No Standards

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CABOT, Vt. (WCAX) Lolly Arena spent more than a quarter million dollars on a house that's falling apart inside and out.

"I'd have to say the foundation is about the only thing holding up," she said. "It's splitting all over the place."

We were skeptical that a 7-year-old home would deteriorate so quickly. She invited us to Cabot see for ourselves.

Lolly Arena: It's rotted.
Reporter Jennifer Costa: What is this?
Lolly Arena: That's the piece.

A piece of rotten wood-- a shim really-- shoved under a post to compensate for exterior beams Arena says a contractor cut too short. She also showed us huge cracks in the logs, strange buckling, poor supports and flimsy floors you can see through.

"It's unforgivable," Arena said.

She blames a builder she claims cut corners. When problems started to pop-up she hired a log home inspector. His report backs up a lot of her complaints. Arena called a lawyer and quickly discovered homebuilding is a game of buyer beware in Vermont.

"He called back and said I could take your $4000 but quite truthfully there are no laws here to protect you," Arena said.

Then she remembered our story from this summer on "Crooked Contractors." In that report, we told you that unlike electricians, plumbers, and gas and oil technicians, builders are not licensed or regulated in Vermont.

Arena told us she just assumed Vermont had residential building standards and someone from the town would check the contractor's work. We took her frustrations to Cabot's zoning administrator.

Jennifer Costa: Does the builder have to follow any rules?
Karen Deasy/Cabot Zoning Administrator: There are no building codes in the town of Cabot.

To build in Cabot, you only need a local zoning permit and a state wastewater application.

"Anybody can build their house if they want to," Deasy said.

And when it comes to safety and workmanship:

Jennifer Costa: Nobody comes back and checks?
Karen Deasy: No... The local builders have been reliable, responsible and you know who is building your home. So we haven't had a need for that in this point in time.

"We get complaints every year," Vt. Fire Safety Director Michael Desrochers said.

We discovered almost all of Vermont's cities and towns lack residential building codes.

"Single-family, owner-occupied homes, for the most part, in Vermont are not regulated. Period," Desrochers said.

Desrochers tells us Vermont does enforce building codes for commercial properties and multifamily rentals with three or more units. But he stresses there are no statewide building standards for single-family homes and no real recourse for unhappy customers. He says to be effective, towns can't just add building codes. They need oversight, too, with routine inspections to ensure codes are followed.

"Any type of building inspection on a building that is not currently regulated, and then you're going to regulate it, you'll end up with a safer property," Desrochers said.

But it's unclear whether most municipalities would have the cash to pull that off.

As for Arena, Desrochers could not help. He referred her to the consumer assistance program where she did file a complaint. She tells us that went nowhere. It's not fraud because the contractor did the work. She's just not happy with the quality. So it seems Arena is stuck with what she calls a money pit.

"From what I can gather, it won't fall down," she said. "However, it's going to be a lifetime of maintenance and repairs."

We talked to the builder. He stands behind his work and tells us he went back to fix things every time Arena asked him to and he says he hasn't heard from her in three years.

Right now, the Vermont secretary of state's office is weighing whether contractors ought to be regulated. And they want to hear from you. The next public hearing is Nov. 29 or you can comment online. The review panel plans to make its recommendation to lawmakers in January.