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Under the magnifying glass

Published Oct. 1, 2005

The house in northern Hillsborough County had passed its final inspections and a certificate of occupancy had been issued. But the owners wanted their own private inspection before they moved in, so they hired David Booth of Booth Building Consultants in St. Petersburg.

"I found the gas furnace exhaust flue in the attic was open and had never been connected. It was right adjacent to the nursery for two young children. The first time they turned that heating system on, the family would have died, no question," Booth says.

It's a story he tells when people ask why new construction should be inspected.

It's a timely question for two reasons:

U.S. Home recently announced it will offer buyers $200 toward the cost of an inspection of their home before closing.

The Florida Legislature is considering a bill regulating home inspectors. Currently, there are no requirements or licenses for home inspectors.

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Most home buyers are familiar with the idea of hiring a home inspector to look over a resale home. Inspectors assess a home from roof to foundation, from plumbing and electric to insulation, and give prospective buyers a sense of whether they've made a good choice or whether there are substantial flaws that might require costly repairs.

But buyers are less familiar, inspectors say, with the idea of having an inspector examine new construction to make sure everything is the way it's supposed to be. Many people buy new homes specifically because they believe new construction will be problem-free.

Francine Miller, U.S. Home's division president for the Tampa Bay area, said her company decided to set up the inspection program for two reasons. "One is, customers today are very concerned about the quality of their new home _ from every builder, from U.S. Home, from all our competitors. They are scared that they are not going to get the construction quality that they are told they are getting or that they hope they are getting.

"It's one thing for the builder to tell the customer" that the house is built to high-quality standards, she said. "It's another for a third party to tell them that."

When an inspector finds problems, "we'd much rather the issue come up before the customer takes possession," Miller said. "We go in, we make them right, and the customer is confident when they move in that it's what they paid for."

The second reason for U.S. Home's decision, she said, was "to assure ourselves we were getting the product we believe we are. We can talk all day long about our quality product and our wonderful builders, but the reality is that having a third party attest to it puts a seal of approval on it." Miller said she believes hers is the only U.S. Home division to offer the inspection program.

Not everyone thinks private inspection of new construction is necessary. Builders point out that homes already are inspected by city or county building officials to make sure the work meets building codes.

"Use of a new home inspector on new construction may be something that gives the buyer some additional assurance, although it isn't necessary," said Joseph Narkiewicz, executive director of the Builders Association of Greater Tampa.

Home inspector Ken Young said, "There are some builders who will do everything they can to keep you off" a jobsite. "There are others who will say, "Anything I can do to help you.'

" Young, who heads Dunedin-based Young Home Consulting, is the president of the Suncoast chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors, a non-profit professional organization.

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U.S. Home requires that home buyers use an inspector who is a member of ASHI. That raises the often-prickly issue of who is qualified to be a home inspector. There are no licensing requirements in Florida. Anyone can strap on a tool belt, pick up a clipboard and start handing out business cards as a home inspector.

Miller said some buyers were already bringing in their own inspectors, "but the quality of inspection was all over the board. It opened our eyes that there are poor inspectors out there. We invite people to bring in their own inspectors, but let's have one with some credentials, bring in some standards."

ASHI grants membership to inspectors who meet nationally recognized professional qualifications, practice standards and business ethics.

"A word of caution regarding home inspectors: Make sure they are fully qualified for their purpose," said BAGT's Narkiewicz. "They're not required to be licensed. They're not required to be bonded or post any kind of liability insurance. There have been numerous stories of home inspectors who were wrong, instances where the home inspector pointed out what they thought was a defect. The builder brings in a testing lab, spends thousands of dollars, finds the component of the home more than twice exceeds what the code requires. So home inspectors have to have some degree of credibility and some degree of responsibility in their decisions." It's BAGT's position, Narkiewicz said, that inspectors should be licensed contractors.

The bill working its way through the Florida Legislature would require home inspectors to disclose their credentials in writing and to declare any conflict of interest. It would also prohibit home inspectors from performing repair work for 12 months on homes they inspect and from accepting or offering commissions or allowances in connection with inspections.

But that bill would not require licensing of inspectors.

"We think it's a good first step toward regulating the industry," said Lea Crusberg, a spokeswoman for the Florida Home Builders Association. Builders are heavily regulated, she said, so the association believes it is fair that others in the industry "face the same sort of stringent requirements." Regulation of inspectors "makes sure consumers get a fair shake."

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The U.S. Home program pays for an inspection just before closing. Some building industry observers think it makes sense to have inspections done earlier: at the slab or foundation stage and at the framing stage.

"Obviously, if you have a really good inspector, that person may pick up some potential problems and even a house that meets code could have certain types of potential problems down the line," said Pinellas County building official Bob Pensa. "By the same token, somebody who comes in after the fact may not be able to see a lot of the areas that could have been seen during construction. That's why progress inspections are so important. When the house is done, especially a new house, I don't think the potential for finding things that are seriously wrong is that great."

At the slab stage, for example, "it would be very important to make sure what the foundation is sitting on. Is the soil stable? Was debris taken out? That's pretty important," Pensa said. "At the frame stage, the real structural part of the house is done, and all the potential problems, or the majority of them, can be seen at that stage. The finishing stage is mostly cosmetic. Anybody can tell if the drywall looks nice. You don't need an expert to say the drywall joints show."

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Home inspectors say they can spend more time on a jobsite than a municipal code inspector. "I don't knock the county or city building inspectors," said David Booth, who inspects homes in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. "They do a fine job, but they're on a very, very tight schedule. They may do 15 to 30 inspections a day, they're in a house 10 or 15 minutes. It's not their fault. It's the way the system works."

Pensa agreed that "most inspection agencies are limited in the amount of time they can spend on a house. The average inspection time is 15 or 20 minutes total, and that includes driving. The other thing is, we only look for code items. If it meets the code, there are things our inspectors see that they personally don't like" that they can't say anything about but that a private home inspector can comment on to the builder or buyer. "But if a product or way of doing something meets the code, our people basically have to approve it."

The relationship with builders is less adversarial than it was a few years ago, Young said, as home inspectors have established themselves in the field. He said contractors are often glad to know if their subcontractors are not performing up to standard _ not using the specified materials, say, or installing products inappropriately in a way that voids the warranty.

U.S. Home's Miller acknowledged, "Nobody likes to be told they're doing something that's maybe not correct." She thinks one value of home inspections is systemic improvement. "The builders learn there's a better way to do something, and the next time the inspector comes back, the item doesn't exist any more. The issues become smaller and smaller and smaller," she said.

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An inspection typically costs about $325 for a home up to about 2,000 square feet, Young said. There are additional charges if buyers want inspections at the foundation and framing stages. Booth said that he typically charges $75 an hour on-site and that a final inspection might last four or five hours.

"We deal with very nervous home buyers who are putting down a major, major chunk of money," Booth said. "If it's a good house we can affirm that decision."

A standard inspection covers the home's heating and air-conditioning systems, interior plumbing and electrical systems; roof, attic and visible insulation; walls, ceilings, floors, windows and doors; and the foundation and visible structure.

Inspectors can cool down buyers who have watched a few shows on television and think they're experts on the construction industry. When their builder doesn't do something exactly the way it was done on TV, they think the builder's doing shoddy work. A home inspector can examine the work _ Francine Miller calls it "that third critical eye" _ and either verify that there's a problem or confirm that all is well.

Inspectors can also educate buyers who have just moved to Florida about local construction techniques and materials. Northerners are used to "massive amounts of insulation and thermal windows" and aren't prepared for "the lower life expectancy of components than up North," Booth said.

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On a recent sunny afternoon, Ken Young spent an hour at a home under construction, looking to see whether floor joists were properly hung, noting missing hurricane clips, spotting a water line that was dripping and not properly sleeved to prevent corrosion. He planned to take those points up with the builder.

It's not just a question of "how I would have built the house," Young said. The inspector may be able to point out "all the things homeowners could do to make it just a little bit better." A municipal building inspector, for example, might not be concerned if studs are slightly crooked _ they still meet the code _ but those crooked studs will show up later as bumps in the drywall.

Codes allow half-inch plywood sheathing on the roof, Young said, "but some clients are astute enough to see that after a number of years it's sagging. That's not structural," it's a matter of appearance, but they might prefer to spend money up front for |-inch plywood instead.

"We don't inspect 5 percent of all new houses," Young said. But "the buying public is interested," and it's his belief that "a lot of builders will start encouraging" their buyers to have new homes inspected.

Finding an inspector

The American Society of Home Inspectors requires that members pass written exams covering technical, practical and professional information. They must meet continuing education requirements and must have performed 250 fee-paid inspections before they are admitted to membership. ASHI's code of ethics prohibits members from doing repairs or recommending contractors on homes they inspect. For the names of members in the Tampa Bay area, call (800) 969-ASHI, ext. 2744.

HouseMaster is a franchised home inspection company in more than 230 cities around the country. Its founder, Ken Austin (a founding member of ASHI), set up the National Institute of Building Inspectors to establish training standards and certify inspectors. Members must pass exams, take continuing education and subscribe to a code of ethics. To find a HouseMaster franchisee near you, call (800) 526-3939.