Originally created 05/01/00

Lax laws, licensing hamper home buyers



Who can you turn to when your dream home turns into a nightmare?

With few state laws governing the home building industry in Georgia, you're essentially on your own. A home might be your biggest investment, but buyer beware. There are few laws in place to protect homebuyers from unscrupulous builders and builders who are not licensed.

Even though the electrician, the plumber and a home's heating and air installer must be licensed, anyone can call himself a builder.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg, introduced legislation this year requiring home builders, government inspectors and private home inspectors to be certified, but the bills were not approved.

"I knew there was a need out there for some type of regulation," said Mr. Westmoreland, who is a home builder. "With the boom in new homes, there are some problems out there."

Tom Werner, president of Pierwood Construction Co., past president of Metro Augusta Homebuilders Association and board member of Homebuilders Association of Georgia, said the local and state associations supported the legislation, however, they want continuing education to be a key component of any bill that is passed.

Another problem was in determining what state agency would oversee these mandates, he said.

"Nobody really wants it, but I think it (the legislation) will come back and we want to be involved in crafting it," Mr. Werner said. "Licensing by itself hasn't done anything, if you look at other states such as Florida and South Carolina. If you are going to get into this business, we want you to be educated and we want to use licensing for that."

Mr. Westmoreland said in rapidly growing areas, city and county governments don't have the staff or resources to keep up with inspections, and their inspectors are not even required to be certified on the regulations and the codes that they are supposed to enforce. There are 72 counties in Georgia that don't even have building officials.

His bill also would have required home builders to have insurance and offer a written one-year warranty.

"They are not required to offer a warranty now, but sometimes they'll say, `Oh yeah, you've got a one-year warranty.' But what is that?," Mr. Westmoreland said.

And his bill also would have allowed builders and homeowners to arbitrate any disputes. Now the only recourse is to take disputes to court.

"People spend a lot of money on a new house, and then the builder says sue me, and they don't have any money left to sue anybody," Mr. Westmoreland said.

Most contractors form corporations, so it's very difficult to collect from them personally through the court system, Augusta attorney Ziva Bruckner said. If there is a judgment against a corporation, they can dump it and start all over again under a new corporation with a slightly different name. She said it's also difficult to collect enough to pay for the expenses of filing a lawsuit.

"It's not like in personal injury where you are compensated for pain and suffering," Ms. Bruckner said. "The problem is not so much in proving that someone did a bad job, but once you do that, it's very difficult to get any compensation for it."

South Carolina requires all 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.

"If builders are building more maybe they are trying to cut corners, but we're not letting them do it on codes," said Earnie Knight, whose Aiken County building inspection department last year checked the construction of 356 new homes. "We don't judge workmanship, but they are probably building to code now more than they were, just because we're smarter about what we're looking at."

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