Let's stop building $15,000 shacks
As the managing editor of the authoritative journal Electrical Contractor, the author has made a full-time study of home and industrial building in Canada,
THIS YEAR about a hundred and twenty-five thousand Canadian families will undergo the fascinating and sometimes dispiriting experience of buying a new home. Most of them will assume —if it’s their first house—that a builder selling a fifteen-thousand-dollar product must be competent and honest. It will come as an expensive shock to some buyers to find that many builders know little about building and care even less about the customer. In perhaps no other business do people get away with so much ineptitude and dishonesty on such a large scale at such expense to their; victims.
Owners of new homes find that their roofs leak, their floors warp, their paint peels and fades, their electric fuses blow out and their basements are indoor pools. In thousands of new homes a faucet turned on in the kitchen turns off the hot water in the bathroom or makes such a noise in the nursery that it frightens the children. A house will have a good heating system and no insulation whatsoever, or it will be insulated right to the gables and have a heating system barely strong enough to heat a telephone booth. The heart and soul of the modem home-—the electrical system—is often out of date the
There’s a tragic catch in our home-building boom . . . walls that crack, floors that warp and plumbing that fails. Here’s how unscrupulous inept builders cheat thousands of Canadians
day the new owner walks in the door.
The shortcomings of new housing today are a national problem in Canada. In Vancouver one architect, John Porter, complained recently about “the scandalous amount of jerry building” permitted there. In Winnipeg, Walter Bergman, the secretary-manager of the Winnipeg House Builders Association, reported that dishonest builders and low-grade construction were a growing problem. A Toronto planning consultant, Dr. Eugene Faludi, gave some idea of the size of the problem when he said that only about fifteen percent of
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Let’s stop building $15,000 shacks
the builders in business today are competent to build homes. He described some men putting up subdivisions as “charlatans in construction.” One Montreal builder anxious to get the money for his work as soon as possible put up a home so fast that the roof fell in before it was finished. He lost the contract, another builder took it up, and as a result the home cost two thousand dollars more thàn had been estimated.
Even builders are alarmed at what’s happening in their industry. At a meeting in Winnipeg a few weeks ago the Canadian Construction Association called on the federal government for a housing inspection service that would “assure the adequate protection” of home buyers. From most evidence, the request was overdue. Recently Stewart
Bates, president of the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a government agency that administers the National Housing Act under which about half the new houses are built in Canada each year, issued a warning to Toronto builders:
“Competition among you will soon reach the point,” he said, “where only better-quality houses will find a ready market. House builders will have to make room, for it. There will be no room for those who don’t.”
In the meantime the home buyer is often at the mercy of builders cutting costs with second-rate materials and workmanship to fatten their profits, or builders who simply don’t know their jobs. In Halifax an architect was asked by a friend to look over his half-built home after a minor argument with the builder. The architect did and found that the builder was a carpenter who didn’t even have a blueprint for the house but was working from a crude sketch on an envelope. He had quoted a price of thirteen thousand dollars, but there were no specifications for materials and no written agreement that he’d build the house for that price. It was finally completed by another builder for fifteen thousand dollars.
At the time a house is being built there are several inspection services available to a home buyer, but none of them will guarantee that the eavestroughs won’t leak, the cement floor in the basement won’t crack and the paint won’t peel off the walls six months after he moves in. Many official inspections mean little and many inspectors
are inexperienced or indifferent in their work. While some municipalities have excellent inspection staffs others make only the most cursory examination of new homes.
The most useful and thorough inspections are those carried out by the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, but they’ll apply to only about seventy thousand of the hundred and twenty-five thousand homes built in Canada this year. This will be the number built under the National Housing Act by which the Canadian government guarantees banks and insurance companies the money they loan for house building. Since the government guarantees a twenty-five-year loan the CMHC sets standards of materials and workmanship designed to make sure that a house lasts that long.
Even the CMHC inspections—there ^re four on each NHA house at various stages of the construction—do not ensure a first-rate house. “They prevent the atrocious,” one CMHC official said recently, “and they stand in the way of slipshod building methods and cheap or faulty materials.”
For the other fifty-five thousand home buyers this year Canada’s four thousand municipal governments also have compulsory inspections, but they are far from foolproof. The municipalities are interested only in whether a building is safe and sanitary and not in whether the workmanship is good or the materials are made to last. Only about six hundred of all Canada’s municipalities have adopted or try to enforce the National Building Code, a bulky set of rules developed by the National Research Council to promote better building practices and the use of good materials.
Thus the reliability of building inspections varies according to where you happen to be building a house, and also according to who inspects it. In North York township on Toronto’s outskirts the chief inspector, James Garlick, acts as a tough policeman over all home building and has sworn to “chase every jerry builder from the community.” In another Ontario municipality, I recently inspected a subdivision of shack-like homes that had passed all municipal inspections.
In these homes the doors are less than six feet high. A tall man can peer through the jagged saw cut at the top of some doors. The floors aren’t level, and some walls are so badly aligned that they appear to have been pushed askew by some giant hand. Ceilings dip menacingly in the middle and plaster is cracked in the corners. In one house, less than two years old; there is no cement on the basement floor and no hot water. Water supply comes from a tank that collects run-off from the roof when it rains. This home has seven hundred square feet of room and was offered for sale at eight thousand dollars.
Even the CMHC and the municipalities that insist on sound building can’t always be sure that their inspectors are a hundred percent behind them. “At the bottom we have men who’ll take a few dollars to overlook a fault,” one CMHC official told me. “At the top we lose our best men to private industry at twice the salary we can pay them.”
If a. home buyer hasn’t received his mortgage through the NHA, or if his municipality and its inspectors wink at cheap and imperfect housing, how can he protect the money he puts into a house? The answer is that the buyer today has to look after himself. The CMHC has recognized this and is now preparing a booklet of instructions, complete with pictures and diagrams, on what to look for in house building. “We hope that home buyers will do
their own checking,” says the CMHC’s information officer, George Hunt.
One expert, a Toronto engineer named William Hincks, advises clients about to buy a new home to employ an architect to look it over before they make a move. Harry J. Long of Toronto, the president of the National House Builders Association, suggests that a buyer get to know his builder and check his «'edit and his qualifications. “If he’s operating on a shoestring,” says Long, “watch out. That’s when he cuts corners.”
Most of this advice, however, boils
down to the fact that it’s up to the buyer to find out what constitutes good wiring, good heating, good construction, insulation and drainage, in addition to checking up on the character of people he’s dealing with. And he can’t be too careful, for in today’s building boom there are rich opportunities for cheats.
Canada’s house-building business is a muscled giant that gives work to a hundred thousand men and consumes a billion board feet of lumber and seven million barrels of cement in a year. It is a complex interplay of efforts, many
apparently working in opposite directions. Land speculators force up the price of homes; builders try to force them down. Builders work and scheme to make shortcuts in construction; inspectors try to stop them.
When builders achieve their shortcuts and inspectors don’t do their jobs the result is usually jerry building, a loose term that describes a bad job. A jerry-built home won’t necessarily collapse or burst into flames. In fact if it’s covered with paint it could get by in a dream of a rose-covered cottage. One fifteen-thousand-dollar house
in Toronto is, in the words of its owner, “the prettiest little place you ever saw from the outside.” Inside, it’s terrible. It settled unevenly on its foundations and there isn’t a room that is square, level or plumb. Enormous cracks in the walls have been covered with canvas and wallpaper. The floors are so uneven and unstable that the furniture literally skates across them. Nails have worked their way out of boards, and in the kitchen they have pushed up the rubber tiles. It was a young builder’s first house.
Many Canadians have financed such inexperience. Walter Bergman, of the Winnipeg House Builders Association, says there is a growing number of unskilled builders in that city, including one man who was a jeweler and another who worked as a druggist. Harry Long of the National House Builders says there are twenty-five hundred “reputable, established” builders in the country but ten thousand others who “at some time or other build houses.” It is these men, he says, who put up our fifteen - thousand - dollar shacks.
It’s perfectly legal when such a builder goes about cheating a home seeker. In an NHA home he may skimp on the plumbing to save a hundred dollars or use shoddy fixtures and electrical materials to save another fifty. In other homes he may save up to forty dollars by installing a furnace too small for the house, and twenty dollars on a hot-water unit that won’t last a year. In the long run the buyer pays heavily for the economies on which the builder made his money.
The shrewd builder can so conceal his shoddy work that it is exposed only by careful examination. In many Canadian municipalities nobody cares officially whether a house has proper insulation, sewage, water or light. Unscrupulous builders trade on the ignorance of the home buyer, who knows nothing about building and is often willing to trust a builder as he would a doctor.
One Toronto man who bought a new twenty-thousand-dollar bungalow a year ago was certain he’d made a sound purchase. But his TV doesn’t work because the wiring is inadequate, his guttering has leaked at all the joints, his basement floor is always damp, the paintwork has peeled and faded inside the house and outside. Mortar has fallen from beiween the concrete blocks of his garage and putty is coming loose on his windows.
This buyer was smart enough to have a clause written into his building contract making the builder responsible for such flaws that came to light in the first year. Aside from the inconvenience he won’t suffer. But many do.
Often a buyer’s only contract with a builder is verbal, and he has no comeback when the work is slipshod and the materials aren’t what he paid for. One home owner I talked with had complained to his builder about the plumbing in his twenty-five-thousand-dollar home. The builder referred him to the plumber, who merely laughed and said that the builder “got exactly what he paid for.” Inspectors in the municipality, when the owner protested to them, said “the plumbing was okay” when they looked at it.
In British Columbia, where frame houses are common rather than the brick construction familiar in many parts of eastern Canada, architects often hear complaints that modern homes are built to last only fifteen years. “The trouble,” says architect John Porter, “is that many builders use green lumber and this causes warping and cracking of plaster and quick dilapidation.”
CMHC regulations would guard against such faults in NHA homes,
How jerry-building cheats the new-home buyer
but they do not apply in the cases of very cheap or very expensive houses, which cannot be financed through NHA. Yet expensive houses often lend themselves to construction shortcuts. One Toronto house priced at thirty-five thousand dollars had a furnace far too small to heat it properly and the electrical system was inadequate for air-conditioning, washing and other appliances.
Some reputable builders claim that it is the higher-priced home that attracts the more unscrupulous builders.
One Toronto builder puts up only two homes a year, sells each for thirty-five thousand dollars and makes ten thousand profit on each. “Luxury-home buyers are the world’s biggest suckers,” he told me frankly.
This kind of builder, usually a salesman rather than a construction expert, tries to buy lots in the middle of developments being put up by reputable builders, counting on their reputation to help sell his houses. “When I see one of those things going up near one of mine,” one prominent builder
“Some builders trade on a home buyer’s ignorance and give him trashy materials”
said recently, “I get a notion to put a match to it.”
The need for some kind of regulations or supervision to improve the quality of Canadian housing has been recognized by the federal government ever since 1935. At that time few municipalities had any building bylaws; nor did they care what kind of homes went up. To stimulate building during the Depression and reduce unemployment the government passed the Dominion Housing Act which authorized government loans to home buyers of up to one quarter of the cost of a home. Private loan companies and insurance companies were left to finance the other three quarters of the cost. In making the loan, however, the government Vequired lending companies to enforce certain building regulations.
Only five thousand homes were built with DHA loans between 1935 and 1938, when DHA was repealed and replaced with the National Housing Act, which actually was not much different. During the war there was hardly any home building, but at the end of the war, with a housing boom in sight, the government created Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation to administer the National Housing Act. It wasn’t until 1954, however, when the government stopped putting up a quarter of the cost of a house as a loan and began to guarantee the entire loan made by private companies, that CMHC set up its own inspection service.
An army of dollar grabbers
In the meantime some strange things happened in the home-building business. One of the most significant was the decrease in skilled builders. In normal times builders’ sons inherit their fathers’ businesses and learn their skills. But during the Depression and then the war builders’ sons were looking for other jobs or joining the armed services. “We lost a whole generation of builders,” says Harry Long of the National House Builders Association.
When the postwar building boom started there weren’t enough trained builders to handle it, and so the door was left open for a small army of dollar-grabbing opportunists. These men knew little or nothing about building. In some cases they were outright crooks. In one case in Toronto a builder persuaded three architects and twenty co-operative home builders to okay his accounts while he went ahead and built a subdivision. He underestimated the selling price of the homes and was unable to finish them. The men who had endorsed his accounts all lost money.
And how did the home buyer make out in this atmosphere of every-manfor-himself? Even for buyers of NHA homes there wasn’t much protection. After the war the CMHC was primarily interested in getting homes for the people clamoring for them, not in safeguarding the quality of houses. Some builders made such a killing in this period they were able to retire. It wasn’t until 1954 when CMHC began taking a closer look at the products for which the government was guaranteeing loans that buyers began to get a better shake.
But when the CMHC tries to get better homes for Canadians it finds itself caught between hostile builders on one hand and incompetent inspectors on the other. Last summer CMHC inspections in the Toronto area were so exacting that the Toronto Metropolitan Home Builders Association accused the corporation of “brain-washing” its inspectors and adding a thousand dollars to the cost of the average new home. CMHC and municipal inspect-
Would an underpaid inspector take money to pass shoddy work?
ors receive about thirty-five hundred dollars a year and are expected to know as much about their business as a building superintendent, who commands around eight thousand. “There’s a great temptation,” one CMHC official told me, “for an underpaid inspector to accept fifty dollars to pass a shoddy piece of work that would cost a builder five hundred to rebuild.” In a highly competitive market builders are continually trying to cut costs, and one way they can do this is to employ ill-trained workmen at low rates of pay. These men are responsible for most of tie nagging deficiencies in a new home —peeling paint, leaking windows, illhung doors.
Such a combination can wreck a house as surely as termites or dry rot. An unqualified plumber got a contract for twelve homes recently in north Toronto. Happily, an inspector found he had no permit to do such a job, examined the work and rejected it. Trying to cut that corner cost the builder thirty-five hundred dollars in alterations.
Bad builders are often those who are operating in a shaky financial condition and who cheat home buyers without actually getting rich themselves. President Harry Long has reported to the NHBA that many small builders trying to compete with one another are making only a three or four percent net profit on homes. These men often call their sub-contractors—plumbers, electricians, plasterers—-together and demand that they cut their prices too.
The plumber, who has been able to do a fair job on six hundred dollars a house, refuses to accept four hundred and fifty dollars and quits. His place is taken by what the trade calls a “bootleg” plumber. By working swiftly with cheap or sub-standard materials he meets the lower price and does a bad job. “Some apprentices work in the evening as a sideline,” says James Whitehead, a supervisor with a Toronto plumbing firm. “They work cheaply, and not very well.”
In the same way reputable electrical contractors are replaced by less-experienced men who use shoddy outlets, switches and wiring.
“I am constantly depressed by the number of builders who don’t care what they give a home buyer,” says Roland DeMers, a Windsor electrical contractor who also heads the Ontario Electrical Contractors Association. He estimates that eight out of ten new homes are built with wiring too skimpy to operate both a clothes dryer and an electric range. “Some builders argue that people who buy an inexpensive home have no right to own a dryer. I call this arrogance. It’s like asking a man to buy a Chevrolet with an outboard motor.” Many people buying a new home find out later that they have to replace the entire electrical and heating systems, which are not adequate for the house.
Some smaller builders claim that land prices in large Canadian cities also lead to bad building. There is a shortage of serviced land in the big centres—land with sewers, water and roads—and the smaller builder cannot compete with the large builder for hundred-acre plots. In Toronto he may pay up to five thousand dollars for a lot to build a home on. In Winnipeg land values have jumped six hundred percent since the war. To compete with large builders who buy their land cheaper in large quantity, the small builder has to cut building costs and often does a bad job.
A federal curb on land speculation
has been urged by many authorities, including Eugene Faludi, the town planner. It is ridiculous, says Faludi, that the government refuses to guarantee loans on houses when the builder is found cheating the customer, and does not take a similar action when land prices are out of line.
The inference in Faludi’s remark was that the average home buyer needs someone to look after him—he’s not
capable of looking after himself—and this is largely correct. An executive in one large Toronto firm, F. C. Brake of Saracini Construction Co., said “I am amazed that a man who demands to know everything about a car for which he pays three thousand dollars will spend fifteen thousand on a home and not know how the taps work.” “We may count our blessings,” another builder told me, “that people are
ignorantabouteveryaspectof building.” Thus thousands are cheated through their own ignorance by unscrupulous builders who encounter surprisingly few curbs, especially in their own profession which has no national code of conduct. This was illustrated recently in Hamilton, where a builder approached a plumber he knew and asked him to instal plumbing in a new house.
“Why ask me?” the plumber enquired. “What’s wrong with the plumber you’ve been using?”
“This is different,” said the builder. “I'm going to live in this house.” ★