Soiled Hands

It's no surprise that builders take shortcuts to make money. What might shock you: Government officials -- from regulators to legislators -- do little to stop them

The attorneys who met with Westcott both suggested she organize her neighbors into another class-action case. The builders would fight any suit tooth and nail, so it simply wouldn't be cost-effective to represent one woman alone.

In class-action cases, it's the lawyers who generally cover the litigation costs, which makes them a much more affordable option.

But that seemed like a lot of work for an uncertain payoff -- and Westcott didn't really want to file a lawsuit anyway.

Melinda Westcott in her Anthem home.
Michelle Paster
Melinda Westcott in her Anthem home.
Former state inspector Clarke Booth
Michelle Paster
Former state inspector Clarke Booth

Her best option, she decided, was the Arizona Registrar of Contractors.

That agency, which licenses homebuilders across the state, also accepts complaints about their work.

If a builder fails to fix a house to minimum standards, the state can suspend its license or even issue a fine.

In April, Westcott filed her complaint.

A few days later, the state inspector issued his report. He found cracking, settling, and bad drainage. He confirmed that Westcott's windows and doors were out of kilter and that insulation was falling from the attic into the rooms and closets, according to his report.

And, he wrote, "the foundation is moving or warping."

He gave Del Webb 15 days to fix the problems, the required time under the state's policy. If the company didn't fix them, it could lose its license.

It sounded good, from Westcott's perspective. But it was really just the first step in what would prove a very difficult process.

Had Melinda Westcott been pursuing a case against, say, her landscape architect, she could have rested easy. A state agency would have done the work for her.

It's different for the builders.

The Arizona Board of Technical Registration licenses professionals like home inspectors, architects, and engineers. And like the Registrar of Contractors, the agency takes complaints from the public.

But from that point, everything is different.

Kathryn Fuller, the board of technical registration's investigations manager, explains that if Westcott made a complaint against an architect, her agency's staff would investigate.

If the staff determined that the architect's work was deficient, they'd bring him before an "enforcement advisory committee" of his peers.

The peers ask questions and probe the case; Westcott would simply be one of the witnesses.

From there, the committee could recommend discipline. It could be as much as $2,000 per violation -- and, Fuller notes, a single case can involve multiple violations.

Frequently, the committee also demands that licensees get continuing education in the area where they screwed up. They can also be ordered to pay restitution and cover the cost of the agency's investigation.

And even if Westcott decided that she wasn't interested, or if the architect offered her cash to close the matter, that wouldn't be the end of it.

"The state becomes the complainant," Fuller explains. "Just because they have a settlement doesn't mean that they don't need peer review, or education."

It couldn't be more different from the situation at the Registrar of Contractors, which governs homebuilders.

Take the case of Todd Seifert. The 38-year-old dispatcher moved with his wife and daughter to a new house in an unincorporated area just outside Litchfield Park, west of Phoenix, in 2003.

In just a few months, he was noticing the telltale signs of expansive soil: The doors wouldn't open, the walls were cracking, and some walls had shifted away from the foundation.

After getting no satisfaction from his builder, Ryland Homes, Seifert filed a complaint with the Registrar.

An agency inspector looked at Seifert's home. But while the inspector confirmed there were problems, and that those problems were caused by expansive soil, he was sympathetic when Ryland said it would need nine months to fix them, Seifert says.

Seifert was skeptical, but agreed to the plan.

No one from the Registrar ordered the company to pay a fine. No one threatened its license.

Nine months later, when Seifert contacted the Registrar to complain that his house still wasn't fixed, he says that they told him that the agency had dropped the complaint.

He'd have to refile.

So he filed his complaint, again, and again the inspector found problems caused by expansive soil.

Indeed, the builder's own pre-construction report notes the presence of expansive soils on site. It had called for the soil to be compacted and the roof runoff to be directed "away from the structures . . . during construction as well as throughout their life."

That meant gutters.

But Seifert had no gutters.

Again, no one from the Registrar's office offered to investigate the case further, to see if the builder had used the wrong type of foundation, or even to "educate" him about why gutters were important.

If Seifert wanted to pursue a claim, he had to do the investigating himself.

And that's how it works, as a matter of course, at the Arizona Registrar of Contractors.

Inspectors are supposed to determine whether there's a problem, but they're not supposed to develop a case against a builder.

Instead, they tell the builder to fix it. They don't specify how, just that it needs to be done to minimum state standards.

And if the homeowner isn't happy, or if the builder doesn't come through, it's the homeowner's job to take action.

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