By William Decker, CMI

(Note: Please be aware that these circumstances exist in the Chicagoland area and in the state of Illinois and are not directly applicable to all areas of the United States.  Check your local and state laws for more information.)

OK, you have bought a newly built house.  It is all shiny and clean and has that new carpet smell and you are happy as can be.  Then, reality strikes.

You start seeing cracks in the walls, brown stains on the baseboards, the furnace just does not keep the house warm enough and there is that funny, musty smell that does not go away.  You start to freak out, especially with home prices being so low and you having spend your entire life savings buying the house.

The whole housing market in the Chicagoland area, and in many other parts of the country, has undergone tremendous changes in the last 15 or so years.  Sure, we all know about the so-called “housing bubble”, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.  The entire housing industry, not just the buying and selling, has changed.

It used to be that houses were built by reputable companies (for the most part) that were owned by professional and experienced General Contractors and who employed qualified and experienced tradesmen to do the work.  This is, by and large, no longer the case.  There are NO professional qualifications, mandatory training or testing requirements in the State of Illinois (and many other states) for General Contractors.  In Illinois, the only building trades that are state licensed are Roofers and Plumbers.  All other trades either have no requirements or are locally “licensed”, usually with little of no professional training required.

I recently had an opportunity to talk with my State Representative (also, Democratic House Floor Leader), Louis Lang.  Having seen the problems with housing construction, first hand, I wanted to know why there were so few requirements for the building trades.  He told me that because Illinois is divided into Chicagoland and “the rest of the state” and since the downstate area had so small a population, that people who engaged in home building, downstate, and repair could probably not pass any qualification tests and / or could not afford to take the required training.  He stated that, because of this, the downstate legislators would never support any laws that required such licensing.  Remember, politics is the “art of the possible”.

The other factor that has changed the way houses are built is the strong influence of unions in the Chicago area.  Don’t get me wrong, construction trade unions do a very good job of educating and qualifying people in their respective trades.  The problem is the economics of the situation.  Union workers have spent a great deal of time and sweat getting their training.  Because of this, they want to get paid for their time.  There are also many non-union tradesmen, many who are foreign born, who will do the same work for less money.  This is not meant to slam foreign born tradesmen, many of whom do exceptional work, it just means that in any market, there will be an adjustment in price when the market changes.  Many of the union workers have priced themselves out of the market, and many union workers have been laid off as a result.  Wherever there is a vacuum, someone will fill it.  One must also remember that the purchasing public, very often, does not do their due-diligence when hiring a tradesman.

One also has to remember that we had a building boom.  Housing prices were going through the roof and everyone thought that they would always rise.  Many people, with too much money and not enough sense, thought that they could cash in on this boom.  They obtained a General Contractor license (very easy to do) and hired the lowest bidding sub-contractors that they could find.  Many of these newly minted GCs had no experience with construction and though it was just a matter of setting up contracts with the sub-contractors and letting them do all the hard work.  No supervision seemed to be required.

Having been born in Chicago, I was taught that the Building Codes, and the Chicago Building Dept. was infallible.  After all, it was staffed by the same people who ran the unions and they were the experts.  The real situation was that the building codes are as much a political document as they are a technical document.  The building codes are written and adopted to serve the unions, the developers, the mortgage companies, the material suppliers and the elected officials as much as to serve the public.  They are a trade-off between all these politicial factions and are, at best, a lowest common denominator standard, a “bare minimum”.  Add to this the lowered tax revenues and the pressure on the municipal governments to cut costs, and the number of municipal code inspectors decreases while their work load increases.  It is simply not possible for each house to be fully and completely inspected.  Things slip by or are ignored.  Besides, in Illinois, municipal code inspectors have all the authority, but have no liability.

As such, all these factors have lead to a sort of “perfect storm”.  Too many people bought too much house.  Those houses were not built to the industry “best practices” and were built by the lowest bidding sub-contractor by a developer who was primarily concerned with the profit margin.  People got used to getting more for their home buying dollars when they were, in many cases, getting very sub-standard workmanship.  And because there is no such thing as a free lunch, they are paying for it now, repairing all the bad workmanship.

Home Inspectors can help in this process.  We are trained, State licensed professionals who know what to look for in badly built houses.  Most importantly, we are un-biased.  We are not there to sell you a home repair, but to properly evaluate your house and educate you as to how to fix it properly.  We work for you.