This post is based on the information gathered and tireless work done in this area by Marko Juras.
Each year Rich Coleman – our Minister Responsible for Housing – pens a letter to BC Housing laying out their mandate for the year. Last year he reminded them that as a public sector organization, they were bound to the Taxpayer Accountability Principles which state that their actions should be consistent with government priorities and be executed efficiently to respect the taxpayer’s dollar. Unfortunately it seems like that letter fell on deaf ears.
You see, BC Housing has a department called Licensing and Consumer Services (formerly the Homeowner Protection Office) that amongst other things administers residential builder licensing. For a builder to get licensed they have to show experience in building and continue to receive training (such as on this arduous Caribbean cruise) to maintain their licenses. An exception to this has always been individuals building for themselves – the owner builder – who merely had to pay BC Housing for an Owner Builder Authorization. In the last 15 years, some 45,000 people went that route in BC.
Clearly the idea that that many people could build their own home relatively unmolested by the government could not stand, so last July BC Housing introduced the Owner Builder Exam. This 100 question exam requires 70% to pass, and you only get one attempt for your application (you get a partial refund if you fail but then you have to re-apply). BC Housing justifies this test saying it protects the consumer, helps owner builders expand their knowledge base, and creates a more level playing field. This sounds great, other than the fact that it is complete and utter nonsense. Let’s examine these justifications in detail.
Protect the consumer. For the consumer to be protected, the consumer must have been harmed to start with. The Homeowner Protection Act already makes the owner builder responsible for construction defects in the home for a period of 10 years, similar to third party home warranties. This means buyers of owner built homes are already protected as well as any buyer of a new home. In addition, BC Housing does not cite a single instance of any harm that has befallen the consumer from owner built homes.
To dig further into this, a freedom of information act was submitted on December 6, 2016 requesting the number of owner built houses constructed and sold, as well as the number of consumer complaints received about owner built houses from January 1, 2010 to June 30, 2016. Here is the response and the results.
Several things are clear from this data.
- Compared to the applications to build, there are only very few applications to sell owner built homes. So either there are massive number of illegal sales (extremely unlikely as that is trivial to detect through the land title office and fines for sellers and realtors are huge) or owner builders tend to build their dream homes to live in long term.
- BC Housing has no record of complaints so it has no basis to surmise there is any problem at all with owner built homes. Given they aren’t doing their jobs to justify new regulation, let’s see if we can find any evidence of widespread problems with owner built houses. According to this recent article, there were only 2 court cases related to owner builders in the last two years, and the first case where a buyer successfully sued an owner builder based on the statutory warranty was in early 2016. Meanwhile according to BC Housing, 0.2% of homes built by licensed builders result in complaints (that would have been about 23 complaints in 2016).
If people are building homes to live in long term they are unlikely to cut corners and compromise quality during construction to start with. Even if they wanted to, building a house already entails layers upon layers of checks and balances to ensure that they are built properly. All the drawings have to be drawn by a designer or architect and engineered by a structural engineer and then double checked by city inspectors. Structural engineers also typically make 4 to 5 site visits to conduct onsite inspections and building inspectors check every stage of construction to verify it is being built to the plans and to code. Even if they had motivation, it would be extremely difficult for any owner builder to build a defective or sub-par house.
Help owner builders expand their knowledge base. Owner builders may not have a construction background so on the surface of it, this seems like a worthwhile goal. Unfortunately the exam does absolutely nothing to help the owner builder. Here’s why:
- BC Housing has not provided a study guide, only vague topics that the exam covers. Clearly the purpose is not to educate since they are making no effort to do so.
- Questions are often either completely irrelevant (“What is the second law of thermodynamics?”) irrelevant to the type of house that is being built (“When are furring strips required for vinyl siding?”), have answers that depend on the municipality you live in (“When should you apply for an occupancy permit?“), or reference technical minutiae of the 966 page BC Building Code (“What is the moisture permeability of 6mil poly?”) that any sane person would look up and not memorize.
- Exam results are not released to the owner builder. How can you possibly learn if you don’t know what you didn’t know?
Even if some genius home owner could memorize every single nailing pattern and framing bracket how would that help them build a better home? Will they be going around arguing with the structural engineer on design, or with the professional framer on which type of nails to use, or will the city inspector waive his or her framing concerns because the home owner has passed an exam and knows nailing patterns?
Create a more level playing field. Even though the exam was introduced July 4th, 2016, 2016 was the second lowest year for Owner Builder Authorizations ever. 2017 will certainly be the lowest, while builder homes increased substantially. You put up enough inane hoops for people to jump through and many people will just give up and hire a builder instead. So instead of creating a level playing field, it seems this exam has heavily tilted the playing field towards commercial builders and has made it unnecessarily difficult for someone that just wants to build their own dwelling.
In summary, the owner builder exam:
- was introduced to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,
- will do nothing to improve the quality of owner built homes,
- will cost people thousands of dollars in lost time and money, and
- creates a costly new program and red tape that must be administered by BC Housing.
Why would they introduce a program that increases the cost and time to build homes when the government is loudly touting their efforts to improve housing affordability? Why would they introduce a useless exam and tons of additional bureaucratic hoops while they plaster the Internet with ads proclaiming to be looking for ideas to cut red tape?
Normally I hold to the idea that most policy is introduced out of a desire to improve the system, but the situation around this exam is suspicious. It gets more so when we consider that 8 of the top 10 donors to the BC Liberals are in the development or construction industry. Cutting down on the few thousand homes built by owners in BC every year would be greatly in their favour, and considering there is no logical reason for the exam, it makes you wonder what other motivation there may have been.
The quotes interspersed in this article are just a tiny sample from the over 500 emails from British Columbians that Marko Juras has received on this issue including some truly heartbreaking stories from people that have had their plans for building their home jeopardized.
This may seem like an obscure issue to many people, but I feel like it impinges on our basic freedom to pursue our passions and dreams without undue interference. Constructing your own shelter seems like a fundamental right and a way for people with the right skills to afford a house they otherwise never could. Especially in rural BC where land is cheap, construction skills are common, and testing centres are a day’s travel away, this exam is having a real negative impact on British Columbians. I don’t think that can be allowed to stand.