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Las Vegas Building Boom Plagued by Construction Defects


Parts of this nation are on a binge of home buying and home building, and nowhere is that more visible than in Las Vegas. On average, 200 new residents arrive in Vegas every day needing a place to live. Home builders are eager to help, but inspectors, who are supposed to ensure the safety of the construction, cannot keep up. From member station KNPR in Las Vegas, Ky Plaskon reports.

KY PLASKON reporting:

At sunrise in the county's Development Services office, Gary Houk checks the day's to-do list.

Mr. GARY HOUK (Development Services Office): Today is 3,037 inspections.

PLASKON: He supervises inspectors who are preparing for a busy day.

Mr. HOUK: We have staff that comes in very early in the morning, and we have high-speed printers--Hello, Ron.

RON: Hi, Gary.

Mr. HOUK: We print inspection tickets for them.

PLASKON: One of Clark County's 100-plus inspectors is Christine Jamison.

Ms. CHRISTINE JAMISON (Home Inspector): A hundred thirty, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37--137 inspections. My God, I don't think I'll be able to complete the workload.

PLASKON: Later, we catch up with Jamison when she arrives at a housing project hours behind schedule.

(Soundbite of construction equipment)

Unidentified Man: Christine?

Ms. JAMISON: Yeah. Yeah.

PLASKON: Construction workers trot behind her as she darts from one shell of a home to another.

(Soundbite of knocking)

PLASKON: Like someone kicking the tires of a car they might buy, Jamison kicks a bathtub in this two-story home. She looks at wires and opens faucets. In most places, it takes five months to build a house, according to the Department of Commerce. In Las Vegas, builders do it in 45 days. Jamison says building codes are more relaxed than other parts of the country.

Ms. JAMISON: I was amazed that all they do is pour a slab, frame it up, wrap it with paper, stucco it and that's your house. Because I remember laughing, saying, `I have a two-year-old. If he does one karate chop, he's going through those studs and out the wall.'

PLASKON: But it's not her job to comment on the thinness of the walls, just to make sure the houses won't burn or fall down. Even though they rush from project to project, they miss up to 400 inspections a day. Construction defect attorney Michelle Quon says homeowners can't rely on inspectors for much.

Ms. MICHELLE QUON (Attorney): I mean, when it comes to building inspections, we like to call them drive-bys, because a lot of times that's about what you get. And so what a building inspector might even recall from a project he was involved in may be minimal.

PLASKON: She sometimes calls inspectors as witnesses in the growing number of construction defects cases that have accompanied this housing boom.

(Soundbite from a courtroom)

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible)

PLASKON: There are so many of these complicated cases that Las Vegas dedicated this entire courtroom to them.

(Soundbite from a courtroom)

Unidentified Man: One hundred and nine of the homes currently...

PLASKON: San Diego and Los Angeles, which experienced similar building booms, have these dirt courts, too. In Las Vegas, the caseload has grown from six in 1997 to a backlog of 223. Every year, 60 new cases are filed. Even the court is a victim of construction defects.

Judge MICHAEL CHERRY (Construction Defects): It's been a catastrophe.

PLASKON: Construction defect judge Michael Cherry sits in his office and thinks about the new 17-story courthouse next door. It has sat vacant for years while the county is in arbitration over construction defects with the builder.

Judge CHERRY: And not to put any blame on the inspectors, because they're good, hard-working people, but it doesn't look like they've been very successful in preventing construction defect litigation.

PLASKON: To help solve the shortage of government inspectors, the county now wants to allow home builders to outsource the inspections to private companies. County building official Ron Lynn says private inspectors are already allowed for offices, hotels and stores, so why not homes, too?

Mr. RON LYNN (County Building Official): I have 14 monitors who do nothing but monitor the activities of these hundreds of special inspectors and have the ability to summarily remove anybody from performance if they feel their work is not up to the codes and standards of Clark County.

PLASKON: The County Commission is expected to consider the proposal this year. If approved, Vegas may be the first to privatize inspections in the burgeoning home-building market. For NPR News, I'm Ky Plaskon in Las Vegas.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ky Plaskon