CONVERSION EXPERIENCES generally begin with a quest, and for Bob and Jordan Fogal, it began with a quest for comfort. Bob, who works in marketing, wanted a shorter commute to his office. Matters of the home, as usual, were left to his wife, and Jordan had spent months looking for a houseand had rejected manywhen at last she found the one: a regal, stucco box in a gated community near downtown Houston. "You could see what a quality piece of work the house was," Jordan remembers. She liked the 20-foot ceilings, the granite counters in the kitchen, the stainless-steel appliancesall part of the "Tremont Attention to Detail Difference," according to the builders' handout. She assumed that since the house was so nicely appointed, it was also soundly built. Seduced by beauty, certain of value, the Fogals bought the home in April 2002 for $368,564, investing nearly everything they had.
The first disappointment came on the day they moved in. Bob Fogal, weary from unpacking, trudged upstairs to relax in his new whirlpool bath. When he got out, he pulled the plug and "all 100 gallons of that water came down through the dining room ceiling, into the light fixtures, down the columns, onto my dining room table and Oriental rugs," Jordan recalls. "And I just started screaming."
The Fogals tried to tell themselves it was just an oversightone unconnected drainbut then more oversights appeared: a portion of yard that turned into a swamp; a section of house that visibly sagged; heating that wasn't warm enough; a cooling system not cold enough. And always, and most seriously, water coming in from somewhere. Sitting at breakfast, thanks to a window above them that had been installed upside down, the couple sometimes felt the falling rain.
It was all too much for Bob to think about. He continued going to work while Jordan stayed home, appreciating the "Attention to Detail Difference." Eventually, Bob too would join Jordan before the Houston City Council to lament the mold and the rotting and how, according to the meeting's minutes, "the builder knew of the problems and failed to disclose it." Jordan had looked forward to a leisurely life taking care of her new house and writing memoirs, but when the builders would not fix the structure, and when no authority would compel them to do it, Jordan experienced, for the first time, an in-justice she could not endure. On a street corner near her house, the 59-year-old Republican began picketing for all she was worth.
"I mean, it's a rat's nest," she says of the house, of Texas law, of the System,"and here I am, one grandmother with no money and no help."
IT WAS A MISMATCH from the startone mad-as-hell housewife against the entire construction-industrial complex. Home-building is a chief indicator of the economy's health, and politicians are rarely inclined to slow it down with regulation or oversight. Reinforcing that impulse is an extremely well-funded, organized builder lobby whose focus, according to Janet Ahmad of the watchdog group HomeOwners for Better Building (HOBB), has never been "on how to build a house correctly, but on how to limit regulations and liability."
As a result, contractors throughout the country have been able to feed the U.S. housing boom with little fear of being held accountable for the quality of their work. The faster a house is constructed, the greater the profit, and thus many homes are now built as though on an assembly line, often in as little as 90 days. Contractors "build them spacious and grandiose and give them the appearance of quality," says Ahmad, whose group tracks both federal and state regulations. Behind the facade, though, are often shoddy workmanship and cheap materials, such as "wood" trim that is actually recycled paper.
No governmental body tallies how many of these new homes prove seriously defective, but Consumer Reports, in a broad investigation of construction defects in 2004, estimated that some 150,000 homeowners a year find "they have more consumer protections for a fickle $20 toaster" than for the biggest investment of their lives.
And nowhere, homeowners' groups say, do negligent builders get a better deal than in the Fogals' home state. "If you want to be a successful fly-by-night contractor," says HOBB's Ahmad, "you come to Texas. They're pillars of the community here, on the who's who list. They don't even have to sneak away in the night. They operate in the full light of day."
In one of the country's most business-friendly states, construction is one of the most influential businesses. The largest individual contributor to Texas politicians is Bob Perrya builder who gained national fame during last year's presidential campaign when he funded the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The organization dispensing the most political money in the state, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, is also headed by a builder, and builders have been the main beneficiaries of a decade's worth of Texas tort reform lawslaws that, for homeowners, amount to little more than a maze of obstacles designed to obstruct the filing of lawsuits.
Most builders in Texas (and elsewhere) require homebuyers to agree to settle disputes out of court, in binding arbitration. Should a consumer, by some miracle, make it past that clause, the legislature recently passed a law that abolishes standards that a home display "workmanlike construction," confines damage awards to the cost of repairs, and establishes a commissiondominated by buildersconsumers must go to before filing a claim either in court or in arbitration. This law was in large part written by the chairman of a Texas Association of Builders task force, John Krugh, whom the governor later named to sit on that very commission.
A Texas homebuyer's only real hope for recovery, then, is to raise hell. Builders know that most people don't have the stomach for that, says Ahmad, the consumer advocate. But with Jordan Fogal, she adds, "I think they bit off more than they can chew. That one woman has created an army's worth of ruckus."
BACK IN ALABAMA, where Jordan had lived until 1994 and raised her three children, she was "den mother, room mother, cookie bakerthe whole nine yards." Once, she circulated a petition to get her dirt road paved, but otherwise she had lived for 59 years without public protest of any kind.
Now, in the two-bedroom apartment the Fogals fled to when mold started showing up in their leaky house, she complains that she hardly has time to do her hair, let alone get to the tanning bed. The kitchen table is an unruly heap of evidence as Jordan, maniacally smoking, tells her sprawling story. Along the way, she mentions Grandmother, who taught her there were no gray areas"it was right, or it was wrong"and also Granddaddy, who believed that "if it was bad, you shot it." And, over and over again, she repeats her own maxim: "I don't like people messing with my home."
Her home is one of 44 jammed onto two acres just off Houston's Waugh Drive and surrounded by a wall. The wall, the gates, the closed garage doors give the place an isolated feeling, which the builder marketed as security. But it was never perfectly clear which company built Hyde Park Crescent.
The builders operated under many names, and it seems the Fogals' house was built by two companies, Tremont Homes and Stature Construction, both of which were directed by one Jorge Casimiro and his business partner, Thomas Thibodeau. With some $28 million in revenue, Stature was listed by Hispanic Business magazine in 2001 as one of the country's largest Hispanic-owned companies. Casimiro himself has been chairman of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's political action committee and the recipient of several business honors, which company publicity touts as proof of "his integrity and commitment to providing outstanding service."