Loudoun County's new Farmwell Hunt subdivision seems a happy slice of suburbia. Step outside the front door, and neighbors wave or stop to chat as they walk their dogs. Within months of moving in, residents have bridged their racial and cultural differences, inviting each other in for dinners.
There's a catch. The reason neighbors have bonded so quickly is that they're united in what some call a war against their home builder, Toll Brothers Inc., over what they say are missing doorknobs, inoperable phone jacks, closets too narrow for coat hangers and faulty duct work that has left some rooms sweltering this summer.
All of this, even as red, white and blue flags continue to beckon buyers to what eventually will be more than 700 homes, many with $300,000 price tags.
"It's sort of like when you go to war with somebody," said Eric A. Adolphe, 33, who heads a Silver Spring computer company. "It's a shared problem. What happens is people in the community get together and talk about it."
The talk has produced action: a complaint has been filed with Virginia's Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. And Adolphe has organized 17 homeowners and hired a lawyer, threatening to sue the Pennsylvania-based builder.
Walter A. Music, a vice president for Toll Brothers, which builds in 18 states, acknowledged some complaints at Farmwell Hunt and said the company is trying to respond quickly. Music also said Toll Brothers has replaced its Farmwell Hunt management team with a more experienced group with a good record for service.
"We would always like to get every customer taken care of immediately. We strive to do that," Music said. "It's not always possible."
Music added that residents have ample opportunity before closing to raise concerns about unfinished work. Residents walk through the houses and make lists of things that need to be repaired and then have a chance to make sure the work has been done before settlement, Music said.
However, Adolphe and another resident complained that when they tried to make a final inspection before closing, Toll Brothers representatives said the house keys had been misplaced. Music said he was unaware of that happening.
Throughout the home-building industry, analysts say, a labor shortage has slowed construction and made it hard to find enough skilled workers to do the technical work and the finishing work needed to complete new homes.
With unemployment running near 2 percent in the Washington suburbs, builders and subcontractors have had a hard time finding enough workers to keep up with demand, particularly in Loudoun, the Washington area's fastest-growing county. Farmwell residents suspect the labor shortage has caused subcontractors to hire inexperienced workers.
Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research for the National Association of Home Builders, said that new homes often have or develop minor problems that are quickly repaired. Today's labor shortage, he said, means that some home builders have had a hard time fixing things quickly.
"They are doing it," he said. "It's only a question of delay."
He added that some of the problems in Farmwell Hunt sounded unusual.
Adolphe, for example, said he fled to the basement one night recently with his pregnant wife, Eunja, to escape the 101-degree heat in a bedroom where the air conditioning didn't work properly. He said Toll Brothers officials have told him they will come out and look at the air conditioning, and he hopes they will fix it, along with the problems in other houses as well. The builder has already returned to put air vents in his den, Adolphe said, but one of the vents led to the laundry room -- not the heating and cooling system.
Two years ago, Alan and Joyce Schwartz moved into Farmwell Hunt and quickly bonded with neighbors over their shared woes. In their case, carpeting was marred by a bad dye job and needed to be replaced. Kitchen counter tops were stained. It took more than a year, and the matter went to arbitration before Toll Brothers replaced all the defective material, the Schwartzes said.
"As your house goes up, the person next door comes to you with a similar problem," Alan Schwartz, a fast food franchise manager, said recently as he watched a crew tearing defective stucco off a nearby house. "We know everybody all the way down the street. There's a tremendous mix of diversity. It all melts down. Everybody is just pretty good neighbors. At night everybody is out walking and talking."
Asad Zaman, 41, a systems analyst, and Adolphe bonded over their shared woes against Toll Brothers, and the two recently finished planting dogwoods and evergreens in their adjacent back yards.
When he moved in last year, Badruz Zaman, 36, Asad's brother, found the closet in his son's room so shallow that hanging coat hangers made it impossible to close the sliding doors. Zaman said he repeatedly complained and Toll Brothers suggested he use mini-hangers.
"I'm worried once he gets bigger how we're going to fit his clothes in here," Zaman said.
After being told about the closet, Music said it would be fixed.
Zaman also has a problem with two large white air vents on the front of his house -- one above his two-car garage and the other just below the roofline above his front door. One is round, the size of a large beach ball, and the other is square. All the other houses have matching vents. Zaman said Toll Brothers acknowledged the problem. But instead of fixing it, the builder dropped off a box containing a new round vent.
CAPTION: Toll Brothers Inc. plans to build 700 houses in the Farmwell Hunt subdivision in Loudoun County. Some early residents are complaining about the builder.
CAPTION: Construction workers are still putting up houses at Loudoun's Farmwell Hunt subdivision.
CAPTION: Eric Adolphe looks through an unconnected air conditioning duct.