Surviving Reconstruction After the Hurricanes

Florida construction litigators break down what you can expect

Being prepared is paramount to storm safety, especially when that storm turns into a hurricane. Most Florida residents keep bottled water, a radio and nonperishable foods on hand for emergencies. But good legal advice is also essential when cyclonic winds brew. In fall 2005, when Mother Nature catapulted roofs and flung front doors to the four winds, many homeowners saw firsthand that builders did not uniformly comply with the stricter building codes the state Legislature voted in after Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992.

Patricia H. Thompson, of Carlton Fields, a fellow of the American College of Construction Lawyers and co-chair of the Construction Litigation Committee of the ABA, says people assume that the building code is ironclad. Not so, according to the veteran attorney. "There are still differences as to construction methods and standards, even with a statewide code," she says.

Board-certified construction attorney Larry Leiby, of Leiby, Stearns and Roberts, says it's difficult to know whether or not a home conforms to code, even if construction took place after the new code's adoption. He suggests looking ahead for signs of potential trouble: failure of the roof or building exterior in winds of less than 75 mph; dislodged roof shingles or tiles; leaking windows and doors; and garage doors damaged during or after high winds. 

Stephen H. Reisman, of Pecker & Abramson, a board-certified construction attorney, adds that another warning sign of shoddy work is "seeing daylight coming in around doors and window frames." Little cracks of light can indicate poor construction techniques, corner-cutting or the use of substandard materials, all of which can lead to structural nightmares when the wind velocity climbs.

Leiby encourages consumers to hire a professional to investigate structural damage or leaking. "While government inspections take place periodically during construction and most government inspectors do a good job, errors and omissions can be made," he says.

An engineer will inspect the building's exterior to determine whether the structure is sound. Leiby says roof trusses are particularly vulnerable. A home inspector is less expensive than an engineer, but carefully examine the inspector's written agreement to be sure he or she has the appropriate skills to address code compliance and the sturdiness of the roof.

Leiby suggests new-home purchasers research the builder's credentials. Visit the Florida Department of State, Division of Corporations (sunbiz.org), and check with trade associations such as the National Association of Home Builders, Associated Builders and Contractors or Associated General Contractors.

Reisman agrees that employing a properly licensed contractor is imperative. "Aside from having a license, which means he's passed the test, you want to make sure he has a track record," Reisman says. "Ask, 'What other buildings have you built?' Talk to the other owners, ask them for references."

Chris Weiss, a board-certified construction attorney with Holland and Knight, says building a new home is destined to become more complicated and restricted. "As disasters occur, they're going to tighten down," he says. Tighter regulations will make new construction more secure in the likely event of future hurricanes, but Weiss says owners of existing homes should assume their property is not up to code, and investigate ways to improve its safety.

Safety is the central issue of Florida building codes. Some structural loss is inevitable, but if the cause is substandard construction techniques or materials, you may need legal representation.

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