Sue Wentz and her husband, Eugene, saved for five years, living in a modest home in a low-income neighborhood of Houston, before they broke ground in January on a 4,300-square-foot house on 12 acres in Magnolia, Texas, a woodsy suburb about 40 miles northwest of the city. They are overseeing the construction themselves to control costs. So it was with dismay that they arrived at the job site one morning in July to find that all the copper wiring and air-conditioning tubing had been ripped out of the rough frame of the house.
Besides the financial hit — $11,000 — the theft took a psychological toll. “I felt so violated, and now I don’t trust anyone,” said Sue Wentz, who teaches English at a community college.
The couple, along with Ryan, their 7-month-old son, spent nine nights in a tent on the property to guard the place until workers could put Sheetrock over replacement wiring. Moreover, Eugene Wentz, an airline pilot, boarded up all of the entrances, limiting access to a single security door with two deadbolts and no handle. “Now we lock it up every night, and when the contractors arrive the next morning, they call us and we tell them where we hid the key,” he said.
According to professional homebuilders, law enforcement officials and insurers, the Wentzes’ experience is not unique. Larceny at residential construction sites across the country has increased significantly in the last two years because of soaring prices of building materials like copper, lumber and cement, they said. The National Association of Home Builders, a trade group, estimates that the annual cost of theft to the industry has reached $5 billion. The problem has meant higher material and insurance costs for builders, who pass them along to buyers, sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. In the end, that can add as much as 10 percent to the cost of a home, builders and developers said.
A cottage industry of guard services, surveillance devices and private investigators has emerged to prevent theft as well as catch thieves in the act. Larceny is an issue at commercial sites, of course, but residential projects are particular targets because they are often easier to access. The situation is worse in regions where homebuilding remains relatively strong, like in parts of Texas, North Carolina, New York and Louisiana, and remains a problem in states where home construction has slackened, like Florida, Nevada, Michigan and Arizona.
“Builders in Chapter 11 and lenders foreclosing on properties still under construction aren’t as diligent about security,” said Mark Ouimette, managing director at Beecher Carlson, an insurance company based in Atlanta that underwrites policies for homebuilders.
Indeed, police officials from Tucson to Miami report that thieves often peruse foreclosure filings to find idle and unsupervised projects. Insurers like Beecher Carlson said that theft had forced them to increase homebuilders’ insurance rates by 10 percent to 15 percent in the last two years.