Homebuyer protection bills pushed; Legislation seeks disclosure of hazards, regulation of builders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The angry cries of suburban new-home buyers -- including those who belatedly discovered noisy highways next door or methane seeping into basements -- are prompting a spate of consumer-protection bills in the General Assembly.

Legislators from Cockeysville to Columbia to Pasadena are pushing bills that would regulate homebuilders, force disclosure of environmental hazards, require carbon monoxide detectors in new homes and compel real estate agents to tell buyers to check local master plans.

The bills face uncertain futures because of industry opposition.

"Homebuilders, Realtors and all the special interests have been very active in people's campaigns, and they're here [in Annapolis]," said Del. A. Wade Kach, a Baltimore County Republican who is sponsoring several of the bills.

Real estate agents say several counties with the loudest complaints -- Howard and Baltimore among them -- have laws requiring that buyers be advised to look at local government master plans. Builders say Kach's measure, which would require environmental disclosures for new homes, provides no new protection.

The legislators are responding to homebuyers across Maryland's suburbs who claim they were sweet-talked into buying homes that later proved troublesome. But industry spokesmen and some local officials say statutes include too many warnings that people don't read, and it's a buyer's responsibility to do basic checking before spending $200,000 for a house.

Bill Bambarger, who was forced from his new home in the Calvert Ridge subdivision in Elkridge after methane gas leaked from an old dump beneath it last year, said he supports Kach's bill. "I think it's an excellent idea that's long overdue. Obviously something went seriously wrong in Calvert Ridge," he said, despite legal protections.

Kach and other sponsors, including Anne Arundel Del. John R. Leopold, a Pasadena Republican pushing master plan disclosure, say the advice and suggestions of industry groups were sought before the bills were introduced.

Leopold has support from state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and has co-sponsors from both parties from Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, along with Howard County Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat who sponsored similar legislation as a County Council member in 1991.

"I think that at least there's a good fighting chance," Leopold said, adding that three counties -- Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery -- have similar disclosure laws. The carbon monoxide detector bill is sponsored by Del. Carolyn Krysiak, a Baltimore Democrat who heads a key subcommittee that will examine all the bills.

Industry officials say their contracts are consumer-friendly.

"We support very much the idea of making disclosures," said Patrick T. Welsh, legislative chairman of the Maryland Association of Realtors, who testified against Leopold's bill at a hearing last Tuesday.

"Real estate contracts today are 25 pages long," he said, objecting to adding a separate, more visible section telling buyers to check local plans. "Adding all these extra things just becomes overwhelming," he said, adding that he can't remember an instance of a buyer going to Towson to check Baltimore County's master plan.

Maryland State Builders Association Executive Vice President Kathleen L. McHugh's statement on Kach's environmental bill said it "duplicates existing regulations and provides no additional protection."

House Economic Matters Committee Chairman Del. Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, said it would "be nice to have a uniform [disclosure] law that takes precedence" over a series of county ordinances, but said he would refer Leopold's bill -- co-sponsored by 11 other delegates -- to a subcommittee.

"I don't know if we'll get to it this year," he said, expressing sympathy for consumers, including those who encounter obstacles when they do seek information. "Going to planning and zoning is [often] like pulling teeth."

Bill Bellamy, who bought a new home next to Route 32 in Columbia before the enlarged highway west of Route 29 opened, agreed. He looked at the Howard County general plan, he said, but didn't realize the traffic would be heavier and the noise louder than predicted. "It's terrible, and it's getting worse," he said.

The Leopold bill requires real estate agents to tell buyers in a separate section of a sales contract to look at county plans for the area near their prospective new homes -- and provide the address of the appropriate local agency. Violators could face discipline from the Maryland Real Estate Commission.

Kach suggested a possible alliance by using an informational pamphlet required in his forthcoming builder's registration bill as a way to provide the notice sought by Leopold.

But notice isn't enough, buyers say. Real estate agents' complaints that adding a separate contract section for disclosure is too burdensome suggested another motive to Bellamy.

The opposition, he thinks, is "so it could be hidden more," making it easier for builders to sell homes in questionable places.

Mark Seals, who bought a home near Owings Mills only to learn a four-lane highway extension was going in next door, wants builders to provide buyers with the master plan, not just tell them to go look at it.

"I didn't even know where the Baltimore County Courthouse was," said Seals, president of the Lyonswood Community Association. His expensive new home sits next to the right of way for the long-planned extension of Owings Mills Boulevard to Liberty Road in Baltimore County.

"It's frightening to think that even small steps are being fought by the industry," Seals said.

Kach's environmental disclosure bill, approved in 1995 and 1996 by the House of Delegates only to die in the Senate, will face that same challenge again this year, he said. But he revived it because of problems last year in Elkridge, where buyers found they were living over a former dump after high levels of methane gas forced them from new homes.

Kach says he's traveled to Elkton to speak to state Sen. Walter M. Baker, a conservative Democrat who has blocked the bill before.

Another Kach bill, planned for introduction next week, requires registration of builders of new homes, and subjects them to scrutiny by a proposed Office of Home Builder Registration.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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