We get a lot of phone calls from people who are having trouble with their homes. Some of them we can help and some we cannot. There are numerous factors that go into determining if a homeowner has a viable claim against a contractor, and ultimately every claim must be analyzed individually. No one situation is the same as any other, but there are certain things that apply all homeowners: we will summarize a few below:
How old is your home?
New Jersey has a Statute of Repose for Construction Cases. Generally speaking, a homeowner has 10 years from the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy to make a claim against the builder. After 10 years, you will have an uphill battle to convince a judge that your claim should not be dismissed. Since most builders will offer a warranty of one or two years, we recommend that homeowners pay close attention to any and all issues that may be relevant to their home’s long-term performance, specifically that any problems you experience from year 2-8 of the home’s life should be carefully examined by a qualified professional, preferably a forensic architect or engineer. If there is any workmanship deficiency, you need to know about it quickly, since you need to file suit before your 10 year time period runs out.
Who built your home?
It is often amazing how few documents are kept by contractors after 6-8 years. Some of the smaller contractors (if they are still in business when problems begin to manifest in the home) often have no records of the subcontractors that they hired to perform the work on your house. A successful litigation strategy means bringing everyone who may have liability into the lawsuit, and to do that, you need to know who to sue. Whether you are building a custom home, a semi-custom tract home, or buying a recently constructed home, ask as many questions as you can about who the subcontractors are. Ask for a list of subcontractors from the builder. Many builders will hand these out to their customers, since they will instruct you to deal with the subcontractors for warranty repairs. Ask for a copy of the contracts, if you can, or take a picture of the pickup trucks with the names painted on the door. If you need to file a lawsuit, you are going to want to know who the various subcontractors were, so you can bring them all in at the beginning of the litigation.
Similar to No. 2 above, you should save everything that relates to your home. Save advertising and brochures that led you to the property. Save the back and forth documents when you were negotiating the purchase. Save the paperwork from when you picked out your options. Save the closing documents. Save any documents you received at the closing, including a “homeowner’s manual” or “handbook”. Save any paperwork relating to warranty repairs. If you have extra tiles, shingles, buckets of EIFS, you should hang on to these as well. Not only will they come in handy for minor repairs, but they can provide valuable information, should you need to go to court to force contractors to stand behind their work.
Be Attentive and Proactive
A new home should not require any substantial maintenance for many years. However, minor maintenance should not be overlooked. You have to act like a reasonable homeowner to safeguard the value of your investment. You cannot treat your new home like an apartment, where someone else owns the property and will suffer the loss if a lack of routine maintenance leads to problems down the road. If you never clean out your gutters, reseal your driveway, re-caulk your windows, or change the air filter on your HVAC. system, you may have a difficult time convincing the jury that your new home’s poor performance is related to something the builder did wrong, and not just a lack of normal maintenance. Read manuals and handbooks that the builder gives you, and follow the recommendations. If you are diligent about maintaining your home, and take an active role in upkeep, you will be able to spot issues as they arise, and hopefully before you have massive and expensive damage to repair.
Be Skeptical of Warranty Work
Builders are in business to make money. We all know this. Unfortunately, we often find that this means that builders will skimp on repairs during the warranty period, often doing a “band-aid” repair that will last another 6-12 months, which coincidentally will get them through the end of the warranty period. With any repairs to the building exterior – roofs, siding, doors, windows, you should be skeptical and vigilant. Many times a spot of sealant is an appropriate roof or window repair, but many times in is not. You may want to consider hiring an independent inspector to advise you on appropriate repairs for your problem, and/or to oversee the work of the builder or his contractor, to make sure the repair is appropriate and adequate. We have often seen major issues which arise during the warranty period covered up by builders, and given a “band-aid” repair, simply because the homeowner did not fully consider the issues, or was too trusting of the builder. Don’t be afraid to stand out. The builder has hundreds of thousands of dollars of your money. You should have a house that will perform and last for years.