Second of two parts
A spacious kitchen and secluded backyard drew Jeanne Stratford and her husband to their new home in North suburban Ingleside.
But soon, serious problems they hadn't noticed earlier surfaced.
Two bathtubs leaked and ruined drywall throughout the house. The balcony banister wasn't properly anchored, and drafts blowing through the fireplace sent their heat bills skyrocketing.
The Stratfords didn't expect such hurdles in a brand-new house. They thought municipal inspectors were checking the construction, so they decided not to take the extra step of hiring a certified home inspector to go through the house before closing.
"We didn't think we needed to," Stratford said. "We figured with the occupancy permits and everything, that the city inspectors would go over the house."
The Stratfords' assumption is all too common among new home buyers. Unfortunately, such presumptions make it impossible for buyers to identify a money pit before it becomes their home. But there are things new or prospective homeowners can do to help protect themselves and their investment.
The importance of taking extra measures has been emphasized in a Daily Herald/ ABC 7 I-Team investigation that showed many municipal inspectors are stretched thin, increasing the chances they will miss critical errors by home builders.
An analysis of six suburbs and the city of Chicago showed an average workload for municipal inspectors last year ranging from one inspection every 34 minutes to one every hour and 22 minutes -- ratios industry experts say are simply too high to ensure a proper job.
"They don't have the time necessary to inspect to a level that someone purchasing a home would expect," said Oswego resident John Ball, a former president of a group of elite building inspectors, called the National Academy of Building Inspection Engineers.
Ball said municipal inspectors should have workloads that are no heavier than one inspection every two hours. Nick Gromicko, president of the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors, goes even further and says a workload of two major inspections a day should be the limit.
Moreover, the experts stress, municipal inspectors are not charged with checking on a house's overall quality, only the basic building codes.
"The only thing that they are charged with is making sure a builder isn't doing such a poor job that it's illegal," Gromicko said.
Officials from towns analyzed by the report agreed that new home buyers can't count on them for many quality issues, but they insisted they have the basics of safety and stability covered.
"Do we catch everything? No," said Bob Van, St. Charles' building commissioner.
Hiring a certified home inspector is an absolute must, experts say. While municipal inspectors check for code compliance during construction, home inspectors examine a house for quality issues after it is built.
Yet, some home buyers are taking matters a step further and hiring their own inspectors to also visit the construction site at several key points just like a municipal inspector does.
Doubling up on inspections during construction can be pricey. On average, it can cost more than $400 for each site visit, experts say.
For that reason, using the more elite inspectors is seen most often on custom homes, where designs are more complicated.
"A more complex building needs a little bit more attention to the complex details," said Jamshid Jahedi, an Illinois Institute of Technology engineering instructor and owner of a Clarendon Hills-based design and construction firm.
But for some buyers of tract homes, it could also be financially wise in the long run to consider having a private inspector watch over construction, Ball said.
First, he said buyers should ask village officials about how many inspectors they have, what they look for and how much time they have to do their job. Then if it seems the inspectors may be stretched thin, buyers should consider getting their own construction inspector.
"If one can get a little bit of an idea of how busy these guys are, then prudence would say you are investing a large sum of money, and maybe in some cases it is well worth it," Ball said about hiring a private inspector.
Ultimately, though, the chances of landing a problem house hinge on the quality of builder, inspectors say.
"It really all comes down to who is building your home," said Christopher Fassler, Naperville's inspection team supervisor.
Research, inspectors say, should be the first step in the home-buying process.
Check out the builders and general contractors through the state attorney general's office and Better Business Bureau to see if they have complaints filed against them. Also, ask a builder or developer for examples of other work or references and then check them out.
"The homeowners really need to do a little bit of work themselves," Van said.
Keeping the 'sweet' in 'home, sweet home'
Buying a home is the biggest purchase of your life. Take some extra steps to help make sure it's the right one. Here are some tips to do that:
• Always hire a certified home inspector to go through the home before purchasing
• Consider hiring an inspector to also check the house during construction, especially if it is a spec or custom home with unusual designs
• If you don't hire your own building inspector, visit the construction site periodically and ask questions
• Take any concerns to an expert or search the Internet for answers
• Get copies of all municipal inspection reports from the builder before closing
Do your homework
• Check builders and general contractors with the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.org
• Check out tips for remodeling and building along with notifications on scams at www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov
• Ask the builder for references and examples of previous work and check them
• Look up the local home builders association and see if the builder is a member. If not, ask why
• Check periodically with the village to make sure all the proper permits and inspections are being completed
• Ask your municipal government leaders how many inspectors they have and what their workload is like to get a sense of whether they have time to do a thorough job
Get legal protection
• Make sure you have a warranty, and understand what it covers. Many homes come with a one-year warranty, but some advertise as much as 10 years
• Hire your own lawyer for closing and check his or her status with www.iardc.org
• Add language in the contract that binds the developer to fix any remaining issues identified before closing
• Have the developer put money in an escrow account to cover items if the work is not finished in a specified time frame