A Perfect Storm Of Inspection Violations
By JOHN W. ALLMAN The Tampa Tribune
Published: Oct 20, 2007
TAMPA - Home Inspections LLC could not produce documentation that it employed experienced hurricane inspectors - one of several reasons state officials gave for firing the company last week.
Home Inspections was one of 11 inspection companies the state hired to provide free hurricane inspections through its My Safe Florida Home program. Each of the companies was recently audited.
Its contract was terminated Oct. 12, based on the audit results, said Tami Torres, special programs administrator for the Department of Financial Services, which oversees My Safe Florida Home.
The Tampa Tribune on Sunday reported that widespread discrepancies exist in the inspection reports, which help determine whether houses can withstand a hurricane and what, if any, safety improvements can be made. More than 98,000 residents statewide have gotten inspections since August 2006.
The state received 105 complaints about Home Inspections during its six months in the program. Of those, 97 were from homeowners who said they found an error in an inspection report prepared by the company.
The company, based in Madeira Beach, has been paid $893,250 for 5,955 inspections completed to date.
The state, per its contract, pays $150 for each inspection.
Home Inspections’ audit contains a litany of violations, including:
•Failure to maintain adequate records.
Personnel files for 34 of 39 inspectors did not include a resume or other documentation of prior inspection experience. In addition, 95 percent of the files lacked a required criminal background check and 11 of 39 files did not have required drug test results. Twelve of the 39 lacked proof that inspectors had completed the necessary training and testing required by the state.
The state required anyone hired to have prior residential construction and/or residential inspection experience. It did not specify the length of experience.
“The majority of the files contain virtually no information regarding the background, experience and education of the inspectors,” the audit found. “Several of those that did contain any form of resume revealed these individuals had little or no relevant experience prior to this program.”
•Failure to monitor its own inspections for accuracy.
Home Inspections agreed in its contract to reinspect 100 percent of its inspections to make sure few to no errors were being made. However, Torres said, an auditor found that only 1.5 percent, or 60 reinspections, had been done. And, she said, those reinspections happened days before the auditor arrived to review the firm’s performance.
•Failure to immediately notify the state that an inspector has been suspended or fired. Home Inspections, according to Torres, told the auditor it had suspended seven inspectors and fired 12 more. The company later said, however, that it had fired only four inspectors. But it notified the state of only two of those dismissals, which meant two other fired inspectors remained active in the state’s database.
The notification is important, Torres said, because it helps prevent bad inspectors from applying for work with another of the My Safe Florida Home firms.
Company Had Potential Conflict
Torres said there is no indication that all the inspections completed by Home Inspections should be questioned.
The state, in addition to the audits, is reviewing inspections for all 11 firms through a random reinspection of 3,000 homes statewide. A report on overall accuracy is expected this month.
“From a standpoint of building credibility, the firms we work with have to be of the highest caliber,” Torres said. “The public’s confidence level is very important to us.”
Another problem, according to the audit, involved a possible conflict of interest regarding the owner of Home Inspections.
Tom Whalley, chief executive officer, also owns Tom Whalley’s Installations 'R Us, which sells and installs hurricane shutters and protective panels. The company, according to the audit, requires all inspectors to sign an agreement not to market products or solicit sales while conducting My Safe Florida Home inspections.
The audit found that 13 of the 39 inspectors never signed the agreement.
“While no specific cases of conflict of interest were identified,” the audit stated, “inspectors expressed concern that there is a potential for conflict, especially regarding the procedure for calling back homeowners to determine customer satisfaction.”
Whalley said Friday that he is not sure yet whether he will fight the decision to end his contract. He has until Nov. 2 to file an appeal.
In a response to the audit, dated Oct. 15, his company disputed the state’s findings. It said that inspector files have been brought into compliance since the audit. It said that 85 reinspections - not 60 - were completed. And it said that each inspector must perform 10 mock inspections, which are reviewed for mistakes, prior to that inspector being sent into the field.
Need For More Training Seen
The My Safe Florida Home program has received criticism from homeowners since its inception. Many complained about changes to the program this year that eliminated much of the state from applying for a $5,000 matching grant to make improvements.
The Legislature voted in May to narrow grant eligibility to those who live within the wind-borne debris region, an area that extends inland about one mile. Most of Hillsborough County sits outside that region.
The Tribune, in examining the reinspection reports that the state will use to gauge accuracy, found that inspectors often differed on key portions. In a random sampling of 72 homes, looking at inspection and reinspection reports, the newspaper found a minimum of 20 discrepancies between the two inspectors in each set of reports. Six examples had more than 100 discrepancies.
In addition, the newspaper looked at the training that inspectors receive, which amounts to a single class and an open-book test.
The state this week said it is revamping its requirements for inspectors and inspection firms. On Monday, it will announce which of the remaining 10 companies will continue doing inspections - for now.
Some of the firms may be let go, Torres said, because they are not meeting the state’s standard, per the audit. But, she added, none of the other companies were found to have violated the contract, or else they would have been terminated immediately as well.
In November, the state plans to seek new proposals from inspection firms before signing new contracts in January. The state said it likely will stipulate more training of inspectors.
“We want to make sure if someone is coming out to your home, they know what they’re doing, and you can have confidence in the report you get back,” said Tara Klimek, communications director for Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.
Reporter John W. Allman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 259-7915.