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So Many Houses, So Little Time

As housing booms, inspectors must keep up.

Bach Nguyen had just moved into her new custom home in Ashburn in mid-June and something seemed off. As she looked around her home, she found some problems, such as a support pillar on her front steps, which was missing.

According to Loudoun's building code, the pillar should have been there, but it was missing. "The house was not completed 100 percent, but Loudoun County issued an Occupancy Permit," she said. "How can the house not be up to code and it pass the Loudoun County inspection?"

The inspector came again, and agreed that the pillar should be installed, which it has been.

Nguyen's problem highlights an ongoing issue — as Loudoun County booms, will there be sufficient infrastructure to support the new residents?

Loudoun County has 67 building inspectors, said Terry Wharton, director of the Department of Building and Development. Each of these inspectors performs an average of 22 inspections per day, Wharton said.

Over an eight-hour day, that would give an inspector roughly 21 minutes per building, but that does not account for travel time or for time doing paperwork. The Board of Supervisors goal is that the average time per inspection be 18 minutes.

Over the past few years, however, Loudoun's housing boom has started increasing the number of inspections, and the average amount of time per inspection has been dropping.

According to county budget documents, the average time in fiscal year 2003 was 17 minutes, in fiscal year 2005, it dropped to 15.6.

The budget projects that in fiscal year 2006, the average would go up to 16.3 minutes. However, that budget projects no increase in the number of inspections.

Wharton said that so far this year, his inspectors are averaging 17 minutes per inspection. "We're trying to increase that," he said.

Loudoun County typically has an inspector for each of the various building trades such as plumbing, electrical, gas and others.

Each inspector may have to visit a site a number of times, Wharton said. In some cases, they may only need to check a single item in a house, which would make the inspection shorter.

SOME BUILDERS, however, have noted that there are not enough inspectors. "It's a constant issue," said Calli Schmidt, spokesperson for the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association. "There's just a huge demand for houses in Loudoun County."

Schmidt did not fault the inspectors, whom she believes to be working as hard as they possibly can. "There's a huge backlog," Schmidt said.

Wharton estimated that if his department were to stop receiving applications today, there would be about two years worth of inspections remaining to process.

Wharton said that departmental staffing is difficult. Of course, he does not want to have his department overstaffed and have people sitting with nothing to do, but neither does he want there to be too much work for the inspectors. "We feel like we're staffed right on the knife edge," he said.

The department's budget comes from the fees assessed for performing inspections. Since fiscal year 2002, the department has had a budget surplus, according to the county budget. For the current fiscal year, that surplus is expected to be a little more than $5.1 million.

That money ends up going into the county general fund, but that may change. Wharton said that there are plans to allow that funding to stay generally in the department.