Theft at Construction Sites

New technology helps slow down the drain of materials from jobsites

Each year, $1 billion worth of tools and building materials are stolen from construction sites.

It would be simple to write these losses off to the cost of doing business, but residential job-site thefts add 2 percent to the price of a new house, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Someone has to pay, and though some of the burden falls on home buyers, builders and contractors bear the brunt because they have to replace materials and tools and deal with production delays until they do.

Most builders and contractors carry liability insurance. But as with most insurance policies, the more claims you make, the greater the risk of increased premiums or dropped coverage, especially if it seems you've made no serious effort to reduce thefts.

"If you are going to leave your tools on someone's front porch and they're stolen, then it is your fault in the eyes of the insurance company," said contractor Joan Stephens, a contractor in Boise, Idaho, and president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

Theft from construction sites has always been a problem, said Gary Schaal, vice president of sales and marketing for Orleans Homebuilders.

"When I was starting out with another builder years ago, I arrived at a job site as some guys were loading lumber on a truck," Schaal said. "The guy who seemed to be in charge told me that the superintendent had told him to do it. When I asked for the name of the superintendent, he told me that he couldn't remember it.

"I told him to unload the lumber or I'd call the police," Schaal said. "I guess it wasn't very smart of me, since I was outnumbered and far from a phone, but they did it."

Marshal Granor of Granor Price Homes in Horsham said, "Sometimes we hire guards and put up fences, sometimes we don't. It depends on the job and the location."

Once, he said, he discovered that a guard he had hired was working with a neighboring homeowner to pilfer plywood and other lumber products from a job site and store it in the neighbor's garage.

The two men had another guard convinced that it was part of an insurance scam by Granor Price. Granor didn't become aware of the thefts until he tried to fire the naive guard, who "threatened to expose the supposed scam," he said.

"The homeowner didn't think he was doing wrong," echoing the thought that the builder could get its insurance company to pay for the losses, Granor said.

Tools, lumber and appliances are the items most often pilfered from residential construction sites.

"Tools seem to have legs of their own," said Mark Clements of Ambler, editor of Tools of the Trade magazine and a former contractor.

"And the thefts are carried out so quickly," he said. "You go to buy your crew some breakfast sandwiches and the trailer has been emptied of all your tools when you return."

What ruins many smaller contractors is that insurance pays the depreciated value of the tools, not the replacement value, "so you get $20 to replace a $200 tool," he said.

That's what happened to Nik Stajka, an Arlington, Va., contractor who buys, renovates and sells houses in the suburbs near Washington.

"I renovate one house at a time, and I usually rent a 20-foot container to store tools and materials on site," he said.

"I got almost to the end of one job, so I let the container go and decided to store my tools in the basement of the house. One of my guys was working down there and it was dusty, so he opened the windows."

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