Originally created 05/01/00

Homebuyers beware



For nearly a half-million bucks you expect things to be done right. Your hot tub ought to work and you should be able to relax in front of a roaring fire.

But that didn't happen for Marvin Osborne Jr., whose new home in Columbia County's tony West Lake subdivision had so many defects he said he had no option but to take his builder to court.

Home building is the biggest industry in Columbia County, but with the boom comes potential for problems. And since Georgia has few laws regulating the home building industry, buyers are left to fend for themselves.

"You'll have the good, the bad and the ugly," said Richard Harmon, head of Columbia County's building inspection department. "Considering the boom we've had here in housing, has the quality dropped? I can give you a "no" answer. With the number of permits we issue, the complaints are minimal."

But in subdivisions and courtrooms throughout the county, some battles rage on.

Last August, a Columbia County jury awarded Mr. Osborne $17,120 in his case against Brent Johnson Builders Inc. The company built Mr. Osborne's $405,500 house on Honors Way in Martinez beginning in 1996.

According to the lawsuit, the house had serious leaks, cracks in walls and ceilings, defective plumbing and fixtures, defects in paint, accumulation of rust, holes where the mortar had fallen out between bricks, places where bricks had fallen out and soil erosion in the yard.

The oven and stove didn't work, the gas logs in the fireplace didn't work, the jets in the master bath's whirlpool tub didn't work and the tub leaked so much it couldn't be used, according to court documents.

The initial punch list -- a list of defects the homeowner finds and presents to the builder to repair -- filled six typed pages.

Mr. Osborne finally took the case to court when he tried for months to contact the builder -- an average of three times a week -- and his calls were not returned and the repairs were not made.

"The judgment was against his corporation and not against him personally, so it's very difficult to collect from someone like that, which is very sad," said Ziva Bruckner, attorney for Mr. Osborne. "So far I have not collected a penny from him."

Mr. Osborne fixed the house and sold it. The chemical engineer who bought it no longer lives in the house, having been transferred by Olin Corp. to Cleveland, Tenn. And Mr. Johnson has filed a motion for a re-trial.

Phone messages left on Mr. Johnson's answering machine in mid-April were not returned.

WORKMANSHIP

County inspectors are required to visit a home two to three times to inspect the footing and foundation, framing, plumbing and electrical, heating and air conditioning and then one other time for the final inspection. If everything passes, then a certificate of occupancy is granted.

"But in all, we may spend only an hour on a job site," said Ron St. Onge, a Columbia County building inspector.

What homeowners should keep in mind, Mr. Harmon said, is that the inspectors only look for code violations. Quality workmanship is up to the builder and his subcontractors.

"A builder is no better than his subcontractors," Mr. Harmon said. "He's only as good as the people who work for him."

Mr. Harmon estimates it takes 50 to 100 people to build one home. That's 50 to 100 opportunities for human error.

But Ernie Blackburn, president of E. Blackburn Construction Company, Inc., believes the quality of new homes has greatly improved over the past five years.

"The technology -- not just individual items -- the whole package and the way it's put together, there's more thought put into it and that's partially due to consumer demand and expectation," Mr. Blackburn said. "And that influences the standards of the inspection departments, too. They are looking at things they've never looked at before and that's lifting the whole level of quality in the industry."

Tom Beazley of Regis Homes, Inc. and president of the Builders Association of Metro Augusta said consumers today are more sophisticated.

"The buyers are more knowledgeable than ever and they demand higher quality," Mr. Beazley said. "The people we generally see are those who have bought a house before and know the pitfalls. They're more demanding than ever."

If building quality has suffered, it may be because of an industry-wide labor shortage, a shortage which may bring many inexperienced workers to the job site.

Mr. Harmon said the shortage is particularly evident in masonry, where brick facades are sometimes laid by unskilled or inexperienced laborers. The job may meet code, but sometimes it's not so pretty.

"Is that shortage causing substandard work? I guess it probably is, especially when they get inexperienced people in," Mr. Harmon said. "But the jobs are being done to code; it just may take them three or four times to get it right."

Those new to the homebuilding business or those trying to build their own homes are sure to have problems with the labor shortage, said Tom Werner, president of Pierwood Construction Co., past president of the Metro Augusta Homebuilders Association and board member of the Homebuilders Association of Georgia.

"A new guy starting to build or an individual homeowner can have serious problems, because the quality subs are full speed ahead with established builders," Mr. Werner said. "If you've got a new sub that's not with an established builder, then they are suspect already."

The labor shortage caused by the building boom has stretched the building time of a typical 2,000 square-foot house from three months to four to six months, Mr. Werner said. At times, a job might be shut down for days waiting for subs to arrive.

"I don't think the quality has suffered but the time of construction has increased because there is more building going on with the same amount of qualified subs," Mr. Werner said.

WAIT AND SEE

Even though a home may pass a county inspection, there are things that can happen after the inspector leaves that may cause long-term problems.

"After we leave, we don't know what happens," Mr. Harmon said. "To be honest with you, neither does the builder."

Marshall Masters, construction manager for Richmond County said builders are generally eager to meet requirements to prevent delays.

In Columbia County, a builder is charged $25 for a re-inspection fee -- fees and delays that can add up over time.

There are certain things a home builder or his subcontractors can do to threaten the integrity of a home, but these are things that might not show up until years later.

Contractors can add more water to concrete, which makes it pour faster and stretches the mixture, but may later cause cracks in the slab. Watered down termite treatments may also cause infestation in the future, but these are all problems that the building inspection department can't catch, problems which may not show up until year's later.

"I've never known anybody to do that," Mr. Blackburn said. "A person that's doing that is building for the short term."

During inspections Mr. Harmon said his department will check footings and the soil condition around the footings. They'll also check the water pipes and gas lines for leaks.

Some of the deficiencies they most often find are over-spans on ceiling joists and builders using low-grade lumber in areas where it is not allowed, Mr. Harmon said. These are things that can be seen immediately, but other defects may be hidden within the walls waiting for time to tell.

NO LAWS, NO TEETH

Who can you turn to when things go wrong?

Essentially, you're on your own in Georgia, where there are few laws in place to protect homebuyers from unscrupulous builders.

Even though the electrician, the plumber and the person who installs a home's heating and air system must be licensed, anyone can call themselves a builder.

Things are different in South Carolina.

South Carolina requires all of its builders to be licensed, and beginning in 1999 required all of its inspectors to be certified and for each county to have its own building inspection department.

South Carolina has the Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation in Columbia, which oversees residential and commercial construction and any complaints can be directed to them.

"A homeowner can lodge a complaint with LLR and they will send out an independent state inspector to look at it," said Earnie Knight, whose Aiken County building inspection department last year checked the construction of 356 new homes.

South Carolina's Residential Builders Commission requires homebuilders to warranty new homes for up to 10 years -- the first two years, concrete, carpentry, doors and windows; five years for heating, plumbing and electrical, and 10 years for structural systems such as floors, walls, masonry, concrete.

Richmond and Columbia counties do not log complaints by consumers, but both inspection departments are sometimes called to mediate when a buyer and a builder have problems.

"We get calls occasionally where people are not satisfied with something," said Rob Sherman, director of Richmond County's License and Inspection department. "If we go in and say, `Look, this just was not done right and the two of you need to get together on it,' usually that works because the builder knows he needs to have a good working relationship with us."

MATERIAL ISSUES

Many complaints arise from the materials that are used.

Home inspector Don Willis of Don Willis Inspection, Inc. said home buyers should be aware of the quality of materials that are being used in the home.

"I'm seeing more of the lower priced homes built on slabs, the fronts of the houses will be brick veneer with the rest vinyl siding, plastic water lines as opposed to copper lines, more pre-fab(ricated) cabinets and laminate floors," said Mr. Willis, whose been in the home inspection business for 15 years. "Whether these materials will hold up like they say they will, only time will tell."

But as builders have rushed to meet the demand for middle and low-end housing, there have been mistakes make along the way, Mr. Willis said.

"I really do see some sloppy work. There are no code violations, but when they finish it off, there's no craftsmanship there."

COMPETITIVE EDGE

Though new home buyers in Georgia are essentially left to fend for themselves, there's always competition to level the playing field.

"Builders are very conscious of consumers' needs," said Larry Miller of Century 21 Larry Miller Realty, Inc. "If a home is not first class, structurally sound, then the consumer will go down the street to someone who is building a quality product. I think the competition with the market that we're in has also helped to keep the quality up."

Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113 or melhall@augustachronicle.com.