Editorials

New home buyers need better protection. Here’s what Texas and cities can do to help

Many Texans work hard and save for years to build their dream homes, only to have errors or shortcuts by builders turn it into a nightmare.

A lack of licensing requirements and strong regulation stacks the deck in favor of builders, as Star-Telegram reporter Gordon Dickson demonstrated in a recent report. Among other problems, he noted that there are no requirements for someone to enter the business as a contractor and that municipal inspections conducted during construction often miss crucial errors.

This is important to Tarrant County right now, as we’re at the heart of Texas’ growth boom. Buyers need more assurance that their investment will be protected and that they can get a fair hearing if their builder cuts corners.

The biggest step policymakers could take would be requiring state licensing of home-building contractors. We’re not sure such a drastic step is necessary, but it at least deserves study. Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick should instruct House and Senate committees to consider the matter during the interim period before the next legislative session, in 2021.

A more immediate fix would be to strengthen and improve municipal inspections of homes under construction. As the report noted, inspectors are overwhelmed with work, especially in high-growth areas. And there’s a double whammy — when demand is high, builders might hire subcontractors whose work they don’t know enough about.

In Fort Worth, Dickson found, more than 90 percent of inspections are farmed out to private companies. Standards must be heightened, and cities must do more to ensure rigorous inspections throughout the building process.

The state could also create better ways for consumers to log complaints against contractors. Overall complaints to the Texas Real Estate Commission are up, but it’s hard to trace them to specific companies, and those numbers cover all parts of the home-buying process. If there was a more rigorous system of identifying weak subcontractors, Texans would be better able to hold builders accountable.

For now, homeowners must watch out for themselves. The most important step to take is to hire an independent inspector to check the builder’s work before closing on the home.

Other precautions can be taken even before construction begins. For instance, checking a builder’s references and asking for tours of previous work may help identify problems to watch out for. Real estate agents can be a good source of information about which builders are reliable and responsive to complaints.

Lawmakers are understandably reluctant to create regulations and licensing that might impede Texas’ steady economic growth. But Texans making one of the most important purchases of their lives deserve more protection.

Consumer advocates say the system has been tilted toward builders for decades. It’s time for a more balanced approach.

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