Inspector's Lament - New Home Hassles in Atlanta
My clients were concerned. They'd been laboring under the assumption that the quarter million dollars they were investing in their new home guaranteed diligence on the part of the builder. Though willing to bend a bit on the diligence issue they genuinely needed a sensible response to the defects mentioned in my inspection report. Closing was scheduled for the end of the week.
My clients were confused. Some report items were important. The layout of the basement sewer didn't make sense. No main plumbing vent extended above the roofline. The jetted tub plainly needed proper support. The attic furnace didn't work. Lesser items such as an ill-fitting gas valve required correction. The builder agreed only to fix the furnace and some minor items.
Why should the builder rework his house to satisfy an inspection report, especially when the inspector doesn't wield enforcement authority? The private framing inspector had specified full structural sheathing, a good idea but not required by the governing code. County inspectors had given the house a certificate of occupancy, indicating the dwelling was in substantial compliance with minimum building standards. My clients, foreign born and engineers, were unacquainted with Atlanta area residential building. This unfamiliarity, coupled with an engineers' desire for ordered construction process, heightened their confusion.
My clients were upset. The preliminary walk-thru had not gone well. The subdivision agent questioned the need for tub support. Trying to demonstrate that it was O.K. she'd sat on the tub edge: it pulled loose from its' fastening. The main vent stack was found in the attic and tossed in the trash. The remaining report items, including the basement sewer, were either ignored or dismissed.
My clients were apologetic. They explained that the builder was questioning several report items. Could I provide an addendum documenting the items in greater detail? I talked to a county plumbing inspector who told me to mind my own business. What right did I have going behind him "red tagging" his work? I re-checked the plumbing code and called a master plumber, discussed structural and technical details with an engineer, then reviewed the entire report with the lead carpenter of an established renovation firm. They all confirmed the report observations and conclusions were valid. I faxed an addendum to my clients.
My clients were stressed. As closing day drew near they were so worried they couldn't sleep. My clients' wife, who had witnessed the whole affair with seeming detachment, let it be known the situation was not acceptable. Frustrated and tired of argument they delayed the closing.
My clients were relieved. Subsequent to re-scheduling the closing the builder had corrected the major defects. The basement sewer now had a lift station, the plumbing system was properly vented, and the jetted tub was fully supported. My clients had not pressured the builder about the remaining report items, in large part because they were frustrated with the entire situation.
My client's story is illustrative of conflict between builders and inspectors. A vigorous housing market, technological innovations, new methods of building, and more sophisticated consumers have given rise to the practice of construction review by private home inspectors. A certain level of antagonism between builders and inspectors is normal; in Atlanta tensions are more pronounced.
The Atlanta residential housing market is huge. Every year Atlanta is among the top markets in the country. Last year 44,000 residential permits were issued. Signs of dynamic growth abound; along with the new subdivisions, high rises, loft conversions and infill housing come shortages of materials and labor, lagging infrastructure improvements, and the emergence of neighborhood and environmental opposition. Competition, especially in the more profitable upper end of the market, generates larger homes with more features, ornamentation, and detail. A seller's market does not penalize lesser quality. With 1000 people moving to the metro area each week there's always someone who's ready to buy.
The pace of technological innovation coupled with uncertainties about product performance should be considered when buying a home. Technological advances like smart house control and termite growth regulating systems add to the growing list of services available to the homebuyer. New products such as engineered wood floors and fiber-cement siding perform well. Defective or improperly installed products, or those not appropriate for Atlanta's mixed-humid climate can be expensive to repair or replace. Inspectors are well suited to review these issues.
The definition of homebuilder has changed. Now referred to as "process management" homebuilders assemble labor and materials on site and direct the constantly changing flow of materials, workers, clients, and the like. The "process" isn't easy to manage, even with the best tools and staff. Builders are increasingly drawn off site and must delegate supervision to a lead carpenter or construction supervisor. Most client and inspection conflicts arise from difficulties with management and control.
Problems with labor and workmanship confound the process. Gone are the days when a builder could hand pick and supervise tradesmen on site. The apprentice system common to the trades is in decline. A large proportion of Hispanic construction workers lack specific construction and language skills. The construction industry focus on controlling labor costs, always a major consideration in residential construction, often results in work of lesser quality. Many of the tradesmen I know prefer aftermarket jobs where workmanship, materials, and income are under their, not the builders, control.
Buyer's expectations continue to expand. "Customers", write the authors of "Managing Customer Expectations" published by the National Association of Homebuilders, "have more information; are more openly critical; are much more likely to sue; want things better, faster, and cheaper; and have more money." This is true of most customers today regardless of the product or service offered. The market driven aspect of home ownership, with its emphasis on ever larger and feature-laden homes, compels the builder to reduce overhead, often compromising construction standards.
In 1997 the Georgia Association of Home Inspectors (GAHI) moved to establish new construction inspection guidelines, primarily in response to requests from an increasingly frustrated and bewildered public. Buyers felt they needed someone with building knowledge to represent their interests.
Private home inspectors disagree as to how to deal with new construction. Some feel that home inspections should be strictly defined as an aftermarket service, that responsibility for building integrity rests exclusively with the builder and the city or county inspection departments. A second group favors following agreed upon new construction guidelines. A third group believes inspectors should actively participate as advocates for the homebuyer. This last method often puts the inspector and builder at odds: the builder contending that the inspection report is not based upon accepted standards, the inspector frustrated in his efforts to assist the client. In some cases this disagreement has degenerated into a feud where a few inspectors trumpet their advocacy of the buyer by writing consistently negative reports. Builders respond by attempting to restrict private inspectors access to the building site.
A common complaint about inspectors is their lack of professionalism. Those inspectors not adequately trained, experienced, or impartial enough to correctly review a home create undue burdens upon the seller. Too often an inspector cites design, "wish lists", and cosmetic details instead of specific building code violations. Minor code infractions are presented as major defects and/or as means to justify the inspector's fee. Inspectors "perform" for the uninformed and easily influenced buyer and make unsubstantiated claims without regard for the consequences. A few inspectors have poisoned the builder/inspector dialogue to such an extent it has become very difficult to develop any sort of understanding with builders. Media play sometimes gives disproportionate attention to those willing to make outrageous statements.
Discussing design and efficiency when they affect the function and safety of a home are reasonable topics for discussion. Purchase decisions, cosmetic review and inflammatory report language is not the inspectors business.
The inspection industry strives to improve its level of professionalism. The amateur home inspector common just a few years ago must compete with experienced, well-trained individuals active in state and national organizations. Comprehensive, up to date construction knowledge: of codes, engineering, the trades, product performance, and building methods, is mandatory. GAHI membership requirements include written exams, code certification (normally 80 hours of classroom instruction followed by a ½ day exam), and a minimum of 250 paid inspections. Ongoing code review, monthly educational presentations, mentor programs and the like all emphasize learning. Grievance committees review complaints about inspectors.
CODE: "a body of laws of a nation, state, city, or organization, arranged systematically for easy reference."
STANDARD: "…anything recognized as correct by common consent, by approved custom, or by those most competent to decide;" "a level or grade of excellence, attainment, etc., regarded as a goal or measure of adequacy."
The language of codes and standards may lead to misunderstandings between builders, buyers, and inspectors. Codes are intended to insure a safe and sound home. Standards provide "a basis for comparison" or "measure of adequacy": concepts that are dependent upon common understanding and agreement of the parties involved.
Different types of codes can cause tension within the code community and may affect the general public. In the Southeast it was discovered that insulating the foundation slab, a good idea based upon sound science, caused the undesired effect of allowing a hidden passage for termites to enter a house.
Defining a code or standard may become more intricate as it is applied. A section might refer to testing, manufacturer, or trade standards or to other sections of the code. Amendments add to or clarify existing codes as new information becomes available. Prescriptive codes such as the Model Energy Code allow design freedom as long as overall goals are achieved.
Agreeing upon standards for new construction is central to resolving the conflict between builders and inspectors. At a meeting between representatives of the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders (GAHB) and the Georgia Association of Home Inspectors a basis for understanding was discussed. GAHB representatives recognized the requirement for builders to conform to the eight building codes listed in the Georgia State Minimum Codes. For those areas not specifically addressed by the codes they suggested using the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Residential Construction Performance Guidelines. Though limited in scope, this publication might provide a starting point for builder-inspector dialogue.
What informs inspectors is past experience. And that experience often indicates that lesser or more subtle defects can become major headaches. Local building departments are not structured to provide the thoroughness of a private home inspection. Site work, moisture control, exterior materials installation and integrity, framing detail, energy use and other functional concerns all too often end up taking a back seat to the feature driven house. Higher maintenance and energy costs are the logical result. The length of time before a new home requires repair or improvement decreases each year.
The movement towards efficiency and sustainability in commercial construction has had little effect on residential construction. Long term financial savings resulting from improved design and construction are more difficult to achieve on a residential scale. To lay all the problems arising from new construction at the feet of builders is unfair. Builders respond to what homebuyers want. If the buyer wants a grand home at a bargain price compromises in sustainability and efficiency are inevitable. How well a home should perform 5,10,50, or 100 years after it is built is a question rarely asked. Perhaps buyers, builders, and inspectors can help to form an answer.