Investigations

Backlog in Austin's electrical inspections costing homeowners time, money

AUSTIN (KXAN) - Christi Martin is standing in the middle of her brand new kitchen she can’t use.

“The cabinets are all done, the lighting’s in place, everything’s ready to go. We could be cooking dinner here tonight,” an exasperated Martin said. “Were it not for this final piece of paper, we could be living in this house right now."

Martin and her partner thought they’d be moving into their dream home in February. It is now May and because of various delays and setbacks, the couple is still waiting on the city of Austin to finish its electrical inspection. “We’re just so excited, and have been, and it’s just been frustrating to have this delay.”

In one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, new homes and home remodels are happening at a rapid pace. But city inspections, namely electrical inspections, aren’t keeping up. At the beginning of May, the city’s backlog for electrical inspections was closing in on 500 work orders and growing. Within the last five years, the city has seen a nearly 70 percent increase in residential electrical inspections.

The city says the average wait time is 5-7 days, but it’s taking weeks, even months in some extreme cases. And, in construction, time is money. The longer a project takes, the more it ultimately costs homeowners.

The delay at Martin’s house has cost her around $10,000-$15,000, and that’s putting it conservatively. "Lots of money down the drain because of the uncertainty,” Martin said, of not knowing when the electrical inspector would actually show up.

“They’re supposed to come today,” Martin said while KXAN was with her. When asked how many times she’s been told that, she responded, “Oh… most days for the past two months for one inspection or another.”

“Even cable companies have gotten pretty good about giving you a window of time to be there when they show up to install your cable. You’d think that the city could figure this out.”

More than a dozen contractors KXAN spoke to said the delay is a big and costly problem.

‘Our Inspectors are Overwhelmed’

"It's not acceptable,” said James Pace with Efficient AC, Electric & Plumbing. With his 20-plus years of experience, he says he’s never seen the delays this bad. "It costs me time and a lot of money and a lot of effort to make sure that my inspections are getting done.”

With the current system, city inspectors are not able to give an accurate date of when they’ll arrive, which makes it difficult for contractors. "If you want to have somebody on site when the inspector's there, it's almost impossible,” Pace added.

If the first electrical inspection doesn’t get a passing grade, customers have to wait another five days for a rescheduled appointment, or however long it takes to get back to that property. Other delays could be attributed to not being able to access the property, or the address isn’t clearly visible.

KXAN’s Kylie McGivern tagged along with city electrical inspector Alan Anders on a job site, who said, "Right now, with the number of calls coming in, over 200 a day, sometimes even higher than that - our inspectors are just overwhelmed with what we have."

"Holding jobs up is what hurts everybody. The production, the construction industry, you're holding all the other trades up, so we try not to do that,” said Anders, who has worked for the city for 10 years.

When asked if putting contractors and homeowners on standby for five-plus days is reasonable, city of Austin building official Jose Roig responded, "No it's not. I completely understand that it's unreasonable."

Roig said Development Services’ goal is to get to a job site within 24 hours of an inspection being scheduled, 90 percent of the time. “For electrical inspections right now, we’re not meeting — not even 20 percent that. We’re not meeting that at all.”

“My ultimate goal is when you schedule an inspection, I say ‘you know what, we're going to be there this day. Don't wait for us five days,’” Roig said.

The city of Austin says it needs at least 20 inspectors; the budget only covers 12. It’s struggling to fill those positions with recent retirements and people moving departments. 

A factor that makes the position hard to fill is the fact that an applicant has to be a master electrician. The city requires applicants to have the advanced training for at least two years. However, Roig said, people with that level of experience typically have their own company and can make three to four times more money in the private sector than what the city is offering.

Roig said a master electrical license is something most cities don’t typically require. “They allow electrical inspections to be performed by someone that is certified as an electrical inspector,” Roig explained.  Austin requires it as a way to “improve the quality of the inspectors.”

It costs me time and a lot of money... 

Roig said he’s in talks with the city’s Electric Board to see if they can adjust that requirement. “Once they get to that level of expertise, I think we can actually be able to hire that person,” he said, rather than wait two years. “So we’re looking at options on that.”

Development Services says it’s also exploring the option of contracting with a third-party to complete some of the inspections.

While Roig understands the frustration delays can cause, he says the city must do everything to code. “They’re working really hard. And they’re doing it for the safety of the residents. They are looking for life safety issues. We want this building to be safe and that’s the main goal. So, all I want to say is, ‘be patient, we’re working on this.’”

At Wednesday’s May 16 Electric Board meeting, members plan to address the need for more electrical inspectors and review how long it's taking to close work orders.  The board makes recommendations to the Austin City Council, currently weighing needs for next year's budget. Just like last year, Development Services says it plans to put in another request for more electrical inspectors.

Tips for a Successful Inspection

In an effort to help people prepare for an inspection (after KXAN started investigating), the city posted an online list of "Top Ten Tips for a Successful Inspection" for homeowners.

1. Verify that the work is complete and ready for inspection

2. Verify that the job site is safe, clean and free of safety hazards.

3. Schedule the inspection on Austin Build + Connect (AB+C) 

4. Schedule the correct inspection in the proper sequence, and include any special instructions pertinent to the inspection. 

5. Ensure the project address is posted visibly at the site and proper access is available for the inspection.

6. Endure required permit and approved city stamped plans are available on site and accessible to the inspector.

7. Ensure that someone familiar with the site is available during the inspection.

8. Ensure appropriate personnel is available to make corrections to minor deficiencies during the inspection.

9. Complete punch list items.

10. Communicate with the inspector on outstanding questions or issues.

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