Falling-Apart Houses

Shoddy housing construction is a national plague. Homeowner complaints are inundating local, state and federal housing officials. Cheated homeowners in various new housing developments are organizing to press their demands.
My mail from new homeowners shows the problems are pervasive and that shoddiness is a pattern, not just an occasional lapse in workmanship.
Complaints range over every feature of the new house: electricity, heating, insulation, plumbing, drainage, flooring, roofing, door fitting, and structural deficiencies.
One homeowner from Delaware wrote, of her $28,000 home, “I really believe that the materials in this house are sub-standard; no room is finished perfectly; the house is falling apart; we can see daylight in the basement; kitchen cabinets are coming apart….” Another letter described an exploding shower door which sent glass “onto our bed 25 feet away.” Safety hazards are described involving both bad construction and housing design. The reported defects document alarming conclusions of the National Commission on Product Safety in Washington two years ago.
People wonder: Who is enforcing the housing codes? What standards are there to insure that the homeowner receives fair treatment? Who in government is listening to the complaints and doing something about them? The answers are not encouraging. Home builders, lenders and suppliers pretty much write their own standards and get them adopted as legal codes that are not effectively enforced when violated.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) is supposed to set construction standards and inspect for compliance before insuring loans made by lending institutions to homebuyers. These “minimum property standards” are taken from industry-developed codes which are full of escape hatches. The FHA’s system of home inspection and enforcement to compel the builder to bring housing up to minimum standards is shorthanded, dilatory, and sometimes streaked with collusion or corruption.
Instead of viewing its mission as protecting the homebuyer, the FHA often operates as the servant of the homebuilding industry. With its enormous potential influence for sound housing practices, the FHA has not taken the initiative to develop effective standards and inspection practices. Nor has it shown any willingness to use its only enforcement tool, which is the refusal to insure loans for the builder’s work.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, George Romney, now realizes that the FHA, which is under his Department, has to be reformed from the roots up. But even if he decides to act, the changes must go beyond the FHA. They must include vigorous antitrust enforcement to break up price fixing and product fixing that defraud the homebuyer into exorbitant purchases of defective new housing. There must be an effort to stop homebuilders from further weakening housing standards (in Congressman John Dingell’s words, “skinnier 2 x 4’s, made from weaker trees which FHA bureaucrats allowed to be placed further apart.”).
Rep. Dingell senses the rising interest in Congress in legislation to protect the rights of homeowners. A law could be written to give the homebuyer federal warranty rights against defects in materials and workmanship. Dingell also sees the necessity of placing greater responsibility on lenders, requiring a “truth in building law” and establishing consumer protection standards for the numerous industry and code organizations which determine much of the quality and materials cost of housing.
The homebuyer should have a house that outlasts the mortgage on it.

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