Toasters and televisions may be subject to consumer agency regulation in the Washington area, but new houses are largely excluded.
With the exception of Montgomery County, consumer protection jurisdiction over new home sales ranges from none to questionable.
Montgomery's Office of Consumer Affairs is the only agency in the area with specific authority to intervene in new house disputes. One full-time housing specialist, Stphen C. Silcox, is assigned to handle new home complaints.
The office looked into 107 new home cases between June 1976 and July 1977. Half of those cases were resolved, a fourth were unresolved and a fourth were out of the office's jurisdiction, Silcox said.
He said home owners complain to him largely about such defects as leaking basements, heating systems that are not working properly and floor contusions (bruises).
"I had one where the building itself was up to code but the floor bounced," Silcox said. "I was out there bouncing on the floor . . . But the builder took the position that, 'well, its up to code so I shouldn't be responsible.'" The case is still being investigated.
Silcox says it is not sufficient for a house just to meet the county's building code, the type of standard used area-wide to assure that houses are structurally sound.
"We look beyond that," he said. "It may be up to code but it still has to function the way a house is supposed to function."
Not all problems with new houses - particularly those involving small defects - can be resolved by his office, Silcox said. Unsually, he said, he tries to work out a compromise.
"If I get a complaint in the mail and it lists 20 items, generally I recognize that there's going to be some chaff in there," he said. "Maybe the consumer will throw out some tiems as a bargaining tool. But what I have to do is go out and physically check the home. If problems are not initially resolved then it becomes a trade-off process.
"I'll try to get the builder to accept some complaints and drop others," he continued. "Maybe there's tile in the bathroom that needs replacing. And maybe it needs caulk around the tub.
"Now what I'll try to do is trade off. I'll try to get the builder to put in th tile if the consumer will agree to caulk it because I know the consumer can get the tub caulk at a low price."
When disputes between buyers and builders cannot be resolved voluntarily, the county may seek a written settlement agreement. In these cases, the county consumer office becomes an independent party in the dispute.
The builder must not only settle with the buyer but with the county as well. If the agreement is not honored, or a satisfactory agreement is not made, the consumer office has the right to sue the builder.
In theory, the consumer office can sue even if the builder settles with a buyer, but this does not happen in practice. Such orders can be enforced in court and result in fines of up to $500 per violation.
In cases where the county has no jurisdiction, frequently the problems concern interpretations of warranties, Silcox said.
New home disputes in the District may or may not come under the authority of the D.C. Consumer Protection Office. The matter is "unsettled," according to Betty Robinson, general counsel to the District agency, though she said, "we are getting a number of cases with a wide variety or problems."
New housing complaints in the District are handled on a case-by-case basis. The most common disputes, Robinson said, involve basement and roof leaks, sewer problems, warrantly conflicts, and alleged building code violations.
Building code disputes may arise because buyers do not understand the purpose of the code, Robinson said.
"The code only deals with minimum specifications," according to Robinson. "These are not necessarily the maximum in comfort."
The District consumer office has a housing specialist to handle new home disputes. If a builder and buyer cannot work out a voluntary solution, the office may seek a settlement conference that can result in a written agreement.
If no settlement is reached or a written understanding is broached, a complaint can be filed with the office's hearings section. Civil penalties under this procedure can be imposed by an administrative law judge.
In Prince George's County there "is no jurisdiction to enforce express (written) warranties on new homes," said Albert Wynn, executive director of the county's Consumer Protection Commission.
Wynn said there have been "an increasing number, but not a significant number" of new home complaints brought to his office. He speculates that the figures may be influenced by the limited jurisdiction of his office.
While Wynn cannot investigate new home disputes directly he may have jurisdiction in cases of misrepresentation. Also, he said he is trying to determine if new home conflicts stemming from the "unreasonable detention of monies" may come under his authority. So far, this legal theory has not been tested in county new home conflicts.
The scope of consumer protection is more limited in Virginia than other area jurisdictions. While the Consumer Protection Commission in Fairfax County will investigate new home complaints it has no enforcement powers, such as cease and desist orders or the ability to sue. However, the county does have a unique program designed tr identify merchants - including new home builders - with poor consumer relations.
When a consumer complains that disputes are not being handled in good faith, the commission can hold a hearing to determine if a merchant has been "uncooperative" or "unresponsive."
In Alexandria, Nancy Cleveland, consumer affairs coordinator, said her office has "no enforcement authority at all" and that it serves chiefly to "investigate, mediate, and resolve" consumer problems in general. The Alexandria consumer office will handle new home disputes and Cleveland said that five to 10 are received monthly. Most are resolved through compromise, she said.
The situation is much the same in Arlington. Charles Hammond, executive director of the Office of Consumer Affairs, said the "main role" of his agency is mediation. Hammond will investigate new home complaints and check specifically into warranties and whether builders have appropriate licenses. Hammond's office has no enforcement powers.
Next: New Home Warranties