News 13 Investigates: Boom in mountain construction comes with dangers

The house, a caretaker's home, has been vacant for a decade without power. Homeowner Alison Sadler gave it a make-over. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

A boom in mountain home construction and renovations comes with increased dangers.

Nearly half of all mountain homes don’t meet today’s state building requirements, and when those homes are renovated problems can be uncovered. It essentially becomes a situation where if you touch it, you may end up having to do more work to bring the home into compliance with state regulations, meaning a longer project and a greater expense than the project was expected to cost.

A county's permit and inspections department is the last line of defense to make sure all the work is done right. An Edneyville homeowner found out, when those safeguards failed, it added up to some costly repairs.

The tranquil, easygoing feel of Reedypatch Creek is heart-stirring. The woods alluring and an ideal backdrop for LA movie production designer Alison Sadler.

“I got into the house with the intention of starting a campground” said Sadler.

The house, a caretaker's home, had been vacant for a decade without power when Sadler began giving it a make-over.

“The house looks great on the outside,” said Sadler.

Inside, it's become her own Hollywood horror story.

“The house is already settling a lot on one side,” said Sadler.

When doors separated, cabinets pulled from the walls, and a carpenter came forward with tales of support beam failures, Sadler got an inspection. In it - a disastrous diagnosis

“We have two structural engineering reports saying that the house is not only built incorrectly, but a threat to safety now,” said Sadler.

Sadler emailed county leaders and filed state complaints against the builder and county inspector who signed off on the work.

The problems stem from the original foundation and framing used in the 2014 reconstruction.

The builder wouldn't talk on camera, but told News 13 mistakes were made and repairs were offered.

He said he talked on-site with the county inspector, who agreed, "The only way to maintain the current home was to do the work as it was done."

“Structurally, it's a real mess,” said Ken Stafford, an architect with the State Code Officials Qualification Board.

The Code Officials Qualification Board holds county inspectors accountable when a complaint is filed.

“The inspections are necessary for the safety and welfare of the general public,” said Cliff Isaac, the deputy Insurance Commissioner and board secretary.

The state investigated 10 complaints, tied mostly to the existing foundation.

Henderson County's inspector claims the existing foundation was not in the scope of permits and, while unconventional, he thought it was within state code. The board disagreed.

“When it comes to life safety, these structural issues are very concerning,” said Bill Thunberg, COQB chairman.

The inspector responded he must have missed it, didn't recall seeing issues or had no response to half the complaints. News 13 made several attempts to contact him, with no luck.

Last week, the state found enough evidence to hold a hearing, but the inspector first surrendered his license and retired.

The board's bigger concern, with an increasing number of home renovation projects like Sadler's in the mountains, is that other inspectors understand renovation rules. The state reached out to Henderson County.

“... to go over existing building code, because there seemed to be some confusion,” said Andy Miller, COQB investigator.

The contractor told News 13 of one other instance when the county's inspector wasn't physically able to inspect under a home because of his serious health issues.

County officials refused to address the issue on camera.

Administrators said over the last year, the inspector, also a supervisor, moved to office duty. They said they have faith in his inspections, but also said it's impossible to know if any of the hundreds of inspections were improperly done.

News 13 talked with several homeowners who'd had recent inspections by the inspector and were satisfied. Still, Sadler thinks the county, her last line of defense, let her down.

“We paid for permits for them to oversee the contractors work. That's their job,” said Sadler.

According to the Better Business Bureau, while county inspectors ensure building codes are followed, homeowners share some responsibility that who they hire is qualified to do the work.

“We encourage consumers to ask the company for at least three references, local references where they can talk to them about their experience,” said Julie Goodwin, with the Asheville BBB.

Sadler's left with a life safety notice, only allowing construction crews in the house until it is fixed.

“This can't happen to people. It's got to stop,” said Sadler.

The state contractor licensing board is investigating the work on Sadler's home.

Henderson County has added five inspectors to help divide the work. It has also added supervisor spot checks, once a week, to check inspector's work out on the job site. It also plans to hold a conference call with the state in the near future to go over renovation rules.

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