The Home Owners Warranty Corp., the nation's largest insurer of new homes, has agreed to give homeowners in Montgomery County information the company receives on potential structural defects in homes it insures.
The company also agreed to proceed with agreed-upon repairs without first requiring the owner to sign away his right to ask for other repairs that the company has not agreed are covered by the program.
The agreement was reached this week with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs, following a complaint filed last year by a Damascus couple, who claimed an engineer hired by Home Owners Warranty (HOW) reported to the company their split-level home had potential structural problems, but failed to inform them. The home, which cost $88,000 in 1981, has since been devalued by the mortgage lender to less than one-third the original cost.
HOW, which insures builders and warrants the owners of 25,000 homes in Montgomery County, agreed voluntarily to resolve the situation after the consumer affairs office considered taking action under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, which prohibits businesses from failing to notify customers of certain aspects of a transaction, including the provisions of warranties. Violation of the law could have resulted in restitution and civil penalties.
Prior to the agreement, HOW did not notify homeowners it insured of structural defects discovered by independent consultants it hired to assess repair claims. Also, HOW previously required homeowners to accept as a full settlement the claims agreed to by the consultant and waive their right to any other repairs claimed by the homeowner, a provision known as a "split decision."
According to Barbara Gregg, executive director of the consumer affairs office, about one home in every nine or 10 built in Montgomery County involves disputes about items in home warranties, including problems such as bursting pipes and poorly fitted windows. HOW is one of three companies that insure homes for builders in Montgomery County, she said.
To protect holders of warranties on new homes, Gregg said, the county is considering creating a program that would require builders not covered by a private warranty program like HOW to join and contribute funds toward a county warranty plan, which would help finance repair costs claimed by owners of the builder's homes in the county.
"We have a major concern about the time it takes to settle disputes involving new homes in the county," said Gregg. "We're concerned when people move in and expect the builder to take care of their problems, and are frustrated to see them continue to build new homes in their neighborhoods, but not getting the ones they've built quite right."
Jane Snow, a spokeswoman for HOW, said the company was satisfied it was able to reach the agreement with the county.
"We're very happy with this decision. We think this is a positive step. It will increase consumer confidence in the program, and it furthers the objectives of HOW to make sure a building is brought up to standard," Snow said.
The company also agreed to change its advertising, which the consumer affairs office claimed misled customers. HOW's brochure said the company "continually" monitored the homes it insures during construction, which it does not do, said Gregg. The company was also required to say that its building standards were consistant with local building codes, and not special standards of its own, she said.