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Houston Chronicle - Strayhorn issues scathing report
Tuesday, 24 January 2006
Comptroller study rips regulation of builders
Consumer advocates hope a scathing report released Monday on the agency created to regulate home builders will spur lawmakers to make changes. Builders, meanwhile, say the commission is young and an important tool for homeowners... "If this is an infancy thing, I'd hate to see what it is when it grows up,"said Janet Ahmad, president of the San Antonio-based Homeowners for Better Building. "How many bad homes is enough?"

 Comptroller study rips regulation of builders
Jan. 24, 2006
By PURVA PATEL
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

Consumer advocates hope a scathing report released Monday on the agency created to regulate home builders will spur lawmakers to make changes.

The report, by the state comptroller's office, affirms concerns consumer groups say they've had about the Texas Residential Construction Commission since the agency's creation in 2003.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize what a trick the TRCC was," said John Cobarruvias, president of the Texas chapter of Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings and president of the Bay Area New Democrats. "Now we got a state agency backing us up. That's great."

Consumer groups have long complained the agency was created at the behest of builders to reduce litigation by forcing consumers into a lengthy, state-run dispute resolution process.

The commission's executive director, however, said he's already working on some of the issues, and others will have to be left to lawmakers.

Builders, meanwhile, say the commission is young and an important tool for homeowners.

But Monday, state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn agreed with consumer groups. In a review conducted at the request of Rep. Todd Smith, R-Bedford, the comptroller said, among other things, the construction commission:

•Fails to hold builders accountable for construction defects.
•Needs public members on the commission who don't have ties to the industry.
•Shouldn't charge fees to consumers who use the agency's dispute resolution process.

"If it were up to me, personally, I would blast this Texas Residential Construction Commission builder-protection agency off the bureaucratic books," said Strayhorn, who is seeking the governor's post as an independent.

Of 102 homeowners surveyed by the comptroller, 86 percent said their builder failed to fix construction defects after going through the state process. And 45 percent said they were unsatisfied with the dispute resolution process.

Duane Waddill, the commission's executive director, said the agency provides vital services for Texas homeowners and that a sample of 102 only accounts for a third of the 297 homeowner who have gone through the process.

"Right now, because the numbers are so small ... we just don't have a really good field record, so to speak," he said, adding that he'd like to give the enforcement powers the agency does have more time to work.

Currently the agency can assess fees capped at $5,000 per violation of commission rules, revoke registrations and can ask the state attorney general to file injunctions against those who violate the rules.

He acknowledged that some of the comptroller's suggested changes, such as extending the time homeowners have to consider which state inspector comes to their home, should be considered. But he said only lawmakers could make others.

Waddill said the agency would produce a response to the survey but has already been making changes to improve the process for homeowners, such as creating a new ombudsman position to help consumers through the commission's dispute process.

"I think it's just early on," he said. "We're trying and we're working, and I think we'll get there."

Jay Dyer, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Texas Builders Association, said some of the comptroller's comments to the media were more "bombastic" than the actual recommendations in her report. For example, she called for the abolishment of the agency in her news release, but not in her report, he said.

He also noted the agency is new. But consumer groups question that as a factor.

"If this is an infancy thing, I'd hate to see what it is when it grows up,"said Janet Ahmad, president of the San Antonio-based Homeowners for Better Building. "How many bad homes is enough?"

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