The Dead Zone

Houston buries its Inner Loop past under bright new shiny Perry Homes town houses

Perry's spokesperson, political consultant Bill Miller, denied a request that Perry respond to questions, and defended the company last month in a short e-mail. "Bob Perry Homes will not be addressing the questions you provided," Miller wrote. "They are a private company who has thousands of satisfied customers."

The realtor also talks about the company's size and experience. She hands out a brochure, which says Perry Homes has supplied homes to more than 20,000 families. Professional Builder Magazine pegged the company's 2004 revenues at $500 million. "They build a very high-quality product," says the realtor. "They do things that other builders don't do, and I'd like to point those out to you as we go along."

The pitch begins with the cabinets, which are built on-site, and moves on to the efficiency of the air conditioner, the importance of the smoke alarms and the niftiness of the programmable thermostat.

Out on the sidewalk, she leads the way past the familiar rows of red-leaf photinia. Gardening is not allowed. "Not outside," she says. "That is the responsibility of the homeowners association. You pay $590 a year."

Workmen are sawing boards inside the last unfinished units across the street. Pickup trucks jut at odd angles across the small rutted yards. The realtor pauses to listen to the screams of circular saws. This is her chance to talk about the guts of the homes -- the unseen workmanship that keeps roofs steady and floors even -- and she pledges complete peace of mind.

Foundations, perennial sources of woe in Houston, are a Perry specialty. Before workers pour them, they test the soil to determine how much it will settle. They later core into the slab to verify that it has hardened to the optimal 30 pounds per square inch. "These are probably some of the best foundations you will ever find," she concludes. "That is one of the things Perry is a stickler about. In fact, if it doesn't meet that core test, they will rip it up and start again."

And buying a Perry home isn't a leap of faith. Perry hires independent inspectors to verify that each town house is built to perfect specifications at every stage of construction, saving home buyers the trouble of doing it on their own. "Usually people don't get their own inspector for new homes," the realtor says. With a Perry home, "most people really don't need to."

Perry is by no means the worst home builder in Houston. In fact, building inspectors interviewed for this story described Perry's construction quality as slightly above average. The company earns four points out of five in J.D. Power and Associates' home-builder ratings. It has built thousands of houses in Harris County, but has been sued here only about 150 times.

Even so, those numbers may not tell the whole story. Perry has used arbitration clauses in his contracts to force aggrieved homeowners to settle out of court. The real number of claims against Perry Homes is hard to estimate, but building inspectors say their experience with the company is uneven.

"With Perry Homes, and all these other big home builders, in some subdivisions they do fine," says Terry Black, owner of the home inspection company Inspection Concepts. "In other subdivisions, they do terrible. It's all about supervision, or the lack" thereof.

Interviews and court records reveal some major scuffles between homeowners and Perry. Paul Laman bought an "Executive Class" Perry town house in Neartown in 1995 and sued Perry over foundation problems three years later. He settled out of court for a confidential sum. "You could take a golf ball and watch it roll throughout his house," says Gerald Johnson, his attorney. "His foundation was pretty bent out of shape."

Debbie Rylander recently bought a new $275,000 Perry house in Waterside Estates in Fort Bend County only to learn nine months later that the home's underbelly was sagging. She spent nearly $50,000 documenting the problems, and engineers told her it would cost at least another $50,000 to fix them. Her neighbor's house has similar problems. She says Perry refuses to make the necessary repairs.

"I could not recommend Perry to my worst enemy," she says.

Other problems with Perry houses are more serious. In 1991, David and Jan Salmons bought a Perry house in Clear Lake and moved in with their baby. They quickly discovered profuse roof leaks. Perry Homes eventually rebuilt the chimney and the leaks stopped, but the moisture caused toxic black mold to form inside the house. Jan developed aseptic meningitis, and the couple feared for the health of their family. They couldn't move, because nobody would buy the property.

"It took a long time to get Perry to acknowledge they had a problem and they had screwed the thing up," says attorney Jerry Gunn, who won a settlement for the family in mediation. "And then they just ignored the rest of the problems in terms of the health of the child."

Inspectors say most problems with tract-home construction result from spotty oversight. Boutique home builders, such as Builders West, usually tell superintendents to police contractors at no more than two projects simultaneously. Bob Hooker, a Builders West superintendent, says another local builder gave him ten times that workload. "With the drive time and just walking in and out of 20 doors," he says, "nobody gives you the time" to do the job.

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