Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Incomplete Inspection Shackles Homeowners Buyer Must Ensure House Passes Muster

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Incomplete Inspection Shackles Homeowners Buyer Must Ensure House Passes Muster

Article excerpt

Linda Armstrong's living room smells moldy.

The floor stays damp and the back yard is soggy.

City inspectors say the drainage is inadequate and the Mandarin house has building code violations. Property appraisers value it at half the $156,000 that Armstrong and her husband paid in 1998.

The builder, Rene Dostie Jr., sold them the house without completing inspections that the city requires at every new house.

But City Hall says there's nothing it can do, and that it was the buyers' job to make sure the house had passed inspection.

A recent legal memo shows that, despite changes that strengthened local building inspections two years ago, people who do not get proof their homes were inspected will have to fend for themselves.

Armstrong said the city is abandoning its responsibility to regulate builders.

"The laws do not read 'Buyer beware,'" she said. "I resent the fact that the city just bluntly doesn't have the guts to enforce the code."

But a city lawyer said the building codes are supposed to be applied before a house is sold, and that inspectors' hands are tied after that.

"There's really not much we can do," Assistant General Counsel Anthony Zebouni said.

The city has never had a way to make sure builders pass inspection before selling a home.

Some builders have been caught as many as six times moving people into homes that weren't fully inspected, Building Inspection Chief Tom Goldsbury said.

While there are ways for buyers to retaliate -- sue, or complain to agencies that license contractors -- Zebouni said the city Building Inspection Division cannot hold contractors responsible for code violations after a building is sold.

"If there is something that is out of code, it falls on the owner," he said.

MENDING THE RULES

The Mandarin dispute dredged up the kinds of consumer complaints City Hall hoped to settle for good in 1998, when it changed local building codes that had violated state laws for more than a decade.

City records at the time showed more than 40 percent of all homes built in Jacksonville missed or failed some of the inspections required by law.

Following a recommendation by the Florida Attorney General's Office, the city adopted rules that require new homes to pass final inspections, certifying them fit to occupy.

City Hall warned buyers to beware when the inspection law passed, saying consumers were responsible for making sure their homes had passed.

People who moved into unapproved homes could even face penalties -- such as having the JEA cut off electricity, city officials said.

But the city still fielded complaints from some buyers and instructed builders to fix inspection problems.

NO FIXES, NO PERMITS

To coerce contractors who ignore the city's instructions, Goldsbury said he refuses to give some companies more building permits until they fix existing problems. He described that as a last resort.

In October, Goldsbury prohibited Dostie from getting any more building permits until he submitted plans to fix drainage problems at Armstrong's home in the Sweetwater Creek South subdivision off Greenland Road.

Armstrong and her husband, Larry Marscheck, had bought the home 15 months earlier. …

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