Closing Costs

When what should be one of the happiest moments in your life becomes an ongoing nightmare -- and you're not only living it, you're living in it

No way is John Cobarruvius going to even think about selling his home.
The location is good, for one thing, anchored near the bulb end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Clear Lake City's Bay Knoll development, just a few minutes via the family minivan from NASA's Johnson Space Center, where Cobarruvius makes his living doing something with computers that's largely indecipherable. There's the floor plan, what the homebuilder calls "The Crockett" -- two stories with soaring ceilings, lots of windows and a spacious playroom on the second floor that doubles as a place to display John's collections of boxing paraphernalia and slot cars. And there are the neighbors, largely professional folks who moved here for the same reasons that most people move to Clear Lake City: the promise of the suburban good life in a semi-planned community with good schools and decent, friendly professional neighbors with kids to raise in a safe neighborhood.

John, his wife, LaNell, and their children, ages eight and four, have settled in since John and his wife bought the house, the family's first new home, for $110,000 back in 1989. They've got no intention of leaving, and that's a good thing. Because if Cobarruvius were going to try to sell the house -- which he isn't, but just for argument's sake -- he'd have to face the question of whether or not it's even worth what he paid for it nine years ago, or if he'd be able to unload the place on some poor sap and keep his face straight and his conscience clear.

Because John's house -- and this is what bugs him to no end -- is pretty much a lemon without wheels.

Cobarruvius is an animated man with a tendency toward good-natured profanity, and a do-gooder streak that shows up in his occasional columns for the Pineloch Perspective community newspaper and sporadic responsibilities as block captain of the annual Pineloch Community National Night.

He also possesses -- or possessed, anyhow -- an instinct to trust, as when he told his wife, in earlier house-shopping days, that "there's no way the third-largest homebuilder in the country is going to screw us." He was talking then about Columbia, Maryland-based Ryland Homes, which stands today as the nation's fifth-largest homebuilder, and he remembers his comment with the self-effacing rue of the poker player who couldn't identify the sucker at the table, and only much later realized that this meant he was it.

This did not make John Cobarruvius a happy man, and John Cobarruvius is, by temperament, a happy man. In fact, as things kept going wrong with his Ryland home, as faults and defects made their presences felt, John Cobarruvius became progressively more unhappy. So unhappy that action became inescapable. He complained and negotiated and insisted and wheedled, and he sued on two occasions, coming away with a 11 split and a deathly fear of lawyers, and he taught himself in the process that the little guy has little chance when confronted with the legal firepower of a national homebuilder.

John Cobarruvius didn't much know how to go about tackling a behemoth he felt had done him wrong, but he knew computers. He had one at home. He'd been wanting for some time to learn to build web sites, so that's what he finally did. The address is, and it's a sight to behold: dozens of pages of carefully documented and cross-referenced photographs of his lemon house, his correspondence with the builders of the lemon house, lovingly scanned court papers and chronologies of frustration and disappointment.

He found similar web pages documenting dream-home dreams gone awry with Ryland customers in San Antonio and Dallas, and linked to those sites as well. Up at the top of the opening page, he quoted the Houston Division president of Ryland: "Please feel free to visit any Ryland neighborhood and ask the Ryland homebuyers about their experiences."

John Cobarruvius thought this was just hysterical, considering, and he wasn't about to wait for some random advice-seeker to knock on his door. "Well, in that case," comes John's peremptory reply, "look here...."

Plenty of people did. And it turned out that a lot of folks, many of them first-time homeowners like John Cobarruvius, were turning up remarkably similar problems, and remarkably similar frustrations in settling those problems, with their Ryland-built homes. John kept adding pages to his web site, expanding his research, compiling a file of cohorts and community activists until he became a Johnny Lemonseed of the Web, sowing informed discontent and consumer awareness. And so John came to understand that he wasn't alone. That other people felt ripped off, misled and abused as well. And that when life gives you lemons, you could make lemonade, but it might be more effective to compile an inch-and-a-half-thick sheath of documentation, title it "A Request for Review of the Building Practices of Ryland Homes of Texas," and deliver it, fingers crossed, to Texas Attorney General Dan Morales's office.

It started with the windows. Which is to say that water started coming through the windows. Hurricane Chantall hit the Texas coast in August of 1989, just months after Cobarruvius had moved into his brand-new Ryland home, and by the time the storm petered out, Cobarruvius's carpets were soaked with water that blew right in through the panes, collected on sills and spilled onto the floor. It happened in the dining room, the living room, the bathroom, the upstairs game room and an upstairs bedroom. Most of his Clear Lake neighbors in new Ryland homes, he found, had the same problem, and so did Ryland owners from Pasadena to Richmond.

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