Investigation uncovers problems in homes rebuilt in Joplin

JOPLIN, Mo. - A tornado left devastation in its path through Joplin in May 2011. A 41 Action News investigation uncovered shoddy workmanship in dozens of Joplin homes rebuilt after the storm.

Homeowners have found problems with electrical wiring, mold, roofing, and in the structure of their homes. In some cases, contractors walked off the job completely.

Our investigation uncovered the difficulty for homeowners to quickly research who they're hiring because there is no centralized registry or licensing of contractors.

Amy and Larry Jump remember the evening the tornado hit their Joplin home very clearly. They made it into the basement with their three boys just minutes before the tornado hit.

"It sounded like a train going over you. (We) started hearing bricks falling on the floor above," Larry Jump said. "Your ears were constantly popping. Just pop pop pop pop going crazy on that."

When the Jumps came out of the basement, their home was gone, and although the family lost nearly everything, they did not lose their perspective.

See full coverage of the May 2011 Joplin Tornado: http://bit.ly/Sg5qRl

"Out of all of it we were more fortunate than so many people. We walked out without a scratch. Even my dog did. We did have insurance. I still have my job because it wasn't affected. We were so much better off than so many people," Larry said.

Second Disaster

After the tornado, the Jumps were contacted by the organization "Charity Spark."  The organization's director told 41 Action News by phone it is no longer operational; however, at the time it claimed to help victims of natural disasters rebuild with energy-efficient homes.

The charity's director recommended the Jumps hire a building contractor from California who would help the family build a "green home" complete with solar panels.

"The electric company was going to pay us each month, according to the architect," said Amy.

The Jumps broke ground on their new home, which they say was supposed to be finished by Thanksgiving 2011. But after the foundation was laid, a few walls were built, and the family sunk $80,000 into the project, construction came to a halt.

"Around December there really wasn't anything happening with the house," Amy said.

She said she repeatedly called the contractor but couldn't get an answer.

That's when the family realized the contractor was never coming back to finish the job.

"This was totally a second disaster," added Larry.

Homeowners facing shoddy workmanship

While some homeowners (like the Jumps) have seen contractors completely walk away from their jobs, others have had their homes rebuilt only to find the workmanship was shoddy.

Attorneys tell 41 Action News they have received dozens of cases of poor workmanship. In fact, Americorp brought in two attorneys to exclusively work with victims of the tornado who can't afford attorneys.

See photos of poor workmanship in Joplin homes: http://bit.ly/Sg5y3d

Many of their cases have involved homeowners fighting with their contractors.

"We've seen things such as things not being wired correctly. We've seen improper foundations poured. We've seen the usual sloppy tile work and counters and edges not being straight," said attorney Zach Tusinger as he described some of the problems brought to his office.

"Some of the things we have seen, we have had to call in an inspector," Tusinger added.

Inspectors find dangerous issues

Inspector Mark Adams said much of his work lately has been reviewing rebuilds from the tornado. He said he has had to point out a lot more problems with workmanship.

"Been more concentrated and been a lot more of it just because of the number of building after the tornado," said Adams, who showed hundreds of photos he's taken of shoddy workmanship.

Adams found problems with mold and fungus growing in wood that wasn't replaced after water damaged the wood. He also cited problems with roofing, electric boxes that pose fire risks, and even support beams that threaten the very structure of the home.

Adams said some of the issues he's seen are dangerous to homeowners and their families.

When Adams spotted serious building code violation issues, he would refer homeowners to city officials and code compliance officers. He said many of the issues he spotted were not necessarily violations of city code, though.

Many issues homeowners have don't violate city code

Joplin Director of Code and Compliance Steve Cope told 41 Action News he received many visits and calls from angry homeowners upset with their builder's craftsmanship. However, he said issues of craftsmanship do not violate the city code.

"The building code is truly nothing more than the minimum standard for health and safety," Cope said. "That does not apply to the

finishes, the quality of the workmanship that people expect or want."

Cope said he had to tell many homeowners there was nothing he could do for them.

Although Joplin has a city code, neither the state of Missouri nor the state of Kansas, has a statewide building code or statewide contractor licensing.

Each city and county must set its own rules. In some cases, that means each contractor has to apply and pay for a license in each city or county before he can work.

It doesn't just create extra red tape for contractors. It also means homeowners have no centralized location to check and see if a contractor is licensed and insured.

Homeowners must verify contractors with their city. Some places have that information online. Other municipalities require you to call or visit city hall to get that information.

Huge burden after the storm

With no centralized code or licensing, Joplin struggled to keep up with licensing the large amount of new contractors that came into the area looking to rebuild homes.

Joplin city officials scrambled to check and make sure each contractor was bonded and insured. However, many contractors started work before the city could process their paperwork.

The storm also created a lot of work for Cope's already strapped code enforcement department.

"There were many times I would have just had been so happy to just take the guy's state card and say ‘yep, we'll get you set up.' But unfortunately we do not have that in the state of Missouri yet," said Copes while speculating about how things would have worked if there had been a statewide registry.

The Jump family's homecoming

41 Action News discovered the contractor hired by the Jumps through the charity did not have a valid license in his home state of California.

We were unable to locate the contractor to get comment on our story. However, we learned the contractor has warrants out for his arrest in Joplin for not paying his bill at the local lumberyard.

Thanks to help from volunteers from Catholic Charities, the Jumps eventually finished their home and moved back in.

"It is kind of weird getting used to because it is so different than our house before but in the same spot," said Amy.

The Jumps say they would like to see more done to stop shoddy construction and deadbeat contractors to help consumers make better decisions about who they hire.

"Making sure their licenses are current – that they don't have a bunch of bad marks on ‘em and what not. That's a biggy," Larry said. "That's probably the biggest thing that can be done."

The 41 Action News investigators contacted cities that do license contractors in the Kansas City area. Click here for a list they provided of licensed and insured contractors as of September 2012.

Since there isn't a central statewide registry or license system, this list may not include newly licensed contractors. If your contractor is not on one of these lists, contact your local code enforcement department for the most updated information.

Kansas City, Mo.
http://www.kcmo.org/CKCMO/Depts/CityPlanningandDevelopment/KansasCityMo.LicensedandRegisteredContractors/index.htm

Johnson County, Kan.
http://cls.jocogov.org/clsCourseReg/searchcontractor.aspx

Unified Government (Did not return our request for information. However, this is the link to the department to call)
http://www.wycokck.org/InternetDept.aspx?id=24698

Lee's Summit
http://media.kshb.com/pdf/LeesSummitContractors.pdf

Independence
http://media.kshb.com/pdf/IndependenceContractors.pdf

Gladstone
http://media.kshb.com/pdf/GladstoneContractors.pdf

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