Three Bordentown Township residents have won another round in a court fight over the defective design of their garages.(Photo: Photo provided)
N.J. — Childhood's fleeting. Life goes by so quickly.
And you know what else has proved to be too short?
The garage bays at several new homes in a Burlington County housing development, where buyers found their $400,000-plus houses had a built-in parking problem.
On the other hand, a court fight over those bays has been quite long. An appellate court weighed in Thursday on a lawsuit filed in 2012 by three unhappy homeowners at a Bordentown Township complex, The Estates at Borden's Crossing.
The residents were understandably irked by a design flaw in their homes, which were purchased in 2010.
According to Thursday's ruling, developer Harry Kantor changed a model home's design to offer a "front-facing," rather than "side-facing," two-car garage. That allowed him to cut the price by about $5,000, attracting buyers for about five revised versions of the Princeton.
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But because the garage's left bay included a stairway into the house, its depth was reduced by about 3½ feet under the revised design. That left it too small to accommodate a normal-sized vehicle, the residents said.
And, they asserted, Kantor and key employees knew this when the home sales occurred.
"I paid for a two-car garage home," Venkateswara Pulleti complained to the developer before closing "under protest" on a $430,000 home on Eclipse Drive. "I only got one (garage) and some storage space."
It's safe to say the court fight has not gone well for Kantor — a trend that may have started when the trial judge left his Mount Holly courtroom to inspect the garages.
Superior Court Judge Marc Baldwin found Pulleti's Nissan Maxima, a four-door sedan, "had nicked the stairway in attempting to pull in enough to close the garage door," Thursday's ruling said. "The judge determined that, even parked just an inch from the stairway, Pulleti's Maxima prevented the garage door from closing due to the door's electronic sensor."
Similarly, a Honda Accord fit in the garage of another Eclipse Drive resident, Venkataraju Kalidindi, only when parked "closer than two inches" from the steps. And while Rajiv Hazaray, could squeeze his Mercedes-Benz C280 into the left bay of his Crescent Drive garage, "the trunk could not fully open without hitting the garage door."
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I couldn't reach Kantor or attorneys for either side.
But Thursday's ruling shows the developer and his employees attempted a wide-ranging defense. Among other points, they contended building codes didn't require a minimum depth for the bays; they also argued the home buyers knew the left bays were smaller because they'd reviewed architectural plans and conducted walk-throughs.
The defendants also asserted that "by the time they knew about the issue, it was too late to act."
And that's where they ran into a judicial buzzsaw.
Thursday's ruling noted a building inspector raised concerns over the garage in October 2009 and that an earlier buyer of the redesigned Princeton had sent a critical email in January 2010 to the development firm and its construction supervisor, Andrew Braverman.
"After we closed, we tried to pull my husband’s truck (Chevy Equinox) into the left garage door. It doesn’t fit,” wrote Michelle Belluscio. "I would recommend you rethink the garage size for front-entry garages on your future Princeton models because it's quite frustrating to think (you're) getting a two-car garage and only one car fits.”
The homeowners who sued bought their houses between May and October 2010.
The ruling said Kantor denied having "any prior knowledge" of the garage issue in September 2010, but that the trial judge "inferred" the builder would have learned of the concern from Braverman, who is also his son-in-law.
It said “a knowing omission of a material fact constitutes unlawful conduct under the CFA.”
“Even if some or all of the plaintiffs were already under contract when defendants were told the left garage bay was too short, construction of the home and closing of the home purchase had not yet been completed," the ruling said. It said that provided time to disclose the problem to the buyers and to offer a remedy.
Instead, the trial judge said the defendants had kept the buyers in the dark — and violated the state's Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) in the process.
The appellate court agreed, upholding an award of $9,200 to each defendant so the garages could be made functional. Each award was tripled, to $27,600, due to the CFA violation.
That's $82,800, if you're counting.
Oh, and almost $102,000 for the homeowners' legal fees.
At that price, it might have been cheaper to give these guys valet parking.
Follow Jim Walsh on Twitter: @jimwalsh_cp