Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Failure to follow news can be costly

Probably the saddest reporting I have done of late has been my reporting on a community of frustrated homeowners.

Living in condos built by a certain builder, they have endured conditions that are horrible, to say the least. After a few hours in a couple of them, I too was coughing and sneezing from the mold in the walls.

To me, the worst aspect of this was that these people, mostly first-time homebuyers, turned to the government body that probably was the least capable of doing anything for them: the county commission. While the county has a building department that inspects homes under construction, one official noted that the county checks for compliance with the building code, not quality of workmanship.

Many of the units were built in the high-boom years of 2005-06, when building contractors were having a hard time finding workers. That, and the difficulty of getting certain design elements – such as balconies – put together correctly led to some serious defects that got past the inspectors. Even if the poor quality construction of the buildings was the county’s fault, the builder was responsible for the quality if it wanted its reputation to be good.

One thing I noticed among those who talked to me was that none of them subscribed to a newspaper, and they seemed to be oblivious to the fact that there had been numerous articles about this builder and the problems with its homes. I had considered the builder when I was looking for a new home, and heard about problems, so I chose another builder.

When my houses were built in Lake Worth, Vero Beach and Ellenton, I was there almost every day, taking pictures, talking to workers and enjoying the progress they were making. I remember when my current house was little more than four stakes in the ground, and I’m grateful to those workers who put it up for the good job they did.

All of my sources for the story naively believed that the government would help them. I had to explain that business rules the roost in Florida, and has especial power in Tallahassee. Getting a bill passed in the Legislature pretty much requires vetting by business and business-owned representatives. “Lemon laws” for cars were fought for years and years before they finally passed. Such laws for houses have no chance in a pro-business Legislature, and even less with a pro-business governor.

It frustrates me in so many other areas that people believe that their ignorance is somehow a shield against being ripped off. No one listens to me, mainly because I am perceived as a newspaper-reading know-it-all, but I know how to avoid being defrauded mainly because I stay on top of the news.

For example, a big story in The New York Times over the years has been about the efforts to rip off members of the U.S. military. People in the armed forces are ripe for being bamboozled – and always have been. On the first and 15th of every month, a huge amount of money flows to the bank accounts of men and women in uniform, from the lowliest Army private to the top Navy admiral, and everyone in between.

Back in the day, when I was in the service and payday was the 15th and the 30th of the month, it was like a holiday for local businesses just outside the gates of stateside military bases. Want to see what it was like even earlier? Read James Jones’s book “From Here to Eternity,” about the Army in Hawaii before Pearl Harbor. There’s a section about payday – a once-a-month occurrence back then – that’s a reflection of his own experience in the Army.

The Times did stories about bad life insurance and mutual fund plans that took a lot more in fees than they delivered in investment returns. In fact, troops were persuaded to cancel their very low cost government life insurance and go with the more costly private insurance that did not pay off as much.

In education, the Times did several series on how troops were being ripped off by online colleges and other education businesses, in some cases losing GI Bill eligibility after they left the service to schools that promised training and careers, but delivered nothing but debt.

Long after these reports, troops and veterans fell for these schemes, and their stories were told in the media. What became obvious was that none of them had even heard of these reports of the rip-offs out there just waiting to ensnare them and take their hard-earned pay and benefits.

I tend to be an idealist about information, and that’s a very bad shortcoming. I believe that information creates a more informed consumer who can make rational decisions, and decide when something is not a good idea.

Unfortunately, no one listens to me when I try to caution people. I realize that drug addicts and alcoholics are considered more credible than someone like me who is just trying to inform people, and I have been tempted to just let people go uninformed. If you want to be ignorant, I reason, go ahead and be ignorant.

Just don’t come crying to me when I’m working on a story and tell me that you somehow thought your ignorance would protect you. Sometimes, you have to take responsibility.

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September 17, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , ,

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