"Our home is a big blue lemon built [by] Miller Enterprises," Julia Barton's house reads in red spray paint. "Dissatisfied homeowners ... this house is falling apart!" echoes Ginger Hayes' in fluorescent green across the street.
HUD, the Missouri attorney general and the Kansas Banking Commission have accused Miller of running a scam, but he's still in business. He seeks buyers with bad credit through ads that promise "special" or "creative" financing. Buyers often move in before closing, learning about Miller's higher-than-expected final bill only after giving up a residence to which they might retreat. The system (,a href="/issues/2001-05-24/feature.html/1/index.html">"Home Sick," May 24, 2001) leaves buyers saddled with second mortgages on brand new shoddy homes that aren't worth the value of the first mortgages. Miller himself secures many of the loans.
Miller's latest victory came December 5, 2001, during a contempt hearing in Johnson County District Court. Four recent buyers, including Barton, testified that real estate broker Todd Earnshaw had fronted the sales of their Miller-built homes. That would place Miller in violation of an October 2000 court order disbanding a Miller-Earnshaw collaboration that had cheated many buyers, Kansas Banking Commission attorney Robert Eskildsen Jr. told Judge Thomas Foster. One buyer said she saw Miller and Earnshaw together outside her home. Judge Foster was unpersuaded. "I haven't seen any evidence clear to me that Mr. Miller himself has violated the agreement," Foster said.
Miller left the tiny seventh-floor courtroom with a wink and a smile to the five observers in attendance. Barton left in frustration. Barton testified in court that she and her husband were told their house would cost $270,000. At closing, they wound up agreeing to pay $316,000 and signing a second mortgage. "I don't understand it," Barton says.
"I don't buy it," says Miller's attorney, Pete Smith. The $316,000 figure is printed clearly at the top of loan documents Barton signed. A deal is a deal, the lawyer argues.
Smith says Miller's operation grew very fast in the late 1990s, creating problems of quality control. But over the past two years, since Smith began representing the builder, Miller has been extra responsive to buyers, the lawyer says.
Although an engineer found plenty of poor workmanship in Barton's 2,900-square-foot home -- missing roof supports, countertops that are pulling away from the wall, siding already in need of repair, drainage problems -- Smith says Barton and other buyers are trying to exploit Miller's notoriety to get payments reduced or loans forgiven.
"She never made a written complaint," Smith says.
Barton tells The Pitch she has given several lists of deficiencies to Miller's representatives. She admitted in court to turning away a Miller employee who came to assess problems with the house she moved into in September 2001 because, she said, he came after her phone calls went unreturned. Barton also testified she had not yet made a payment on her second mortgage, which Miller doesn't hold.
Miller has agreed to hire independent contractors to inspect and repair flawed homes and to refinance some second mortgages at lower interest. He forgave one buyer's second mortgage. But an advocate for buyers says Miller has not lived up to the agreements.
"The inspectors for Miller came out, and [the buyers] didn't feel he wrote down everything that really needed to be done to their homes," says Nancy Seats of Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings. "The repair people came out and fixed a few things but never completed a job. And some people have never seen the repair people."
The Missouri attorney general has intervened on behalf of 36 buyers. Ten have had little or no repair work done, says Scott Holste, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. HUD has had cooperation from Miller, but some homeowners have refused to cooperate with inspectors and contractors hired to fix their homes.
Barton has hired an attorney to pursue Miller in court. "I want more than our home fixed now, a lot more. I want to embarrass the hell out of all of them."