Avoid a money pit

Avoid a money pit
In the 1986 movie, "The Money Pit," Tom Hanks and Shelley Long find themselves in their dream house until it starts falling apart. The bathtub falls from the ceiling, the chimney falls into the house and eventually the frame collapses.

By this point, it is too late. The time to be concerned with quality is before the home is built. New homebuyers need to consider overall quality and construction issues before they purchase their dream home, experts agree.

"Quality is important because you are making the single most important investment of your life," says Dave Smith, vice president of sales and marketing for Libertyville-based Cambridge Homes.

Finding a quality house should be a buyer's primary concern, agrees Andy Stern, senior vice president of Toll Brothers Chicago area office.

"When you're making an investment of this size, you obviously want something that is quality construction."

Builder reputation

The selection begins with the most important decision – the reputation of the builder. "It all goes back to the builder's reputation," Stern says. "What is the strength of their name in the marketplace and how long have they been in business. Their reputation and history should play a big role in determining quality."

Homebuyers should review company reports and independent market surveys such as J.D. Power and Associates or the Better Business Bureau.

Satisfaction reports like J.D. Power are important because the study provides a large independent sample size of owners who have purchased homes, Smith says.

Referrals from friends, family members or potential neighbors can also be a good way to learn about a builder and their reputation. "We put a lot of faith in referrals," Stern says.

After visiting a model, Smith recommends that potential buyers ask to tour a finished home that hasn't been moved into yet. "In the model, there are a lot of things that can distract you from your decision," he says. "By touring a finished unfurnished home you can really see what sort of quality there is."

Buyers should drive around either the subdivision they are buying in or another of the builder's communities perhaps one that is older and more established so they can see how it stands the test of time.

Smith recommends that potential buyers walk around an established neighborhood. They should actually talk to residents about their home and their experience with the builder. "Knock on doors. People will tell you quickly whether they are satisfied," Smith says.

Skilled labor, quality materials

Buyers should concern themselves with the tradespeople that the builder uses to complete the home. Are the electricians licensed? Are the plumbers licensed? Are they skilled in the position?

Cambridge Homes uses union laborers, who are highly trained, Smith says. The union backs their laborers' work by extending the warranty by an extra five years, he adds. This is a warranty that is additional to the standard warranty given by the builder.

"The union is backing their laborers with money and their time instead of offering a standard one-year warranty," Smith says. "That gives buyers an extra vote of confidence."

After determining the builder's reputation, a homebuyer should look at the components that actually go into the structure.

Structural components

Buyers should consider the life expectancy of the home when looking at the main structural components such as exterior walls and roofing materials. They should also consider where the house is located. For instance, a Cape Cod-style home may not look appropriate in the Midwest, but is perfectly acceptable on the East Coast.

Asking questions is the most important part of this process, says Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Home Builders.

He recommends that buyers do research such as talking to manufacturers or looking on the NAHB Web site, which has a chart showing anticipated life expectancy of building materials. One roofing product may offer a 35 to 40 year replacement cycle while the standard shingle roofs are typically 20 years, he adds.

"It might be cost prohibitive for the buyer," Melman says. "They need to base these decisions on affordability and to be flexible."

Insulated vinyl siding is very good for exterior walls because it is efficient and acoustically insulated so homeowners won't hear the rain and feel the wind. But whether to use it is an individual homebuyer's decision, Melman adds.

Buyers should also look at exterior materials such as roof materials, siding and windows. For instance, some of today's newer roofing materials offer a 30-year life as opposed to 20-year with traditional shingles, Stern agrees.

You be the inspector

The next step is looking at the materials and components that are installed in the home. New homebuyers, in particular, should look at their new home in various stages of construction.

For instance, homebuyers should look at the foundation and the basement right before it is backfilled, Stern says. "It should be clean, and there should be no debris in the backfill," he adds. "In general, things should be clean during the whole process."

The next step is looking at the house's frame. "Take a walk around, make sure all materials are good quality, that they are clean and that there aren't any knots in the lumber," Stern says. "Many builders walk buyers through the home at this stage so they can look and see that things are the way they are supposed to be."

Make sure to attend the pre-drywall orientation, Smith says. This is the stage where the drywall is up. Looking at these details will really show the quality of the home. "You can see the two-by-fours put in, you can see the electrical and really see the home's construction," he adds.

For instance, if there is water seeping in through a foundation crack then it is definitely something to be concerned about, but superficial cracks on the floor are normal concrete issues, Smith adds.

Homebuyers should also take another tour after the house is drywalled and taped. "Make sure the drywall is screwed and glued as opposed to just screwed," Stern says.

Tap into the experts

Buyers should also attend any municipal inspections and ask them questions. "Ask, 'Does this look OK?'" Melman says. "There's no reason you can't be there to ask questions. You can learn a lot from these experts who should know. Be a part of the process."

He even recommends that buyers ask about the plumbing including what kind of piping is being used. This way they really get to know their home, which even can make repairs easier down the road, Melman says.

Buyers can get very specific with their builder, asking about subfloor lumber, drywall thickness and methods used. "If the right materials are used, you will avoid squeaks in the future, and have a more stable structure," Stern says.

Most builders build homes according to the municipalities' building codes, which ensures the home at least meets certain standards. These codes typically determine issues such as what type and the amount of insulation that needs to be used and how joints should be caulked.

Interior finishes

Most buyers spend considerable time focusing on home finishes such as countertops, flooring and cabinets. This is where buyers can splurge if they have money or conserve if they don't.

"It depends on how much money you have in your jeans," Smith says. "A Chevy Cavalier is a fine car to get you down the street or you can drive a Cadillac Escalade. It depends on how much money you're willing to spend on finishes and what price point you can afford."

Some builders may include higher-end finishes automatically. Toll Brothers gives buyers granite countertops as a standard finish, Stern says. They also include cabinet drawers that are dovetailed rather than stapled. "It's a better product," Stern says. "I don't think any big builders go and try to cut corners on quality. They may cut corners on finishes."


Finally, buyers should look at the warranty that the homebuilder offers. Many builders offer a standard one-year warranty on materials, but some builders extend those warranties. Toll Brothers, for example, offers a 10-year warranty on the home's structure.

With all that being said, much of the building comes down to buyer preference, Melman says. "There are so many choices and many of them are aesthetic," he adds. "You have to decide what you can't live without and what you can afford."