(Municipal Code Inspections are no guarantee that a new house is habitable, or even safe.)
By William Decker, CRI, CCI, CMI
As a professional Home Inspector, I regularly hear people saying “It’s a new house and does not need a home inspection, the city inspectors already did that.” I hear this from buyers, their real estate agents AND from the builders.
And, sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.
The news constantly reports on newly built houses having problems. Improper construction of the exterior, windows and doors lead to water leaks, wood rot and mold formation. Structural inadequacies, caused by Architect error, builder substitutions or material defects lead to complete or partial collapse. Sub-standard electrical workmanship causes electrical fires. And, in almost all of these cases, the person who winds up paying for it all is the homeowner.
About twice a week, I get a call from a new construction (under one year) buyer who wants me to look at their property and I find significant problems. I document the issues, write my report and the owner calls the builder and… nothing happens. I even had a condominium association client whose entire building had roof collapse issues and called the city code inspectors, hoping that they would force the builder to fix everything without them having to pay for it. The code inspector came out and verified that there were real problems. But rather than working with the owners to force the builder to fix the rotted roof trusses, they condemned the building, forcing all the residents to move out and have the building torn down. The city’s responsibility is to the safety of the building but the fixing of it was a civil matter, between the owners and the builder only. And settling that dispute was a matter for a civil lawsuit. That lawsuit is still pending, 3 years later. Meanwhile, the building was torn down, the owners had to find other housing and come up with money for their lawyers and the banks, who mortgaged the property, are still expecting payment from the owners.
Why is this?
First of all, people have to remember that just because some government agency allows something (building a house) and has regulations on how the thing is done (building codes) and checks on those requirements (construction code inspection), this is no guarantee that the work actually will be done properly and it is certainly no warranty or insurance to pay for any fixes that are needed. Government NEVER has any liability if they do not do their jobs properly, and it is definitely not their job to protect you against yourself.
Look at all the recent news reports about home construction problems:
And it is not just the large, national construction companies that are having problems. Not-for-profit groups such as Habitats for Humanity are also finding problems in their houses.
You will notice, in all these stories, common issues:
- The homeowner has problems.
- The homeowner contacts the builder, who does not fix the issue.
- The homeowner appeals to the local code authority, who does nothing.
- Finally, if enough people in the same development complain, the local states attorney goes after the builder.
Don’t get me wrong, municipal code inspectors have their place, but you cannot expect a code inspector to check every little detail. They have neither the time nor funds to do a complete and thorough inspection of the whole house.
So, what is a new home buyer to do?
Licensed, professional and certified private Home Inspectors can fill this gap.
Such inspectors will do these things:
1) Review the construction plans for design and architectural errors or deficiencies. Architects, like everyone else, make mistakes. Many plan sets, these days, have their notes just cut-and-pasted from Auto-Cad software and this software is not always kept properly updated.
2) Recommend changes and upgrades, based upon new materials and construction techniques. Many builders and trades people are used to “the way it’s always been done”, and are hesitant to change the way they do things.
3) Check out the construction, as it is ongoing, to make sure that all the little details are taken care of. The various sub-contractors (electrical, HVAC, carpentry, roofing, siding) may be very good at their specialty, but it is often where the work of two different trades come together where the two don’t know what the other is doing. This leads to common mistakes like improper window flashing problems allowing water leaks.
4) Act as a sort of translator between the builder and the buyer. If the buyer does not understand the various technical issues, how can they make informed decisions?
Also, make sure that you hire a professional and certified Home Inspector. Inspectors need special training, over and above any state licensing requirements, if they are doing phased new construction inspections. These include special classes focusing on the different systems of the house, like roofing, HVAC, plumbing, exteriors, structure and construction management. There is a special industry certification, the Certified Master Inspector board, that can provide such training, but not all inspectors are CMI trained. And, good inspectors NEVER stop learning and receiving new training.