Q: My house in Maryland was built 10 years ago. What began as small hairline cracks in the front and one side of the bricking has developed -- over five to eight years -- into a one-quarter-inch split in several places. A registered architect has examined the house and concluded that when the foundation was laid, it was done in an unprofessional manner.

My question deals with the statute of limitations. Can I sue to recover the costs that will be involved in repairing the damage before it becomes worse? I appreciate that a statute of limitations is necessary to protect a person from indefinite threats of legal action, but the fact remains that it took me more than three years before I discovered the faulty workmanship.

A: Statutes of limitations, as you suggest, are designed to put an end to the potential threat -- and indeed, the harrassment -- often created by litigation.The underlying theory of such laws is that once you have discovered a problem, you have a reasonable period of time in which to take legal action, or forever rest your case. The familiar proverb is "fish or cut bait."

Lawyers and judges often disagree on the applicable statute of limitations, and it would be unwise for me to categorically tell you that you have a right to sue. In general, however, the law in Maryland cuts off your right to bring an action for damages resulting from the "defective and unsafe condition of an improvement to real property" more than 20 years after the date "the entire improvement first becomes available for its intended use." In simple English, after 20 years from the date your house was built, you cannot file your suit.

However, don't get your hopes up too high. Other provisions of Maryland law might restrict you even further.

For example, there is a warranty under Maryland law that every newly constructed private residence is constructed according to sound engineering standards, fit for habitation, free from faulty materials and constructed in a workman-like manner. This is known as the "implied warranty of habitability and fitness."

This implied warranty lasts for only one year, and you have an additional two years after the expiration of the warranty in which to file suit.

But, there still remains some hope. If you can prove fraud -- that your builder knowingly misrepresented the quality of the foundation's construction -- you might be able to avoid this statute of limitations.

This is not an easy topic. From your point of view, you should argue that you only recently discovered the poorly constructed foundation. Your builder, on the other hand, will no doubt argue that the warranty has long expired and that you should have discovered the alleged poor workmanship many years ago.

Thus, the facts of each case become highly important to a determination of the success or failure of that litigation.

More significantly, before you even concern yourself about the statute of limitations, have you inquired as to whether your builder is still around?

Litigation is expensive and time consuming. Obtain at least two estimates of what it will cost to correct the damage.