HOME BUILDERS HAVE BEEN SO BUSY IN recent years that building homes has taken precedence over the relatively small number of complaints they've received. Moreover, journalists, economists, and even the president credit the home building industry with carrying the economy through these difficult times of war and recession.
In the wake of such praise and good tidings, builders are feeling pretty good about themselves and their industry. That's why home builders and the people who post anti-builder Web sites seem to exist in parallel universes.
Builders see themselves as champions of free enterprise delivering the American Dream of homeownership to millions of Americans. The negative Web postings depict builders as unscrupulous businesspeople who market shoddy, hastily built products and force people into binding arbitration agreements that forfeit the legal rights of home buyers.
While the vast majority of new-home buyers are satisfied customers, the reality is that even some of the most prestigious names in home building have had unhappy customers as well as consumer advocates create negative Web sites about them.
A short list of builders that have experienced negative postings reads like a who's who of home building: American Heritage Homes, Beazer Homes, Centex Corp., David Weekley Homes, D.R. Horton, Henry Company Homes, Huntington Homes, John Wieland Homes, KB Home, Pulte Homes, Royce Builders, Ryland Homes, Shea Homes, Woodhaven Homes, etc. Just about any builder would admit privately that his company has been hit.
Short of spending several full days on Google or Yahoo! hunting the sites down, it's hard to know how many anti-builder Web sites are posted on the Internet. Most are active for just a few months or a year before the angry home buyers either lose interest or settle their case and agree to take the site off the Web. It's also difficult to know how much money builders pay Web advocates to shut these Web sites down, since almost all settlements require that the Web advocates sign a nondisclosure agreement. But there have been cases in which homeowners have gotten builders to repair their homes and received perks such as new carpeting, swimming pools, and other household items worth well in excess of $25,000 if they agreed to take their site down.
Based on the research we did for this story, the Web sites with the most impact on the broader industry are the advocacy Web sites run by Missouri-based Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings (HADD), www.hadd.com, and www.hobb.org, the Web site run by San Antonio–based HomeOwners for Better Building (HOBB).
The two groups have set their Web sites up as clearinghouses for new-home buyers, offering up industry news, tips for filing a claim against a builder, links and advice for finding trial lawyers, and lurid horror stories/testimonials from disgruntled new-home buyers. Both Nancy Seats, president of HADD, and Janet Ahmad, HOBB's president, are frequently quoted in local and national media.
Seats and Ahmad believe that builders must respond to consumer complaints the way automakers responded when consumers of automobiles voted with their pocketbooks in the 1970s and 1980s by buying Japanese and European cars. The problem is, American home builders don't face foreign competition the way U.S. automakers do, so the home buyer advocates feel they have to take a different tack.
“Thank God for the Internet; it's our only hope,” says Seats, who started HADD in 1993 after having problems with her builder that included missing rebar, poor grading, and cracks in the foundation. It took her five years and several attorneys before she won a $60,000 jury award from a Clay County, Mo., Circuit Court. Seats launched the organization's first Web site in 1998. Today, HADD has 22 representatives in 20 states around the country, all of whom Seats says are “unpaid victim volunteers.”