IBTS Experiences Gained: Don’t Underestimate the Value of Trained Disaster Recovery InspectorsDamage Assessments, Interim Inspections and Final Inspections
Although home inspections and building code enforcement aren’t often top-of-mind for residents and community stakeholders rebuilding from a disaster, they are vital to a successful disaster recovery and rebuilding program. Hiring building inspectors trained in disaster recovery is a must, and what’s more, inspection costs are eligible for reimbursement under HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program.
“What can really go wrong here is hiring an inspection company that’s not familiar with disaster recovery inspections,” says Erica Bueno, IBTS Economic Development and Disaster Recovery (EDDR) coordinator. “There’s a huge difference between regular home inspections and disaster damage assessments, which can come years after the disaster hits.”
HUD permits the use of CDBG-DR funds for code enforcement. Grantees can be reimbursed for the cost of conducting inspections using their own employees, contracting for code enforcement inspection services, or contracting with another unit of government to perform code inspection services. Although using your own employees can seem like the most immediate and convenient option, IBTS highly recommends contracting with inspectors who are trained and experienced in disaster recovery inspections.
“IBTS inspectors are trained to differentiate between damage caused by the storm and damage from not maintaining the home before the storm,” explains Bueno. IBTS, for example, conducted thousands of inspections in Galveston and Harris County, Texas, for applicants enrolled in the CDBG-DR program after Hurricane Ike.
When it comes to disaster recovery, there are three main types of inspections: damage assessments, which come after a homeowner is assigned a case manager and before construction begins, interim inspections throughout the construction process, and final inspections at the completion of construction. For communities enrolled in HUD’s CDBG-DR program, damage assessments and interim inspections are required for the contractor to request a draw on the contract, while final inspections are universally required in disaster recovery programs. Any home or structure built under a disaster recovery program using federal funds must be inspected by a licensed inspector.
Damage assessments happen at the start of the recovery process to determine what damage was incurred as a result of the storm. IBTS’s inspectors, for example, are trained to spot flood damage in damage assessments that often don’t occur until two or three years after the disaster. An accurate assessment is critical for determining the scope of work to be performed on the home — CDBG-DR funding cannot be used to repair damages that weren’t caused by the storm.
Damage assessments can also prevent a duplication of benefits, which can occur under several circumstances. If a homeowner spends FEMA, insurance or other federal grant money incorrectly, or if they claim to have made repairs with the money but fail to do so, it is considered a duplication of benefits. Inspectors help prevent this from happening before construction begins by determining if grant-funded homeowner repairs were made, and if the cost of repair amounted to the grant total.
“Homeowners will tell us they used their FEMA money on a new roof, but then our inspectors will find that the roof is still leaking and that no repairs have been made,” explains Bueno. She also recalls another instance when a homeowner received homeowner’s insurance money for landscaping, yet inspectors found that no landscaping had been done, nor had there ever been any landscaping at the home.
“Our inspectors make sure there isn’t a duplication of benefits,” Bueno says. “If a homeowner tells me they spent their insurance or FEMA money on specific repairs, I send out our inspectors to make sure those repairs have been completed. They can also put a number on the amount and cost of material required to complete the job, such as how much sheetrock is required based on the size of the home.”
Once the damage assessment is complete, homeowner applicants can proceed into the benefit selection process, in which they approve the floor plan of the house and select construction materials – cabinets, flooring, wall colors, etc. – to be used in their home. It’s important that homeowners have a clear understanding of what they’re approving in this process, or else homeowner dissatisfaction with cosmetic components can delay the sign-off on the final inspection at the completion of construction.
During construction, the construction manager is responsible for implementing interim inspections to ensure all construction is built to code. Interim inspections in the CDBG-DR program typically include site, plumbing underground, foundation (makeup), dry-in and framing MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing). Construction cannot continue, and contractors cannot get paid, until work passes inspection. Not only does this safeguard the quality and safety of the home, but it prevents issues from delaying the process further on down the road.
“If there’s something wrong with the construction of the home that won’t pass inspection, our inspectors won’t let it go to the next stage so that problems are avoided when it comes to final inspection,” explains Bueno.
Construction contractors in the CDBG-DR program have the option to request a draw on the contract after each successful interim inspection, meaning they can choose to receive a portion of their compensation from the contract. If the inspection fails, subsequent inspections typically require an additional fee. However, contractors don’t get paid in full until after the final inspection passes, when all construction is completed.
The contractor, homeowner, inspector and grant administering agency must all sign-off on the final inspection checklist, which is provided by HUD. Final inspection checklists vary by disaster recovery program, but for CDBG-DR typically include all invoices, change orders, after photos, final inspections forms and other required data. HUD can request to conduct an audit or check on progress at any time — not just at the completion of the project — so it’s important to keep organized, complete data files for each and every homeowner applicant. Bueno recommends keeping both a hard copy and uploading files to cloud storage.
Ideally, all four parties sign-off on the final inspection without issue, however Bueno notes that homeowners can refuse to sign-off at the completion of construction. Typically this occurs because of cosmetic reasons; if the homeowner doesn’t like the color of their walls, or where the front door is placed, for instance, they can decide not to sign-off on the final inspection.
When this happens, Bueno recommends pulling out the entire scope of work and showing the homeowner what they have already signed off on. “You have to make the distinction that this is not a remodeling program,” says Bueno. “We’re trying to get you into a safe environment with running water and electricity.” It also costs contractors money to make cosmetic changes during construction, and delays the entire CDBG-DR program by preventing contractors from moving on to the next home.
Bueno stresses the importance of preventing these issues from arising in the first place by ensuring that the contractor, grant administrator and inspectors are all on the same page. As in all phases of disaster planning, response and recovery, communication is key. When all parties are in-sync, Bueno notes there are “no surprises” when final inspection comes around. If there’s a delay in inspection, for example, Bueno, who serves as a case manager, immediately notifies the homeowner so they’re aware of the delay.
“IBTS streamlines the final inspection process,” says Bueno. “We’re normally on the same page as the contractor, and because we’re often the administrator and the inspector, we’re all in-sync throughout the entire CDBG-DR process. We communicate status updates, delays and issues among stakeholders and with the homeowner to ensure there are no surprises for anyone.”
Although inspections are a required component of the CDBG-DR program, any community rebuilding after a natural disaster should deploy seasoned disaster inspection experts to ensure homes – and the entire community – are not just built back, but built back better.