Do Building Inspectors Make You Safer?

In the building trades we see the results of a government program that is supposed to be a benefit to society, but because it is a government monopoly it harms a lot more than it helps. I’m talking about building inspectors. We are told that without them all the buildings would be unsafe not up to code and that would cause death and destruction.

So, people in the trades are forced to buy permits, follow a lot of stupid rules that don’t improve anything, and spend valuable time waiting for permits and inspections, causing increased housing costs for the consumers.

Does it make sense to have to wait weeks (or months) for the approval of a bureaucrat who can barely read the plans, when the building was designed by architects and engineers? What real purpose does this serve?

If building inspectors (or the local building departments) were really supposed to be upholding standards of safety, wouldn’t they be held responsible for their oversights, errors, and quality of buildings they approve and inspect? If you were to hire somebody to make sure that a building was safe, wouldn’t they have to guarantee their work?

Not so with government building inspectors. They are protected from being held responsible by laws saying that you can’t sue them for their mistakes, even if you can prove that they purposely approved buildings that they knew were unsafe.

In the building trades, it is common knowledge that the way to get a project approved quickly is to provide labor, materials, equipment, etc. to work on the inspectors’ property, give cruise ship vacations or airline tickets, or otherwise grease the wheels of the bureaucracy. Otherwise, your project might never get approved, inspectors will always find reasons to hold you up, and the project costs will skyrocket far higher than the costs of the bribes.

Isn’t that the nature of government monopolies high costs, poor service, corruption, and no responsibility?

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Retirees Pinched

I heard an oral version of the following story some time ago, and it has been a nag in the back of my mind ever since. I asked the person who shared it with me to write it up for my Princess Collectibles.

The following events and facts are true as told to me by the people it happened to and verified to me by the building inspector involved. This story took place in a little city south of Fresno, California, but whenever (and wherever) I tell it to people in the building trades they have similar stories of their own to top it with.

A couple retired from the Los Angeles area and sold their home for a tidy profit, and bought a house in Dinuba free and clear, so they could live comfortably on their retirement income.

One day the wife bought an adjustable massage showerhead for the shower and asked her husband to install it. He wasn’t sure if he needed a permit or not (legally he didn’t) so he went down to City Hall and asked. Of course, they sold him a permit for $20 and made an appointment for the building inspector to inspect the plumbing job. (We're talking about a showerhead!)

The man unscrewed the old showerhead and screwed on the new one in about fifteen minutes (being slow and careful). When the inspector showed up, he looked at the showerhead and said it was fine. Then he looked at the electric plug by the bathroom sink and said it had to be replaced with a GFCI (ground fault current interrupter) plug. Then he inspected the whole electrical system and said it all had to be replaced, because it was the old style that no longer passed code.

The retired couple was aghast. They were forced to spend all their savings and go thousands of dollars into debt just because they got a permit to install a $6 showerhead.

Was there an issue of public safety? Not according to the inspector or the electrician that replaced all the wiring. They admitted that the old wiring was the same as what was in most of the city and was in reasonably good condition.

A case can be made that the GFCI plugs are safer in that they can prevent electrocution. Installing GFCI plugs in the bathroom, kitchen, and garage circuits would have cost less than $200. But, requiring the entire house to be rewired didn’t improve anybody’s safety, yet cost thousands.

Legally, the old wiring could have stayed as it was for many years. But, in attempting to be legal, by buying a building permit, the couple opened the door for the inspector to then require that the entire house be brought up to current building codes.

This is a case of somebody putting themselves in harm's way by buying into a jurisdiction, giving the inspector power over them, when they could have easily and legally stayed out of the jurisdiction.

Both, fear of doing something wrong and a wish to be a proper member of society, often lead people to put themselves in jurisdictions in which they don't belong to their detriment.

If in doubt, do not ask the authorities whether you fit in their jurisdiction, or need their permit or permission. Instead, research the facts for yourself in some other way.

Authorities will almost always ask you to enter their jurisdiction; they can't force you into it, but they can trick you into it. So you should be wary.