Illustrations by Tyson Mangelsdorf

Bill Nelson was fed up. A project managerfor a national builder, his East Coast division was losing $100,000 to $200,000 a year to theft. He lost $80,000 from one house alone. “It’s not uncommon to lose an entire load of exterior trim,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to lose appliances or an entire lumber load. Someone stole the windows out of a house next to the model while it was occupied. Pick something, and it’s stolen from here.”

“Bill Nelson” is an alias for a builder who is hiding GPS tracking devices inside appliances. He agreed to speak to Builder as long as we didn’t identify him, because only three people in his division know that the tracking devices are being used. He’s trying to find out who is responsible for—and, hopefully, to reduce—the crippling theft his division has experienced. And it’s not like they’re just leaving tools and supplies sitting out for the taking; his company has always been security-conscious.

“We use containers and store things there,” he says. “Our appliances are delivered at the time of trim. We take the doors off and store them elsewhere. But unless you’re on site all the time, there will be theft. If we just catch one guy, it’s a big help.”

Multiple Hits

To say that jobsite theft is rampant in home building would be an understatement. In a recent Builder survey, 90 percent of respondents said they had been victims of theft within the past year. Losses ran from lumber and copper wiring to office supplies and diesel fuel. Of those who reported thefts, 60 percent had been hit more than three times. One reader told of “at least 15 different occasions of wire being stripped out of framed houses, and at least six different houses had wiring cut out of the crawl space after drywall.”

Copper theft alone is enough of an issue that more than 20 states have passed legislation to regulate its sale to recycling centers. Thieves will strip the metal from virtually anything—air-conditioning units and electrical wiring are favorite targets—and sell it to recycling centers.

Accurate statistics on the financial toll of jobsite theft are difficult to obtain—87 percent of Builder survey respondents filed police reports, but three out of four didn’t file an insurance claim—but statistics for the construction industry as a whole regularly cite the loss at more than $1 billion per year. In our survey, 50 percent of respondents said their total losses in the past year exceeded $10,000.

And the dollar figures cover only the value of the items that are stolen. They don’t begin to address the cost of the time that’s lost when materials must be reordered or repairs are required to houses damaged by thieves who rip apart walls to steal wiring and pipes.

Cutting the Risk

Realistically, no jobsite is completely secure.

“Given enough time and ambition, people will get into anything,” says Tom Schwalie, senior product manager for Crystal Lake, Ill.–based Knaack, which makes secure storage equipment for trucks and jobsites. “Banks get robbed, and they have armed guards.”

But there are steps builders can take to reduce the risk of theft. In an NAHB survey about jobsite theft, 86 percent of builders practiced just-in-time delivery, with an emphasis on not accepting Friday deliveries so that materials don’t sit uninstalled over the weekend. Others said they marked materials with paint that showed up in ultraviolet light.

“Two percent said, ‘Own a mean dog,’” says Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the NAHB. “There is some sense of humor.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Charlotte, NC.