How Can a Homebuyer Judge Construction Quality?

HOW CAN A HOMEBUYER JUDGE CONSTRUCTION QUALITY? A reader who’s been following discussions of various construction efforts in Swamplot comments has a few questions: “There seems to be a big controversy among the commentators about what constitutes ‘quality construction.’ Are the big differences between old homes and new homes simply that one or the other are built to better standards? . . . Is it the materials that matter more than the construction crew themselves? How is one supposed to do his/her due diligence when purchasing a home? Find the builder, go look at other homes and how they have stood up, take a class on construction (which I’m not sure many of the people actually building the homes have done)?” [Swamplot inbox]

24 Comment

  • At the simplest level you can see what exterior/load-bearing/interior walls are made of (2×6? 2×4? 2×3?), insulation levels, etc.

    At some point you have to trust that things you haven’t done yourself weren’t done with the intent to defraud you.

  • Firstly new is always better than old, new materials are made better, more stringent engineering and inspection requirements, dangerous materials like lead and asbestos are no longer used. Having said that, there can be installation and construction errors which will lead to premature failure and very hard to detect it after its already in the wall. If I had to boil this complex issue to one answer, I’d say “Reputation”. Find a builder that’s built a lot but more importantly has been around for a while.

  • The rule of thumb among the commenters on this site is that if anything (apartments, townhomes, mansions, McMansions, condos, anything really) is being built that you don’t like for any reason (size, shape, color, turrets, traffic, etc.) then it’s A-OK to refer to them as being shoddily built and probably destined for either ghetto status or the wrecking ball in 10-12 years.

  • “Firstly new is always better than old…” (@ #2)

    “All generalizations are false, including this one.”
    Mark Twain (1835-1910)

  • I know a custom homes builder and he said one of the main differences is most builders are going cheap by providing less reinforcement, like spacing the studs out further, which creates problems later down the road.

  • The best thing to do is hire a construction manager to represent you, the homeowner, and oversee all the design and construction work. It’s still a hard sell for the residential market, but serial builders like universities and hospitals have been hiring owner representatives for years as a best practice to manage risk and control quality.

    I always tell my clients I wouldn’t throw a $100k wedding without hiring a wedding planner, so why even consider building a $500k house without someone coordinating the project that is independent of the designer and contractor…

  • All snark aside, some new methods and materials seem like good ideas, but turn out not to be – a couple examples that spring to mind are EIFS (OK in some circumstances, perhaps, but dear Lord that was a boondoggle when builders were slapping it on anything within reach) and polybutylene pipe (easy to install, easy to install badly, and does just dandy as long as it’s not exposed to sunlight, chlorine, and/or temperature changes – if it is it disintegrates right about the time the 10 year statue of repose expires). Engineered wood truss systems can handle a load OK, but some have very poor performance in fires, as in they quickly fail at multiple points because of the relatively shallow component connectors, leading to a sudden generalized collapse of whatever it was supposed to be holding up – like the roof of that burger joint a few years ago.

  • If new is better than old, how come when you are renovating a bungalow there is so much more rot in the 1980’s addition than the original 1920’s house?

  • @Jessie M, bollocks, stud spacing is a matter of code and is inspected (unless you’re way out in the county).
    @mollusk, true, there were certainly a few faux pas over the years, but EIFS and polybutylene pipe has not been used in well over a decade. At the time the “historic” homes were built, they thought asbestos was a great insulation and putting lead in paint and sealants was a good idea. New homes are required to have a fire suppression system standard, hurricane bracing, double pane windows, and dozens of improvements that were not even thought of a few decades ago.

  • Best to do your research. Even better to watch your home being built. As the owner of a 107 year old home with a brand new two story garage out back, I can tell you some differences between new and old. Old lumber could support larger loads than new lumber, due to the new lumber being young timber. However, this is compensated by using larger dimensions and other engineering tricks. My old house has 2×4 rafters. My new garage has 3×6 rafters. The old house rafters are spaced every two feet. The new rafters are every 16 inches. While craftsmen of old are considered artisans, there were crappy workers 100 years ago, too. There are good and bad craftsmen today, as well.

    If you are building or buying inside Houston city limits, you are in luck. Houston has enacted many codes to ensure that homes are able to withstand hurricane force winds, are energy efficient, and are less likely to burn down, and alert you to escape if it does burn. They make the contractors use straps on the studs and roof, make sure the plumbing is plumb, and make sure that electrical wire is up to snuff.

    In the county, you are more on your own, though homes built within the ETJ are supposed to be built to Houston spec. Short answer is if you see studs spaced more than 16 inches apart, and you don’t see hurricane straps, move on. There are sure to be other short cuts.

  • I think cheap builders (1) space studs out farther than they should, (2) use stucco, which almost fails b/c of improper installation (even if done correctly it fails in Houston), (3) use the cheap metal siding b/n townhomes or on the back, and (4) put in flat roofs with decks that will almost certainly leak.

  • water leaks are #1 problem that can ruin a home, no matter how well it was built.

  • @htownproud, (1) spacing studs too far out is against code plus studs are dirt cheap, no point saving two bucks per stud. (2) vast majority of multi-million dollar homes in River Oaks and Memorial are stucco, and this irrational anti-stucco hysteria must stop. (3) metal siding? Not sure what you mean, there’s hardi siding which last practically forever. (4) rooftop decks are hard to waterproof and are expensive to build, so it’s hardly a “cheapness” issue.

  • Get a good inspection.

  • I think Bernard has figured us out.

  • Sorry commonsense, a vast majority of homes in River Oaks are brick. I’d say same with Memorial, but haven’t worked there much the last decade or so.

  • I am an inner loop builder and generally small custom home builders who compete with each other should and do offer comparable quality. We are a green builder and all of our homes come with a 2×6 exterior envelope which increases your strength and your energy efficiency by about 50%. Many builders don’t offer this. We use the City’s MDI inspection program and that ensures that the house is built not only to code, but also to the plans as specified…..even if the specifications are ridiculous. We are building a house in the country right now and there are no inspections…… I hired a private inspector. Almost all of our homes have piers to support the foundation. We build the foundation as prescribed by the soil report. Not every builder does this. It can be expensive. The bottom line is that many small builders focus on quality and you pay for it……production builders are focusing on quantity and its cheaper. When people from the suburbs ask us for our typical price per square foot they are frequently shocked because they are familiar with the production model and the pricing that goes along with that. I think consumers who are buying existing new inventory from production buiders will struggle to ascertain the true quality because its really all behind the sheetrock. If you are building custom then just develop a high quality specification and insist all builders bid accordinly and make sure the contract enforces them to adhere to it….it should not be builder discetion.

  • Okay, so let’s say that you used “dara childs” to build your home. Don’t use the architect that they recommend. Don’t use the structural engineer that either they or your architect recommend. And in every other capacity, let the builder do the building and not the planning.

    Every role should be independent of another and have a check on it of some sort.

    I don’t know anything about “dara childs”, so its nothing personal, but that’s my point is that I don’t know anything about “dara childs”. Neither do you, so be careful.

  • @TheNiche, that is a valid idea, however I believe it would not be practical and may lead to more problems than it solves by having people who never worked together before.
    I think viewing the builder’s previous work will go a long way, however you would have to know what you’re looking at or bring someone who does. For example, by looking at the trim work and types of windows used I can gauge pretty accurately what overall budgets the builder works with.

  • Anon – bingo! A good inspection is crucial. In fact, I’m tempted on our next house to get two or three (just like I’d get 2 or 3 bids on new construction.). (Has anyone ever done that?)
    Even before you get an inspector, however, there are things to look for. If you see water damage – run (don’t walk) away from the house. Water damage = all sorts of bad things. If you see cracks in walls, ask to see documentation for foundation repair on the house. If there is no documentation or it wasn’t done, you will want to include it in your purchase deal (or just walk away). Another thing to look at is the breaker box. If it looks new, you’re good. If it looks old, it could be costly to replace. Finally, look at the roof. Any moss growing that shouldn’t be is an indicator tht something’s wrong. Sagging is an obvious sign of structural problems.
    @Commonsense – new is NOT always better than old. Houses from the 1970s and 1980s sometimes have problems that newer houses haven’t developed yet. But houses from the 1960s and earlier are usually very well built and often have features that you don’t see any more. We own two houses, one from 1955 and the other from 1960. They’re much better quality than the four-year-old house my inlaws live in.

  • @ZAW, the houses built in the 60’s, has the lead paint been removed by a qualified hazmat contractor? Have the cast iron drainage pipes been inspected for rust through and root penetration? Has the slab on grade foundation issues been addressed? Has the insulation been checked for asbestos or other harmful particulate matter? Have the water supply pipes been checked for heavy metals contamination? Have all the sealants been replaced to eliminate hazardous chemicals? Have you checked every interior wall cavity for mold colonies?

    Buying an old house is like buying a used car, you WILL have problems. A new house may develop some problems but its decades into the future and chances are you would have moved by then anyway.

  • I think the reason a lot of older homes are considered to be better built than newer ones, is because they have withstood the test of time. Poorly installed windows that allow water to infiltrate behind the siding will cause damage to a new home equally as it would to an old home. The fact that the old home is still around, is most likely due to the fact that that particular home either did not have the same installation failures, or whatever issues arose, were addressed. Modern homes can be built out of more sophisticated components that require more sophisticated installation to ensure proper performance, lending to a greater “opportunity” for issues down the road.

    Installation and maintenance are probably your two biggest factors in home quality. Does the builder just throw any warped/split 2×4 up as a stud, guesstimating the spacing and just eyeballing it to see if it is even level? Or does he take the time/expense to reject subpar materials, takes extra care to 16″ spacing is center of level stud to center of level stud? Just drive by most any tract home being thrown up and look at the lumber that goes into it. It’s not going to collapse (houses are too overbuilt for that) but it will probably lead to problems down the road with cracks in the drywall and other issues.

    In short, a poorly maintained new home will probably not be around for another 60 years, and the same held true in 1950. If a 60 year old house is still around today, it is more reflective of the maintenance and care it has had over the years, rather than its build quality.

  • I work for a production builder. We aren’t all throwing up shoddily built homes and just because a home is built “differently” than what you’re used to doesn’t make it wrong. There were some very broad generalizations here. Make sure that whoever builds your home is following IREC codes, using third party inspectors and isn’t afraid for you to introduce your own inspector to the process. What dara childs said is correct, you will pay more per square foot for a quality built home but you won’t be sorry in the end. You never get the lowest price, best quality and best customer service in the same place.