Thursday, June 21, 2018
Real Estate

Cities turn to private inspectors as construction booms, and problems follow

ST. PETERSBURG — With construction booming throughout Florida, private inspectors are increasingly reviewing the work of building contractors.

But that has sometimes led to missed code violations and other problems.

Now the city of St. Petersburg is requiring that new one- or two-family homes get a final signoff from one of its own inspectors before they are cleared for occupancy.

"We were having some challenges with (private) inspections,’’ said Rick Dunn, St. Petersburg’s building official. "We have to be real cautious because they don’t have the knowledge and background of our zoning regulations, our design requirements and our flood plain management requirements.’’

The problem of private inspections was spotlighted in a recent Tampa Bay Times story about a St. Petersburg couple whose 2-year-old house has so many construction flaws and code violations that they put up a large banner saying: I have to fix my new house. The developer, Aspen Venture Group, had hired a private inspector that approved the house despite the problems.

This week, Dunn ordered work to stop on two million-dollar houses Aspen is building next to each other on Snell Isle because the floor plan, roof and elevation of one of the homes were not in compliance with plans approved by the city.

After the Times story, Aspen’s James Landers said he has taken steps to avoid future problems. That includes no longer using private inspectors. But the private inspection business is growing in Florida as local governments struggle to hire enough inspectors at a time when construction is at a fevered pitch.

St. Petersburg has had two inspector positions open for the last three years. In Clearwater, two positions have been vacant "for quite a while,’’ assistant building official Dana Root says. Tampa has four openings.

"I would agree with the statement: ‘Florida has a dire shortage of inspectors,’ " said Doug Wise, current president of the Building Officials Association of Florida. "A common theme of our members throughout the state is the challenge of finding inspectors.’’

Wise, who is also the building official of Palm Beach County, says his own department has 12 vacancies it is unable to fill.

There are several reasons for the inspector shortage, including what might be the toughest licensing requirements in the nation. Licensed inspectors must have at least five years’ experience in a trade like plumbing or, alternatively, a four- year college degree in a construction-related field like architecture or engineering plus a year of experience.

"We’ve raised the bar to a high standard, though I’m not saying that’s a bad thing,’’ Wise said.

Sharp pay differences between the public and private sectors also make it hard for Florida cities and counties to attract licensed inspectors.

In St. Petersburg, city building inspectors earn from $55,000 to $77,000 a year — 15 to 20 percent less than they could make as private providers, Dunn estimates.

In Clearwater, the base pay ranges from $52,000 to $60,000. But inspectors licensed in two or more trades (plumbing and electrical, for example) are eligible for an additional 15 percent.

"We’ve structured our pay because we’ve been having trouble finding people,’’ Root said.

Developers and builders typically hire private inspectors because they can visit a construction site after hours, on weekends or several times a day, unlike their counterparts on the public payroll. In a twist, many Florida cities and counties that are unable to fill inspector jobs also have turned to private providers.

Palm Beach County is among those using private inspectors. But Wise said that even private providers have such a hard time getting inspectors that he’s had to contract with five different firms to meet his department’s needs.

"I pay them a lot more than my own people,’’ he said of the contract inspectors. "That’s sort of the unfortunate outcome.’’

Inspectors and plans examiners hired on a contract basis make between $75 and $85 an hour. The minimum pay for county inspectors is about $25 an hour.

Although new construction in Palm Beach County is back to 2005 levels, the building department staff, which includes inspectors, has shrunk from 300 to 140. But there is an advantage to augmenting those numbers with private providers.

"It gives us the resiliency to respond in a crisis, like a hurricane, or even a recession,’’ Wise said. "It’s easier to cut a contractor than to lay off staff. There are reasons to supplement staffing with contractors that will continue even after the (inspector) shortage ends.’’

Concern about the shortage is great enough, however, that the building officials association successfully pushed legislation this year for an internship program. It is due to start in Gainesville, Altamonte Springs, West Palm Beach and Seminole County.

In St. Petersburg, where several private inspector firms are operating, Dunn’s office already is implementing a draft policy requiring city inspectors to okay new homes before anyone moves in.

In the case of the Snell Isle homes, Aspen Venture Group will have to submit revised plans for city approval before it can resume construction. Asked what the penalty is for non-compliance with code and other requirements, Dunn, the building official, replied:

"Delaying a project is typically a significant penalty.’’

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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