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Nashville Scene No Rules

Licenses and codes inspections don't mean diddly for new-house construction

By Walter Jowers

MARCH 28, 2000:  When co-inspector Rick and I check out a new house, we usually find a whole lot of things wrong. That's not because we're the smartest men in the world. It's because the problems we find, if they were Easter eggs, would be Easter eggs the size of Tonka trucks--big-ass, bright-yellow Tonka trucks.

And don't you know, at every new-house inspection, customers hit us with these two questions "Aren't these contractors licensed?" and "Why didn't the codes inspectors catch these mistakes?"

Well, this takes us into the realm of state- and city-level government. Our contractor-licensing laws come from the same folks who brought us the road-kill bill, which gives every Tennessean a right to harvest deer and possum meat from the side of the road (but no cats or dogs--that just wouldn't be right).

Codes enforcement happens at the city level. In Nashville, it's ultimately controlled by the Metro Council, the very people who moved Halloween back in time 24 hours because, as Councilwoman Lynn Williams said, Sunday is "a day for settling down." Of course, there are some very bright and hardworking people in state and city government. But given their mind-numbing, near-impossible task, it's a wonder they can get through their public-service day without jumping off the Shelby Street bridge.

It's not hard to get a contractor's license. "If you've got some dough in the bank, and you can fog a mirror, you can get one," says Bruce Mott, owner/operator of Mott Builders. The mirror-fogging part stems from the fact that just about anybody who's smart enough to breathe can sit through a training course and walk out with enough knowledge to pass the contractor's licensing test. After he passes the test, a would-be contractor asks for approval from the state Contractor's Board, which is heavily populated by building materials suppliers. Now, if a person sells building materials for a living, he's going to be in favor of putting more contractors into the world. Good or bad, they'll all buy some lumber sooner or later.

Once a wannabe contractor has jumped through those big, low hoops, he can hire anybody to work on a house. He could hire out-of-work rocket scientists, he could hire skilled tradespeople, or he could hire hard-drinking illiterates who might just work all day for a carton of cigarettes.

Nothing against hard-drinking illiterates, but they do have a hard time reading manufacturer's specifications. Take for instance, the bright-yellow tag that comes on every water heater's temperature-and-pressure (T&P) valve. It says right on the tag that there has to be a discharge line on the T&P valve, and that line must be able to withstand temperatures up to 250 degrees. What do most local installers use? PVC plastic, which isn't even rated for regular old hot water, let alone 250-degree hot water.

And then there's B-vent, the double-wall pipe that's used for an exhaust pipe on most gas water heaters and furnaces. Embossed right onto every piece of B-vent are the words, "One inch minimum clearance to combustibles." What do most local installers do? Butt it right up to paper and wood.

Local building codes require--not suggest or hint--that brick veneer be equipped with weep holes and flashing. The idea is to let water that gets behind the brick veneer seep out before it causes the wood in the walls to rot. There's even a picture in the code book that shows how to put the weep holes in. You'd think that even non-reading, unskilled types would be able to work from a picture. But no. I have yet to see even one local house where the weep holes and flashings are installed properly.

When I point these things out to homebuyers, that's when they get around to the question, "Why don't the codes inspectors catch these things?"

Well, truth be told, I have no earthly idea. I know that most building codes departments are undermanned, underfunded, and hurried. But some of the problems we see are things that a boy can see from a moving truck.

We don't see codes inspectors often, but in my limited time with them, I've had these experiences:

1. Once I called a codes inspector over and showed him a pull-down stair installed on a 14-foot ceiling. On the stair was a big red label that said, "Don't install this stair on any ceiling higher than 10 feet." The codes guy just shuffled his feet and said, "Well, I don't know what I'm going to tell the builder. I've let him do this at least a hundred times."

2. At my very own house, when bare-naked wires were hanging out of every receptacle and fixture, the codes inspector drove up and honked the horn. When I went out to see what he wanted, he handed me the final inspection documents on the electrical system.

So, you would-be new-house buyers, listen to me: Licensed contractors are like licensed car drivers. Some are excellent, some are really bad, and some are downright dangerous. And just like the traffic cops can't catch all the bad drivers, the codes inspectors can't--or won't--catch all the bad contractors.


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