While municipal inspectors are vital to ensuring that a newly built home is safe and solid, no standard exists to determine how many are needed to handle a major building boom.
The Daily Herald and ABC 7's I-Team set out to quantify the workload of inspectors in Chicago and a range of suburbs that recently have shouldered tremendous growth.
The results -- which show average workloads ranging from one inspection every 34 minutes to one inspection every hour and 12 minutes -- sparked heavy debate among industry experts and suburban officials.
Generally, officials in towns subject to the analysis -- Arlington Heights, St. Charles, Carpentersville, Naperville, Beecher, Montgomery and Chicago -- say the figures don't give an accurate picture of the quality of their work.
"That doesn't necessarily tell a story either way," said Nicholas Gadzekpo, Arlington Heights building commissioner and president of the Suburban Building Officials Conference, which provides local inspector training.
Suburban officials argue inspectors perform a variety of tasks, ranging from a quick, 15-minute fence inspection to an arduous, two-hour examination of a large new home. Plus, they say the figures do not account for an inspector's expertise or management's ability to schedule efficiently.
Yet, several industry experts disagree, saying the figures mirror what they see on job sites: inspectors chronically rushing from site to site and sometimes missing critical safety and structural problems.
John Ball, who founded and later sold a Naperville-based building inspection company, says an average workload encompassing all types of building projects that falls below an inspection every hour and a half or two hours clearly is stretching inspectors thin.
"That is an awful lot and it is hard for me to imagine that would result in comprehensive inspections," Ball said of the analysis' results.
The numbers in the analysis, he said, "can give you an idea of how busy these guys really are."
Another expert, who founded a national home inspector association, says a building inspector facing more than two major inspections a day is more likely to make mistakes.
"I'm not sure that if you are going to do the purchase of your life that you would want to rely on (overworked inspectors)," said Nick Gromicko of the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors.
The analysis takes the total number of all inspections performed in each chosen town and then averages that figure over the number of available inspectors and their estimated work hours.
The estimated work hours count on an eight-hour day with a half-hour lunch as well as two weeks of vacation and 10 federal holidays over the course of a year.
To be sure, the actual amount of time spent inspecting is much less than that because sick time, drive time and sometimes as much as two hours of daily paperwork could not be universally factored.
In addition, inspectors can be dramatically more rushed during the spring, summer or fall than in the winter, when construction mostly stops.
In St. Charles, Carpentersville and Montgomery, the Daily Herald and ABC 7's I-Team were able to obtain inspection figures by month for 2006. They show the yearly average time spent on inspections can be twice as high as an average for the busiest month. Figures for the other towns were available only on a yearly basis.
The towns of Naperville, St. Charles, Montgomery, Beecher and Carpentersville were singled out because they are among the fastest growing in the region. The five suburbs are projected to see an increase in the numbers of households of more than 14 percent between 2005 and 2010, according to the Metro Chicago Information Center.
Arlington Heights was chosen because of its growth through teardowns, which is not clearly reflected by measuring the total number of homes in a city. Meanwhile, Chicago is seeing a substantial growth in gentrifying neighborhoods.