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Washington Legislature: Buyer-rights battle builds

Thu., March 1, 2007, midnight

OLYMPIA – State Sen. Brian Weinstein makes no secret of his feelings on the usefulness of most new-home warranties.

“They’re at best inadequate,” he says, “and at worst despicable.”

Weinstein, a sometimes-abrasive Mercer Island lawyer who specialized in asbestos litigation, is in a bitter public clash with the powerful home-building industry. And what a few weeks ago looked like go-nowhere, campaign-fodder legislation – a “Homeowner’s Bill of Rights” – now looks like it actually has a chance of passing. More than half the state Senate, including Majority Leader Lisa Brown, has signed onto Weinstein’s proposal to require transferable warranties of up to 10 years on new homes. Builders would be liable for all costs of repairing a defect.

All of which clearly has some builders nervous.

In e-mails obtained by The Spokesman-Review, for example, a Seattle-area building association official repeatedly warned local Habitat for Humanity staff to stop supporting the proposal.

“My advice to you is to kill Weinstein’s bill or you will have major long-term problems with us,” reads an e-mail from Samuel Anderson, executive officer of the King and Snohomish counties’ Master Builders’ Association, to Maureen Howard, head of the state Habitat chapter. “He has no interest other than creating opportunities for lawsuits. We are through dealing with him. Pick your side.”

The builders say Weinstein is a loose cannon whose proposal will result in sharply higher home costs for everyone. Many have come to Weinstein’s consumer-protection committee to say they stand behind their work. They’ve testified – or tried to, before Weinstein cut them off – that their warranties are not empty promises, nor is their construction shoddy. But the clash, which pits a liberal trial lawyer against one of the most conservative industries in the state, is clearly getting personal.

“Weinstein has a deep contempt for builders. Analyzing why he hates builders is a job for a psychologist way above my pay grade,” Building Industry Association of Washington executive vice president Tom McCabe wrote in the association newsletter recently. “… BIAW exists to battle irrational legislators like Weinstein.”

This session’s opening salvo came last month, when Weinstein called a hearing to showcase several homeowners’ construction nightmares. Homeowners described roof trusses failing, builders abandoning half-built homes, and part of a foundation perched over air after soft fill dirt underneath settled. Attorney Sandy Levy produced a gallery of photos illustrating extreme mold damage from water that had soaked in through gaps in siding.

Levy maintains that the warranties currently offered by many builders are a “complete sham,” typically requiring home buyers to waive their rights to bad-construction damages and forcing legal disputes into expensive arbitration before an industry-picked arbitrator.

“A pencil, a computer, a pair of glasses all come with a warranty,” said Weinstein. “But a new home doesn’t.” His own interest in the issue, he said, stemmed from the discovery of what turned out to be a $300,000 water penetration problem in his own home.

“I had no idea how few rights Washington citizens have when they buy a home,” he said.

To bolster those rights, he came up with Senate Bill 5550, which would establish a standard warranty for new homes built in Washington, starting next July. It would warranty the home is free from defects:

“in materials and workmanship for two years;

“in electrical, plumbing, heating, cooling and ventilation for three years;

“resulting in water penetration for five years;

“in structural components for 10 years.

Weinstein calls it “common-sense” legislation to help people protect what for most is their largest and most important investment. (There’s a similar bill, HB 1935, in the House.)

Weinstein is also pushing a proposal to create licensing requirements for contractors, although that bill seems to be stalled in the Senate’s labor and commerce committee.

Brown said she’s unsure whether amendments will change the new-home warranty bill. But she said she supports the goal of having meaningful protections for home buyers.

“I believe there’s a problem,” said Brown, D-Spokane.

Anderson, the building-group official who fired off those e-mails, said no threat was intended. The language was just intended to get folks’ attention, he said. The builders have a long and friendly history with Habitat, he said.

“We sponsor their stuff every year; we’ll continue to sponsor their stuff,” he said. “It sounds much worse than it is.”

Weinstein and Levy are grossly exaggerating problems with new homes, Anderson said. He said there are some problems with contractors who do remodeling, and possibly with builders who do custom homes.

“If there’s a real problem, we’re willing to sit down and take a look at it,” he said. “Frankly, it’s in the best interests of our industry to sit down and solve it.” Most builders, he said, rely on word of mouth.

When there are systemic failures – as with mold-prone LP siding or some types of windows – manufacturers work to help solve those problems, he said.

But Weinstein’s bill is largely a solution in search of a problem, Anderson said.

“If you want to do something that in the long run helps consumers with construction issues in general, then we need some time to analyze the problem, not a rush to judgment,” he said.


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