For the past two years, I've offered a bill in the state Senate that attempts to level the playing field between home buyers and builders.
My bill, widely known as the Homebuyer Bill of Rights, would give rights to Washingtonians that most presumed they already had -- the right to bring a builder to court to recover damages for shoddy work.
In fact, under current law, fewer than 1 percent of Washingtonians currently have this right. These lucky few are generally those with the means and foresight to hire a lawyer to draft a contract governing the rights and obligations between the home buyer and the contractor or builder. Since virtually no one in Washington hires a lawyer when buying a home, home buyers unwittingly sign whatever is handed to them. They do this at their risk because Washington law does not protect them.
Twice my proposal easily sailed through the Senate and passed through the House Judiciary Committee. But it's never even received a vote in the House of Representatives, thanks to the intense opposition of the BIAW, a builder's lobby. For reasons neither I nor anyone else I know in Olympia could fathom, House Speaker Frank Chopp chose to side with the BIAW rather than with the rights of home buyers.
Current Washington law is skewed strongly in favor of the building industry.
Washington requires builders to adhere to the uniform building code; however, it does not allow homeowners the right to enforce them. Home buyers have no right to require repairs where builders do not comply with the code. Home buyers have no right to sue builders for negligent construction, nor is there any warranty implied by law.
Typically a new home buyer signs the purchase agreement handed to him by the builder. Oftentimes these agreements provide for a so-called "third party warranty."
These "warranties" are not what a typical consumer would consider a warranty. They require owners to pay a processing fee to report a claim, then wait for the warranty company to notify the builder of the problem. Nothing requires the builder to respond in any way. If the builder fails to respond, the homeowner can request arbitration at the homeowner's expense. Usually, the arbitrator is one selected by the warranty company, rather than a neutral source.
Even for a small item, such as drywall cracks or missing grout, the processing fees can exceed the value of the damage. For very serious matters that may require an owner to move out of the house, the warranties usually exclude all costs associated with moving out, storing furniture and moving back in.
Simply put, a homeowner is much better off without the builder's warranty. Judge Strophy, a highly regarded Thurston County Superior Court judge, examined one of these warranties and declared it so one-sided it "shocked the conscience."
The most recent version of my bill would have provided the following warranties be guaranteed as a matter of law to all home buyers. A builder or contractor could not require a home buyer to waive these protections as a condition of the contract.
1. The home is free of defects in materials
2. The home has been constructed in a workmanlike manner consistent with applicable industry standards
3. The home complies with all applicable codes and regulations
4. The home has been constructed in accordance with sound engineering and construction standards
5. The builder agrees to repair, at their expense, any defects and violations of the warranty described above.
These are the identical warranties that every purchaser of a new condominium is guaranteed. Why is it fair that under state law a condo buyer is entitled to these protections, but not a home buyer?
A stated reason for Chopp's opposition to the home buyer rights bill is that it could lead to "unintended consequences." This is Olympia-speak for not wanting to pass a good bill for political reasons. However, not passing this bill will lead to unintended consequences.
Not passing a bill that was intended to protect home buyers from having to hire a lawyer will have the opposite effect. Until the Homebuyer Bill of Rights is passed, a potential home buyer who buys a home without first hiring a lawyer to negotiate their contract does so at their peril.