All William L. Berry & Co. wanted was to sell more houses. All some recent buyers of Berry's homes wanted was compensation for what they call a drop in the value of their homes.

What resulted was a lawsuit involving a threatening letter, charges of extortion, a temporary restraining order and, of course, lawyers.

The dispute revolves around what has become an emotional issue for people who bought new houses before the real estate slowdown hit in the past year. Some have seen the builders of their new homes subsequently sell identical houses for less money or keep the price the same and add in a variety of free amenities not offered to earlier buyers that effectively increase the value of the newer homes by thousands of dollars.

It's not an easy issue for builders either. They're trying to boost sales in the midst of the worst real estate slowdown since the early 1980s by offering what they have called unparalleled opportunities for good deals on new homes. At the same time, they know they risk angering some of their earlier buyers who weren't offered the same deals.

Which brings us back to the William L. Berry & Co. and the Cohen and Bake families. The families bought houses last year from the builder in Century Oak, a community of expensive new homes in Fairfax County.

David Cohen and his wife, Pava, paid $576,000 for their house last September and moved in this past June.

David Cohen emphasized that the families are happy with the quality of their homes. What they're upset about is the pricing.

After moving in, they discovered, along with neighbors Christopher and Judy Bake, that Berry was offering incentives to prospective buyers of the more recently built houses that they had not been offered.

The practice is being used by other builders as well these days: They include as standard some options that they once charged for, such as fireplaces, upgraded appliances or a higher-grade carpet.

Some builders have cut the base price of slow-selling models, although they say they try to avoid price cuts because they directly affect the value of the previous buyers' houses.

Kettler Brothers Inc. is one such company. It has "once or twice" cut the base price of one or two of its models in the last year to stimulate sales at new projects, said Executive Vice President James Kettler. But he said the company then went back to the original buyers and reimbursed them the difference between the prices that they paid and the new prices.

Only a few buyers have been affected, he said, and the company does not give compensation to original buyers if it later offers free options in houses it subsequently builds at the same price.

"Our concern is that we don't devalue other people's property," Kettler said. "It's tempting to do that in this market, but we won't do that at this time."

In one case, the buyer of a Kettler house in Prince George's County was reimbursed from $15,000 to $20,000 after the company cut the base price of the homes for sale in that subdivision.

"We don't want to create enemies of our customers," Kettler said. "People have a lot of faith in our company."

In the case of the Berry company, base-price cutting wasn't the issue. Instead, the company is offering a $25,000 option credit, along with finished basements worth about another $20,000, that it hadn't offered previous buyers. It also is offering to help buyers with closing costs.

The firm has sold five houses at Century Oak, including the Cohens' and Bakes', and has an additional three houses under contract. But it has another 16 lots on which it wants to build and sell houses.

The Berry company's sales incentives didn't sit well with the Cohens or the Bakes.

"We want to be treated like his current home buyers," said Cohen. He acknowledged that, as the owner of a half-million-dollar house, he can't exactly expect sympathy for his plight. But he said that the free options included in the other Berry homes essentially reduced the value of his home.

He said that many retailers with whom he does business offer refunds when an item he bought goes on sale soon after. He said he expects the same treatment from the Berry company.

"The bulk of my down payment is gone," he said of his house purchase if he is not reimbursed in some fashion.

A lawyer hired by the Cohens and Bakes demanded in a letter to the company that it give the families $10,000 in cash, free finished basements and free landscaping or else the families would launch a campaign to discredit the builder.

Company President William Berry was on vacation and unavailable for comment this week. But company lawyer Michael Horwatt said the homeowners went too far with their tactics to persuade the Berry company to offer them compensation and resorted to "extortion."

"It put a gun at the head of the builder," said Horwatt, adding, "It left the Berry company with no alternative {but} to go to court."

Cohen said that the letter was a mistake and that the lawyer who wrote it was fired. He said the families simply meant to put protest signs saying "Buyer Beware" in the windows of their homes. "It was a bad letter. We concede that," he said.

In an effort to stop what it feared would be a campaign to hurt its business, the Berry company went to court Aug. 16 and won a temporary restraining order from Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Richard J. Jamborsky.

The court ordered the Cohens and the Bakes to refrain from interfering with the sale of homes at Century Oak and also forbade the families from passing out leaflets, picketing or "contacting the media {or} contacting interested or prospective purchasers."

The families then hired another lawyer, and both sides agreed to have the temporary restraining order dissolved last Monday. They're now negotiating a settlement to the dispute.

Attorney Horwatt acknowledged that "persons who bought homes just prior to the decline did not get as good a deal as people can get today."

But, he added, "The question arises when the market goes up. Obviously, those same people are not going to be willing to share the increased value of the house."