Washington families deserve a Homeowner’s Bill of Rights

Every year, thousands of Washingtonians take ownership of new single family homes.

Every year, thousands of Washingtonians take ownership of new single family homes. For most families, it’s a joyous occasion – the realization of a lifelong dream. But for too many families, that dream turns into a nightmare when they discover their builder didn’t put the home together properly.

When a builder takes shortcuts, the inevitable result is a leaky roof, or a cracked foundation, or unconnected joints that make the dwelling unsafe, or any number of other problems.

Astonishingly, Washingtonians currently have no recourse if something goes wrong with their home. When a family signs the papers that allow them to take possession of a home, what they are signing is a sales agreement – not a construction contract. The sales agreement is almost always a “take it or leave it offer” – the terms can’t be changed; only rejected.

Often hidden in the fine print is language stating that the home comes without a real warranty. There’s no assurance of any kind that defects will be corrected by the builder if they materialize. And sadly, Washington courts have ruled that our existing laws don’t allow us to recover damages for negligent construction. That means no justice for victimized homeowners and no penalties for unscrupulous builders.

State law currently affords a family greater protection against a defective car or toaster it does for a defective new home. It sounds outrageous. And to those families whose savings have been wiped out, to those parents who have lost the ability to pay for their kids to go to college, and to those children whose safety has been at risk because they were living in unsafe homes, it is outrageous.

The Legislature is considering proposal that would address this situation. Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1393, sponsored by Representative Larry Springer, would require that newly built or renovated homes come with a warranty to protect owners and subsequent owners from construction defects. The Legislature passed a law several years ago to provide a warranty for condominium owners which has worked well. Now, if E2SHB 1393 becomes law, owners of single family homes will get similar protection.

The current version of E2SHB 1393 is similar to a bill passed earlier this session by the Senate – SB 5895, sponsored by Senator Rodney Tom. That bill has died, but E2SHB 1393 is still alive.

Unfortunately, it too may be history. It’s awaiting a vote on the Senate floor, but some of the Democratic senators who previously voted for SB 5895 are now withholding their support after having been pressured by the Building Industry Association of Washington.

If enacted, E2SHB 1393 would help prevent the kind of nightmare that Bellevue homeowner Jayne Fruitag-Koontz has gone through. In May of 2003, she and her family hired a registered, bonded contractor who had “flawless references” to work on their home. At first, all seemed to be going well. But then, as she related to the Senate Labor, Commerce, & Consumer Protection Committee in mid February, disaster struck.

“It turned out not only did we have delays and quality of construction issues, but the owner of the construction company was an attorney and knew all the loopholes. We had problems with water leaking in under doors and windows, through walls…“

But it got even worse, she said. “There were structural problems with the architect’s plans not being followed, so that beams were put where there was nothing to support them.”

For years, the Legislature has contemplated passing a Homeowner’s Bill of Rights, but has always failed to act. Now lawmakers have an opportunity to protect homeowners and boost the economy in one stroke. Families would feel less nervous buying a new home knowing that state law would protect them in the event of a catastrophe. That would help builders sell more homes, strengthen the industry’s reputation, and ultimately lead to greater profits.

Senator Rodney Tom has worked incredibly hard on this legislation, but without the support of his colleagues, homeowners will sadly lose out again this year. If, like me, you don’t want that to happen, contact Governor Chris Gregoire and each of our forty nine state senators. Ask them to stand up and protect Washington families who simply want to live in peace in a safe home.


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