The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Construction Miscues and Mishaps

Homebuyers who expect their newly built castles to be flawless masterpieces are only fooling themselves: The perfect, zero-defect house has yet to be built.

A house is a giant jigsaw puzzle. Not only does it come in as many as 10,000 pieces -- many of which don’t always fit as precisely as they should -- it is put together by dozens of human beings, sometimes working at cross purposes in harsh, if not extreme, weather conditions, almost always under a fast-approaching deadline.

So, yes, builders make mistakes -- sometimes big ones. Like the house Avex Homes built in the Tampa area that was too close to its neighbor. The county rules say no house should be within 10 feet of another, but Avex crews built one with a gap of less than 6 feet. The builder was required to lop 4 feet off the completed house.

This kind of major snafu is a rare occurrence, to be sure. Even structural defects in which one or more load-bearing elements could suffer a catastrophic failure are few and far between.

According to Paul Thomas, national risk manager at 2-10 Home Buyers Warranty, an average of only 1 percent of all new houses suffer a major structural defect over their first 10 years. Of course, that varies; geographic areas with water intrusion issues or expansive soils tend to have more problems.

Minor issues occur more frequently. About 5 percent of all homes, Thomas reports, experience drywall cracks from foundations settling or wood shrinkage.

Face it: Nails pop out from the drywall as a house settles, concrete is going to crack, doors may not close precisely, a floor tile might crack and a bathtub or sink might have a scratch or two. Annoying, yes, but easily repaired without too much hassle.

But every builder has a whopper of a story about a big mistake. A subcontractor misreads a blueprint, a building inspector fails to catch a major flaw, or a product is totally defective and irreparable. Builders won’t talk about these miscues on the record, lest their names become synonymous with shoddy construction, but they’ll share them anonymously.

Here are some of their taller tales:

-- A building inspector in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, discovered that a house’s foundation had been poured 6 inches over the property line, largely because there was 4 feet of snow on the ground. The foundation had to be removed and redone. Fortunately, the mistake was discovered before construction got any further. Had the house been built in its entirety, the builder would have had to seek a variance from the city -- an iffy prospect at best.

-- A Maryland builder once left his blueprints at home, and instead of going back to retrieve them, he guessed on the site lines. He guessed wrong, by 2 feet, and had to start over in the right place.

-- In Columbia, South Carolina, a builder poured the concrete slab over the pipes before he called for a plumbing inspection. He had to break up the slab and start all over again. And he said he has recurring nightmares about building the wrong house on the wrong lot -- a mistake he hasn’t made, at least not yet, but that remains his worst nightmare.

-- That nightmare became a reality for a Seattle builder, who was able to persuade his buyer to switch lots. And a Dayton, Ohio, builder who built four houses on the wrong lots is still mired in a court battle while the four houses sit empty.

-- Then there’s the story of the builder who built the garage ordered by one buyer on the house next door. He solved his dilemma by giving the garage to the neighboring house’s buyer free of charge, and building another one on the right house. “There wasn’t anything else I could do,” he told me.

-- Many builders have horror stories about carpentry nails being driven into plumbing pipes. And once those nails start to work themselves loose, the result is often a slow leak, but sometimes a gusher of a flood.

-- A San Antonio builder recalls the time a carpenter put a window in the wrong place. Just before stopping for lunch, he marked the center of where the window should be. But when returned, he used the mark as a corner, throwing the opening off-center by 18 inches. Only when the house was finished was the error discovered: Four windows lined up perfectly, but the fifth one didn’t.

But not all miscues turn out badly. In Boston, for example, a crew put a gable roof on a house that called for a Tudor style. The buyer was the first to notice the mistake; the builder, who thought it looked awful, was sick about it. He said he would remove the roof and replace it with the proper one.

But the buyer liked it just the way it was. So did some others: Of the next four buyers of the same model house, two ordered their homes with gable roofs as well.