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

It's the homeowner who has to go before the judge and argue that the builder screwed up. It's the homeowner who has to make the case that the state's standards were violated.

In front of the judge, inspectors are not supposed to advocate that the builder be punished. They're supposed to answer questions, but keep it neutral.

And though a builder's contract is typically many times bigger than a landscape architect's, the maximum civil penalty a builder a judge can recommend for a builder is just $500.

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

That's one-fourth of what an architect can get slapped with.

It's also significantly smaller than the maximum penalty in other states: In California, the maximum penalty is $5,000. In Nevada, it's $20,000. (Also, while Arizona only accepts complaints for two years after construction, both California and Nevada take them for four.)

Ultimately, the Registrar can choose to suspend or revoke a builder's license, but that's a fairly extreme step. It doesn't typically happen because of a homeowner's workmanship complaint.

Perhaps no one better understands why than the state inspectors.

Clarke Booth recently resigned after two years as an inspector with the Registrar, to pursue a career in the private sector.

He explains, "If the builder makes even a halfhearted attempt to solve the problem -- if there's any evidence they've lifted a finger -- the chances are, the judge won't recommend revoking the license."

Booth and other people familiar with the system say it's designed to get houses fixed, not to discipline builders.

At every step of the process, there are opportunities to go back to the table, to give the builder more time to fix the problems, to work things out.

That's not a bad thing, necessarily. Most homeowners don't want a builder's license yanked; they want their houses fixed.

The problem is that builders seem to have little incentive to hustle. As long as they stay involved, they know they're not likely to lose their license. Fines are incredibly rare.

Even for homeowners who understand that construction fixes aren't easy, it seems to take forever.

That's where Todd Seifert is today. More than two years after he filed his initial complaint, the builder has acknowledged that there's a serious problem with the soils beneath his foundation.

According to their settlement agreement, which avoided a formal hearing, Ryland will move the Seiferts and all their belongings into an apartment for three weeks, remove their home's foundation, and fix the soil underneath.

But while the parties signed the agreement last August, it hasn't happened yet. The soil is still moving; the engineers thought it best to hold off on the work until it stabilizes.

Blake Reheis, director of operations for Ryland's western region, says the company has offered to do cosmetic patching in the meantime, even if it has to be done again after the soil fix.

"The Seiferts are a wonderful family," he says. "I think, eventually, they'll be able to say they were happy that they bought a Ryland home. We'll get there."

He notes that the company has also installed gutters and downspouts, at its expense. It didn't install them initially, he says, because it's just not "standard practice" in this area.

Reheis insists that the company does follow the recommendations of its engineers. He adds that Ryland would have done all the remediation it's doing now, even if Seifert hadn't gone to the state registrar: "I'm confident the end result would be the same, whether the Registrar was involved or not."

With expansive soils, Reheis says, you can do everything right and still have problems. "Even going above and beyond what's called for, there may be still be a handful of houses that have problems. With Mother Nature and these soils, it's a challenging thing."

Todd Seifert is trying to roll with the process. He can understand why the engineer has suggested waiting -- but he's incredibly frustrated.

He'd planned to sell his house, to upgrade to a custom home after just two years. But he can't sell. He's stuck.

And he's convinced that if he doesn't stay on the matter, and keep nagging his builder, nothing will ever happen.

"It's just emotionally and physically draining to go through this," he says. "My wife and I have been on this roller coaster three years."

The agency has never asked for a civil penalty against the builder. It has never moved to suspend its license.

And, if you check the Registrar's Web site, it lists no open complaints against Ryland, only 10 that have been "resolved/settled/withdrawn" -- one of them being Todd Seifert's.

In almost every regard, Todd Seifert's case is not unusual.

According to statistics from the Registrar, the agency received 9,903 formal complaints against builders in 2005.

It ordered fines in 119 cases -- just one out of every 83.

State inspectors say that isn't because the complaints are spurious. They may joke about "getting the ROC discount," because there is a percentage of homeowners who want to use the process to get money from their builder. But they believe that's less than 10 percent of the cases, at most.

For the most part, Registrar employees believe, the problems are real.

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