Net Nemesis 

Walt Volkenannt was unhappy with his new house, so he took his complaints to the World Wide Web, much to the consternation of his builder

After Walt Volkenannt retired from a long career as a federal employee, he and his wife, Donna, decided to build a brand-new home in St. Peters. It would be more than twice the size of their older home, and its location, in the Country Crossing Estates subdivision in St. Peters, was also close to their grandkids.

In the spring of 1999, they settled on a three-bedroom, two bath, one-story brick-and-frame model with 1,700 square feet. They were generous with their options, adding a hip roof, tiled bathrooms and hardwood floors. But Volkenannt, 53, who once had his own roofing business as a young man living in Massachusetts, admits he was a stickler for quality. As his new home took shape, he regularly paid visits to observe how construction was progressing, and some of what he saw alarmed him.

A month before the sale was to close, he observed what he believed to be flaws in workmanship as the support beams in the roof structure were being installed. He complained to a superintendent, then took his concerns up the ladder, eventually speaking to the top executives of Whittaker Homes, one of the largest homebuilders in the state. Brad Goss, then the company's general counsel and executive vice president, came out to the building site himself and spent three hours with Volkenannt in an attempt to respond to his concerns. At one point the company offered to let him out of the contract, but Volkenannt said no. "I got reassurances they would take care of anything," Volkenannt says, "and I left it at that." Just to be sure, however, he asked Whittaker to have the roof certified by an independent structural engineer. The builder agreed. Whittaker even provided the private cell-phone number of its superintendent so that he could answer any other questions Volkenannt had.

On Sept. 29, 1999, Volkenannt and his wife closed on the deal and moved into their new home on Country Crossing Estates Drive. But there was a problem with the oak vanity, which Volkenannt says was improperly installed because the marble bathtub surround wasn't square. To make it fit, the vanity was notched and caulked, he says; then the notched area was colored brown. The method of repair raised a red flag with Volkenannt, so he decided to climb into the attic space and look around. He began photographing the beams and trusses inside, as well as various gaps and the pieces of wood hammered in place to fill them. His old doubts about the roof's soundness were renewed.

Volkenannt's continued complaints to Whittaker prompted the builder to offer to buy the $180,000 home back from him -- and even pay his moving expenses. Volkenannt refused: "I always said that the only thing that will make me happy is if you build this thing to specifications according to the drawings. I said I'm not going to back out of this contract, because that's why they call it a contract: I held up my end. You need to hold up your end by building a quality product." Besides, he says, "I like the house, just not the way it was built."

Instead, Volkenannt decided to take his complaints to the Internet, using how-to information gleaned from the Web to create his own Web pages. His detailed Internet site contains phrases lifted from Whittaker's own brochures and promotional material, interspersed with links to photos he took of the attic space of his home, as well as his own commentary and letters exchanged by him and Whittaker employees.

Whittaker initially responded by threatening to sue Volkennant, warning that the Web site "contains repeated statements that are defamatory to Whittaker Homes and actionable under Missouri law.... Whittaker Homes will no longer sit by while you act in this fashion," attorney Harry B. Wilson wrote. "This letter is a final warning to cease and desist." But no such suit has been forthcoming in nearly a year. Whittaker officials instead appear to have thrown their hands up in frustration.

Brad Goss, now president of Whittaker Homes, says there seems to be no way to appease Volkenannt.

"We've gone beyond the terms of our contract in an attempt to make him happy," he says. "We've offered to buy his home and pay moving expenses. If he truly believes the home is that awful, we've offered to make him whole."

The dispute appears to have hit a stalemate -- Volkenannt says he is content to take his story to the Web in an effort to alert other homebuyers to the pitfalls that can come with new construction. "I'm pretty upset by this, but I don't want to make this an emotional thing," Volkenannt says. "I don't care if the give me anything back.... My intent isn't to smear Whittaker. But I'm convinced I am not the only individual with a home built by a builder who is getting less than he bargained for."

Volkenannt and Whittaker clearly disagree on the level of quality in the construction of the home. In letters to Volkenannt, Goss defended his company's work, calling the home "well-built" and saying Whittaker had "made every reasonable effort it can to respond to your concerns." The company offered to cancel the contract before Volkenannt moved in -- then offered to buy the home after the sale closed. The city of St. Peters also wrote Volkenannt to say that its own inspectors visited the house 16 times to ensure it met electrical, plumbing, mechanical and structural requirements and that the home was also examined by a structural engineer, who found it "structurally sound." The building commissioner, Roger Stewart, also wrote that the photos on the Internet depict alleged flaws that "are not structural in nature and would not be in violation of city codes."

But Volkenannt remains unconvinced. He says his biggest beef with the builder is over whether the structural inspection by the engineer was ever actually performed. When he threatened to file an ethics complaint with the state against the engineer, Volkenannt says the engineer contacted him and said he had turned the job down.

Correspondence provided to The Riverfront Times by Whittaker Homes is unclear as to whether the inspection occurred. Goss wrote in an October 1999 letter to Volkenannt that he had "retained the services of an independent structural engineer to examine the home," who "determined the home was properly built and did not have any structural defects." In a later letter, in March, Goss wrote that after the structural engineer met with Volkenannt at the home, "he declined to have any further involvement in the matter" and that he "declined to bill us for his services." Goss says the engineer did an inspection, but after meeting with Volkenannt and fielding his questions, the engineer wanted nothing more to do with him and did not issue a formal report.

Volkenannt says he has repeatedly asked for either the actual building plans or a copy of the engineer's report and hasn't received either.

In letters to Volkenannt, Goss laid out the company's extensive attempts to satisfy him. And he suggested the root of the dispute had more to do with a sort of buyer's remorse -- noting that Volkenannt once told him he wanted to retire at a home in the country but his wife wanted to stay in St. Peters to be near the grandchildren. Volkenannt says that doesn't matter: "Whether or not I wanted the house has nothing to do with it."

Volkenannt believes he is doing a sort of public service with his Internet postings -- the result of his own "crash course" on Web-page-building last year. "Really, I had no clue," he says. "I just went online, and almost every major search engine has an icon that says 'free Web site.' I just fiddled with it until I figured it out, uploaded the images and put them in order." It took him more than a week. "My key thing is to get the word out to the consumer. I learned some expensive lessons in this."

Posting consumer complaints on the Internet comes with some risk. Jean Maneke, an attorney who represents the Missouri Press Association, says individuals who post information on such sites run the risk of defamation lawsuits if the information isn't true.

"This is not new, and it is not at all unusual," she says. "It's no different whether it's posted on the Internet or published in a newspaper or put in a book. Anytime you disseminate to a third party a statement that is harmful to the reputation of an individual, and if that statement is not a truthful statement, you may be liable for defamation.... But if it's a truthful statement, then you can't prove defamation."

Volkenannt says he made some adjustments to his Web site after the first letter arrived from Whittaker's lawyers -- one complaint by the company was that some of the photos were taken in the midst of construction but the Web site did not say so. Volkenannt also says he has no plans for further changes and no plans to take the Web site down. He says he would welcome a lawsuit from the builder.

"They're going to sue me for defamation of character? Hell, I wish they would," he says. "I wish they would bring it on, because I'd like to see 12 of my peers tell me I'm wrong and they're right."

Related Links:
Walt Volkenannt's Web sites regarding his disagreement with Whittaker Homes:
http://members.xoom.com/hopemo/BuiltWithPride.htm
http://lot369.homestead.com/files/gooddesign.htm
http://mywhittakerhome.homepage.com/index.html

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