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.