Sunday, June 22, 2003

Home inspections lagging in suburbs


Families could be living in unsafe dwellings

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Butler County's chief building official, Bill Balsinger, studies a backlog of homes without required certificates of occupancy.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
WEST CHESTER TWP. - Home builders want to build. Homeowners want to move in. Lenders want to close the deal. And in Cincinnati's booming northern suburbs, the frenzy to develop is clashing with counties' abilities to keep up.

The result: Hundreds of families are living in houses that never were certified as legal or safe, the Enquirer has found.

The homes lack certificates of occupancy, the final safeguards that say houses were properly built. Required by county building laws, a certificate is a homeowner's assurance that all inspections - building, zoning, plumbing and electrical - were properly carried out.

No calamities have been reported because the paperwork wasn't done.

But without a certificate, homeowners could be surprised with costly repairs to fix builders' mistakes. In the worst case, homeowners could be injured by faulty construction.

As one of the biggest residential building booms in a century shows no signs of letting up, trouble may just be waiting to happen in Butler, Warren and Clermont counties, the experts say.

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"I figured the builder would tell us all these things," says Thuc Nguyen, a new homeowner in the Wynds of Liberty subdivision in southeastern Butler County. Nguyen and her husband learned their new $191,000 home didn't have a certificate the day after they bought it last October.

That's when a zoning inspector informed them the house was 6 feet too close to the road and might have to be moved. The couple lived in the home three months before the zoning board determined it could stay where it is.

Until that crisis arose, "We were more worried about the interior of the house than the exterior," Nguyen, 31,says.

No one knows precisely how many Greater Cincinnati homes lack certificates of occupancy. Builders are supposed to obtain them from the county before allowing people to move in. But counties are so overwhelmed by rapid building and so understaffed with inspectors that the work hasn't always gotten done.

Clermont and Warren county officials acknowledge that backlogs in issuing certificates stretch back for years. At least 750 homes built between 1993 and 2001 in Butler County don't have certificates, even though some people have lived in them for a decade. In West Chester Township, boxes and filing cabinets are filled with cases dating to 1989.

"All of it needs to be checked," says Brian Elliff, West Chester's director of planning and zoning. "It is not the way we want to do business and are going to do business now. It's just something that occurred."

Moving the house

The absence of a certificate doesn't mean that inspections weren't done or that a home doesn't meet building codes, builders and county officials say. Some lenders and homeowners' insurers don't even require the certificates, and homes can be sold without them.

In many cases, all that's holding up a certificate is a final zoning inspection to make sure the house was properly placed.

But homeowners can't know for sure.

"Where it becomes a major problem is if you have a shoddy builder or a person who is skating the law, or a builder who doesn't know what he is doing," says Charles Rowland II, a Dayton consumer lawyer. He says noncompliance is a serious matter, especially since buying a home is the biggest investment most people ever make.

Butler County officials, concerned that people might possibly be living in unsafe houses, have begun fining builders who fail to obtain the certificates. Repeat offenders may be prosecuted.

Since April, four builders have been fined $500 each for turning homes over to residents without the certificates. That's a small fraction of the 1,300 members in the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati. But some county officials say no one should be skirting the law.

"I wouldn't want people living in a house that's unsafe," says Bill Balsinger, Butler's chief building official. "I'd say 99 percent have had complete inspections and are just lacking the zoning."

But even zoning problems can be substantial. Last year, a $200,000 house that was under construction in Trenton, in northern Butler County, was being built 11 feet too close to the road.

So Trenton officials took the rare action of ordering builders to tear the home down or move it back. In January, builders poured a new foundation at the proper setback and moved the house. Construction is nearly done, and the house should get its final building inspection and certificate soon, says builder Dixon Builders LLC of Hamilton.

Dixon Builders also constructed the Nguyen home in the Wynds of Liberty. When the zoning problem was discovered there, Dixon appealed to the township's zoning board and ultimately won a ruling that the house could stay where it is.

"It was a simple mistake," company vice president Steve O'Callaghan says. "We don't let somebody occupy a house in unsafe condition, and this house had all of its inspections. But this one nobody caught."

Nguyen says she was distraught: "I wouldn't have been interested in this house if I had known it was too close to the road."

County building officials say it's important to require compliance with zoning laws even if homes are built just a little out of line. If one violation is left uncorrected, others are likely to follow, they say.

Backlogs

Noncompliance in acquiring certificates has been reported in other high-growth parts of the country, including Florida and Illinois. It has existed for years in Butler, Warren and Clermont counties.

Keeping up with all the new homes is "just absurd," says Ray Sebastian, Clermont's chief building official. "This is not a unique problem to anybody."

Clermont County building officials say that over the past several months, they've managed to clean up a backlog dating to 1999. Since last year, Clermont routinely has issued conditional certificates to homes that are safe and lack only routine things like final grading on the yard.

"It's a tough project, but we're getting there," Sebastian says.

Warren County officials acknowledge a backlog and manpower problems, too.

"Every winter when it slows down we try to catch up," says Jerry Spurling, Warren's chief building official. "But we don't have the time to police these issues."

Butler County's backlog of at least 750 houses lack certificates because they never had zoning and plumbing inspections, county records show.

In the past year, county building officials have scrambled to clear a backlog from 2002 to present. But as the growth continues, it will be a constant fight to keep up.

And with 8,000 new homes expected in Butler over the next five years, the eight full-time inspectors won't have time to go back and clear old cases unless homeowners call and request it, Balsinger says.

Officials with the American Society of Home Inspectors say most areas that are undergoing housing booms don't have enough building officials and can't afford to hire more. Ten inspections might be required at each house.

"Do the math," says Mark Cramer of the Tampa, Fla.-based group. "Say you have 25 homes to inspect today in your eight-hour day. There's no way you can do the job. To do a competent job, it might take two or three hours on each house."

Still, homeowners should make sure they obtain a certificate of occupancy to avoid bigger problems later, Cramer says.

"It's a lot easier to get the builder to do something before the closing," he says.

If homeowners find they lack certificates, they should immediately contact their builder, building officials say. If an inspection is missing, they should call their county building department and ask for one.

Fines and fees

Builders say they're caught between overworked inspectors and eager homeowners.

"That's their house," says Steve Price, owner of Steve Price Homes in West Chester, one of four builders fined by Butler County. He says his company made a one-time mistake in failing to obtain a certificate. Still, he says, "When it's pretty close to being move-into, you cannot keep the homeowner from moving in there."

Some builders in a hurry to keep up with demand try to take shortcuts, officials say.

One builder "called me and said, 'Bill, I need to get these people in their house and they need a certificate. I need to get it finaled out, but there's a couple things I have to fix,' " Balsinger recalls.

"I said, 'Well, what's the problem?' He said, 'Well, one thing is the electric didn't pass.' I said, 'You're kidding! You would ask me to give you a CO when there's an electric problem?'

"I told him, 'There's no way I would give you a CO.' I let them move their furniture into the garage, but they had to stay at a hotel. We are not here to make a hardship on people, but we're definitely not going to let them move into a house that isn't safe."

Don Dixon is owner and founder of Dixon Homes and Construction in West Chester. Most builders run solid, reputable companies, he says. "A few builders are causing problems for the rest of us."

His Dixon Homes and Construction is not affiliated with Dixon Builders LLC, which built the Nguyen home. Dixon Builders is one of the four companies fined in Butler County, along with Neil Murphy Homes in Sharonville and Jack H. Wieland Builders Inc. in Springdale.

In each case, Butler building officials say, certificates never were obtained because the houses hadn't passed a final building inspection. One also didn't have a final zoning inspection, Balsinger says.

"Five hundred dollars is a little pricey if you ask me. I could see $100," says Shelley Lutterbie, project administrator at Neil Murphy Homes in Sharonville. She says builders do their best, but, "In some instances it's just not possible to work out perfectly. Builders are going to just start asking homeowners for extra time at the end."

Jack H. Wieland says his company will be more careful. It's also important, he says, for builders and governments to work better together.

Reforms in the works

Changes are in the works in Ohio, where residential general contractors aren't even required to be licensed.

State lawmakers are considering creation of a statewide license code. Home builders would be required to receive continuing education and would have a certain amount of time to correct any defects before the owner could file a lawsuit.

Terry Sievers, chairman of the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati, says the homebuilding industry has a responsibility to abide by building codes and shouldn't be shuffling people into new abodes without certificates of occupancy.

"Builders shouldn't be doing it," he says. "But it would be na‘ve for me to say nobody cheats."

Where to call

To check if your home has a certificate of occupancy, call your county building department:

In Ohio
Butler County (513) 887-3204
Clermont County (513) 732-7213
Hamilton County (513) 946-4550
Warren County (513) 695-1290
In Kentucky
Boone County (859) 334-2218
Campbell County (859) 292-3880
Kenton County (859) 331-8988

Housing growth

Builders and county officials say it's difficult to keep up with all the inspections required by the homebuilding boom in Cincinnati's northern counties. Number of housing units in 1990 and 2001, with rate of growth:

Butler County
1990 110,353
2001 132,933
Growth 20 percent
Clermont County
1990 55,315
2001 70,984
Growth 28 percent
Warren County
1990 40,636
2001 62,189
Growth 53 percent

E-mail jedwards@enquirer.com.




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