It used to be that thieves might prowl through a Renaissance Homes development that was under construction and strip out electrical wiring that they could sell for a quick buck.
More recently, however, the criminals have upped their game — and their haul. Instead of copper wire, they’ve rolled up in the dark of night in moving trucks and cleaned out entire model homes.
“Furnishings, fixtures, everything,” said Randy Sebastian, president of Renaissance Homes. “We had quite a bit of that going on.”
Chalk it up to the return of the housing market, laws that have made it harder for crooks to sell stolen metal or any number of other factors, but construction site theft has been on the rise over the past couple years. And just as Sebastian and Renaissance have seen, no longer are thieves sticking to small-time, albeit still damaging, losses. They’ve also gotten more sophisticated, staking out worksites to familiarize themselves with who’s coming and going and when might be the best time to strike. When that time comes, they often pull up in trucks similar to those of contractors so as to avoid suspicion, black out windows and get down to business.
“Theft has really just ramped up the past couple years,” said Dave Nielsen, CEO of the HBAMP. “It used to be random tweakers on bikes trying to strip out metal. Now it’s furnished homes and they’re going in and ripping everything out. It’s a growing epidemic.”
Karen Blythe got into the world of worksite theft prevention about 18 years ago during a period of high crime and vandalism. In response, she helped establish the Construction Industry Crime Prevention Program of the Pacific Northwest, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent and reduce theft and vandalism on residential and commercial construction sites. Today, the CICP network includes contractors, trade associations, law enforcement agencies, scrap metal recyclers, community members and others. Since CICP’s founding in 1996, builders and contractors have reported more than $16 million in losses to the nonprofit; CICP has helped recover more than $5.3 million.
“We see thieves taking advantage of empty homes and finding creative ways to get inside,” Blythe said. “They’re leaving doors unlocked when they go on a tour with a Realtor, they’re scoping out sites so they know when people come on and off the job sites. Basically, they’re playing the part.”
It’s not just homebuilders who are at risk, either. Blythe said remodelers can find themselves being targeted, especially if they’re leaving trailers at a job site and if the homeowners doing the remodel aren’t staying the home during construction.
To help curb the worksite theft that was befalling Renaissance Homes, Sebastian turned to OmniGuard, a home and business security company in Lake Oswego. The company is able to install home security systems as soon as power is available on a site; no Internet or telephone line is required. The systems can be controlled and monitored from a mobile phone and custom-programmed to send text alerts to certain people whenever the system is disarmed or an alarm goes off.
“It’s whoever you want to get notified,” said Noah Stokes, president and CEO of OmniGuard. “The customization is unlimited, really.”
In addition, some systems include motion sensors with cameras. If someone comes in and disarms the alarm, the camera takes their picture and sends an alert to the selected devices. That can help reduce false alarms, which can rack up fees from police departments that respond to them. The systems, which can also keep any shady subcontractors in check, also have two-way voice technology so that, for example, a remote project manager from Renaissance Homes who receives an alert could inquire in real-time who’s in the home or who disarmed the alarm.
“It’s a real person and their voice asking them who is there,” Sebastian said. “That will freak a bad guy out.”
Both Sebastian and Stokes said the OmniGuard systems have foiled several break-ins at Renaissance homes.
“There have been obvious instances where people have tried to break in and been stopped,” Stokes said. “The theft has dropped significantly.”
Beyond alarm systems, there are other steps builders and remodelers can take to prevent theft from their sites. After all, Blythe said, it’s better to focus on prevention than recovery.
“The odds of recovery are pretty darn small,” she said. “Prevention is much more effective.”
For starters, Blythe said it’s important for homebuilders to make contact with neighbors and share some basic information with them so they know, in general, who will be on site and when. If neighbors don’t know that someone’s not supposed to be on-site at 11 p.m. at night, they might not think it’s all that odd. Putting up fencing can be an easy deterrent, as can properly securing materials, and it’s important to always double check that tool trailers are properly locked at the end of the day.
Members of the CICP program also have access to other resources, including a round-the-clock hotline and reward program that provides posters, signs and decals for contractors. There’s also an email alert system for urgent crime information and a confidential, 24-hour emergency contact number.
Blythe said properly labeling and inventorying all tools and materials — even going so far as to label 2x4s with an identifying mark — can be helpful, perhaps more in recovering stolen goods than in actually preventing theft.
“Marking it will make it more difficult to be sold and will make it easier to identify as yours if it’s stolen and recovered,” she said. “You won’t know what’s been stolen if you don’t know or can’t show what you have.”
At the moment, the CICP is offering HBA members a special membership rate, starting as low as $88 a year for companies with up to 10 employees. For more information, visit www.cicpp.com.
Just in case: Builder’s risk insurance
Despite builders’ best efforts to deter theft from their job sites, there’s still the chance that something — or someone — may slip through. If that happens, there may be some peace of mind to be hand through builder’s risk insurance.
“Builder’s Risk coverage is a type of property insurance specifically designed to cover property during the course of construction, including renovation and repair,” said Jeff Cecchini, senior vice president at Montgomery & Graham, Lake Oswego insurance company.
He said typical property policies don’t always cover the additional risks and responsibilities inherent in homebuilding and other similar types of work. For example, if someone steals contractors’ equipment from the job site or if construction materials are damaged, you could be liable for the loss if you do not have builder’s risk coverage.
“Careful planning is the foundation for a smooth construction project, which includes the right exposure coverages,” Cecchini said. “Many businesses choose to transfer or accept risk through contracts, purchase orders and lease agreements. However, not all contracts or endorsements are created equal. An agent who understands your business can help you with builder’s risk policy language to meet your individual needs.”