Director of Content

Sal Alfano is Director of Content for Professional Remodelersalfano@sgcmail.com, 202.603.4884

Total Recall

Homeowners need a certified technician to work on their cars, but they can hire just about anybody to remodel their homes. Why is that and what can we do about it?

August 31, 2016

My 2013 Honda Fit was recently recalled due to a faulty airbag. When we called the dealer to schedule the repair, we discovered, as have many thousands of other car owners, that the parts weren’t available. (Small wonder, considering that more than 30 million cars may be affected in the American market alone.)

Because the defective airbag was on the driver’s side, Honda paid for a rental, but only after we signed a document agreeing to store the car at our home and promising not to drive it—except for the drive back to the dealer when they had the parts instead of having it towed. (Some passenger-side air bags are also being recalled, in which case the car is drivable, but only if you agree to carry passengers in the rear seats only.) What a mess—not just for Honda but for the other 28 automakers listed by Car and Driver as having a potential airbag problem.

But the thing that’s interesting to me about this is that the process that led to the recall and repair, while not perfect (Takata, the maker of the defective inflators at the heart of the problem, reportedly knew about the issue since 2004 but didn’t tell anyone), is well established and results in repairs eventually being made by certified technicians. And understandably so, given the obvious danger involved in driving a car with an airbag that might explode and throw off scraps of metal and plastic.

Compare that to a typical home remodeling project, such as adding a powder room. Any homeowner in America can either build it themselves or hire just about anybody with a hammer and wrench to build it for them. The permit process is easily bypassed, as is the need to hold a general contractor, plumbing, or electrical license, if it’s even required. Or how about something simpler—say, a window replacement.

Anybody can buy a unit from a big-box retail outlet, tear out their existing window, and install the replacement without any knowledge or regard for proper flashing, fastening, and drainage path. Why is that? A poorly installed window will almost certainly lead to mold, rot, and structural deterioration of the wall. And poorly installed plumbing, electrical switches, and outlets are easily as dangerous to health and safety as a defective airbag.

Financially, the risk is about the same—the average value of a powder room or window replacement is on par with the average value of a recalled car (notwithstanding the Ferrari version of either). Yet, while it’s nearly impossible to buy and install an airbag yourself, anybody and his brother can replace a window or build a powder room—or hire anybody else and his brother to do the work—without so much as a sideways glance from building departments, OSHA, EPA, or any of the other agencies looking over remodelers’ shoulders to make sure they meet minimum standards while at the same me reaching into their pockets to extract fees. The last thing remodelers want is more regulation, but I think most would welcome enforcement of regulations that already exist.

That means better funding for building departments and licensing boards, tighter controls on who can pull a permit, standardized licensing requirements, and continuing education requirements to renew licenses. It also means more activism by remodelers. If you complain about high permit fees, then you can’t complain about lack of enforcement, unless it’s to protest that those fees are not equitably being used to fund enforcement across the board. If licensing is a joke, stop laughing and figure out how to give it some teeth. And if illegal operators are plaguing your market, buy a whistle and learn how to blow it.

Construction defects have been a fact of life for the housing industry for decades. Let’s make sure the "recall" work is being repaired by legitimate pros, not created by unlicensed imitators.

Comments

I agree with the content of this article and the need for more oversight to protect homeowners/clients from substandard work or themselves. I am an active, practicing architect and certified code enforcement officer. I would suggest clients and contractors go one step further and work more closely with their design counterparts instead trying to be rogue designers under the radar. While most people can roll on a new coat of paint or replace tile in their bathrooms, true renovations often involve structural, mechanical and/or electrical changes that can have important code implications.

I am reminded of a story told by my instructor during codes training who recalled a homeowner and weekend carpenter that wanted to install a sliding door in place of a 36" wide window at the back of his living room that lead to a deck of his two story home. After purchasing the 72" wide door from a local, second hand lumber store, he and his buds set out to install the new door. Upon completion, success was heralded with much beer on the deck. A few months later the door began to stick a bit when opened, then winter came and there was no reason to open the door so all was forgotten. When spring again arrived, the door was even harder to open and eventually one of the large panes in the door cracked. Alarmed by this development, he called in another friend who was an architect to observe the situation. Low and behold, a wider header had never been installed to extend the load path in this exterior wall for the wider door, thus significant weight from the second floor bedroom and roof system above had deformed the wall and door frame to the point where the door was under such pressure that the glass cracked. Approximately $8,000 later the door was replaced and associated problems were properly rebuilt. Had the owner consulted a reputable contractor or architect before starting the project, this basic structural problem could have been avoided. I could also tell you many scary
stories about amateur deck builders, but those are for another time.

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