Fighting Jobsite Theft

Is it risky business to put jobsite security at the bottom of the priority list? Many builders find that jobsite security isn’t one of their main concerns. Building in established neighborhoods and maintaining good relationships with subcontractors are a few reasons custom home builders don’t find it hazardous to put other priorities ahead of jobsite security.

Loren Imhoff, president of Loren Imhoff Homebuilder based in Middleton, Wis., attributes the safe nature of the neighborhoods he builds in to his low interest in jobsite security. “We consider security a nine on the list of importance, with 10 being the lowest,” Imhoff says. “We build high-end homes in reputable neighborhoods with people around and we have little problem with theft.”

Because the areas these builders are using already have houses and people living in them, builders find these people will act as watch guards. “If someone drove up in the middle of the night, the neighbors would call the police,” says Richard Dickson, president of Plainsboro, N.J.-based Dickson Development Corp.

Although many custom builders choose to build in established neighborhoods, Jim Bourne, president of Madison, Wis.-based Madison Homes, builds many houses in northern Wisconsin making jobsite security high on his list. “On the work site, safety for our employees and subcontractors comes first, and then comes protection of the product and work site,” Bourne says.

Because Bourne’s office is a few hours from his jobsites, he relies on security cameras to monitor his sites. “A picture is worth a thousand words, but for some it can be 1,000 hours in jail and several thousands in fines or liability,” Bourne adds. “Video still remains the absolute best source of proof and evidence there is.”

Two companies Bourne relies on to monitor his sites are New Vision Networks and American Security. “We have worked with New Vision Networks to set up remote on-site Internet cameras. This can be anything from a cheap, simple camera, to the $2,000 models that allow you to zoom in and out, and even see at night,” Bourne says. “Putting the camera in a nearby tree can give you a bird’s-eye view of the project each day.”

The other company Bourne puts his faith in is American Security. “[They] install home security monitoring systems that can include video cameras,” Bourne says. “A new home site gives you the chance to hardwire, which is preferable as you can get radio disturbance with wireless systems. Before drywall goes up, it’s easy to run the wires you need and then you don’t need to do wireless. With wireless you have the chance for interruptions and more chance for error.”

Securing tools

Bourne may be way ahead of the curve as most builders use only lockboxes and management of subcontractors as the way to prevent theft. “We use a lockbox system as construction of the house progresses,” Imhoff says. “We lock up the house to prevent vandalism once the drywall is hung.”

Many builders have experienced little theft in all their years of doing business, which may contribute to its low priority. However, Michael Stoltzfus, general manager of Barber Custom Homes in Cashiers, Pa., has experienced theft six or seven times within the past two years. “We’ve stopped leaving tools on the jobsite and we lock up the house earlier in construction,” Stoltzfus says. “The first time tools were stolen from a room in the house even though it was locked up with a job box locked and chained. They cut the chain and took the box. Then we had a trailer, but they cut a hole in the side of the trailer. So we reinforced the trailer but they pried the doors open. So now we use a warehouse with an alarm system that requires a code to enter. We are currently installing video cameras, and for the past several months the warehouse has been patrolled by a security company that checks on it throughout the night.”

Stoltzfus finds that keeping a trailer in a controlled environment inside a building with a monitoring system and security patrol successfully prevents theft of his tools. “Theft has decreased since I moved the trailer to the warehouse. None of my tools have been stolen.”

Another way to control tools is to regulate who uses them. “For major tools such as jackhammers and pressure washers, whoever takes it has to sign for it on a sign-off sheet and then they are responsible for it. They are also not allowed to take it on another jobsite,” says Chris Landis, owner of Landis Construction in Washington, D.C. “I’ve been utilizing the sign-off sheet for five years and my employees respect it.”

The appearance of a jobsite also can deter or attract theft. “Builders need to have good control of materials,” Dickson adds. “If there is no concern shown for materials, people will take them. If a construction site is orderly and material is accounted for, it results in less theft. It’s also important to use timely delivery of materials so that material isn’t lying around waiting to be installed.”

Scheduling material drop-offs can control its use and availability. “The drop-offs usually are made right when the workers are there to use it,” Bourne says. “Certain items such as trusses are engineered specifically for each job and thus are almost useless to resell and in fact would probably be a dead giveaway of being stolen. Raw materials are pretty expensive to haul away in bulk. Criminals are looking for the more condensed values, such as appliances and power tools.”

Imhoff also utilizes scheduled drop-offs in regard to material security. “Some builders will order everything and keep it exposed on the site, but we are just a day or two ahead of when we will need it.”

Building relationships

Most builders find that if jobsite theft is going to occur, there is a good chance it will be done by someone working on the site. “The most important practice is to know the people who are working on your jobsite,” Dickson says. “If you have a high turnover rate, those are the people who will steal. The people you have a relationship with won’t steal from you.

“I always use reputable people, not people off the street,” Dickson adds.

“A good contractor is not going to steal from you.”

One way to build relationships is to use the same subcontractors consistently. “We have personable relationships with our subs and we use the same subs on every job,” Imhoff says.

Employee respect

In any business, getting employees to follow rules and policies can be tricky. But when it comes to following security procedures, most builders find their employees respect the rules. “The procedures are logical and the employees understand them,” Bourne says. “We try not to be unreasonable about it, but they realize the value of the expensive things.”

In many cases, employees don’t know the extent of theft and security issues that builders are dealing with. They leave those problems and concerns up to the management teams. “Employees just think it’s the normal course of business to have jobsite theft,” Dickson says. “They are only concerned about who’s locking up and the rest is management’s responsibility. Workers don’t think in those terms. They are thinking about waste such as whether wood is run over and the repercussions of that.”

Without concerned employees and with builders placing it low on their lists of priorities, it’s left to wonder — what’s next for jobsite security? Bourne and other builders have differing views of the future.

For builders who can’t afford expensive technology for monitoring their sites, most will continue to build in established areas and rely on the relationships they hold with their subcontractors. “Jobsite security will be the same in five years,” Dickson says. “Just protect yourself. You don’t want anyone you don’t know on the jobsite.” Bourne, on the other hand, relies heavily on remote security. “I think web cams are going to be more common,” Bourne says. “The best way to catch a thief is to catch them on video. That is usually a slam dunk.”