Even with the downturn in 2008 and 2009, the last decade or so has seen several record years for new home sales. But Consumer Reports also found that increasingly, “buyers are discovering that their new dream homes have serious defects and that “they have more consumer protections for a fickle $20 toaster than for a flawed investment-of-a-lifetime.”
With the speed at which new homes continue to be built and bought, it’s no wonder that defects occur. Perhaps the worst thing of all about a housing defect found long after the builder has packed up and gone, is the frustration and expense that follows. Litigation, arbitration is expensive. Even working through the builder’s customer service process can be lengthy process.
Even those who can afford to hire the best have not been spared. Hollywood actress Sandra Bullock, who built a $7.5 million home on a lake in central Texas, found herself right in the middle of just such a nightmare when she found her house was defective. She had to initiate a lawsuit that some are now calling a symbolic victory for all homeowners who have suffered construction defects.
Bullock said about the experience, “I felt firmly committed to see this process through to a just conclusion, no matter what the outcome, especially for all those homeowners who could never afford to come this far.”
Most of us do not want to think about having to sue a builder. We simply want to find a way to protect our interests and make sure the builder understands that we intend to hold him to a standard through out the project. Hiring a third-party inspector is a logical and economical preemptive step.
Why Inspect A New Home?
An inspection on a new home is an important opportunity for the buyer to level the playing field. As in any industry, there are shortcuts and tricks of the trade in the construction business, and someone who is unfamiliar with them can easily miss improper workmanship. A home inspector is better able to see nuances that may not be readily visible to an untrained observer. One also needs an inspector to offset the builder’s business interest. Few builders will build the same home for you that they would build for their wives. They will claim otherwise, but it is simple human nature. It takes a truly special character to naturally protect their client’s interest at all times. My experience is that those top quality personalities are the exception, rather the rule in home construction. Since you cannot separate the great from the average (or worse), a home inspector provides critical protection.
In a new construction scenario, inspections at various phases, such as pre-pour of the foundation or pre-drywall, before the sheetrock encloses the framing and rough mechanicals provides a level of quality assurance for the buyer that many builders don’t usually provide for their purchasers. This inspection gives buyers a better chance of identifying and correcting potential problems when they are much easier and less expensive to fix, before they become physically or financially prohibitive. For example, this inspection may prevent the need to install a pillar in a planned open space by identifying over-spanned joists, may identify inadequate HVAC sizing or moving electrical receptacles so they are placed where you need them.
Aren’t all Builders licensed to Protect Buyers?
No. There are many regions of the US that do not license builders. Others license, but do not require continuing education. In the end builders rarely actually do much of the work. They are generally supervisors that coordinate large numbers of sub-contractors that do the work. Depending on region, not all of the “subs” are licensed. Additionally, the subs are in a constant battle to maintain skilled employees. Immigration cycles, business, weather and pay all cause workers to move between companies.
In the end, a builder is only as good as his subs and the sub is only as good as his workers. As a result licensing cannot guarantee quality. For example, Florida has had a builder licensing and inspection process for decades. Texas still has neither. However, if you compare home built by a good builder, in a non-code enforced area of Texas to a home built in Florida, you can often find little qualitative difference.
But Doesn’t The State or Municipality Protect Buyers?
In short: No. While there are many fine code inspection agencies across the country, the construction boom and government process combines to provide very few real guarantees of quality.
Municipal inspectors are human too. They tend to be over-worked and behind schedule. They focus on the “hot topics” and move on. It is not uncommon for a municipal inspector to head out in the morning with an unrealistically large workload for the day. In this scenario, quality suffers. I have personally observed city inspectors complete and inspection in 30 minutes that takes me 4 hours. How thorough can an over worked, even well intended, city inspector be?
Even if the workload is not large, remember that the city inspector is not inspecting to represent your interests. He is there to make sure that the cities minimum standard is met. Your interests will be better served buy hiring your own, experienced inspector. He can take the time to learn about you, your needs and family. He can take the time to read the plans and interact professionally with the builder.
As an aside, it is not critical that the International Code Congress certify the inspector. The ICC code is a well-read reference for all competent inspectors. Look for experience, common sense and diplomacy. Your inspector will find things the builder did not know about. It is easier for a diplomat to smooth the builder’s ego and get the job done correctly.
Advice from Inspection Experts
Top inspectors recommend that each new house be inspected at the pre-concrete pour, pre-closure and final stages. Generally, the inspections are conducted at the following points:
Pre-Pour, also called a Pre-Placement. This inspection is conducted just before the concrete is poured in the form. All rough electrical, plumbing and venting (if needed) should be completed. The vapor barrier is down and intact, rebar and/or post-tension cables are set. In bacement areas this may need to be conducted in two steps.
Pre-Closure, also called a Pre-Sheetrock. This inspection is conducted before any insulation or sheetrock is mounted inside the home. Generally, all framing is completed. Plumbing, electrical, HVAC, telephone, cable, stereo and alarm wiring is completed in the walls. In homes larger than 5,000 SF, this may need to be conducted as two steps. Frame first, then pre-closure.
Final. This inspection is conducted about five to seven days before the closing date. The home should be essentially complete except for cleaning and paint touch up. Some builders will not install appliances until just before closing, so this occasionally requires two trips.
After personally completing over 10000 inspections I am convinced that the vast majority of builders genuinely desire to do the best work possible. However, even the best-built home is not perfect; and I generally suggest new home buyers consider the following points:
- When the home was built, was the builder personable and a strong team leader? Gruff, angry people are not fun to work with and can have trouble getting the most out of their subs.
- How many homes was he building at once? Overworked builders cannot supervise multiple teams and subcontractors enough to insure quality.
- What is his reputation for support after closing? Does he stand behind his product, even years later?
- How much experience do you have working with builders? An experienced third-party inspector understands the idiosyncrasies of many of the local builders.
- With the large number of individuals involved in building a home it is unrealistic to expect a perfect product or a builder to catch all possible problems. An inspector should be a welcome set of fresh eyes.
What have we learned?
Whenever possible, it makes sense to inspect rather than wait to discover a problem down the road. Even a lawsuit that ends in the buyers’ favor in the courts can leave them tired, frustrated, and financially damaged. Any home—new construction or otherwise—is a huge investment and should be treated as such. After all, a dream home should be just that; and a third-party inspection is an economical way to gain peace of mind and help make that dream reality.