In September 1986, Gay and Craig Carinci studied sketches of Ruxton Forest, a housing complex under construction on the western fringe of Fairfax County, and made a $4,000 deposit on what was to be their first home.

Earlier this month, when Gay Carinci showed guests the house in the Pleasant Valley community, the sky was peeking through an unfinished roof, water had accumulated in the basement and bare floorboards had buckled beneath frozen puddles.

Ruxton Homes Inc., the builder, initially told the couple that their three-bedroom Victorian-style house would be completed by last June. But Ruxton now predicts that the house won't be ready until July or August.

As the Carincis wait in frustration, a group of Ruxton buyers has united to protest what it describes as a pattern of unfulfilled promises by Ruxton Homes. Several of the buyers recently picketed Ruxton's model home, faulting the builder for delays they said have disrupted their lives and cost them thousands of dollars.

Ruxton officials acknowledge that progress on the development has been unusually slow but said that they have done their best to overcome an unexpected series of setbacks.

On one point, the would-be homeowners and the home builder agree. "Pleasant Valley, from a construction and delivery standpoint, has been anything but pleasant," said John Rentz, president of Ruxton Homes.

Patricia Crusan, who signed a contract with Ruxton a year ago and now hopes to move in before May, said, "You're talking about the American dream, and it's turned into the American nightmare."

Currently, 29 houses for which sales agreements have been written are in various stages of construction at Ruxton Forest. Another 10 are occupied, while five properties remain unsold, according to Ruxton officials. Ruxton last completed a house in September, they said.

Some of the buyers have been waiting as long as 20 months for their houses. Others are the second or third to make deposits on particular lots after previous buyers grew tired of waiting.

Ruxton Homes has offered to refund deposits and release customers from their contracts, but many buyers are loath to accept that option.

Ruxton houses originally had base prices from $121,000 to $148,000, but they now range from $139,900 to $166,900, and many of those who signed contracts at the lower prices said they could not afford to buy another single-family home today. Moreover, many buyers said they continue to hope Ruxton Forest will eventually become the beautiful neighborhood they first envisioned.

The delays have cost several buyers money as mortgage interest rates have risen. Some who sold their previous homes said they have lost tax advantages of more than $6,000 apiece. Instead of building equity, they are paying rent.

The ranks of the disgruntled include buyers who have already moved into their houses. A few owners, including Marcey Bousman and Timothy Lausin, have displayed signs on their front lawns protesting Ruxton's failure to correct problems noted at presettlement walk-throughs. They removed the signs after county officials said the signs violated the building code.

Ruxton officials accused the protesters of "vindictiveness" and "grandstanding." The officials said repairing the mostly cosmetic defects in the completed homes was a lower priority than finishing the uncompleted homes.

But since the homeowners posted the signs that Ruxton Homes said turned away prospective buyers, the firm has hired a worker who is assigned specifically to complete the repairs.

Rentz, who has been building homes in Northern Virginia since 1982 and formerly worked in the lighting supply business, said his company has had to wade through "a quagmire of difficulties" on the Ruxton Forest project.

Delays of up to five months in securing building permits derailed the project from the outset, he said. Engineers had to draft and redraft plans for coping with problem soil at the site. The soil, which drains poorly and does not compact properly, continued to hinder construction, Rentz said.

Bad weather compounded the trouble, flooding work areas, while finding suitable landfill for the site has been "a major problem," Ruxton officials said.

Putting together an able management team also took a long time, Rentz said.

"We're talking about a subdivision that got delayed totally," Rentz said. "If we had known that Pleasant Valley was going to be this difficult, we would not have gotten involved in the subdivision."

In interviews over the past two weeks, however, present and former Ruxton employees and subcontractors who have worked on the project said Ruxton Homes brought much of the delay upon itself. Work proceeded at a halting pace largely because Ruxton frequently failed to pay subcontractors when payments were due, they said.

It is not uncommon for builders to lag behind in their payments to subcontractors, but Ruxton's chronic tardiness prompted a series of carpenters, plumbers and other subcontractors to suspend work at Ruxton Forest or leave the job altogether, they said. The high turnover and periods of inactivity might have been Ruxton's biggest problem, they said.

"His {Rentz's} main problem was that he would not pay his subcontractors on time. The bills weren't getting paid and the work wasn't getting done," said Mark Koch, who worked for Ruxton Homes from about March 1986 to last March and served as assistant superintendent of construction at Ruxton Forest.

John Moran, owner of the Superior Plumbing Co., said the large majority of his payments were delinquent from May 1987, when he began working for Ruxton, until November, when he left the job.

"I just got fed up with it," Moran said. He said he received his final payment from Ruxton on Feb. 9.

"You just can't keep working on promises," said Roger Barney, a carpenter who worked for Ruxton from the summer of 1986 to the summer of 1987 and left amid a pay dispute.

Nevertheless, one subcontractor whose workers remain at the site said he continues to do just that. Larry Tines, who owns an excavating company, said he has not been paid since before Christmas and is owed about $30,000. Tines said he has faith that he will be paid in full.

Rentz denied that delinquent payments caused an unusually high level of turnover among craftsmen or that such turnover significantly contributed to delays on the project.

In some instances, payments were withheld because work was unsatisfactory or inspections had not been conducted, Rentz said.

Meanwhile, home buyers said, their houses appear to have sat virtually untouched for months at a time. The reasons for the lack of progress have been a mystery to them, they said.

Fairfax County officials said that some of Ruxton's plans required repeated revisions before building permits were approved, but the protracted approval process accounted for only a fraction of the delay on some long overdue houses.

Don and Diana Early signed a contract with Ruxton on June 7, 1986, at which time Ruxton estimated that their house would be completed in November 1986. A county official said Ruxton applied for a building permit for the Earlys' house on Sept. 16, 1986 and it was issued Dec. 16, 1986.

Don Early, a technician for C&P Telephone, and Diana Early, a Fairfax County school teacher, are still waiting for their house.

Ruxton told them this month that it will be finished in March -- about 15 months after the county approved construction.

Rentz said the greatest obstacles are now behind him and that Ruxton Homes has worked out a program with its lender, Nationwide Lending Group Inc. of Rockville, that will enable it to complete the project this summer.

Neither Ruxton nor Nationwide would discuss the terms of their arrangement.

However, Tines, the excavator, said Ruxton officials recently told him their lender would begin writing his paychecks directly. In the past, Ruxton has paid its subcontractors from loan installments it received at various stages of construction.

Buyers greeted the builder's latest assurances with skepticism after relying on Ruxton's previous timetables and watching their personal affairs fall into disarray as a result.

Patricia Crusan said she and her husband, Daniel, sold their Fairfax County town house in July but had to search for temporary housing when their Ruxton home fell behind schedule.

The Crusans and their three young children have moved twice since then. They now are renting a two-bedroom apartment in Centreville.

The Crusans enrolled their 6- and 8-year-old children in the school district where they expect to become permanent residents, and Patricia Crusan, 30, drives them to and from school each day because there is no bus service from Centreville.

The routine has forced Crusan, an employee in the pretrial service division at the county courthouse, to work nights and weekends.

The experience has placed a strain on the family, Crusan said. "I get really hysterical. I cry a lot," she said.