The construction flaws John Norman found in his new Jacksonville home angered him. -- What he found next left him stunned. -- His house made it from start to finish without ever getting a visit from a city inspector.
Instead, the homebuilder hired a state-licensed company to inspect the house for compliance with building codes, an arrangement that has been legal in Florida since 2002.
Homebuyers don't pick who will inspect a new house during construction. The law gives the decision-making power to the owner of the building, which is the builder until the buyer closes on the sale.
Homebuilders don't have to inform buyers that a private inspector will do the mandated checks.
Since 2002, companies have done the code-compliance inspections on thousands of new homes in the city.
In July, 35 percent of the passed building inspections in Jacksonville were done by private inspectors; the rest by the city's Building Inspection Division.
Don Fuchs, executive director of the Building Officials Association of Florida, said these inspection companies helped fill the need for inspections during the construction industry's boom time. When construction is delayed waiting on inspectors, it drives up the cost. But he said the question about private inspectors has always been the perception of "who are they working for? Who is actually their master?"
Officials with inspection companies reply that their highest priority is enforcing building codes.
These companies must have a licensed engineer or architect to register with the state, and all the inspectors must have state-issued licenses.
"As far as I'm concerned, I have my Florida state license to protect homeowners," said Eric Fogle, an inspector for Capri Engineering, which does work statewide and has a St. Augustine office.
Homebuyers might want to know whether an inspection company or local government will do a better job catching builder errors. But state regulatory agencies don't track homebuyers' complaints in that manner.
In Jacksonville, the Building Inspection Division examines the performance of private inspectors by randomly picking about 7 percent of passed inspections for on-site visits. From September 2005 through last June, it conducted 2,310 on-site reviews and sent deficiency notices after 500 of those reviews, which was almost 22 percent of the visits.
City officials said even small, easily corrected problems can trigger a deficiency notice. In the first half of 2007, the amount of deficiency notices dropped to 15 percent of quality-assurance visits.
The city also critiques its own inspectors, giving a grade of 1 to 5 on how well they do their jobs. For the period from October through June, the scores for 28 inspectors ranged from 2.27 to 4.25. Inspectors with low scores get additional training and oversight.
Jacksonville Building Inspection Division Chief Tom Goldsbury said private inspectors can do a good job.
But he said the law creates a potential conflict of interest because the companies are inspecting contractors while being paid by them. If thorough inspections irk the builder, the builder can hire a different company, he said.
"People are human, and that kind of pressure is a bad thing," he said.
THE FINAL SAY
St. Johns and Nassau counties also check the work of providers as they perform code-related inspections. The Clay County Building Department won't let a company be the inspector of record.
Department Director Tom Martinson said state law makes local building officials responsible for the "public safety and welfare," and the best way to ensure that is by having his department inspect everything.
Under state law, local building departments can issue stop-work orders if they have safety concerns at sites inspected by private firms.
That happened in May at the Villages of Northwood, a townhome community being built on Jacksonville's Northside. Construction resumed after city inspectors compiled a list of items that needed correction.
The city also filed a complaint with the state Department of Professional Regulations, asking it to investigate a Wolf Construction Services inspector who had given passing marks.
A department spokesman would neither confirm nor deny it has received a complaint, which is its standard policy until an investigation finds reason to believe a violation occurred. Wolf Construction Services dismissed the inspector after the city voiced its concerns, according to the company.
Lisa Wolff, founder of Wolf Construction Services, said most of her company's inspectors previously worked for the city with 10 to 15 years experience. She said she has never felt pressured by builders to cut corners on inspections, and if a builder tried, she would drop it as a client.
"My reputation means too much to me to please some builder who wants to skirt the system," she said.
Sometimes, builders switch from private inspection firms to the local building department. Drees Homes hired Builders Professional Services of Jacksonville to do inspections in the past but currently uses city inspectors for inspection of new homes, said Jon Roberts, division president for Drees in Jacksonville.
FIXING WHAT IS BROKEN
Builders Professional Services inspected Norman's home when it was built by Drees in 2005. After Norman moved in, he said he became concerned when a weed-whacker chipped some concrete from the slab and showed a steel reinforcing rod was right at the edge.
Norman hired Dean Vaughn, a licensed contractor, to check out the house. Vaughn said the builder and the inspection company should have flagged places where exterior walls hang too far past the foundation, and two rods fortifying walls were too close to the slab's edge.
"If you're doing a thorough inspection, you're not going to catch everything," Vaughn said. "Nobody can. But you should catch the obvious things."
Norman filed a complaint against Drees Homes. On Friday, Drees Homes received a letter from the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation saying it had closed the complaint without finding evidence that state law or rules were violated.
David Hodges, a private investigator, filed a complaint against Builders Professional Services. The state Board of Architecture and Interior Design voted in July against taking disciplinary action against the company, said Tracy Wenzel, a Jacksonville attorney representing the firm.
She said as homeowners live day-in, day-out in their homes, "It's not unusual for a homeowner to find something that an inspector doesn't." In those cases, the warranty kicks in, she said.
Roberts said Drees stands ready to finish partially done repairs at Norman's house, but it can't do so unless Norman permits the contractor's return. Roberts said 98 percent of Drees' homebuyers in Jacksonville had told the company they are satisfied with their houses.
But Norman said warranties should be for things like leaking plumbing, not structural fixes on a new home.
He said at this stage, he thinks Drees should buy back the home.
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CITY AUDIT RESULTS
The Jacksonville Building Inspection Division randomly examines inspections done by companies. The city sends deficiency notices if the audit finds any problems. Inspection firms say the lion's share of listed deficiencies are minor, easily corrected matters.
Here are the results of the city audits from September 2005 through June.
Firm audits notices
Wolf Construction Services 1,038 213
Builders Professional Services 838 208
Barley Consulting Group 230 47
Capri Engineering 87 23
Atlantic Geotechnical and Environmental Services 70 6
The Weintraub Organization 37 3
Universal Engineering Services 8 0
Architectural Inspections of Florida 2 0