Homeowners always ask me how the City or County Building Official failed to detect their construction defects. The next question is always, “is the inspector liable?” or, “can we sue the city or county?” This articles serves to answer these questions.
The Building Process
Most jurisdictions provide for a building process that includes a building plan review, obtaining building permits, and inspections by local building officials. The plan review process is when the City or County inspectors determine whether the plans themselves are adequate for the planned construction. Once the plans are approved the permits are issued to build according to the approved plans. Once construction begins there are periodic inspections that occur at certain phases or milestones in the construction process such as when the framing is complete or when the rough electrical has been installed just to name a few. The inspection process culminates at the final inspection when a Certificate of Occupancy ("C.O.") is issued and the homeowner can move into their new home.
So how is it that after going through this involved plan check and inspection process a new development can end up with construction defects? The answer comes from understanding how the process works and the responsibility of those involved.
Building Plan Review
Generally, the building department first gets involved in the construction of a new home during the plan review. The plan review is when the builder provides a copy of the proposed plans and specifications to the building department for approval. The plans are reviewed by the City or County inspectors for general compliance with building code and city and county standards and are approved or changes are requested to come into compliance.
So what happens if your project makes it through plan check and you still end up with design defects? Is the City or County liable for approving the plans? The short answer is no. The builder’s engineer or architect may be responsible for design defects, but the City and County inspectors are not. They are just checking the plans for general compliance with the City or County standards. They are not guaranteeing to the homeowner that the plans are fully compliant with all codes and standards. The City and County engineers rely on the builder’s design team to make a detailed analysis. The governmental entities do not have the time or resources to make a detailed investigation it would take to make sure the plans are fully compliant with all codes and standards.
After the plans are approved by the engineering department of the City or County in plan check, permits are issued and construction begins. The next phase the building officials are involved in is the inspections.
City or County Building Inspections
After construction begins the City or County perform their periodic inspections. These inspections are somewhat standardized but do vary a bit from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But what is the purpose of the inspection? Isn’t it to make sure all of the construction is as it should be? The short answer is no.
While having your home go through the series of inspections gives the impression that your home was built according to the plans and specifications and the minimum building code requirements, that is not necessarily the case. In fact, the Building Code specifically provides that approval as a result of an inspection is not an approval of defective construction. In short, the city or county building inspectors do not guarantee that a home was building in compliance with the plans, specifications, or minimum building code requirements. Instead, they help minimize the errors that a contractor may make; however, they do not catch everything. Generally, building inspectors do not catch everything because, among other reasons, they are busy and only have a short time period in which to observe the construction. For example, while construction may go on for 10-14 hours a day, an inspector is generally only on the job for about 30-40 minutes a month to perform inspections.