My Toll Experience

History

In July 1995, I contracted with Toll Brothers to purchase a new home in a subdivision known as the Estates at River’s Edge, which is located in Belle Mead, NJ.  I did so only after viewing seven of Toll Brothers’ model homes in Bucks County, PA, and Somerset County, NJ, all of which were perfect in every detail.  I also read all of the advertising material that I found in these models, which stressed the “quality” and “luxury” to be found in a Toll Brothers home.  Based upon these representations, I went ahead with the purchase with the assumption that I was dealing with an ethical company that would deliver a house that was every bit up to the standards of the models.  I could not have been more wrong.

Because I was the first person to go to contract on a home in the “Woodland Section” of the subdivision, I got to select any of the available models and facades (or “elevations,” as Toll calls them).  I selected the Madison Model with the Federal “elevation.”  The significance of this will be clear shortly.

The problems began before construction was even under way.  First, Toll was unable to get a septic permit because they had graded the property incorrectly and the soil would not percolate.  This delayed construction until the following spring.  In the meantime, Toll went ahead with the construction of houses on two nearby lots, one of which was a Madison Federal.

Once Toll Brothers finally succeeded in grading the property correctly and getting a septic permit, they were unable to get a building permit.  Why?  Because the property on which they had already built a Madison Federal – a property on which the buyer had gone to contract several months after I had – was only 140 feet from my property, and my township forbids the construction of look-alike houses on properties that are less than 150 feet apart.  Because Toll Brothers had incorrectly measured the distance between the two properties, the township would not issue a building permit for a Madison Federal on my lot, despite the fact that I was the one who had gone to contract and selected this model first.  Apparently, Toll’s commitment to quality falls short of teaching their project managers how to correctly measure the distance between two nearby building lots. 

As a result of this incompetence, I was advised by the Project Manager, J. Michael Donnelly, (who would later be rewarded for his incompetence by a promotion to a regional vice presidency) that I would have to select a different model.  But I had selected the Madison Federal for several very specific reasons, and I was not willing to spend $600,000 on a house that was not what I wanted.  

So I called a member of the township planning board to see if there were any circumstances under which an exception could be made.  I was advised that I could in fact request a design waiver – but only if Toll Brothers would agree to support me in seeking same.  When I asked Donnelly for his support, he flat-out refused to give it – despite the fact that it was his incompetence that had made it necessary in the first place.  When I asked him why, he replied with the arrogance that would quickly come to be known as his trademark, “Quite frankly, I just don’t feel like it.”  Only later would I learn, from another Toll Brothers employee, the real reason: Donnelly and the other employee had each been offered $10,000 in cash by another potential buyer if he (Donnelly) could get me off the lot I had chosen so the other buyer could have it.  The other buyer wanted it because it was the only lot that was large enough and level enough for both a pool and a tennis court. 

Eventually I found a loophole in the law that enabled me to get a design waiver without Toll’s support.  So construction on my house finally began in 1996, nearly a year later than scheduled.  And because of Toll Brothers’ reward system, which gives bonuses to the project managers for bringing houses in ahead of schedule, the house was literally thrown together just to get it done.  (This was disclosed by Toll Employee Gerry Lewis during his deposition.  See Lewis Deposition Parts 1, 2, and 3.)  I have also learned that Toll awards the construction contracts to the lowest bidders, and then rewards the construction teams for bringing in the houses under their already ridiculously low budgets.   

I should stress that while the house was under construction, I was denied access to it, with one exception: on that occasion, I happened to stop by when the house was being wired.  Not only was there no supervisor in sight, but not one of the four men doing the work spoke a single word of English, which made it very difficult to convey to them that they were putting the phone and cable outlets in the wrong places. So much for Toll’s claims of expert supervision: there was in fact NO supervision.  Even Mr. Donnelly was not supervising, unless you were one of the homebuyers who had given him a “gift” to ensure that your house would receive some attention.  (Three of my neighbors admit to having done this.  Ironically, even their houses turned out to be fraught with construction defects.)  I also was denied the right to bring in a structural engineer to assess the workmanship, and given no estimate as to when the house would be completed and ready for occupancy, despite the fact that I made numerous phone calls to request same.

Then all of a sudden in May 1997, I received a call out of the blue from John Runzer, the Site Manager, telling me that the house was done – ten months later than scheduled -- and that a closing had been scheduled for later that same week, without my having been consulted in any way about the convenience of this date.  However, because of Toll’s incompetence and the resulting delays, my mortgage commitment had expired and, because I had no idea when the house would actually be finished, I was still in the process of getting it renewed.  I explained this situation to Mr. Donnelly and told him that I could not possibly be ready to close on such short notice.  But instead of acknowledging his responsibility for the delay and agreeing to work with me on this, Mr. Donnelly instead began charging me interest at a rate of $123.68 per day for every day that I delayed the closing – this, after his incompetence had delayed it for nearly a year. 

I should add that, as of the date of closing, I had been given the opportunity to do just one walk-through of the house, one very abbreviated walk-through, despite Toll’s claims that they always give you two.  The one walk-through was a debacle. The first problem manifested itself within 90 seconds of our entering the house.  We entered through the garage, stepped through the laundry room into the kitchen, and Guy Meidhof, the tour guide, reached over and turned on the dishwasher.  Water immediately spurted out all over the floor.  The dishwater had never been hooked up.  Nor had the attic fan, the compressor for the downstairs A/C unit, the door bell, the radon remission system, several of the smoke detectors, several of the phone and cable lines, and the over-flow pipe in the Jacuzzi.  The incorrect tiles had been put down in the conservatory, the wrong cabinets had been installed in the master bathroom, and the front door did not close correctly.  No caulking had been done anywhere in the house, and the hardwood staircase in the front of the house had never been varnished.  Electric outlets were missing cover plates.  The window wells had never been attached to the house.  The wrong color siding had been out up over the exterior basement door.  It was immediately obvious that there were serious problems with this house, although Toll insisted that all of these would be addressed.  Not only was this one of the shortest walk-throughs in the history of the construction industry, but once it was completed and the problems detected, I was not allowed anywhere near the house again until after I had actually forked over my money to Toll at closing.  No one had bothered to return any of my phone calls when I tried to inquire as to when I could return for another walkthrough to see if any of the problems had been addressed.   (Fifteen years later, most of them still have not been.)

We finally closed on the house in late June, and began to move in later that same day.  We had been in the house for fewer than 30 minutes when the next major problem manifested itself.  My father flushed the toilet in the downstairs bathroom, and water immediately backed up all over the hardwood floors in the powder room and center hall.  It has steadily gotten worse ever since. 

Throughout the entire summer, I was unable to keep the downstairs cool.  I thought the A/C must be malfunctioning.  I called John Runzer, who came over, took a look, said the A/C was fine, and suggested that putting up insulating curtains and blinds would take care of the problem.  I put up the exact type of curtains and blinds he recommended, but it made no difference whatsoever.  It was not until the following spring that I found out what the problem was.  When I had an HVAC serviceman come out to check the units as part of an annual maintenance contract, the young man asked me if I had had any problems cooling the house the previous summer.  I said yes.  He replied that he was not surprised, as the compressor for the downstairs A/C unit had never been hooked up.  He hooked it up then, and we have had no problem keeping most of the downstairs cool since.  However, the conservatory still cannot be kept cool in summer or warm in winter.  Despite the fact that I spent $40,000 adding two rooms to the house, which totaled about 700 square feet, the heating and cooling systems were not upgraded accordingly.  I might add that this problem appears to be common to Toll Brothers houses in every state in which Toll builds.  (I found this out when I interviewed Toll Brothers homeowners from Connecticut to Virginia to find out if my problems were common to Toll Brothers homes.  To view the video, go to https://vimeo.com/55679581 - and if you are thinking seriously of buying new construction from Toll, or even existing Toll Brothers construction, it behooves you to watch it.  Virtually everyone who has seen it says it is compelling.) 

Shortly after moving in, I also expressed to Mr. Runzer concerns about the quality of the electrical work.  Two phone lines did not work at all, and two others worked intermittently.  The telephone repairman who came to fix the problem found a staple through one of the phone lines.  On top of that, lights upstairs flicker quite frequently, and electrical appliances and light fixtures sometimes go on and off by themselves.  I had observed the electrical installers at work, and knew that not only did they not understand English, but they were not highly skilled and had not been at all supervised.  When I expressed my concerns about the electrical work and the prospects of fire to Mr. Runzer, he laughed and told me that if I was going to have problems, they would probably happen right away.  He did not take me at all seriously.  I might add that several of the electrical outlets were later found to be below code, as is some of the wiring, and there were at least six electrical fires in this development within the first five years that I lived here, so my fears were not unfounded.

By October 1997, four months after closing, all of the front fascia trim had fallen off, the tile floors had started to crack, two of the toilets had failed, one of the garage doors would not open, and the paint was peeling off the trim all over the exterior of the house.  And that was just the beginning!  New problems have continued to manifest themselves ever since.  Most recently, the wall around the bay window in the study has split in two places, and there is now a 14” vertical crack above the door between the study and the family room.  (See photos below.)
        

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