By Gene Ayres, Your Consumer Curmudgeon
Not surprisingly, the National Board of Realtors and their local cronies, in combination with the various local homebuilders associations (e.g. the one in Washington State that was caught in bed with Dino Rossi for illegal campaign contributions), have been telling us all along that buying a home, preferably one of theirs, was always a great investment, values could only rise forever, and they were and still are all great products.
It's as if the bubble never happened, as if a thousand lawsuits nationwide against corrupt realtors, lenders, and builders don't exist. I saw an ad this week for a condo development in Seattle. A hundred carbon copy cardboard cutout units built to the latest non-existent, unenforced, nonenforceable non-standards, no doubt with wallboard from China made of compressed toxic waste (this is really happening, and has just been exposed, literally, in Florida, where all such things seem to happen first), the cheapest possible wiring, plumbing, framing, flooring, roofing, and windows. Lucky us. And guess what? Not one of them has sold. So they are now offering six months of payments, no doubt to their preferred lender, should you lose your job. These people don't get it. Nobody's buying for two reasons: a) they've already lost their job, and/or b) these bozos still think they can sell these cardboard boxes for $400,000.
Here's the latest from Texas, which shouldn't surprise anyone. The great state of Texas has a state regulatory agency called the Texas Residential Construction Commission, established during the Bush heyday in order to (get this) protect Texas homebuilders from frivolous lawsuits.
Having lived in Florida where homebuilders have gotten away with everything including murder, always skipping town leaving their victims watching as their cardboard castles collapse, it's of no surprise to me to learn that Texas builders, which, according to today's report on NPR have financed the elections of all but six of Texas' 188 elected legislators, are up in arms about an uppity legislator from a district north of Austin who has dared to propose new legislation to abolish this agency, just because the largest builder in his district is walking around (make that riding around in his armed limousine with tinted windows) with 37 felony indictments hanging over his head for building and selling high priced trash boxes disguised as houses. These charges, no doubt, are supposed to go away the usual way, with a little help from his friends: namely those other 182 legislators and their appointed judges. The whole purpose of the TRCC is, of course, to protect crooked homebuilders from being sued by their victims, and it has proven to be highly effective.
According to Wade Goodwyn on NPR (3/28/09), the TRCC was written into existence by a lawyer for Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, the most powerful and politically connected homebuilder in Texas. Perry's lawyer was then named the new housing agency's first commissioner by the Texas governor, who has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the homebuilder.
Gee, what an amazing surprise.
For those of you who enjoyed Erin Brokovich, and that Gene Hackman film about the Ford Pintos (in which Ford decided that it was cheaper to settle lawsuits from commoners whose loved ones burned up in gas explosions than to have to actually fix 3 million clunkers), those Texas builders and their ilk throughout the country, all think exactly the same way as those corporate tycoons in those movies.
With one notable difference: these guys play for keeps and are hell-bent and determined to make sure that, unlike in the movies, no way are the good guys going to win. If you are intelligent enough to buy a home from them, and it falls down around your ears and wipes out your favorite son/daughter/spouse/pet/sculpture and you think you have a right to some recompense, think again. They don't have a million dollar team of lawyers on retainer for nothing. They don't mind paying those lawyers. It's the consumer they have no intention of (re)paying.
Here's a suggestion: if you are still determined to buy a new home, make sure it has an Energy Star label. Those rare builders are required to meet some actual standards. My personal preference and recommendation is still this: buy something that was built prior to 1959. That was when two-by-fours were still actually 2 by 4. And drywall was gypsum, not pressed toxic waste. They haven't been since.
On the other hand, there is that small matter of asbestos. A Teepee, anyone?
Gene Ayres is a career writer, author and freelance journalist. His latest book is A Billion to One: An American Insider in the New China. He can be found at: www.geneayres.org.