Buyer Bewitched 

Don’t you know, new houses are plagued by sloppy construction

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: About this time of year, just before spring house-shopping time, I feel an urge to share a little inside house-buying dope with eager would-be homebuyers.

About this time of year, just before spring house-shopping time, I feel an urge to share a little inside house-buying dope with eager would-be homebuyers.

First of all, let me tell you the upside of owning a home. Having your very own house, in a neighborhood that you love, is a wonderful thing. Wife Brenda and I share a weakness for old houses in old neighborhoods, where sidewalks connect every front porch and 100-year-old trees shade the whole neighborhood. We’ve lived in two such houses in Nashville. Both turned out to be good homes and good investments.

But after a 20-year run in the home inspection business, I know that some folks don’t have such good house-buying luck. Over the last 10 years or so, I saw my home inspection company transform from a little homespun advice-giving business into more of a litigation-support and expert-witness business.

Best I can tell, it’s getting harder for folks to find a good house—especially a brand-new, fresh-out-of-the-ground house. And it’s getting harder to buy a house without somebody unfairly manipulating you along the way.

The newly built houses I’ve seen in the last 10 years have been uniformly plagued by sloppy construction. During this time, the labor pool has been made up mostly of unskilled workers doing substandard work. In new developments, roofs tend to leak, walls and windows leak, brick veneer cracks, and decks rot prematurely. Apparently, unskilled workers are having trouble reading instructions. For instance, a few years ago, I walked into the crawl space of a new house and found the whole house supported by a dozen or so steel columns. Each column had a big red label that read: “Not for use in new construction.”

From what I’ve seen, there are few, if any, carpenters who can perform the simple task of installing a folding attic stair. Every stair comes with a big label that shows how to install it, along with little labels that show where the nails and lag screws should go. Even so, installers routinely cut the stairs too short or too long, and put drywall screws into the very holes that are labeled, “Nail here.” Just so you’ll know: Using screws where you should be using nails can cause an attic folding stair to collapse—while you’re on it.

Hint to homebuyers: The cheap labor on new construction is extremely expensive in the long run. Builders know this. But they won’t tell you. When you complain about growing leaks and cracks in your new house, the boss man will most likely send an unskilled guy to squeeze caulk into the gaps. He’ll do that until your home warranty runs out. Then you’ll be stuck with the cost of fixing the original slipshod work.

Meanwhile, home inspectors are being licensed by their respective states. That’s good, right? Well, no. It’s mostly bad. Here’s why: The folks who build and sell houses have lobbyists who make sure their state legislators take care of their interests. The rules and regulations that apply to home inspectors are meant to make money for builders and sales folk. Protecting consumers is a low priority.

A few examples: In North Carolina, home inspectors were recently instructed to leave safety issues out of their report summaries. That’s because most homebuyers skim the boring body of their inspection report and rely on the summary. If safety issues—for instance, fire hazards, electrical shock hazards, asphyxiation hazards, trip-and-fall hazards—are buried in the body of the report, buyers likely won’t read the worrisome warnings, get nervous and walk away from deals. Builders, sales folk and state legislators know this. But they won’t tell you to read the whole report.

Up in Kentucky, the state Board of Home Inspectors (KBHI) recently issued an advisory to home inspectors, telling them to take it easy on old Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) electrical panels, which many experts say are prone to failure and likely to start a fire. Says the KBHI: “There is no current documentation from any source that states the FPE panels and breakers are a hazard.... To assume so without current documentation is incorrect and irresponsible.” And there’s this: “To...recommend the removal of FPE panels and breakers...is irresponsible and could cause the homeowner undue financial hardship.” Put more simply, burying information about faulty electrical panels might hurt home sales.

There’s plenty of documentation about the flaws in old FPE panels, including Dan Friedman’s website (inspect-ny.com/fpe/fpepanel.htm), which is well known to conscientious home inspectors. Surely, Kentucky has some home inspectors who know about Friedman’s extensive documentation. But the KBHI isn’t directing anybody to Friedman’s website.

Down in Alabama, real estate sales folk have a clause in their contracts that protects house sales by blessing old aluminum wiring. Never mind that research sponsored by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) showed that houses wired with pre-1972 aluminum wire were 55 times more likely to reach fire hazard conditions than houses wired with copper. In Alabama, aluminum wiring is not a “hazardous condition,” because, as the sales contracts say, “conditions that meet current governmental guidelines are not considered hazardous.” How’s that for having your sparky wires and getting your commission too?

Best I know, Tennessee’s home inspector laws have yet to sprout any blatantly anti-consumer features. That’s good. But every year, our legislators have a chance to make life better for sales folk and worse for homebuyers. The sales folk will be watching legislation closely. If you’re thinking about buying a house, you should too.

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