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With a second baby on the way, Mary and Keith Cohn decided they had outgrown their two-bedroom bungalow near Rice University. They spent six months house-hunting before discovering Casa Builders' entry into the 2000 Bellaire New Home Showcase. From the leaded-glass front door to the wrought-iron railing leading to the third floor, it was their dream home. "It had everything," says Keith, co-owner of C&M Marketing.
The French Country home is the type of house featured on Home and Garden TV -- it has a subzero fridge, a restaurant-style stovetop and a built-in wine cooler the size of a dishwasher. The kitchen has terrazzo-tiled floors, and the master bath has a Sistine Chapel-style angel painted on the ceiling above the Jacuzzi and remote-control fireplace.
Casa's brochure claims to sell River Oaks-quality homes at outside-the-Loop low prices. Keith and Mary sold their IBM and Sysco stocks and spent all their savings to make a $300,000 down payment on the $770,000 Park Court home.
They moved into the 4,000-square-foot house in May 2000. Two months later, the roof started leaking. The builder sent over a handyman who patched the hole with a silicon caulk gun, Mary says.
The night Tropical Storm Allison swept through Houston, the Cohns' house flooded. It was the only new home on Park Court that flooded. And unlike most water-damaged homes, it wasn't filled with rising water; instead, rain poured through the enormous kitchen window. "It was like breaking an aquarium and letting the water out," Keith says.
In the following months, Mary and their two daughters kept getting sick. Their medical records are full of unexplainable headaches, coughs, stomachaches, sore throats, stuffy noses and sinus infections. Pediatricians couldn't determine what was wrong with the girls, so they prescribed antibiotic after antibiotic. The newborn was given steroids and breathing treatments every four hours.
Having read reports on Texas's toxic-mold crisis, the Cohns hired an environmentalist to test their damp home. Outside, mold levels were 85 spores per cubic meter; inside the kitchen walls mold levels reached 80,000. Major leaks were discovered in the roof, and the Cohns were told to evacuate immediately. "The roof had been leaking since we moved in," Keith says.
The house was gutted from the third story down. Floors, walls and built-in cabinets were ripped out to remove massive amounts of mold. The Harris County Appraisal Review Board reported that the value of the home dropped to $300,000.
The Cohns asked Casa Builders' president, Keith Wagner, to buy back the house. The Cohns said that maybe the house was a lemon, and they were willing to buy another of his homes. Wagner said they could possibly work out an exchange. But Wagner refused to refund the Cohns' full purchase price and never made what the Cohns considered a serious offer.
Wagner doesn't deny that the roof leaked, and he says he feels bad that the Cohns' house flooded. But he doesn't believe faulty construction caused the home's mold. Since the Cohns didn't contact him again until two months after their one-year home warranty expired, he says, he didn't have to repair the roof. But because he liked the Cohns and he wanted to keep his stellar reputation (the only complaint on file at the Better Business Bureau is from the Cohns), he offered to repair the roof on the condition that the Cohns sign a waiver exempting Casa Builders from future liability.
The Cohns refused. They consulted with attorneys who told them they couldn't sue their homebuilder because of the small-print binding arbitration clause in their closing contract.
"They didn't know what it was," says the Cohns' Houston attorney, Jim Moriarty. "The idea that someone's going to cheat them on a three-quarter-of-a-million-dollar purchase never crossed their minds."
So the Cohns did what they could to draw attention to their situation. They hung a five-foot by 15-foot neon-orange sign on the house warning people not to buy a home from Casa Builders. Mary placed red and white magnetic signs on either side of her SUV telling people to call her before considering a Casa home.
Mary received at least three calls a day; her cell phone bill reached $700 a month.
Mary has stopped working as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines and has dedicated her life to battling her builder, repairing her house and helping future homeowners. "We have more consumer protection on a toaster I would buy from Sears than on the largest purchase of my life," she says.
With her two small daughters in tow, Mary has picketed at home shows and spoken before legislative committees, striving to create a home lemon law and remove mandatory binding arbitration clauses from new-home contracts.
"If you get a bad haircut, you can call a 1-800 number," says state Senator Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, who authored a bill proposing a home lemon law. "If somebody sells you a bad house, there's no state agency to report it to. Nothing."
Wagner insists that the Cohns' home flooded during Allison, and that since they didn't have flood insurance they're trying to make him pay for damage he didn't cause. "They're trying to blame all of their problems on me," Wagner says. "Their house flooded, and they're looking at me as the bad guy, not Mother Nature."