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Home warranty measure advances

OLYMPIA – Nearly a decade after such a bill was first proposed, the state Senate on Thursday voted to require longer, better warranties on new homes, and to make it easier for the buyer to sue builders over defects.

“Owning a home is a quintessential American dream, but for too many people, it has turned into a nightmare,” said Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island. “It is only fair that manufacturers and sellers of homes have to stand behind their work.”

Home builders are trying hard to kill the bill, which now goes to the state House of Representatives. With the increased threat of lawsuits and repairs, they say, insurance costs for builders – and the cost of homes – will surge.

“Insurers are already starting to lace up their shoes,” said Erin Shannon, spokeswoman for the Building Industry Association of Washington. Smaller builders will go out of business, she said.

“We are just as interested in protecting consumers from the rotten apples, because it gives our guys a bad name,” she said. But mandating warranties and setting the stage for lawsuits, she said, isn’t the way to do it.

Weinstein said good builders have nothing to fear from his Senate Bill 5550. It would require a warranty that every new home is:

“Free from defects and materials for two years.

“Free from electrical, plumbing, heating, cooling and ventilation defects for three years.

“Free from defects from water penetration for five years.

“Free from structural defects for 10 years.

Weinstein chairs the Senate’s consumer protection committee, which in January heard from homeowners with major problems, including sewage pipes leaking under the house, a home built in the wrong place, floor beams not tied to the foundation and homes abandoned – unfinished – by builders.

Mostly Republican critics of the bill said that much of the blame can be laid at the feet of city and county building inspectors. Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, proposed a bill to make inspectors partly liable for construction defects. The bill died in committee.

Complaints about residential construction are minuscule – about 2 percent – said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

“This bill is overkill,” he said.

There’s no love lost between Democrats – who hold a strong majority in both the House and Senate – and the home-building industry. The BIAW has long been one of the sharpest critics of Democrats, particularly liberals.

“I think it’s a targeted bill. I think not only is it going after a specific industry, but it goes after a specific part of that industry,” said Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn. “It’s mean-spirited.”

Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, clashed with a BIAW lawyer at that hearing in January.

“I wondered why anyone would buy a new home” given the problems people were describing, Jacobsen said. “This is like living in the wild, wild West. We have no standards in this state … I say we have a problem.”

The builders pushed hard to turn Weinstein’s bill into a study. He ultimately agreed to include a study – while still pushing ahead with the required warranties, starting in July 2008.

But what’s the point of a study, Shannon said, if the bill already imposes a solution?

“There’s no incentive for Weinstein and his trial lawyer buddies to do anything,” she said.

Which raises a point that some lawmakers noted: Will the bill trigger a flurry of frivolous lawsuits?

“This is not a full employment act for attorneys,” Weinstein said, adding that he agreed not to allow class-action suits by homeowners. “We are really looking for the most egregious situations.”


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