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A Different Kind of Housing Crisis

What to do when circumstances change and you can't buy or build that house

Sometimes companies do nothing illegal, nothing even out of the norm, and it still stinks.

See also: Protect yourself from telemarketing fraud.

In September 2003, Mark and Ana Triviski signed an agreement to have Topsider Homes of Clemmons, N.C., build them a prefabricated retirement home in Florida. The Triviskis paid Topsider a nonrefundable payment of $58,693. The total cost of the home would be $167,686. But even before the first board had been delivered, Mark Triviski, then 56, was diagnosed with cancer. On May 12, 2005, doctors removed four inches of Mark's esophagus and 13 lymph nodes.

With Mark's future medical expenses uncertain, the Triviskis were understandably hesitant to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more to complete the project.

In 2008, the Triviskis reluctantly decided that their Florida retirement home would have to remain a dream. They informed Topsider and, citing Mark's health, requested a refund of at least part of the deposit. Topsider Homes pointed to the "nonrefundable" language in the agreement and refused their request.

One of my first questions to Topsider's attorney, Neale Johnson, was what the company had done with the Triviskis' deposit. Johnson told me that the company had spent the money on "preconstruction and design work" and there were "losses associated with materials they'd purchased." Per the contract, design costs wouldn't have been an appropriate expense. When I asked him to provide documentation of any material purchases, he refused.

In the end, the attorney fell back on the simple assertion that the agreement allowed Topsider to keep the money, so it would. His only suggested resolution was for the Triviskis to negotiate a new agreement to finish the house, requiring them to spend even more money.

Next: Three tips for getting a deposit back. >>

Just because a company can do something doesn't mean it should.

While it may have the right to keep the Triviskis' money, there is also nothing stopping it from having some sympathy for a customer living on Social Security disability payments. Yes, there is an agreement. But that agreement also allows for changes agreed upon by both parties.

So why wouldn't Topsider just do the compassionate thing and return at least part of the deposit? That we may never know. Despite numerous emails, faxes and calls, no one other than the company's attorney ever responded to my inquiries.