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Nashville Scene Falling Down

Georgia family gets a rude ride, builders continue to make mistakes

By Walter Jowers

MAY 15, 2000:  Last September, I wrote about a big, tall deck in Lyons, Ore., that collapsed during a wedding, dropping the wedding party 40 feet down a riverbank. One woman was killed in the collapse. Just a few weeks ago, I went on and on about sloppy workmanship in new construction, and how local codes officials just plain miss--or ignore--a lot of it.

From early reports, it looks like the double whammy of sloppy workmanship and drive-by codes inspections struck in Cobb County, Ga., over the weekend. Last Saturday afternoon, a man and his wife, along with their daughter and son-in-law, went house-hunting in Cobb County's Madison Woods subdivision. You'd think that house-hunting on a bright, shiny spring day would be a low-risk activity, right?

Well, not for Bruce and Shirly Bayley and John and Holly Mills. As they were checking out a house on Mayes Farm Trail, they walked out onto the spanking-new 25-foot-high deck, and it fell right out from under them. As of late Saturday, the four were in WellStar Kennestone Hospital, each listed in stable condition.

Now, you might be thinking, "How in the world does the weight of four people bring down a brand-new deck?" Truth be told, I don't know yet, but I mean to find out. I do know this: Whatever was wrong with that deck wasn't just a little bit wrong; it was way wrong. If the deck had been built right, four people with chain saws couldn't have brought it down without a fair amount of effort.

I've said it before, and I guess I'll have to keep on saying it: With precious few exceptions, new houses have problems. Most of these problems will result in things like a crack here or a leak there. Every now and then, though, a building crew goes flamboyantly bad, and something like a collapsing deck makes news.

Still, for some odd reason, a lot of people get it in their heads that new houses are just fine. I can't figure out why. A new house isn't comparable to a new TV, which comes down an assembly line, is made from fairly reliable parts, and is put together exactly the same way as the last 1,000 TVs. A new house is made out of earth and wood, and it's put together usually by itinerant laborers who make up the job as they go along.

If you doubt me, try this do-it-yourself quality-control test: Drive up to a residential building site on any workday and park outside the house. Watch the men and women who are actually building the foundation, putting up the load-bearing walls, and making the critical connections between the house and the deck. Then, ask yourself this question: If this were valet parking, would I give any of these people my keys?

If the answer is no, ask yourself why in the world you'd want them building your deck, your fireplace, or your kitchen with little or no oversight.

So now you might be thinking, "They've got oversight. The codes inspectors will check the house, and the house comes with a one-year warranty." Well, regarding the codes inspection part, I can tell you this: In one day's time, I could train any slightly above-average middle-school child to find at least four codes violations on any new house in this part of the world. The particularly adept children would be able to do it from the bed of a moving pickup truck.

Now let's talk about that one-year warranty. If you read it closely, and if you understand all the builderly jargon in it, you will find that the builder only has to fix a house that becomes uninhabitable or develops a crack big enough to drop a ham sandwich through. The people who offer the one-year warranties aren't idiots. They know from experience that homeowners won't find any big problems in a year's time.

That doesn't mean the problems aren't there. It just means that it takes more than a year for the problems to be obvious to the average homeowner. Believe me when I tell you: Building crews are making some big mistakes, and most of the time nobody is catching them.

Here's an example, again from the Atlanta area: My friend Noel McShane recently inspected a house where the foundation slab was cracked. He found a big hollow spot under the slab, left there because the builder had failed to compact the soil (pretty basic stuff). Noel, knowing that people often can't believe builders make such amazing errors, crawled into the void and took a picture. There was a hole under this slab big enough to hold a full-grown man, and if Noel hadn't caught it, nobody would've caught it.

The general quality of new construction tends to be a little better here in Nashville, and I've never run across a builder ornery enough to deny a man-size hole. Still, new-construction mistakes are near universal. We've got them here, just like they've got them in Atlanta.

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