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New high for homebuilding boom

Record year is straining the industry, with some inspectors looking at as many as 35 homes a day.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 1998


Bricks and drywall to his left, tiles and lime sacks to his right, housing inspector Tom Gage is working two cell phones, a CB radio, and a walkie-talkie.

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With a carpet of new development rolling out across this mammoth desert valley - the Las Vegas area has led the United States in growth for 60 years - Mr. Gage is the man who must make sure every dwelling has the right nails, studs, roofing, and floors.

"We've got a problem on Lot 26," he yells into one phone, trying to be heard above the symphony of saws, hammers, and drills. "Tell them they have to come up with some solution that maintains the integrity of the stairway."

Maintaining the integrity of American homebuilding has become the shadow side of a nationwide residential housing boom that will break records this year.

Bolstered by the lowest mortgage rates since the 1960s, big stock market gains, and low unemployment, American homebuilders will put up more square feet of housing this year than at any time in history. While lagging behind the record for the number of units built - 2.4 million in 1972 - this year will break all records for the amount of square feet constructed, partly because homes are becoming people's castles.

"American builders are having trouble keeping up with demand," says Michael Carliner, vice president for economics at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) in Washington. "There are questions of labor shortages, material shortages, overworked inspectors, all of which are disrupting the process."

Translation: delays, concern in some quarters about quality, and new challenges for Gage, who heads a group of 55 inspectors who must pass judgment on 5,000 homes a month. With nearly a dozen inspections required per dwelling - from foundations to electrical, framing, insulation, drywall, and plumbing - that means each inspector may look over 35 houses a day - three times the number recommended by national experts.

"It gets a little crazy out here at times," says Gage, driving a white Ford pickup through Summerlin, Nev., the largest planned community in America. "It's great to be busy in some ways, but in others it's also frustrating wondering how you are going to accomplish all you need to in a given day."

Costly delays

For inspectors, whose salary is paid by the city, time is not a problem. But for builders in a hurry to create homes, delays cost money.

"Any time a developer or builder calls for the inspector and he can't make it to the site, it delays construction and that costs more because time is money," says Tom Simplot, deputy director of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. "Anyone buying a home today needs a 'buyer beware' warning to expect delay. It's just the way things are right now."

By one estimate, most homes in America, particularly those built in hot spots like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Atlanta, will take about 50 percent longer to go from architects' drawings to shingles and studs - say, nine months instead of six. And since the industry received a shock in the aftermath of Florida's hurricane Andrew in 1993 - over insurance industry claims that homes were not constructed as well as they should be - moves are afoot to crack down on shoddy construction.