Web-Based L.A. Times Article

You won't believe the stuff that Jay Markanich has seen on his rounds as a home inspector in Northern Virginia.

Among other things: exhaust fans that vent to nowhere, faulty drain line connections, drywall screws used for everything but their intended purpose, insulation thrown into wall cavities but not stapled to the studs, decks so riddled with nails shot from power guns that they cause the wood to split.

The kicker? This is new construction. Not remodeling projects but brand-new houses that have never been lived in.

Markanich blames the shoddy workmanship he is seeing these days on subcontractors who hire workers from the groups of unemployed people hanging around local stores.

"They're not real plumbers, carpenters or electricians," he said. "But when the truck stops and the driver says he needs a plumber or electrician, they raise their hands. As a result, the workmanship is very sloppy. Some things are just hideous."

That's why Markanich and his colleagues recommend to buyers that new houses be inspected at least twice, once before the drywall goes up — after the walls are enclosed, it's impossible to spot poor work — and again just before the final walk-through.

And don't let the builder tell you that he won't fix anything that's not a code violation.

That's just wrong, the Bristow VA-based inspector says. "Shoddy work is shoddy work and should be repaired, whether or not it's a violation. Besides, the code is a minimum standard, so that's not very impressive."

Here's another tip from Reuben Saltzman of Structure Tech Home Inspections in Minneapolis: Don't take the builder's word that the repair has been made, especially if the quality of the work is in doubt in the first place. Have the problem reinspected to make sure it's been fixed correctly.

None of this should be taken as a condemnation of the home-building business. It is just the nature of the beast these days as builders struggle to cut costs to the bone. Even the best builder is at the mercy of the foreman on each job and how well he supervises the various trades.

Thus it is wise for every buyer to go into the process with the realization that there is no such thing as a perfect house. There are simply too many parts and too many people involved for a house to be totally defect-free.

If you can't afford two or more visits by an independent inspector, then at least pay to have your new place examined at the drywall stage and act as your own investigator at the walk-through, when you and your builder give the house a final once-over just before closing.

This pre-settlement inspection is the method that good builders use to introduce owners to their new homes. Among other things, they explain how the appliances operate, show you where the water cutoff is located and explain how to care for the carpet and countertops.

But it also is the moment of truth, possibly your last chance to discover scratched tubs, balky windows, malfunctioning electrical outlets or any one of hundreds of possible defects.

Actually, a good builder will perform his own final inspection before touring the house with its new owner. That way he can spot and repair problems before you ever see them. But too many don't do that, and some don't do walk-throughs at all. They simply hand over the keys and that's it.

You should maintain a wary vigil when you tour your new home for a final inspection. Anything less and you could lose the opportunity to have problems corrected at the builder's expense.

Follow this checklist and you'll come as close as possible to moving into a defect-free home:

•Open and close all doors. Make sure all six sides are painted or sealed. Be certain that locks, including deadbolts, operate properly without binding, and that thresholds are adjusted correctly. Look for warping. Hinges should be clean and free of paint.

•Open all windows. Determine that latches operate properly. Tracks should be lubricated to prevent binding. Make sure screens are in place and aren't torn. Look for broken glass.

•Walk the perimeter of each room, looking for uniform trim fit and finish, gaps that need caulking and protruding nail heads.

•Examine all wall surfaces under natural light and, if possible, at night under artificial illumination for irregularities, nail pops and visible seams.

•Be sure all wall outlets and switches operate correctly. Test light fixtures, making certain that they are attached securely and contain the correct bulbs.

•Tile and vinyl flooring should be clean and free of chips and cracks. Check for missing grout and be sure molding is installed and painted or stained.

•Walk all carpeted areas checking for loose fit and squeaky floors.

•Be sure the builder explains how the house's mechanical systems work — the electrical service panel, the furnace and water heater, the thermostat. Also find out where the water shut-offs are located for each connection.

•In the kitchen, check for scratches and abrasions, a frequent complaint. Counters are a magnet for toolboxes from every trade. Also make sure that the cabinets and appliances are level and properly anchored to the wall or secured to the countertops, that all doors and drawers operate without binding, and that wallpaper is plumb and seams are tight, especially around the backsplash.

•In the bathrooms, look for scratches and nicks in the tub, shower enclosure and sink. Make sure the walls are square, otherwise the floor will be askew. Be certain the toilet is securely fastened to the floor, but don't test this by trying to rock the fixture. Instead, sit on it to be sure the entire unit is secured properly. Also check to see if the toilet paper dispenser is at the right distance and height. Make sure that the sink and tub stoppers hold water and that the shower strainer is fastened securely.

•If you have an attic and plan to use it for storage, ask if there are any weight restrictions. Also find out how the attic ventilation system operates.

•Check exterior paint for defects. Be certain all windows and doors are caulked properly. Look for cracks in the driveway and garage or carport floors.

•Make sure your yard is graded properly. The ground should slope away gradually from the house.

When making your final inspection, don't be rushed. You'll need at least two hours, but take more time if you need it. With some builders, defects you discover after you move in are your responsibility, not theirs. So be careful — you may have to live with what you don't find.

Also be advised that if you find too many things wrong, you don't have to close on the home until the flaws are corrected to your satisfaction. Builders will try to pressure you by threatening to sell the place to someone else or to sue. But because builders live and die on their cash flows, you have some power too.

Realize, however, that if you get into a tug of war with your builder, you could lose your loan commitment. And once you do move in, you can probably forget about obtaining any customer service.



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Jay performs inspections Monday through Saturday, throughout Northern Virginia, from his office in Bristow to Leesburg and Centreville, to Great Falls and Vienna and everywhere in between!