I-Team: Rush to Inspect

December 1, 2007 3:46:15 PM PST
A surge in new home construction and limited city and suburban resources could be compromising safety. ABC7's I-Team joined forces with "The Daily Herald" to investigate the national problem- and local dilemma. The findings- cities and suburbs do not have enough inspectors to keep up with the construction projects, resulting in " Rush to Inspect" newly built homes and condos by time-challenged, short-staffed city agencies.

The flock of cranes on Chicago's horizon and the sprawl swelling Chicago's suburbs all have to be approved by municipal building inspectors.

New and rehab projects are usually inspected about a dozen times before residents are permitted to move in. Inspections -- considered "gut checks" -- are to insure that plumbing, electric and basic building structures are up to code.

But from Carpentersville to Chicago, the I-Team and "The Daily Herald" have examined worksites and stacks of government records for months, which reveal:

  • not enough inspectors to keep up with the upsurge in new and rehab construction.
  • and rushed inspections that are much shorter than some experts recommend.
  • "We are just stuck," said Elvina Rodriguez of her newly renovated, 50-unit condominium building in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. It has unfinished sections, open holes, poor water pressure, and decks and sewer connections that violate city code. That was all found by inspectors after most residents moved in.

    "They should have been caught by the municipal inspector," said John Ball, former president National Academy of Building Inspection Engineers.

    Ball and Dr. Jamshid Jahedi, an Illinois Institute of Technology Engineer, are highly critical of the work and call it slipshod.

    "We don't know what else is going to happen to this building so we have to be prepared to get up and leave," said Rodriguez.

    After the I-Team began asking questions, the Chicago Building Department sent an inspection team to take another look. They noted two electrical violations, a suspicious leak in the gas and electric utility room, and low water pressure in some units. One inspector scolded the developer who was also present.

    "You have 50 occupied units here- this lady has no water pressure at all. The pump should have been put in," said the city inspector.

    In downtown Chicago there are only four inspectors to insure that 100 buildings end up safe for occupancy. City building department officials say they plan to hire 34 more inspectors by next year.

    But it's not just the big city. Experts say the second floor of a new town home in south suburban Beecher should not shake like there's an earthquake and that village inspectors should have noticed.

    "This is something that should have been caught structurally, by the inspector," said Dr. Jamshid Jahedi, Civil and Architectural Engineering, IIT.

    "I kind of feel that maybe some things just got OK'd and pushed through," said Karen Stimach.

    At the Stimach home there is water-damaged drywall in the basement and a missing wood chimney that blew off in a storm - something experts we talked with insist should not have happened.

    Beecher officials contend the Stimach home was "in compliance with the minimum construction safety requirements..." during its final inspection 2 years ago.

    "There is a big difference between building safety and the quality of a contractor," said Steve Daggers, International Code Council.

    The international code council in Country Club Hills says municipal inspectors are only required to enforce minimum safety code requirements and not the quality of work. The council says many cities just can't keep up.

    "We are going to introduce a bill in Congress that will provide a grant that will fund local jurisdictions so they can hire personnel, train personnel, ...to make sure that homes are built safely," said Daggers.

    The southwest suburb of Crest Hill has only has one building inspector for a town of 13,000 residents -- and is growing quickly.

    "When you are stuck in the 1950's and you don't have someone doing what they are supposed to be doing, watching out, a lot of people get a lot of damage done and you're in trouble," said Julie Cerny, homeowner.

    Residents point to unstable decks, crumbling foundations and warped roofing. Experts say those issues should have been caught by inspectors. The village of Crest Hill refused to comment on residents' complaints.

    In most places it all comes down to the clock.

    In western suburban Montgomery, building inspector timesheets obtained by ABC7 and "The Daily Herald" show that the average city inspector spent an average of just 34 minutes at each site last year. In the city of Chicago, inspectors average one location every hour.

    In west suburban St. Charles, there is one inspection every hour and twelve minutes. Those average workloads do not account for sick days or time for paperwork and driving from site to site.

    "I mean I just can't remember doing an inspection in less than an hour and a half and in many cases 2- 3 hours," said Ball.

    The National Association of Certified Home Inspectors recommends only two inspections be conducted per day, not the 5 to 15 a day we found most inspectors doing.

    Rodriguez believes that more thorough inspectors would have protected her from buying into a condo full of problems.

    "That's what we don't understand. We don't even know how they got approved," said Rodriguez.

    While some experts say the average inspections times we found raise concerns, others contend that there is no official time for an inspection and that many factors need to be considered.

    Residents who are buying a newly constructed home should hire their own inspector to check each phase of the project

    None of the developers who built the properties in question commented on the investigation.

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