Don't rely on city to ensure quality of construction on your new house or condo

Tom Corbett

In a way, the function of the home inspector is to confirm that the price being paid for a property makes sense based on its condition. Home inspectors help certify that the price is in line with the condition of the home. This is one standard, but it is not the only one.

The most basic standard for new construction, accepted across the land, is the building permit. These permits set the baseline for quality control. We assume a certain degree of professionalism if the building has a permit posted in the front window, on the construction fence or in another appropriate location.

To us, the permit guarantees that the city is involved in the quality control process and that city standards will be met. Unfortunately, many of the new-construction homes and condominium build-outs I see are being worked on without permits posted and without careful municipal monitoring of construction. As a result, appropriate standards are not being followed. If some contractors can get away with it, they will not adhere to the municipal code, and municipalities throughout Chicagoland appear to be letting them off the hook far too often.

As of this writing, we have inspected some 300 new-construction projects in 2006, ranging from single-family homes in the Gold Coast to studio condos in Westchester, and we’ve seen fewer than a dozen permits posted.

What difference should it make to you as a buyer whether or not this piece of paper is stuck to the front of your new home? The permit matters because it points to quality control. The same system that allows developers to get away with not posting permits frequently misses cut corners and safety hazards in the construction of a new home.

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We could fill a book with the shoddy work that can result from poor municipal oversight, but I’ll give just a couple of examples involving water heaters and bathrooms.

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Section 18-29-405.3.1 of the Chicago Building Code requires a 15-inch clearance between toilets and walls and a 21-inch clearance between the front of a toilet and the tub. In recent years, 10 to 20 percent of the bathrooms we have inspected include fixtures that do not meet these standards. Should homeowners try to get up from a toilet that is too close to a tub or wall, they can bang their shoulders or arms, or pull the sink basin loose from the wall.

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Glass is another issue in bathrooms. Section 18-29-407.3 of the Chicago Building Code requires safety glazing in a bathroom where plumbing facilities are accessible. This standard is further defined in section 33-13-124-350, which notes that any glazed panel more than 18 inches wide should be considered hazardous and use safety glazing materials if it’s adjacent to a door and fewer than 24 inches from the ground.

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These standards for safety glazing are routinely ignored within the city in new construction. The International Residential Code and other standards specify the need for this safety glazing, and in effect, their standards are more stringent than the city of Chicago’s. Given the severity and the nature of the life safety threat, it is important that Chicago and surrounding suburbs begin enforcing their existing building codes.

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Another oversight I frequently find is the hazardous installation of water heaters. Article 5, section 29-18-29-501 of the Chicago code specifies that water heaters must be located and connected to provide access for observation, maintenance, servicing, and replacement.

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What’s so difficult about that?

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We’re not sure, but only about 30 percent of the new-construction condominiums and more than half the renovations to existing buildings that we inspect meet this simple code standard. The rest don’t, and that can be a problem later. A water heater is a potentially dangerous appliance that when improperly maintained or repaired can create a powerful explosion. It is critical that these fixtures be installed and maintained to a professional standard.

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Minor repairs can become pricey if the water heater is inaccessible. Recently, during the inspection of six condominiums, a Tomacor inspector noted that in one-third of the units the developer had installed the water heaters in an unsafe fashion that did not meet the Chicago city standard. Any repair attempts on these water heaters down the road will cost $800 to more than $1,000 dollars. Proper installation of the water heaters would cut those figures in half.

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Buyers excited about their new homes are sometimes willing to overlook what can seem like minor sloppiness, but if they consider the potential long-term safety and repair costs of shoddy work, they’ll understand why they have to be vigilant in the vacuum left by loose city oversight of new construction.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc., www.Tomacor.com (312-475-0835). The professional property consulting company specializes in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work.

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