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Viewpoint: Common sense law won't leave homeowners out in the cold

Minnesota is fortunate to have some of the best consumer protection laws in the nation. Whether it's protection from identity theft to laws that ensure gift cards retain their value, our state has long been at the forefront of consumer safeguards.

However, when it comes to protecting homeowners from new construction or remodeling defects, Minnesota's current laws are not up to par.

Although Minnesota law provides all homeowners with an automatic ten-year home warranty to cover defects, enforcement of that warranty is often difficult and expensive.

Most builders in Minnesota honor their warranty obligations. In some cases, however, builders refuse to acknowledge defects or damage under the warranty.

When that happens, many homeowners are forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars on lawsuits in an attempt to force builders to do the right thing.

As a result, what should be a straightforward process where the builder makes necessary repairs ends up exacting a tremendous financial and emotional burden on families, more often than not with a resolution that favors the builder rather than the homeowner.

The builders' legal fees are paid by their insurance company, while the homeowners have to dig into their family savings to finance the litigation. That kind of financial imbalance creates an incentive for builders to prolong the lawsuits until the homeowners give up or settle cheaply.

That's why I'm sponsoring legislation that would level the playing field between homeowners and builders.

The bill would allow homeowners to recover costs and attorneys' fees in cases involving a breach of new warranty or home improvement warranty.

By letting homeowners recoup their costs, we're increasing their bargaining power in builder disputes and creating financial incentives for builders to honor the warranties.

Far from being a major policy shift, the law simply affords homeowners the same kinds of protections afforded to consumers in numerous other transactions.

As one of the fastest growing regions in the state, Washington County has also had a high rate of new home claims against builders.

Many of the disputes center on construction defects involving mold, and many of the homeowners who have initiated claims have essentially been rendered hostage in homes that are unhealthy, uninhabitable and unmarketable.

Last week, the House Civil Justice Committee, chaired by Representative Joe Mullery, held a hearing in Woodbury to hear from homeowners entangled in similar disputes.

We heard stories of endless frustration due to unresolved builder disputes; families on the verge of bankruptcy and marriages on the brink of divorce. We heard from parents forced to watch their children grow sick from living in homes where mold covers the walls, and from couples who literally watched their home crumble from the inside out.

Buying a home is one of the most important transactions many of us will ever make. We do so because we're looking to create a sense of place, to carve out a small piece of the American dream, or to build security for our future. Sometimes things go wrong. But when they do, homeowners should have confidence they can pursue a remedy that won't leave them worse off than before.

This common-sense change in the law would even the playing field for thousands of homeowners currently feeling trapped and hopeless. Moreover, it's just the right thing to do.

Swails (DFL-Woodbury) represents District 56B in the Minnesota House. To contact her, call (651) 296-1147, 409 State Office Building, 100 Martin Luther King Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155 or e-mail