St. Mary's County is working on a plan to revise and update its building, electrical and plumbing inspection fees, following a recent spate of complaints from homeowners who say that they are living in new homes with structural defects that never should have passed inspections.

At least one official says the development boom over the past decade may have something to do with the problems.

"In 1990, we weren't building as many buildings, and we had two inspectors. In 1999, we're building a lot more, and we still have two inspectors on the road," said Harry Knight, permits coordinator for the St. Mary's County Department of Planning and Zoning.

"Anybody can do the math and see that they are forced to do quicker inspections, which means less thorough inspections. I don't blame the inspector. I blame the management," Knight said.

All of the county's inspection work--for electrical and building inspections--has been subcontracted since 1990 to a Pennsylvania-based company, the Middle Department Inspection Agencies, which has a local office in Charlotte Hall. The company has been doing contracted electrical inspections in Pennsylvania and Delaware since 1896 and in St. Mary's since 1997.

In 1990, St. Mary's issued building permits for 780 residential units, compared with 1,123 issued in 1998, according to county records.

The inspection company takes in an estimated $1 million a year in fees, paid directly to them by homeowners. Under the proposed fee schedule, the county would collect the fees and not pay them to the company until 30 days after the inspection. The waiting period would provide some incentive for responding to homeowners should problems arise, Knight said.

With the new MDIA contract being discussed, the county could insist on inspector credentials, performance requirements, a minimum time spent on each inspection--standards that would ensure quality inspections, Knight said.

Knight said most of the problems now being blamed on poor inspections have to do with structural and plumbing defects. Knight said he receives a complaint from a homeowner unhappy with an inspection once a month.

Jasie Loving-Surdacki moved into a new $250,000 home in Mechanicsville's Frazier Homestead about a year ago. She says a litany of problems soon surfaced.

"Basically, we paid for a brand new home but we got a fixer-upper. Not only a fixer-upper, but a safety hazard," Loving-Surdacki said.

There are cracks on the wall; drywall is pulling away from wall frames; the basement leaks; three dormer windows leak down to an entryway light fixture; and finally, a support beam in the basement is apparently slipping, creating a safety hazard.

Loving-Surdacki hired an independent structural engineer, who told her that the home should not have passed inspection. Knight has visited the home himself and come to the same conclusion. So why did the county issue a "certificate of occupancy," a document that says, in essence, that the structure meets all state and local codes?

Because "our inspection agency [MDIA] told us it passed inspection," Knight said. "What I've tried to do is get the inspection agency to acknowledge the mistake and not make it again. We've asked for additional training and additional inspectors."

Sam Trice, manager of MDIA, did not return a message left at his Easton, Pa., office on Friday. But MDIA inspectors have told Knight and complaining homeowners that they stand by their work.

In a letter to Knight regarding Loving-Surdacki's house, Trice acknowledged that some code violations appeared to exist, but said that some of them were not apparent at the time the house was inspected or resulted from work completed after the final inspection.

Knight said the revised fees--which would be higher for more complicated and larger projects--could allow MDIA to generate a little more revenue and hire additional inspectors.

Some residents are suggesting that there are two other alternatives: find a different inspection contractor or, as one homeowner suggested, have the county do the inspections in-house.

"They shouldn't contract it out. They should have their own people do it," said Mechanicsville resident Larry Boswell.

Boswell moved into a new one-story frame house a year ago and, like Loving-Surdacki, has lived with a host of problems: floor joists that are not properly attached to the center beams, causing the floors to bounce like a trampoline; cracks in the foundations; and doors that don't shut.

"Honestly, it's a shame," he said. "The American Dream is to own a house, and my American Dream has turned into a nightmare."

Last week, Knight began circulating a draft of the proposed fee schedule among builders and planners.

"Any time fees go up, I think it throws a flag up [with builders]. You pass the cost on some way," said builder Guy Curley, president of Liberty Homes Development Inc. in Great Mills. "It's a fine line when rates are going up, materials are going up, you start increasing fees and there's also talk of raising impact fees. It becomes a fine line: How much will the market bear?"

Curley said he has reviewed the proposed fee schedule briefly and in general considers it a good idea.

County commissioners said they will await Knight's detailed presentation on the proposed fee schedule.

Fees for electrical, plumbing and building inspections vary under the present fee structure. With buildings, for example, it's generally a flat fee: $165 for a house over 2,200 square feet. A decade ago, that kind of house was considered big, but these days many homeowners are building twice as much space.

"So you can argue that there should be more fees because there's more house, more rafters, joists and connectors to look at," Knight said.

Knight will present the proposed fee schedule to the commissioners in the next few weeks.