May 1, 2007 — -- A recent "Good Morning America" investigation finds that government building inspectors are often overworked and sometimes lazy, incompetent or corrupt.
Whether you're remodeling or having a new home built, building inspectors are supposed to check the construction at several crucial phases and make sure it's up to code. Home buyers and remodelers count on those inspections to ensure their houses are safe.
Homeowner Lisa Daniel of Wayne County, N.C., showed "GMA" how the front of her house was seven inches longer than the back, making the house hopelessly out of square and dangerously unstable.
An engineer found more than 25 code violations that the inspector had missed and said the house should be demolished and started over. Daniel never moved in because the house was unfit for occupancy.
"I lost everything I ever had and I've lost everything I ever wanted to have and everything I ever tried to have -- before I even had it," Daniel said. "I never spent a night in this house."
Daniel was so devastated that she followed and videotaped the building inspector who had done her inspection. Her tapes show an insulation inspection where he enters the house and spends just 24 seconds inside. Then he walks out and signs the inspection sheet. Another clip shows the same inspector at another house on a day when he's supposed to inspect framing, electrical and plumbing -- serious safety issues. One minute and 28 seconds later, he exits and signs off on it.
"I couldn't believe that he'd been getting away with this," Daniel said.
Daniel sued Wayne County, which settled for $94,000 without admitting liability. Wayne County wouldn't comment on the specifics of the case. The inspector told us the inspections we saw were quick because they were follow-ups, but he had no response when we revealed he was seen on tape doing the same thing over and over again. As for Daniel, she's still out tens of thousands of dollars.
It's a nationwide hazard. The state of New Jersey investigated shoddy new-home construction and found lazy, incompetent code inspectors were part of the problem.
"Some of them were doing drive-by inspections," said Charlotte Gaal, the lead investigator. "It's not that they got paid off. They just didn't bother."
But some inspectors do get paid off. In the last few years, authorities have brought corruption charges against code inspectors all over the country.
However, the most common scenario of all is something just as hazardous to your home: overwhelmed inspectors.
In the booming Phoenix area, ABC affiliate KNXV found one inspector scheduled to do 206 inspections on a single day. Another city's inspectors conducted an average of 85 inspections every day. Experts told "GMA" 25 to 30 inspections a day was a reasonable amount.
KNXV followed another building inspector last year who had one of the highest caseloads in her town. It's not her fault, but she spent only 24 minutes inspecting seven houses. That town told us its inspectors no longer have to work so fast -- not because the town has hired more inspectors but because building has slowed down there.
"It's critical to have enough people, highly trained, to go out and to do that job," said Rick Weiland, CEO of the International Code Council, the organization that develops building codes and trains code inspectors. "Good code enforcement is extremely important. It's all about public safety."
Of course, many building inspectors are highly competent and routinely catch life-threatening code violations. And any inspector is better than none. Believe it or not, hundreds of jurisdictions across the country don't have code inspectors.
So if you're thinking of building or remodeling a home, you shouldn't blindly rely on this safety net. Instead, make sure your contract allows you to bring in your own private inspector or engineer. Hire somebody who specializes in brand-new homes and knows the code and then have that person inspect at every crucial stage during construction.