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Ask the Builder: Building inspections are not a given

Ask the Builder: Building inspections are not a given

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Are you sure your new home will be inspected?

A few years back, I used to do a two-hour radio call-in show in Cincinnati about home improvement. It was loads of fun to be on the spot on live radio, answering listeners' questions. I miss those mornings but now do the same thing via email at AsktheBuilder.com.

My friends Frank and Kim regularly invite me on their radio show on WLIP in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and we cover lots of topics, some of which have nothing to do with home improvement. It’s so much fun to be back on live radio!

Recently, it came up in a discussion that some places across the United States have no building inspections for new homes. Frank thought this was unbelievable.

For years I’ve done expert witness work in residential legal cases. I clearly remember a case in northern Ohio in which a prominent orthopedic surgeon and his wife built a stunning house on a lake. It turns out there were no inspections required, and, as you might suspect, problems started cropping up.

I moved to New Hampshire from Cincinnati in 2008. Not too long after this, I discovered at least one small town in New Hampshire that also has no building inspections. Just a few days ago a woman hired for a plumbing riser isometric drawing for her new home. I’ve been a master plumber since 1981, and I draw many of these plans. It turns out where she’s building in the state of Mississippi, there are no inspections of any type, including a plumbing inspection.

What does this mean to you? Let’s briefly discuss the building code. This written document is generated with the input of many experts. That said, most inspectors I’ve talked with in my 45-plus years in the industry will readily admit the building code is a set of minimum standards. This means that if your home passes a building inspection, using the code it might be similar to achieving a 70-percent grade on a test. Every aspect of building your home can always be done better than what the code mandates.

You should never assume your home will be inspected, especially if you’re building in a rural setting. It’s in your best interest to call your local government office where building permits are issued and discover what inspections happen as your home is built.

Some new houses get quite a few separate inspections. It’s not unusual in larger towns and cities to have inspectors look at the soil before footings are poured, the framing after all the utilities are installed, and the insulation, rough plumbing, rough electric and final inspections for all these things before a certificate of occupancy is granted.

However, even with all these inspections, don’t think they’re all done with a magnifying glass. Inspectors may only be able to spend a few minutes at your house, as they have lots of jobs to look at on that given day. I clearly remember one of my plumbing inspectors that never got out his car to inspect my work. He had seen my work, knew it was first class and trusted me. He’d chat with me, fill out the sticker and hand it to me. I’ve had just the opposite with certain electrical inspectors. Some were so thorough that they discovered a wall outlet hidden by an open door that had no cover plate!

What should you do if you want to ensure your new home is built as best as it can be? This is a whopper of a question. First, it starts with excellent plans and written specifications. These two things are the north star for your builder. They should be referenced in your contract with the builder. Simply state that your house must be built in accordance with the plans and specifications that become an exhibit to the contract. You and the contractor should sign the cover page of the plans and specifications as well as the contract. Keep your copy of these documents in a very safe place.

You can hire your own inspectors who can look over the shoulder of the builder. This should be referenced in your contract, and there needs to be language that your builder must satisfy this inspector as well as any that your local government provides. If you don’t include this clause in the contract, your builder might say: “I don’t care what he says. That’s not the way I do things.”

It’s entirely possible you might hire separate inspectors for different aspects of the job. I wouldn’t hesitate to hire a residential structural engineer to look at the footings before they’re poured to make sure the soil is good and to make sure the reinforcing steel is correct. I’d have that inspector also look at every aspect of the structure as the house is built.

You might also look into hiring a home inspector who is certified by the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). If you do this, be sure to ask her/him about how much new construction experience they have. Many of these inspectors have deep experience — and that’s the one you want.

(Subscribe to Tim’s’ free newsletter and listen to his new podcasts. Go to: AsktheBuilder.com.)

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