Q: I moved into my new home about two years ago. The house had been built about one year earlier and had never been lived in, so I did not think I would have problems with anything. I signed the closing papers through a mail-in packet where a notary came to me and my real estate agent went to the home to inspect it and do the walk-through.
I have recently had my air conditioner inspected and was told it has a leak. The unit appears to charge up but still leaks cooling fluid. A few months ago, I was informed the leak was somewhere in the walls, and the air conditioning company would have to spend hours at my house in order to find the leak. My unit is no longer covered under a warranty.
A: Let's first clarify that the home must have been in move-in condition, as you've been living there for two years. Most home builder warranties cover their workmanship for one to 12 months after the closing. The air conditioner companies will frequently have a warranty on their product for five, seven or more years.
So let's discuss these warranties. The builder warranty usually clearly states that the builder will only cover items that come up during the time that the warranty is valid. Let's say your warranty was for one year. You would have had to make a claim with the builder during that one-year period.
Now, when you turn to your air-conditioning manufacturer, it may have a longer term warranty, but that won't cover the improper installation of the cooling line. Turning to the real estate agent, you can't honestly believe that your agent could have found that leak or even have the qualifications to look the system over. (And shame on you for not attending the walk-through with a qualified professional home inspector.)
At this point, we don't see much of a claim you might have against the builder, the manufacturer or your real estate agent. What you need to do now is figure out how to repair your problem. While we appreciate that you have had one person come to your home and inspect the system, you may need to get various estimates to determine what it will cost you to fix this problem
Keep in mind that the problem could have come about after you purchased the home. You could have punctured the line inadvertently when you put nails in the wall to hang pictures or other items. It happened to a close friend of ours. Her husband was helping her install some shelving in their laundry room when he pushed hard on the drill to get through a tough spot only to figure out he ruptured the waste line from the upstairs bathroom. When one of his kids flushed the toilet, he found out the hard way that he had caused some major damage to his home's plumbing.
Think about it this way: If you caused the problem, you would have to fix it one way or another. If you find a reliable repairperson to do the work and give you an estimate, you can plan for that cost. If the line is destroyed and has to be replaced, your contractor would have to give you an estimate to replace the entire cooling line along with the patching and repainting of the walls affected during the repair. That's your worst-case scenario.
Your best-case scenario is that a second repair person comes in and diagnoses your problem at a visible connection point and can repair that connection at a small cost.
If you find out from one or more repairperson that your repair cost is high, you'll have to bite the bullet and pay for the repair. Once you pay for it and are able to determine the cause of the problem, you might be able to decide whether you can take some action against the builder or the installer of the air-conditioning system. While we don't think you have much of a chance for success, the particular circumstances you find might give you an opening.
If you find proof that the work was so poorly done that the builder would or should be embarrassed that his contractors performed that work, you may find the builder is a bit more willing to help out -- not under the warranty but as a gesture of good will. There may be other issues and circumstances you find in the course of the repair that could bring you some relief, but you might have to talk to an attorney with knowledge of construction law to help you out.
However, if you plan to work with an attorney, your chance of recovering money has to far exceed what you might end up paying the attorney. If you fix the repair for $500, it's probably not worth paying several hundred dollars to an attorney to try to get that money from the builder or the contractor that installed the system. You might be better off making the request on your own, but only if you find convincing evidence that shows the builder or the installer at fault.
(Ilyce R. Glink's latest book is "Buy, Close, Move In!" Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. If you have questions, you can call Ilyce's radio show toll-free (800-972-8255) any Sunday, from 11a-1p EST. Contact Ilyce and Sam through her website, http://www.thinkglink.com.)