Greg Kapitan, owner of Texas Home Exteriors, has a message for Houston-area homeowners. They should be on the lookout if they receive a very low bid on siding or roofing jobs. That’s because, Kapitan alleges, it’s quite likely that whoever’s offering that lowest of low bids may be using recycled or stolen building materials such as siding planks, roofing shingles, and tarpaper. He cites as proof a Houston police investigation of construction site thefts, so-called Operation 2x4, which in 2007 resulted in almost 60 arrests. Those arrested were mostly homeless people, put up to pilfering from jobsites by unscrupulous types who rewarded them with “drugs and lunch money,” according to Victor Rodriguez, the police captain who directed the sting.
In the Billions
The Houston sting may be old news, but theft of materials from construction sites never went away. If anything, it’s more prevalent now than ever. The blog Construction Junkie says that equipment theft annually costs somewhere between $300 million to $1 billion. But studies cited rely on thefts reported to local authorities. One assumes that most contractors are too busy scrambling to get the job back on track to bother calling the cops. At Construction Executive newsletter, editor Marla McIntyre points out that although exact figures aren’t available, all agree the problem has grown enormously in recent years. “Losses due to theft and vandalism on construction sites have been increasing dramatically during the past decade,” she writes, quoting a sheet published by the Great American Insurance Group, which states: “Although exact figures are not available, all reliable estimates are that losses due to theft and vandalism are in the billions of dollars.”
There are thieves who specialize in plundering construction sites, such as the guy busted a year ago in Washington state with $10,000 worth of bath tubs, sinks, lighting fixtures, grout, caulk, lumber, shutters, columns, doors, trusses, nails, subflooring, wall sheeting, and a garbage disposal stolen from four contractors. “Marysville police and the North Snohomish County Property Crime Unit believe the suspect would rent a truck and load it with stolen goods taken from construction sites in the area,” The Daily Herald notes.
Heavy equipment such as bulldozers, tractors, and so on, is the biggest prize for organized thieves. After that come tools—especially power tools. But ordinary day-to-day items such as studs, fasteners, shingles, underlayment—you name it—disappear just as readily if a jobsite isn’t secured. Experts point out that you’re not only out the dollars it takes to replace the materials/tools/equipment, but you can also see a significant drop in employee morale and productivity as a result of theft, notes Courtney DeMilio at Safety Outlook newsletter: “Victims of construction equipment theft can feel vulnerable and unmotivated for weeks following,” she writes, “which can in turn lead to employee turnover.” The research DeMilio cites shows that the most popular items to steal—clearly from commercial sites—include backhoes, wheel and skip loaders, skid steers, and towables such as generators and air compressors. November and March are the biggest months for thefts.
Jobsites are temporary by nature and an unsecured site is a hand-written invitation to local thieves to help themselves to your company’s materials. According to Maureen Silber, security manager for tool manufacturer DeWalt, 95 percent of professional contractors experience some jobsite theft in a year’s time. Often the items pilfered are sold for a fraction of the purchase price.
Copper pipe is a notorious thief magnet, but so, apparently, is quality metal roofing. Two years ago, workers set to install a metal roof on a Tennessee elementary school under construction were so annoyed with the theft of between $6,000 and $8,000 worth of metal roofing that they canvassed local scrap yards asking to be alerted should anyone drop by with a large load of steel roofing. Sure enough, someone showed up, wanting just $200 for the materials. The company got the metal roofing back and the thief was arrested.
In Athens County, Ohio, last September two men made off with a job’s worth of metal roofing though deputies located the product at an auto parts scrap yard and identified the suspects via surveillance video.
A sudden uptick in construction work often results in a comparable rise in jobsite thefts. Three years ago a series of tornados struck areas around Oklahoma City and roofing companies mobilizing to repair or replace roofs experienced a plague of jobsite thefts that left them flummoxed about where to stage their materials. “Normally when we drop off materials, we try to leave them on the roof, which eliminates most of the thefts,” Ryan Drake, co-owner of Target Roofing, told the Oklahoma Journal-Record.
“But a lot of the jobs we’ve got in Moore right now require framing work,” Drake said. “You can’t leave shingles on a roof that’s been compromised. You leave any of that on the ground and it’s going to disappear.”
In one instance, workers cutting boards went around the side of the house to install something and returned to find all their saws gone. Jason Kaaiohelo, president of the Oklahoma Roofing Contractors Association told the paper that normally residential roofing jobs move at a pace such that materials aren’t in place long enough for thieves to notice and act. But “if you get a lot of homes on the same street all being worked on at the same time, you’re going to see things walk off.”
A recent story on Denver television detailed how roofing contractors working with builders are losing their shirts—or their shingles—to thieves. "They are actually taking decking off the roof in the middle of the night, then lowering the material through the house, loading it in the garage, and driving away," a roofing and gutter company owner who didn't want to disclose his name told Denver7 reporter Eric Lupher. “The small roofing contractor is eating this,” he says.
Ways to Prevent Theft
If you’re looking to set up a system to secure your jobsites, TrueLook, a security system supplier, publishes a comprehensive checklist.
At the top of the list is “lighting, lighting, lighting.” The company also suggests security cameras, but those may not be practical at sites of short cycle (under two weeks) jobs.
• Let thieves know you’re watching. ProConstruction Guide suggests regular drive-bys (especially later at night), pointing out that “Good fencing and appropriate signage is often the best jobsite theft deterrent.” Post No Trespassing signs and “make sure signs include emergency numbers for witnesses to call, the reward you offer, and warnings about surveillance and other additional security measures, ” ProConstruction Guide says.
• Don’t leave product lying around. The WhirlwindSteel blog suggests that contractors schedule their product deliveries “in the nick of time. The more things that are laying around waiting to be used, the more tempting it is for those who prey on construction sites,” the site points out. “Schedule materials deliveries so that they arrive as they are needed, rather than being exposed or laying around weeks before they'll be used or installed.”
• Don’t assume it’s not an inside job. Subcontractors and employees are responsible for a substantial portion of jobsite theft. The website Mechanics Hub suggests that contractors “take the time to do background checks and get references for employees to reduce the chances of hiring someone with a track record of stealing from previous employers.”
• Make commonsense precautions routine. Website Home Addition Plus makes the commonsense anti-theft suggestion that contractors “store construction materials and tools in a secure area if at all possible.” This should be fairly easy on a home remodeling project versus a new-home construction project. If you can’t lock up your tools, then take them with you at the end of each day. Also, write down the serial numbers of all your tools and take pictures of them. In addition, cover your materials. The old idiom “Out of site, out of mind” can really help to reduce theft.
Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. firstname.lastname@example.org