Burglars eye home building

September 17, 1995|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

The houses that Frank Maggio and other builders construct in Howard County each year become comfortable quarters for homeowners. But until they are complete, the houses stand as open hardware stores for burglars.

Already this year, Howard County police have logged at least 110 burglaries at unfinished homes and construction trailers -- almost as many as the 127 such burglaries reported in all of last year. Most of the thefts were from homebuilders.

Nationwide, such losses cost builders at least $1 billion a year, according to the National Association of Home Builders. And local builders estimate more than $100,000 of those yearly losses occur in Howard County -- an amount typically passed on to homebuyers.

"I don't think there's anything lower than a thief," said Mr. Maggio, owner of Maggio Construction Co. in Columbia.

The disappearance of work materials is frustrating, particularly for small-business owners such as Mr. Maggio, who sends his crews home with pay if they can't work because supplies are missing. "It's ridiculous," he said.

Thieves will take anything that isn't nailed down, and some things that are. Tools, lumber, heat pumps, cabinets, carpet, light fixtures -- even nails -- are likely to vanish from construction sites.

A whole shipment of refrigerators disappeared overnight after the appliances were installed in townhouses in Ellicott City last year. Throughout the county, residents living near construction sites take drills and buckets of cement to complete home improvement projects of their own. At large construction sites, hundreds of other thefts go undetected each year.

Construction-site burglaries accounted for 10 percent of all burglaries in Howard County last year, police said.

Many of the thefts this year have occurred in the West Columbia, Clarksville and Scaggsville areas and also along Montgomery and Meadowbridge roads in Elkridge, where some of the county's newest developments have been sprouting, police said.

Police say many burglars wait until construction crews go home for the day, return at night in trucks, pry open a vacant home's door or window and then take whatever they choose from inside. In one incident, burglars loaded up a U-Haul truck, police said.

Construction workers themselves sometimes are caught with their hands full of stolen property, and police sometimes find more systematic, organized burglars.

In June, an Abingdon insulation worker who led a ring that stole from several county builders was sentenced to three years in prison for his crimes. The ring was blamed for 115 break-ins at houses under construction and 58 thefts from storage trailers between 1992 and 1994 in Howard, Baltimore, Harford and Prince George's counties.

Howard Saslow, manager of Hallmark Builders, said his company took the loss in at least one of those crimes, when burglars entered a western Howard County home and removed an oven and dishwasher just before the property was to go to settlement.

Like other builders, Mr. Saslow took little comfort in the Abingdon man's conviction, because most of these crimes go unsolved. Criminals often sell property out of state or reuse it.

"I've never known the problem to go away," said Mr. Saslow, president of the Howard County chapter of the Woodlawn-based Home Builder's Association of Maryland.

Jim Greenfield, owner of ColumbiaBuilders, anticipates losses from such thefts, adding $500 to the price of the homes he builds.

He remembers the time 80 sheets of plywood were delivered for his employees at a curbside off Route 32 near the Pointers Run area. The next day, the $2,500 worth of material was gone. "It's like shoplifting in a store," he said. "There's no solution."

Not all metro counties have been hit hard by construction-site burglars.

In Baltimore County -- a slow-growth region where the population of more than 700,000 is more than triple Howard County's -- there has been relatively little new home construction recently.

So, of the 79 construction site burglaries reported through Sept. 4 in Baltimore County, only half were at residential sites, said Baltimore County police Cpl. Kevin B. Novak.

Unlike commercial contractors in urban areas such as Baltimore City, Mr. Greenfield said, Howard homebuilders do not put up fences, unleash guard dogs and position spotlights at their properties.

But diverse prevention efforts have helped slow the crimes, said Joe Perry, a government affairs liaison for the Theft Prevention Committee for the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

After a wave of construction thefts in the 1980s, the association -- which represents about 1,300 homebuilders and suppliers in Central Maryland -- started a campaign to publicize the issue.

The prevention committee works with Metro Crime Stoppers to offer rewards for information about crimes. Many builders stake signs at their sites warning of potential jail sentences for convicted thieves, a step Mr. Perry said led to a slight drop in thefts in the region.

To avoid huge losses, many builders try to order only smaller amounts of material at a time, issue keys to fewer employees, install materials such as windows and doors as soon as possible and paint lumber and other items with their company logo or "Go to Jail" in bright paint to make would-be thieves think twice.

Mr. Maggio remains unconvinced.

"There's not too much you can really do about theft," he said. "Thieves don't seem to care."

THIEVES' TARGETS

Items most often taken, with the percentage of builders who said the item had been taken from their construction sites:

* Lumber, 83 percent

* Tools, 35 percent

* Windows, 26 percent

* Doors, 22 percent

* Heating and air-conditioning systems, 19 percent

* Other materials, 25 percent

SOURCE: National Association of Home Builders, 1993 National Survey

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