Scuttlebiz: ‘Shoddy’ construction is not for me to judge

As a journalist, I’m proud to help provide the news, views and information you need to live, thrive and survive in this world – especially in this neck of the woods we call metro Augusta.

 

Over two decades I’ve learned many things; four in particular: I am not a cop, an attorney, a prosecutor or a judge.

Most people understand this, but many do not.

I received a call once from an agitated reader informing me his neighborhood convenience store was selling child pornography. He wanted a story written about this business so that, presumably, it would receive the shame and scorn befitting a purveyor of smut.

The conversation went something like this:

Caller: “They’re selling child pornography down at the (fill-in-the-blank) store!”

Me: “Sir, have you reported this to the police?”

Caller: “…The police?”

Me: “Yes, the police. Child pornography is illegal. I would call them and report this immediately.”

Caller: “Well, aren’t you going to do something?”

Me: “Right now? No.”

Caller: “What?!”

Me: “If there is a crime, the police will make an arrest. Then we’ll write a story about the arrest.”

Caller: “Yeah…but, but they’re selling child pornography!”

Me: “All the more reason to notify the authorities.”

Click.

Most calls are not nearly this outlandish – but they are frequent. Just this past Monday I spoke to a woman who wanted me to do a story about a tow truck driver who damaged her yard while repossessing her car on behalf of a title pawn company. I offered no reportage, but did refer her to the Better Business Bureau.

The common thread to these calls is that the aggrieved party wants the press to punish a particular person, business or institution.

So imagine my skepticism when, just two hours after speaking with Ms. Repo, a longtime acquaintance emailed me a social media-posted video of several Grovetown residents staging a protest over what they call shoddy construction at their neighborhood, The Retreat at Baker Place.

The Chronicle’s Thomas Gardiner spoke to residents of these fairly new – and not exactly inexpensive – Columbia County subdivision. Their gripes included bad plumbing, poorly constructed roofing and overly high utility bills.

The shoddiness has yet to be “proven” (as far as the legal system is concerned), but it appears the homeowners have a legitimate gripe with the builder, D.R. Horton, which happens to be the nation’s largest homebuilder.

This Texas-based S&P 500 company acquired the subdivision’s lots last year when it bought Wilson Parker Homes, another large builder who ran its Georgia operations from Atlanta. In 2014, D.R. Horton picked up another big-time Atlanta builder, Crown Communities, which also has developed lots throughout metro Augusta.

I give you all that background so that if you feel scorn is to be heaped, you heap it on the builder, not all builders. Most builders in the area are comparatively small, locally owned and have a history of reputable work. Skim through the Builders Association of Metro Augusta website and you’ll probably recognize some names.

Builders can’t be lumped together. Some do only one or two homes a year; some are fortunate enough to do a few dozen homes. Last year D.R.Horton sold more than 40,300.

Comparing D.R. Horton to local builders is like comparing a mom-and-pop diner to a chain restaurant. D.R. Horton makes homes like McDonald’s makes hamburgers: fast, cheap and everywhere. At McDonald’s, it’s no a big deal if a few customers are unhappy with their burger quality, because by the time they complain, countless others already have been sold.

It’s all about size and scale, something small builders in the metro area don’t have. Locals who construct shoddy homes with substandard materials or less-than-skilled subcontractors soon go out of business. Locals must maintain quality because their owners, employees, subcontractors and suppliers actually live here. You can call them. You can drive to their offices. You can run into them at the grocery store.

My aforementioned “call the police” example is moot in this case, as the police have already been called. Every new home in Grovetown – including the protesters’ – were inspected by a Columbia County building official according to the International Building Code.

County Administrator Scott Johnson says inspections certify structures are OK to occupy from a “life safety” standpoint. A home built to “code” is habitable, but not necessarily high quality, he said.

There’s nothing an inspector can do if he or she sees a new home whose walls have two different brands of plank siding, or chips in the granite countertops, or a roof finished with shingles left over from a previous job.

“The county never has, and never will, inspect for shoddy work,” Johnson said. “The county has no jurisdiction to enforce quality.”

So here’s how it appears to work: A shortcut-prone builder passes inspection and market the home through a network of real estate agents – incentivized by a big commission – to anyone who can qualify for the mortgage.

Because VA loans offer no-money-down financing, metro Augusta’s large veteran population is target-rich environment.

As I said earlier, I’m no cop. I can’t charge anyone with building shabby homes. Not even real cops do that.

I’m not an attorney, but I might be consulting with one if I owned one of these homes. Note: national builder contracts often require disputes be settled through arbitration.

I’m not a prosecutor, so I can’t put “bad” builders on trial. In this case, the court of public opinion – i.e., the social media chattering class – already is in session.

I’m not a judge, so I can’t issue a ruling that only homes built by local companies can be purchased.

I will say this: If a real estate agent is showing me a 5,000-square-foot McMansion in Columbia County at the too-good-to-be-true price of $250,000, I’m going to give that home more than a once-over. And I’m going to ask who built it.

MORE THAN GROVETOWN: Keep in mind national builders aren’t just developing lots in Columbia County. Sims Landing, the newest residential neighborhood in Richmond County outside the gates of Fort Gordon, is another D.R. Horton production.

BUYER BEWARE: I was speaking with a local homebuilder known for quality work. He noted the peculiarity of how little research consumers do before buying a home – which, for most people, is the single largest purchase they will ever make.

I think he’s right: we do seem to scrutinize our cars and appliances more than the place where they are housed. By the way, if you want to research a builder, go online to the local Better Business Bureau (bbb.org/central-georgia) or a rating service such as GuildQuality (guildquality.com).

SPEAKING OF CARS: Ever heard of Carvana? The Phoenix-based e-commerce outfit specializing in online used-car sales has expanded its free, as-soon-as-next-day vehicle delivery to the Augusta and Macon markets.

According to the company, locals can not only search an inventory of 7,300 vehicles, they can purchase and finance them – and even trade-in their old car – in “as little as 10 minutes.” Carvana even offers a seven-day test-to-own policy to make sure you actually like the car you purchased.

The company’s Atlanta distribution center has been active since 2013. The new Augusta distribution center, on Washington Road across from Warren Baptist Church, will offer the same, next-day scheduled home delivery services.

“Georgia was the very first state we sold our very first car in, so our expansion into Macon and Augusta is really meaningful to us,” Carvana CEO and founder Ernie Garcia said in a statement.

If you’re an old-fashioned tire-kicker, Carvana might not be your thing. But if online is how you roll, go to Carvana.com.

WHAT’S NEW?: After a multiyear absence from Augusta Mall, Cinnabon is back. With a vengence, you might say.

The iconic cinnamon roll maker had its “soft opening” at the mall on Thursday in a store that shares space with Auntie Anne’s and Planet Smoothie, the latter of which is new to Augusta.

The 1,400-square-foot, 3-in-1 store is owned and operated by local franchise partners Dustin King and Brad Lindborg, both of whom have prior experience with the cinnamon roll and big pretzel brands. Lindborg, by the way, has operated the Auntie Anne’s in Augusta Mall’s food court for 23 years.

NEW DOG IN TOWN: There’s plenty of junk-hauling franchises out there, but the newest one, JDog Junk Removal & Hauling, is unique in that it awards franchises exclusively to mary veterans and their family members.

The local JDog is owned by Navy veterans Ryan and Melissa Tobey and Moe and Mona Uini. Melissa and Mona grew up with the military, as their father is a retired U.S. Navy Warrant Officer. Ryan and Melissa met in the Navy, where they served a combined 22 years.

“We were immediately attracted to the JDog business model, as it directly aligns with the values and principles we experienced the Navy,” Melissa Tobey said in a company-issued statement. “We look forward to serving families in need while helping veterans find meaningful employment.”

JDog does both residential and commercial waste. They’ll be easy to spot: their vehicles and trailers are painted in camouflage and the employees wear military-style uniforms.

HIRE A VET: John Deere’s Pat Brown mentioned during the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual information session Thursday that Deere’s Grovetown plant – which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year – has hired many Fort Gordon retirees.

“They were great employees to come on board because they were trained and disciplined,” Brown said.

But he said it’s getting harder to find such folks because so many other companies are competing for them. The fact that nearly seven dozen employers have registered for the Hiring Our Heroes job fair and transition summit at Fort Gordon June 21-22 backs up his statement.

The free, two-day event will feature informational sessions and culminate with the hiring fair on June 22. It’s open to service members, veterans and military spouses. Learn more and register at uschamberfoundation.org/hiring-our-heroes.

APPETITE FOR EXPANSION: Augusta’s Sherman & Hemstreet this month decided to get a toehold into the Savannah market by acquiring Southern Georgia Homes, a residential real estate firm in Effingham County. Financial terms were not disclosed.

“The combination will permit Sherman & Hemstreet to continue to invest in our growing residential sales division and place us in a strategic position just north of Savannah,” President Joe Edge said in a statement.

You may remember earlier this year that the brokerage acquired Lincolnton, Ga.-based Turner Realty Group.

URGE TO MERGE: The corporate parent of Augusta’s eighth-largest bank, State Bank and Trust Company, this past week announced an agreement to acquire Birmingham, Ala.-based AloStar Bank of Commerce in an all cash transaction during the fourth quarter.

LET THERE BE LIGHT: Adger Solar, a clean energy company, recently announced it will invest $100 million in a new solar project in Aiken County just off Edgefield Highway, about three miles north of Interstate 20. The project, expected to be operational by 2019, will produce 74 megawatts at full capacity, which the company says can power 15,000 homes.

IT WAS A GOOD RUN: Our friends over at Buzz on Biz recently reported Summerville Rags has closed so co-owner Nancy Bowers can retire. Bowers and her sister, Donna King, had run the upscale women’s boutique at 1502 Monte Sano Ave. for 19 years. “We have loved our customers, but it’s just time,” Bowers said.

MEET JOE: Last but certainly not least, I’d like to introduce our business page readers to my colleague Joe Hotchkiss. He’ll be helping out with day-to-day business coverage for The Chronicle while I focus my attention on a special Chronicle publication this summer.

I can’t give away too many details, but – to paraphrase George Zimmer – you’re going to like the way it looks. I guarantee it.

As for Joe, I’ve worked with him in various capacities for more than a decade and can say unequivocally he is more than capable of the task. So if you meet him at a business function, feel free to say hello. I just might be with him, so you can say hello to me, too.

We’re easy to tell apart. He’s the tall one.

 

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

 

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