New-home warranties come in handy

Buyers who expect their brand-new homes to be flawless are only fooling themselves: The perfect house has yet to be built.

Despite a builder's best efforts to deliver a problem-free product, it never happens. Even custom builders who follow your plans make mistakes. A subcontractor misreads the blueprint; a product is defective and a supervisor or building inspector fails to catch the deficiency.

Luckily, structural defects in which load-bearing elements suffer catastrophic failure don't occur with much frequency. According to an industry analysis, only 1% of new homes have experienced such a calamity over the term of their 10-year warranties.

Cosmetic imperfections occur much more often, though. There's just no getting around it: Nails are going to pop back out of the drywall, concrete is going to crack, and doors aren't going to close precisely.

The good news: These problems won't interfere with your livability. Better yet, they can be fixed if you follow the procedures your builder has set up for handling warranty work, also known as "callbacks."

If your builder hasn't explained the process by the time you close on the mortgage, you should take the initiative by asking how problems will be solved. It's also a good idea to read the warranty documents.

Emergencies require immediate attention, and your builder should respond to your phone call right away. A major problem -- a plumbing leak, for example -- is one that poses a safety or health hazard, renders the house inhabitable or, if not repaired promptly, could lead to further damage.

On the other hand, minor problems such as drywall cracks or squeaky floors usually can wait.

Typically, you will be asked to inspect the house a day or two before you close. At that time the builder will make a list of all the flaws you and he find. Sometimes he'll try to get them taken care of before you move in. But if not, you should expect them to be corrected within, say, 20 working days.

You'll also be asked to make a list of problems discovered after you move in. Some builders will ask for your list in 30 days, others will want it in 60 or 90 days. Whatever the timing, don't phone it in -- mail it. That way, the nature of your gripes won't be lost in translation. Remember, the person who takes your call is not usually the one who handles callbacks. Besides, you'll want to have a written record.

In addition, you'll probably be asked to submit one last list in the 11th month of occupancy, just before your one-year warranty on workmanship expires. By this time, your house should have stopped moving -- settlement and shrinkage are the major causes of problems -- and the builder can address those nail pops, drywall cracks and creaky floors.

Give the builder a reasonable amount of time to make repairs. If you don't hear from him within a few weeks, call to ask when you might expect him. If he misses his first appointment, give him the benefit of the doubt. But keep a detailed diary of what has transpired, just in case you need ammunition down the line.

If a second appointment is missed, a letter to the builder is in order. Be polite but firm. Be strong but not threatening. Leave out the accusations and just state the facts. Your follow-up letter should state what was promised and what didn't happen. It also should state what you can now expect and how long you will give the builder before you take further action.

If your letter elicits no response and repeated phone calls are not returned, it's time to call in the troops. Manufacturers probably can't pressure the builder directly, but they can give your name to a local supplier who might have some leverage. Your local better business bureau helps resolve disputes, and private-sector mediators can help you reach an amicable solution. Your builders' trade association may offer an avenue of redress.

Government authorities may also help. The local licensing board is one avenue. So is the state attorney general's office, which may have a consumer-protection division. And don't forget your local consumer-affairs agency.

If you seek help from more than one source, let each know you contacted the others. Also, address your written complaint to the specific agency rather than simply sending copies of correspondence you sent to others. An agency needs to know you want its help and are not sending it a copy for its information only.

lsichelman@aol.com

Distributed by United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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