Homes often are rush jobs, critics assert

This came out in Florida. Insert any state and it would be valid.

Fast work by subcontractors’ unskilled labor leads to flaws

By Dan Tracy
Sentinel Staff Writer

November 3, 2003

The new homes of greater Orlando are built by tens of thousands of men and women who work in the murky world of subcontractors.

Often rushed and poorly supervised, the so-called “subs” sweep onto a job, complete their individualized tasks as swiftly as possible, then move on to the next site.

The faster they lay block or drive nails or run air-conditioning ducts, the more money they make. Production is key, critics say, not quality.

“Speed is of the essence. Time is money. The profit motive is driving everyone to move [too] quickly,” said Don Rattner, a New York City architect and town planner.

That pressure often results in shoddy work, a yearlong investigation by the Orlando Sentinel and WESH-NewsChannel 2 found.

Sentinel/WESH inspections of 406 homes built during 2001 discovered hundreds of examples of poor-quality construction: concrete-block walls that had little or no mortar in the joints; stucco so thinly applied that the outline of the blocks underneath was visible; air-conditioning ducts bent at such sharp angles that almost no cool air could get through; metal-frame windows jammed into crooked openings in the wall.

Such carelessness is the result of building too many houses too fast, with workers who have little training and not enough oversight, builders and hired hands say. Adding to the problem is the fact that many workers can’t speak or read English, or decipher a blueprint.

Private home inspector Kelvin Eder recalled finding poorly installed roof trusses in one west Orange County house – because the crew could not read English.

As long as a picture was available, the trusses were aligned perfectly, he said. But some connection points were wrong, he said, because the framers could not follow the written details on how the work was to be done.

Combine all the problems – unskilled labor, spotty supervision, rushed work schedules, language issues – and the result is “just bad construction,” custom-home carpenter Richard Taylor said.

More than 100 trades

Although consumers buy their new homes from builders, the actual work is done by subcontractors. Builders typically maintain small full-time staffs – office workers, salespeople and a handful of superintendents – and hire out everything else.

More than 100 trades – each one a subcontractor – may work on a single house before it is finished. Overseen by a supervisor employed by the builder, subs put together the various components of a house, such as framing, concrete, electrical, plumbing and roofs. The final product, however, remains the builder’s responsibility.

Labor, which can account for 25% of the cost of a house, is one of the areas in which the builder can exercise some control. Unlike the cost of materials and land, which often are non-negotiable, the builder can reduce labor charges by paying lower wages or employing fewer workers.

That, in turn, squeezes the subs, who frequently skirt the law to remain competitive and profitable, say those involved in the region’s $2 billion-a-year residential-construction industry.

Subs often lower their bids by paying workers cash, thus avoiding taxes and workers-compensation insurance premiums, which can add up to 50percent of payroll costs. They also hire undocumented migrants, many of whom will work for low pay and no benefits.

By some estimates, illegal migrants, mostly Mexicans, make up half of the 50,000 people in residential construction in the region. The 2000 census found only 10,000 Hispanic construction workers, a number considered ridiculously low by many in the trade.

It is difficult to count people who do not want to be noticed, much less be part of a government survey. Many undocumented migrants have no permanent address, bunking with one friend or another and catching rides to the job.

“It’s kind of like a big underground, a subculture, an under-the-table work force,” said Carl Engelmeier, who owns E.H. Engelmeier Roofing of Orlando and says he does not hire illegal migrants or cheat in other ways.

Few in the know dispute him. Yet no one will admit to these practices, at least not publicly. The reason: It is against the law and punishable by fines, jail time and deportation.

“It does go on a lot,” said Jeffrey Korte, bureau chief of workers-compensation fraud for the Florida Department of Financial Services. He fields calls daily about subs cheating on insurance and taxes while employing illegal migrants, primarily Mexicans.

But proving those claims is difficult, he said. Often, he said, he is given few or no specifics, such as the name of the supposed lawbreaking company or the location of the job. In those cases, he said there’s nothing he can do: “We can’t just go on a witch hunt.”

Even so, his office shut down more than 500 subs during the past three years in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake and Brevard counties. They were fined a total of $1million, but no one went to jail. There was no breakdown of how many illegal migrants might have been involved.

The production builders responsible for constructing the vast majority of the new homes in Central Florida declined comment for this series, saying they thought they would not be treated fairly.

But several small, custom builders did talk. They said they do not knowingly employ subcontractors who cheat or hire illegal aliens and that the law doesn’t require them to check the status of the subs’ workers. They also conceded illegals do get hired, saying it is impossible to tell who is lying or showing them fake documents.

“You cannot set up homeland security at the break truck,” said Charles Clayton, a custom builder and past president of the Home Builders Association of Metro Orlando.

Some trades unlicensed

The easiest of the major trades to catch work with are carpentry, masonry and drywall, none of which is licensed by the state.

Electrical, plumbing, HVAC and roofing companies are licensed, meaning they are tracked more closely by the state, and the owners must pass competency tests to operate. There are more than 7,100 state-certified contractors in Central Florida.

A carpentry, masonry or drywall outfit needs only an occupational license, which basically means writing a check to the county or city issuing the document. More than 6,500 subcontractors have occupational licenses just in Orange County.

“Everybody who has a pickup truck is pulling a [cement] mixer behind them,” said John Amback, who owns a masonry company in Lake County.

The Sentinel/WESH inspections show that work by subcontractors in these three categories – carpentry, drywall installation and masonry – accounted for large numbers of workmanship problems found in the 406 randomly selected homes. With a 5 percent margin of error, it is the first statistically valid measure of new-home construction in Florida and likely the nation.

Many carpentry problems are covered by stucco or drywall, but their flaws are evident in roofs that sag because the trusses were installed incorrectly, or in the windows that leak or have cracks around them because the opening left for them was not square. Nearly 80percent had uneven ceilings and walls and other drywall problems. And more than 6 in 10 had major cracking in the exterior walls, driveways, floors and decking.

Likely causes of the concrete problems, Amback said, were using watered-down concrete, not allowing the foundation pads to dry long enough – both of which greatly reduce the material’s strength – and putting too little mortar between the block walls’ joints.

“They’re slamming it up,” Amback said of many masons. “Nothing is level; nothing is plumb.”

Relying on superintendents

Although the subs do all the heavy lifting, the builders count on their superintendents to ensure that the work is done right. That system doesn’t always work.

In popular subdivisions, it is not uncommon for production supervisors to be in charge of 20 or more houses going up at once. Only an experienced and dedicated manager can handle such a load, said Ron Resch, a 12-year veteran home inspector and paid consultant to the Sentinel and WESH.

“Twenty houses is a lot of houses to watch,” Resch said. “It all depends on the supervisor himself. Each individual has different capabilities.”

Homeowners complain frequently that they catch mistakes while the house is being built that the supervisors should have noted and corrected.

Jack Baumgardner, for instance, said his builder had to install the windows in the entertainment room of his $400,000 house in southeast Orange County three times before they were done right. Such mistakes were among the reasons Baumgardner moved into his house four months late.

“If I was managing it, I could get it done [on time],” the 55-year-old electrical engineer said.

Lackluster supervision and a finish-it-yesterday mentality by subs often lead to sloppy work, said Braden Souder, 20, a masonry foreman who works for his father’s company. He described the supervisory attitude at many job sites as: “You guys need to hurry up and get it done, get it done.”

Jose, an illegal migrant who has worked as a mason for three years, said his 24-member crew does good work when told to put up the walls of one house in a day. But two in a day is iffy, he said, and three is bad, resulting in callbacks to fix sloppy work.

Although he could not provide a percentage, he said his crew often has to build more than one house in day because of backups caused by rain, supply shortages – or a good week by the sales staff.

“You just do what you have to,” he said through an interpreter. He asked that his full name not be used for fear of deportation.

Souder agrees that many subs speed through work to boost their pay. He said he works hard but does not sacrifice quality for a few extra dollars.

“I just try to do a good job,” he said, “the best work I can.”

Lower pay for building homes

Union officials and industry authorities say residential construction pays 20 percent to 30 percent less than commercial or industrial jobs. The upshot: Workers with skills tend to gravitate to building condominiums or offices or hotels or attraction rides, for better pay and benefits.

And the low pay Mexicans willingly accept undercuts the salaries for everyone in residential construction, said Richard Taylor, a carpenter and subcontractor who frames mostly custom houses in metro Orlando.

Taylor, who said he does not hire illegal migrants, has the same complaint as Engelmeier and Amback. He loses out on jobs, he said, because he pays higher wages – $12 to $20 an hour, depending on experience – and workers-compensation coverage.

His pay scale is more than what many production builders pay their subs because the houses he frames generally are more complicated, making skilled hands a necessity.

Taylor, a subcontractor for more than 20 years, said the influx of Mexicans has grown steadily to the point that they now represent at least 50percent of the residential work force.

Many of the jobs they take were held once by American workers who moved into better-paying industries with more advancement opportunities, said Kurt Morauer, director of training-program development at the National Center for Construction Education and Research in Gainesville.

Labor-recruiting problems, some say, can be traced back half a century, when military veterans began going to college in droves on the GI Bill, eschewing blue-collar trades.

“We’ve been telling our kids since the 1950s that the only way to be successful was to go to college,” Morauer said.

And even the students who are thinking of construction as a career tend to steer clear of residential because of the pay.

“If you want to make money, it’s commercial or industrial,” said Ahmad Anselme, an 18-year-old Pine Hills resident studying to be an electrician at Mid-Florida Tech.

The bottom line: There are more residential-construction jobs than there are people willing to do the work. As many as 400 jobs a day go unfilled in the area, according to state and federal labor agencies.

That deficit provides a perfect opportunity for Mexicans desperate for employment – and for subcontractors to rush from one job to the next.

Dan Tracy can be reached at 407-872-7200, Category 5483, or

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