is not putting a larger percentage of its income into a new home than 10 years ago and attribute home owners' vocalness to a growing "consumer consciouness."
Not everyone has problems with his new home. Jane and Paul Sewell, for example, said they are very happy and satisfied with their Ryan home in Cardinal Glen and with the service from Ryan personnel.
"You don't hear from the guy who thinks his new home is dynamite, do you?" observes Robert Johnson, executive vice-president of the Northern Virginia Builders' Association.
Some people will complain about anything. In the files of county consumer affairs office one can find the trivial with the egregious - "no towel or toilet paper installed"; "no paint on piece of wood under laundry sink;" "no paint on inside of garage door." As one resident of the high-priced neighborhood of McLean Knolls put it. "Some people think that just because they paid 100 K' for a home, that it's guaranteed forever."
Many individuals have their own stories of disappointment and exasperation at seeing the little problem, they had not expected in a new home. Mrs. Cooney was so peeved when she said an employee of Carr's firm told her that the rain dripping down her new dining room ceiling light was "an act of God" that she put what she called a "still life painting" - a large, yellow lemon - on her front lawn across the street from the subdivision's sales office.
Attempts to repair the leak so far have been unsuccessful. "Apparently there is something unusual" about the Cooney home causing the leak, Carr said."We're waiting for the next rain and a qualified man has been told to go out there (and find the leak). We'll keep at it until we get it," said Carr, who added that a used home he just bought for himself also has a leak.
In the mushrooming subdivisions, complaints against builders are something to talk about other than the weather," said civic association leader, Berman.
Even though they may often feel that the large mortgages they carry justifiy their complaints, some new home owners like Mary Ellen Masciangelo "You kind of get embarrassed at how picky you are."
The Maciangelos had several complaints about their new home in Signal Hill, which the Carr company has either already corrected or promised to fix. The builder also returned $50 to the Maciangelos because they were not satisfied with the stain on a bannister. But they said they are upset because a retaining wall had to be built into their front lawn and because a large green utility box sits right in front of their home.
In most cases, homeowners report that the builders eventually get around to fixing what is wrong, be it a leak, a wobbly counter, workmen's footprints on the ceiling beams, or no window sealing.
The fix-it pace often is spaced in weeks rather than days, especially during the summer months when families pour into new homes as soon as they are inhabitable. In Signal Hill, for example Carry says as many as 20 families are moving in each month. "I think people would like to have everything corrected immediately," he said.
It is often the delay that bothers many homeowners more than the fact that things need to be fixed. "I don't mind something being wrong workmanshipwise, but I do mind the big problem (it is) to fix it," Cox said.
Berman said much of the dissatisfaction in Winston Knolls was du to the fact that people "had to grumble a lot, yell a lot, threaten and pester - the squeaky wheel gets the oil concept - rather than just sending in a list and everything happening in a reasonable amount of time."
Meanwhile, Joseph Bertoni has his own complaints. "Why is that whenever everything is wrong in a subdivision, everyone blames the inspectors?" asked the county's chief of building inspections. He noted that the inspectors can only enforce the state building code, which the county cannot alter, and can do nothing about poor workmanship.
Fairfax building inspectors have started work a half hour early every since last spring because of the building boom. There were 14,611 building permits issued in the year ending June 30 compared to 11,778 the year before.
On a recent inspection tour, senior inspector James Lowery paid close attention to how concrete was laid; that a steel grid and poylurethane covering were in place and that screens, handrails and chimney flues were all properly installed. These are all code requirements dealing with structural integrity and safety.
On his final house inspections, Lowery has no control over paint peeling from walls along window frames, a window set crooked in a front door, basement walls without sheet rock, unlevel basement floors or even damp basement walls. These defects in workmanship and asthetics are not covered by the building code.
When workmanship is flagrantly bad or easy to repair, Lowery said he usually "tactfully" asks the builder to repair it and that most of them acquiesce. Bertoni agreed that "most builders are businessmen and it's to their advantage to put out the best possible product. So they do care."
As purchasers become more demanding and more vocal, the root cause of most of their complaints - shoddy workmanship - remains. Part of the reason is lack of well-trained workmen.
Asked if he had difficulty in finding good men to work for him, Carr replied, "I can't find enough men - good or bad." Besides the general decline in young people entering the trades, Carr explains there are local reasons for the dearth of good tradesmen.
During the building recession in 1974-75, the tradesmen "relocated, geographically or to other industries" and they have not come back. Secondly, Carr said he has found many subcontractors have "consciously decided not to expand as much as they did before 1974" because they got burned so badly when housing starts dropped off. Finally the rejuvenation of coal production in the Appalachias is keeping tradesmen home who used to come to the Washington metropolitan areas to find work, Carr said.
Whatever defects a new home may have, home owners know they have made a good investment. In a county where it is not unusual to hear of homes increasing in value by thousands of dollars in one year, some home owners are reluctant to discuss problems they have had once they are corrected, since adverse publicity might affect the price tage they can some day attach to their home.
As one civic association president subtly put it, he was concerned that this article "will portrayed all the house (in his subdivision) as poor houses."