Soiled Hands

Page 6 of 11

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.

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.

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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske