Bellingham rental inspectors find many minor problems

By Emily Hamann 
The Bellingham Business Journal

The results are in. Around half of the residential units the City of Bellingham inspected under its new rental safety program failed the first time around.

Failing a first inspection isn’t necessarily a big deal — property owners just have to fix whatever was wrong and then schedule a time for an inspector to come back out for a second look.

Eventually, the city will fine property owners if they fail to schedule or pass a second inspection.

This summer, city and private inspectors began knocking on doors throughout Bellingham’s Sehome area.

The neighborhood was the first to be subjected to the city’s new rental registration and safety inspection program.

In this first wave, around 880 units were up for inspection. More than 300 of those are being inspected by private inspectors.

Of the units being inspected by the city inspector, 258 passed inspection the first time around. 252 failed. The details of the units looked over by private inspectors aren’t disclosed.

“We’re finding more small problems than I had anticipated,” Bellingham Building Official Jim Tinner said.

So far, no properties have been so bad that inspectors condemned units or made anyone move out.

The failures are mostly for things like missing handrails or dead smoke detectors.

Another common problem that calls for a major fix is bedrooms without a usable escape window – either there’s no window at all, or there’s a window that won’t open or is too small for someone to use to escape in case of a fire.

And that’s just among the units inspected by the city inspector.

We don’t know for certain the details of the inspections done through private inspectors.

For privacy, Tinner said, inspectors only report to the city after units pass inspection, not the results of the inspection.

“That’s why we have to allow private inspectors, so it’s not an unreasonable government intrusion,” Tinner said.

He has had conversations with some private inspectors, and said they’re mostly finding the same kinds of problems in about the same percentages.

Vince Crocker is one of those property owners who used the city inspector and has had properties in the Sehome neighborhood fail the first time.

He and his wife own almost 50 units in Bellingham.

Most are in Sehome and get rented to students. He uses two different property management companies, but was hands-on during the inspection process.

He said the timing of the first round of inspections is especially challenging. Inspections started this summer, but finished up in fall.

As it is, fall is an especially busy time in the housing industry as a whole, as many students are moving out and new tenants move in, which means more maintenance requests.

Repair people and maintenance workers already have jam-packed schedules, and that’s during a regular fall season.

Getting them in to do additional repairs to fix things found during inspections has been challenging, Crocker said.

“Each industry in town has its busy time,” he said. “This is ours.”

He hopes in the future the city will take that into account.

Other than that, he’s happy with the program, even though some of his properties failed the first time around.

“Most of the repairs that I’m facing are minimal,” he said. “Just time consuming to do.”

Both Tinner and Crocker had the same idea about why so many units are failing initially.

Property owners most likely didn’t want to complete repairs until they were sure about what the inspectors were looking for.

The city did release a check list of everything that would be inspected, but, Crocker said, it was vague.

“They would give you some boilerplate points as to what they were looking for,” he said.

He, like many other property owners he guessed, didn’t want to invest a lot of time and money into changing things until he knew specifically what the inspector would be looking for.

Tinner said something similar.

“Anytime you’re in the inspection business you have a certain amount of latitude you’re allowed to use,” Tinner said.

Some things are a simple pass/fail: fire protection systems, for example, must be 100 percent operational.

Other things, like how high a guardrail needs to be, depends on the unit.

In these inspections, Tinner said, inspectors should be making judgments based on the intent of each rule.

This entire process is brand new, for inspectors, property owners and the city.

The Bellingham City Council voted for this rental inspection program last year.

In total, almost 19,000 units are registered for inspection. Rental properties make up more than half of the city’s housing units.

Inspections are on a three-year cycle. This year, south Bellingham neighborhoods are up for inspection. After Sehome was complete, inspectors started in York.

After all the southern neighborhoods are inspected, central Bellingham will be next, followed by north Bellingham.

Crocker thinks there will be fewer failures in the future, now that everyone is on the same page about what’s being looked at.

“It looks like we know the rules of the game now,” he said.

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