You’ve recently moved into your new home. Your local municipality, city, or town had a building inspector check that everything was built to code before issuing a certificate of occupancy. As far as you were concerned, that meant your new home was safe for occupation at the very minimum.
Unfortunately, this may not always be the case. An inspection certificate does not guarantee that everything in a new home will be in good working order. You’ll need at least a year’s worth of changing seasons to discover whether or not a brand new house is free from defects.
How long is a builder liable for his work? Can you sue a city building inspector for issuing a certificate of occupancy once you discover defects in your newly constructed house? Here’s everything you need to know.
What Constitutes a Construction Defect
It’s important to understand some critical legal concepts that will come in handy when evaluating liability. “Construction defects” happens to be one of them.
There are generally two principal types of defects you need to be aware of:
- Those that occur in a commercial or residential building’s design phase
- Those that occur in the construction phase
As a general rule, the building engineer or architect would be responsible for any defects in a construction project’s design. The builder, who is usually the contractor or subcontractor, would be responsible for the defects that occur if they fail to carry out the project based on the design specifications provided by the building engineer and architect.
The same applies to defects that arise when they fail to adhere to the accepted industry standards. Some of the issues that may result from construction defects include:
- Incurring additional costs to rectify the problem
- Injuries to the construction workers on site
- Injuries to future occupants of the building, visitors to the property, or pedestrians walking past the building
The laws governing construction defects all revolve around the concept of contracts. Any single building project will have several contracts in force. For instance:
- The building owner enters into a contractual agreement with an architect to come up with the design for the property or renovation
- The architect enters into a contract with a building engineer to ensure the designs they develop comply with engineering code and standards
- The building owner gets into an agreement with a general contractor to execute the plans
- The general contractor enters into contractual agreements with dozens of subcontractors to help with the plan implementation
Each one of those contracts would have clauses pointing to the party or parties responsible for specific types of defects. As a result, all parties have to pay close attention to the liability provisions in the contract during the negotiation phase.
As a general rule, liability usually goes down the chain. This means that the building owner lays blame on the general contractor in the event of any defects. The general contractor may then lay blame on the subcontractor for the defects.
The Concept of Indemnification
This process of passing liability down the chain is generally done in line with indemnification provisions. Here’s what that means.
If a subcontractor “indemnifies” a general contractor for certain defects liabilities, they (the subcontractor) would have to pay for any judgment rendered against the general contractor in the event of a lawsuit.
To cushion themselves against this eventuality, subcontractors often take out insurance policies to protect against potential defects liabilities. As a result, it is the insurance companies that usually pay for construction defects in liability lawsuits.
How Long Is a Builder Liable for His Work – Call Back Warranties
Construction contracts usually have a call-back warranty that details the duration during which a property owner can “call back” a builder to rectify any work that may not have been done correctly. In most cases, the call-back period is usually one year, although different contracts may specify longer or shorter durations.
That being said, call-back warranties are often one of the most notoriously misunderstood provisions in the construction sector. Most builders believe that they’re absolved from all potential defects liabilities that may arise beyond that period once they pass the one-year mark. This is a gross misinterpretation of how call-back provisions work.
In the event of a construction defect, the call-back warranty details the duties and obligations of each party in the contract. The property owner has the right to notify the contractor of any issues within the development and allow them to carry out repairs on their own accord.
On the flip side, once notified, the contractor has the right to repair the defect in question before the owner takes matters into their own hands and embarks on (more expensive) measures to get the faults fixed.
Defects That Fall Outside the Call Back Duration
Suppose you contracted a builder to install a new roof in your home. 10 months later, you notice a leak due to an improperly sealed skylight. Since you noticed the defect within the standard one-year call-back period, the contractual obligations will still be in force. You’ll need to inform the contractor of the leak in your roof and allow them to return to the site to repair it.
At this point, the contractor can proceed in one of three ways:
- They could show up to your home and repair the leaking roof
- They could inspect the roof and decide to dispute it, perhaps blaming you for the leak
- They could ignore the notice you gave them altogether
Now, this is the point where things may get a little sticky. If the contractor decides to ignore your notice, you’ll be left with no choice but to fix the defect at your own cost. This may involve finding another contractor to carry out the repairs, most likely at a higher cost.
Once they complete the work, you can sue the original contractor in small claims court to recover the costs you incurred by retaining the new contractor. On the other hand, if you discovered the leak after the call-back period elapsed, you are effectively released from the obligation to notify the contractor of the problem. As a result, you can go ahead and seek the same legal remedy outlined above.
The call-back period doesn’t apply to all warranties under the contract. It only applies to the specific provision of the contract – the right to cure.
This right only refers to the owner’s obligation to notify the contractor of the defect. It affords them an opportunity to rectify their mistakes.
Just because the call-back period has elapsed doesn’t mean the contractor is off the hook. They are still liable for their defective work, meaning that a property owner can still sue them for damages over breach of contract, accidents, or bodily injuries resulting from the defect.
The statute of limitations for such claims ranges anywhere between 3 and 10 years in most states across the country.
Are Home Inspectors Liable for Anything
First off, what does a building inspector do? Their work revolves around examining a property’s basic structural system, plumbing, electrical system, mechanical systems, and other critical parts of residential or commercial developments to confirm that everything is in good working order.
It is the responsibility of a residential or commercial building inspector to identify any material defects in the property in question and indicate them in their inspection report. A material defect is anything that affects the safety, occupancy/livability, or value of the property.
Can You Sue a City Building Inspector
The short answer is – yes, you can. A building code inspector is required to conduct residential and commercial inspections in a manner that would be considered “consistent with the existing industry standards.” That’s part of their job description.
That being said, if they fail to identify a critical material defect, which goes on to affect the building itself or its occupants, the residential or commercial building inspector can be sued for damages arising from their negligence.
Depending on the party that employed their services, a building code inspector can also be sued for breach of contract.
Keep in mind that the law prohibits building inspectors from:
- Altering the findings in their report based on financial incentives
- Inspecting properties their employer has an interest in
- Inspecting properties that they have an interest in
- Making repairs to the property that they are inspecting
- Waiving contract liability with any party in the transaction
More often than not, any residential community will usually have a homeowner’s association (HOA). This structure serves to ensure that the neighborhood maintains a clean and cohesive living atmosphere.
Membership to a condo HOA is mandatory for all property owners within the condominium. However, there are some associations where membership may be voluntary. In such instances, the laws and regulations in these HOAs differ from those that require mandatory membership.
What Do Condo HOA Fees Cover
Condominium associations collect fees from all unit owners within the development. This monthly assessment usually maintains the shared living spaces, enforcing the applicable restrictions within a particular residential area, addressing safety and legal issues within the development, and anything else that would serve the interests of the condo residents.
HOAs not only have the right to assess monthly fees; they can also levy fines and liens on members that go against the provisions of the association’s rules and bylaws.
Condo Association Liability
A condo association is a lot like any other homeowners association. It sets regulations and restrictions that building tenants are required to adhere to.
Every condo association has an elected board whose leadership roles revolve around meeting the responsibilities and carrying out the association’s functions. This responsibility comes with several strings attached.
If something goes awry and a tenant or visitor gets injured in a common area, the condo association is held liable. The same thing applies if shared living spaces get damaged.
Condo Board Liability
As long as a claimant can demonstrate impropriety, the directors and officials of the condo association can be held liable for damages to and accidents or injuries that occur on the property. Even if the board members are legally at fault, the costs of fighting such disputes in court are significantly higher than what typical insurance companies would cover.
Some of the most common causes of condo board liability include:
- Breach of contract
- Funds misuse or misappropriation
- Wrongful foreclosure
In addition to the liability placed on the association, there are two other types of legal responsibilities following property or bodily injury that occurs at a residential condominium building.
- Unit Owner Liability – When property damage or bodily injury is the direct result of the condo owner’s negligence
- Joint Liability – When both the condo association and unit owner are jointly responsible for property damage and bodily injury that occurs on the property
When matters of joint liability arise, court involvement is often necessary to address the proportion of liability assigned to each party.
Florida Condo Collapse
Contractors were scheduled to carry out major roof repairs on the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida, on the morning of June 24, 2021. In an unfortunate turn of events, the building collapsed at around 1.30 a.m. earlier that morning, hours before the workers were supposed to show up on-site. At the time of publication, the death toll had risen to 97, with at least a dozen people unaccounted for.
Survivors and victims’ family members have taken to court to sue, among others, the condo association, the project architects ( SD Architects), and the structural engineering firm (Morabito Consultants) for failing to warn residents of the building’s potential collapse. Others have filed lawsuits against the condo HOA on the grounds that failed maintenance was responsible for the June 24th disaster.
The Bottom Line
How long is a builder liable for his work? Depending on the state you reside in, the statute of limitations could be anywhere between 3 and 10 years. If you’ve suffered injuries due to a construction defect, get in touch with a personal injury attorney as soon as you can to explore all the legal remedies available to you.
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