The housing rebound put builders back to work and balance sheets in the black.
But with that success comes another type of rebound.
In the last quarter, Northeast Florida builders were hit hard by the theft of appliances from new homes under construction. Sheriff’s offices from three counties have been working across lines to solve the cases.
In October, police caught a break.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office arrested three people in the theft of appliances from construction sites in Duval County. Police said the suspects admitted to burglaries in Clay County. Police are investigating whether they are tied to thefts in St. Johns and Nassau counties as well.
Detective Damon Hysler of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office said the team is believed to have stolen appliances during the morning hours of the workweek, while other tradesmen were at job sites.
“They just blended right in,” he said.
Thefts of appliances, air conditioners, copper and building materials from job sites tend to rise when homebuilding takes off.
In Duval County where new home construction is up about 15 percent, construction thefts are tracking proportionally to permits.
In St. Johns County, where building permits are even with last year, appliance thefts spiked in the last quarter. There were 27 incidents in Northwest St. Johns County in the last three months, said Brian Lee, commander of the Northwest District. Normally, there are one or two per month.
Clay County also saw a surge, with about a half-dozen reports of appliance thefts at sites in the OakLeaf area in three months.
“That’s a high number and we consider that a spike,” Clay County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Mary Justino said.
The Northeast Florida Builders Association meets with sheriff’s offices about four times a year. Last month, there was more to talk about than usual.
“The theft, and damage as a result of that theft, is beyond any proportion that we’ve ever experienced,” said Larry Wittmer, chairman of NEFBA’s construction crime committee.
Those who attended the meeting ranged from companies that build only 10 homes a year to some of the area’s largest builders, said Dennis Ginder, president of Landon Homes, which sponsored the meeting.
Losses from theft are beginning to sting.
“I’m a small company, and in three weeks we were hit and lost over $15,000,” Ginder said. “It’s hard to think we lost that much, and we did everything right. All of the houses were locked up. But, everybody’s feeling the same way.”
Sometimes the damage caused by the theft is as much of a problem as the theft itself.
“They’ll say, ‘You need to lock the doors.’ But the builders lock the doors, and then they (the thieves) smash the door in and take the appliances anyway,” Wittmer said. “So now, not only are the appliances gone, there’s a $2,500 door and doorframe busted.”
People who steal from job sites are most often members of trades, said Lee. Not necessarily on-site workers, but someone who can gain access without arousing suspicion. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office recently arrested one tradesman accused of taking metal lathing from construction sites and using it for jobs in Orlando.
Capt. Greg Foster of the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office said construction thefts are usually well-planned.
“The people that do this are specific types of people. This is what they do — they steal from construction sites,” he said. “It can make it easier to track them down, because it’s going to be the same people over and over again.”
To steal appliances, perpetrators strike just before the house is occupied.
“A lot of times we find builders have not yet put the locks on the doors and the house is not completely secure,” Foster said. “But, the appliances have been dropped off already, and it’s easy pickings.”
A 2003 Department of Justice study showed that when builders waited to install appliances, thefts dropped by more than two-thirds.
But in Florida, builders must install the refrigerators, stoves and microwaves ahead of time in order to get a certificate of occupancy.
“It’s one of the challenges we’ve talked about with builders,” said Sgt. Mike Bruno of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. “The lag time between when they put the appliances in and when the buyer takes possession of the house. Builders have compressed that as much as possible.”
Ways to prevent thefts
• Locking doors and windows.
• Installing alarms, especially in subdivisions that are already occupied, where neighbors will hear them.
• Keeping a list of the serial numbers on appliances.
• Marking appliances in areas that aren’t visible after installation or using a tracking product like SmartWater, a clear forensically coded liquid that’s registered to its owner.
• Limiting the deliveries of construction materials until right before they are needed and securing the items overnight.
• Encouraging neighbors and anyone who visits the site to report suspicious activity. No one should see new appliances coming out of a home under construction.