Number Of Inspectors Isn’t Keeping Up With Home Construction In Utah
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — With construction leading all sectors in job growth since 2010 in Utah, it’s no surprise demand for new homes is high. In only nine years, more than 47,000 construction jobs have been added across the state.
But while new homes in Utah are going up as fast as builders can manage, are they being properly inspected? After dozens of Utahns reached out saying their brand-new homes have defects, the KSL Investigators discovered a building problem in our state: There may not be enough building inspectors in Utah to keep up with the demand.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2018, nearly 26,000 total building permits were issued in Utah – meaning new home construction in the state is at an all-time high. Through July 2019, the state ranked 15th in the number of residential permits issued, higher than many states with much larger populations.
Meanwhile, as of September 19, there are just 330 licensed building inspectors in Utah to handle that workload. Although that’s the highest number of inspectors since 2014, the growth has not mirrored the number of building permits issued across the state.
In Utah, building inspectors work for municipalities and are licensed through the Department of Commerce’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing. In order to become licensed, building inspectors must be certified through the International Code Council.
Far From “Picture Perfect”
Logan Williams and his wife Natasha moved into their brand-new home in Vineyard in January. It was the third home they’d built together in Utah.
“We loved the lot,” Logan said. “We loved the amenities and parks, and just like this new community here was really cool. We were super excited about it.”
Natasha Williams is a designer.
“I’ve been in new home construction for five years now, so we’re very familiar with the process,” she said.
But this time around, the couple noticed a significant difference in the quality of work.
“The brick on the exterior of our house, they did completely incorrectly, and when they came back to fix it… the workmanship was much worse than before,” Natasha said.
“You can really see how uneven it all is across the whole front of the house. It looks like our house has been in an earthquake,” Logan said. “We understand, like, homes settle, and things just kind of happen. But this is our third home. We haven’t had these kinds of issues where trim is literally just starting to like split away from itself.”
Disappointing finishes and aesthetics weren’t the worst of it. Just a few months after moving in, they started smelling gas.
“There were a bunch of valves that were supposed to be tightened that were just loose,” said Natasha. She said that allowed gas to leak into their home.
“Our HVAC guy came and just said that our house could have exploded,” Natasha said. “I don’t know how that passed inspection, but yeah, we could smell it all the way [upstairs]. It was really strong.”
“Somebody missed something, and it could have really cost us,” Logan said.
In Utah, local governments are responsible for making sure all new residential and commercial structures built in their municipalities are safe. That’s the job of licensed building inspectors on staff.
New homes require at least eight total inspections from start to finish. Everything from the foundation to the insulation should be scrutinized and signed off. Gas lines are typically looked at during the “four-way” inspection which focuses on framing, plumbing, HVAC and electrical.
KSL Investigators confirmed the Williams’ gas line was inspected, according to Vineyard city inspection reports.
When asked about their case, George Reid, Vineyard’s chief building official, said, “In that scenario, I’m not sure how it would become loose, but that is unfortunate.”
“Ultimately, it’s the contractor’s responsibility to make sure that the project is correct, you know, built as per code,” Reid said. “We’re the safety net, you know, the regulatory entity that comes in and tries to verify that. Obviously, you know, the contractor makes mistakes. Building inspectors will miss things. We definitely try to be as thorough as we can, you know, spend as much time as we feel necessary to do a thorough inspection, but there are some things that will get missed.”
The Williams couldn’t help but think if there weren’t so much development going on, perhaps their home builder or the city would have caught the gas leak.
“The consequences of scaling up too quickly and building just too many homes too fast is something that I don’t know that’s been fully considered,” Logan said.
“Assessing the Repercussions of a Mass Departure of Building Inspectors” in Utah
George Williams serves on the state licensing board for building inspectors and became a licensed building inspector in 2005.
“At that time, I was 22 years old and I would go to different trainings around the state,” he said. “I was always the youngest person in the room; a lot of gray hair, a lot of experience, a lot of true experts in that group. Year after year, I looked around, and, you know, I was thinking to myself, ‘these guys aren’t going to be here forever.’”
After being in the industry for nearly a decade, Williams went back to Brigham Young University to pursue his master’s degree in construction management. The shortage of building inspectors became the topic of his thesis entitled, “Assessing the Repercussions of a Mass Departure of Building Inspectors from the Code Professional Industry in Utah.”
Through his research, Williams revealed that 55% of licensed building inspectors would be retired within a 10-year time frame – by 2025.
“Every month, there’s a building official or a plans examiner, or an inspector from a different city retiring, and these are guys with 25/30 years of experience,” Williams said. “There’s this lost knowledge, that’s just kind of piling up out there, that we’re never going to get back. That’s really concerning to me. In order to maintain the volume of construction that’s taking place and the speed that it’s taking place, we’ve got to have more bodies. The alternative to that is just, you know, not do as good of a quality inspection.”
Statewide data shows over the past five years, the number of building permits issued in Utah has increased by 8,056. The number of licensed building inspectors increased by only 55. Each year, the gap widens and inspectors, arguably, can’t keep up.
“The real problem is the city doesn’t have enough staff, to, you know, perform all the work that they need to,” Williams said.
He added those large workloads for inspectors have become the “new normal” across the state.
City of Vineyard Grows Its Building Department
Vineyard is one of several fast-growing cities in Utah County.
“Homes started coming up in 2013 and the growth really kicked in in 2014 and 2015,” said city manager Jacob McHargue. “There’s between 14,000 and 15,000 people in the city right now – up from I think we had 300 when I started in 2013. So, it’s been incredible.”
The city government responded to that growth.
In 2014, Vineyard – which hardly had a defined building department – didn’t have a building inspector on staff. Five years later, the city budgeted for four inspectors.
In the month of June alone, Vineyard’s building department completed 1,091 total inspections. That workload was divided among three inspectors and one inspector trainee – meaning on average, each of them had 14 inspections a day.
“We’ve hired personnel and then we also use contract labor, as well, to help with the cyclical ebb and flow of building permits and number of inspections,” Reid said. “But really, we’ve been able to hold a high standard of inspection and keep up with the demand.”
While some inspections take just 15 minutes, several can take much longer.
Reid said it’s city policy to block out two hours for the most in-depth inspection that looks at framing, mechanical, electrical and plumbing and one hour for the final sign-off.
He said the city has supported him in staffing up the department to address the increase in homes and development in the area.
“When I ask for something, they know I need it and they’re supportive, and I typically get what I need so it’s really great that way,” Reid said.
The city is looking to fill two vacant positions to prepare for additional building expected within the next 12-to-18 months.