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New home sales in the nation hit record levels in March. Nowhere is the phenomenon more visible than in Las Vegas, gaining 200 new residents on average every day, each one needing a place to live. Builders are eager to help. But inspectors who ensure the safety of that construction can't keep up. Now the inspection department is requesting to increase its staff nearly 50 percent and change its administrative code to meet demand. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
PLASKON: At sunrise in the county's Development Services office, Gary Houk checks the day's to do list.
HOUK: Today it is 3037 inspections.
PLASKON: He supervises inspectors who are sitting at lines of folding tables.
SOUND: People talking
PLASKON: What are all these people doing here?
HOUK: They are getting their work assignments. We have staff that comes in very early in the morning and we have high-speed printers, hello Ron, and they are distributed at each of these tables by their supervisors.
PLASKON: One of Clark County's 100 inspectors is Christine Jamison.
JAMISON: Thirty, three, thirty four, thirty five, thirty six, okay, 137 inspections, my gosh. I don't think I will be able to complete the work load.
PLASKON: Later we catch up with Jaimison arriving at a housing project hours behind schedule.
SOUND: Jamison inspecting.
PLASKON: Construction workers trot behind her as she darts from one shell of a home to another.
SOUND: Kicking things
PLASKON: Like someone kicking the tires of a car they might buy, Jamison kicks the bathtub in this two story home. She looks at wires and opens faucets.
SOUND: Squirting Water
PLASKON: In most places it takes 5 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 here.
JAMISON: I was amazed that all they do is pour a slab, frame it up, wrap it with paper stucco it and that is your house, because where I come from you need a tank to bust through. I remember laughing because I have a 2 year-old and if he does one Karate chop he is going through those studs and out the wall.
PLASKON: But its not her job to comment on the quality, just to make sure houses won't burn or fall down. Customers are increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of their homes to the point of filing suit against builders. This week 15-hundred homes were added to a suit including nearly 8-thousand Summerlin homes for a 76 million dollar claim. Since 1997 the number of construction defect cases has risen from 6 to a backlog of 230. That's similar to the number of cases Orange County had two years ago. In Las Vegas more than 60 new cases are filed every year. Denver only sees 40 new construction defect cases every year according to a National Association of Home Builders study. Comparisons of suits across states are hard because some cities build homes faster than others. Only Las Vegas, San Diego and Los Angeles have created specialty courts called Dirt Courts to deal with these mega trials. Unlike Las Vegas most have given up on keeping statistics. In Las Vegas, the court itself is the victim of construction defects.
CHERRY: It's been a catastrophe.
PLASKON: Judge Michael Cherry's sits in his office and thinks about the new courthouse next door that's sat vacant for years because the county is embroiled in arbitration with the builder.
CHERRY: Not to put any blame on the inspectors, because they are good hard working people, but it doesn't look like they have been very successful in preventing construction defect litigation.
PLASKON: Cherry says he's never seen a frivolous construction defect case. Inspectors aren't preventing construction defect cases because they don't have time says attorney Nancy Quon.
QUON: When it comes to building inspectors we like to call them drive bys because a lot of times that is what you get.
PLASKON: Inspectors drive by properties rushing on over-time to meet deadlines. As it is they miss 300 inspections a day and burn-out is a real threat according to the department. The department is funded by permit fees paid by builders.
ROSENQUIST: The last time Clark County had a building fee increase was 10 years ago.
PLASKON: Phil Rosenquist is the director of Clark County's Development Services.
ROSENQUIST: The short answer is that we don't need to raise the valuations because the revenue that has been generated now is sufficient to meet our needs.
PLASKON: On Monday the department plans to go before the Clark County commission and request more inspectors than ever, 44 inspectors, increasing staff by 50 percent. Rosenquist says the county hasn't had much success attracting inspectors in the past.
ROSENQUIST: We sincerely would love to have a lot more applications for inspectors, but we are doing everything we can to attract more inspectors.
PLASKON: To meet the demand the department is also working on changing the administrative code to license private inspection firms that residential builders can hire to do the county's job.
ROSENQUIST: That was a request of the building industry.
PLASKON: The building industry requested it because a lack of inspectors is holding up the progress of residential construction. The county already has a process for these third party inspections for some aspects of commercial projects. The city of Las Vegas' development services has resisted similar efforts in residential construction. The director has called the idea similar to a fox guarding the hen house.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR