A surge in home sales in Boston this spring is causing a major backlog in smoke and carbon monoxide detector inspections, which are required to finalize a sale, frustrating property owners and real estate agents who say they have been forced to push back closing dates or have not been able to rent out properties.
Boston Fire Marshal Bart Shea said the rising rate of home sales in the past two months has resulted in a major increase in requests for inspections: His office is receiving 75 requests daily, up from 35 in early April, and it inspects about 200 units a week, up from just over 100 a week in early April.
Shea said the department was not prepared for the increase in demand.
“We are struggling with manpower restraints, but with the influx of sales it’s really hard to manage,” Shea said.
The Greater Boston Real Estate Board reported a 23 percent increase in pending single-family home sales in April compared to April 2011, the most recent month for which figures are available. And inspections for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are necessary with every one of those sales under a state law that will not allow a property to change owners without a certificate issued by the Fire Department.
‘This is supposed to be keeping the residents of Boston safe. It’s not meant to hold up closings.’
Real estate agent Kevin Caulfield said he had a client ready to give him more than a million dollars in cash for a Boston property that he wanted to move into within two weeks.
Normally, Caulfield would have been elated about the sale, but this time he knew immediately it would not be possible.
“They could not close only because of a smoke detector inspection,” said Caulfield, vice president for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Newbury. “We are now waiting to determine when we can close, based on when I can get a smoke inspection.”
Caulfield, who deals mostly with property in Boston, said in the past six months he has seen delays of up to six weeks in smoke and carbon monoxide inspections.
Caulfield acknowledges this is the busiest season for home sales, but suggested the Fire Department can do more to alleviate the delays, such as hiring seasonal inspectors.
The department has six inspectors to keep up with the demand, according to department officials. It normally has eight general inspectors and brought in one more to assist, but three are out on leave.
“Inspections are complex,’’ Shea said. “You can’t just grab a guy from the street to come in temporarily, and there are also budget issues involved. Ideally, I’d like to have more, but over the years, the city has had to make cuts.”
The problem posed by the increase in home sales has been exacerbated by technological glitches with the department telephones as it transitions into a new scheduling system, Shea said. In the face of the heightened demand, the department is now only taking appointments online or in person at their 1010 Massachusetts Ave. office.
“I don’t want to overplay the technology issues, but it definitely adds to everything,” Shea said.
Shea advises booking an inspection as soon a sale seems imminent. No fee is charged for a cancellation or rescheduled appointment, he said.
Caulfield said he has done that and still encountered problems because the inspection certificates expire after 60 days. In some instances, a delay in financing has extended the process past the 60-day perioid, meaning he has to reapply for an inspection.
Shea said they have tried to be flexible in this sales climate and sometimes give extensions of a few days.
“We were going to try and push that to 90 days, but at this point we are taking it on a case-by-case basis,” Shea said.
Richard Kiley, a schoolteacher who recently bought property in Chinatown hoping to rent it out, said he sees no excuse for the delays.
Kiley purchased his property three months ago looking to make a little money on the side and said his dream is now turning into a nightmare because he cannot get an inspection scheduled, and the property sits vacant, although three people have expressed interested in renting it.
“I have to pay my taxes, Kiley said. “They should do their job in a timely manner. Is that too much to ask?”
Kiley says the inspections are necessary, but they should not impede business.
“This is supposed to be keeping the residents of Boston safe,” Kiley said. “It’s not meant to hold up closings.”
Kiley said it is difficult to have to pay taxes on a property that is not generating any revenue.
The Fire Department is paying its inspectors overtime, something never before allowed, Shea said. He also said residents have the option of paying an extra fee for an overtime inspection.
Shea said fixing the kinks in the scheduling software will help alleviate the problem, but the underlying issue still remains a lack of inspectors.
The solution to that lies with the City Council budgeting and approving the addition of more inspectors.
“We have to live with this at the moment,’’ shea said. “I don’t see any immediate relief. We really just need more bodies. There is no quick solution.”
Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser said he does not think it is necessary to hire any more people at this time, however.
“We are going to work with the Greater Boston Real Estate Board to try and come up with a way to alleviate this,” Fraser said. “But we are not going to hire permanent people over this one time when we have a spike in the market and happened to have some people off.”