New House Blues

The folks who build new houses want homebuyers to know: New houses are built to exacting specifications, and subjected to many layers of quality control.

No new house is complete, they'll tell you, until it has passed multiple inspections by highly-trained municipal codes inspectors. You can rest secure, they'll say, in the knowledge that even if a problem turns up in the first year, all you have to do is call the builder's friendly troubleshooter. He'll run right over with a truckload of tools and fix you right up, quicker than you can say "backed-up sewer."

A whole lot of people just smile, nod, and believe every word of this. When you've got a bad case of new-house lust, and you've just walked through your dream house, thoughts of sloppy building just vanish. Guarantees sound good. You're sold, ready to climb into the whirly tub, open up a jug of wine, and start living the good life.

Well, I don't want to bust your bubble, but I do want to slap it and make it wiggle. You new-house shoppers, listen to me: I've looked at hundreds of new houses. Some are very well-built, and others are more rickety than a kid's home-built lemonade stand. The only thing that's consistent is the don't-worry-be-happy marketing talk.

Often, when we look at new houses, the first thing out of our customer's mouth is, "What do you know about this builder? Is their quality good?"

I don't have a good answer. Here's why: Late last week, I looked at a new house, built by a major developer in our area. I found a few out-of-plumb studs, a few sloppy framing joints, just little problems here and there. Oddly, every errant piece of framing was painted orange. Later, I found a checklist stapled to the stair. Each and every problem I saw was noted on the checklist. Apparently, the building superintendent had gone through the house and meticulously noted-and painted-every visible problem. I was stunned. I left the house fairly confident that the buyers would be getting a good house.

Late this week, I looked at another new house, built by the same builder, in a different development. When co-inspector Rick and I went into the crawl space, we found that the structural beams-the big wood beams that hold the house up-were supported by metal jack posts.

Jack posts are okay for temporary supports. You might use them to lift a sagging beam in an old house, and keep the beam in place until you made permanent repairs. But you wouldn't want to use jack posts to hold up a whole new house. To make this point, each of these jack posts had a big white label, lettered in orangutan-ass red: Not recommended for new home construction.

I ask you: What kind of buckethead installs not one or two, but nine jack posts, clearly labeled as being wrong for the job, in a new house? And what municipal building inspector walks by these posts, with their big red and white labels, and fails to issue a stop order? How did construction continue all the way to the peak of the roof before somebody noticed this problem?

Beats the hell out of me.

The good news is, this problem is fixable. Somebody-and I hope not the same guys who put these posts in the first time-will have to custom-build new, permanent supports, and remove the jack posts, one by one.

The bad news is, if these posts had been left in place, they could have rusted through, or vibrated loose, or failed some other way. If the posts had failed, the house's flooring system would have sagged or cracked. The results would have been ugly. Chances are, it would have happened long after the one-year builder's warranty had expired.

Another example of inconsistent quality: In one new development, a single builder is building all the houses. But that builder has hired three separate building superintendents, each with his own crew. From what we can tell, two of the crews are doing decent work. The third crew needs remedial carpentry lessons.

We looked at one of the dreaded Crew Three houses. In the attic, we saw that the roof framing was somewhere below treehouse quality. Most of the rafters missed the ridge boards by a half-inch or more. We saw where would-be carpenters had scabbed pieces of wood on top of other pieces of wood, trying to join the framing together. I could put my hand through some of these sloppy joints. The roof might as well have been held together with chewing gum wrappers and coffee-cup lids.

Last I heard, the builder was promising to fix all this.

Again, I had to wonder: What kind of municipal building inspector lets this kind of sloppy work slide? Like the jack posts, this wasn't subtle. In one day's time, I could train an average fourth-grader to spot framing this bad.

So, if you're shopping for a new house, do yourself a big favor and go in a little skeptical. When the salesfolk start blowing in your ear, take a cold shower, calm down, and get the house checked out. When you find out the house is as good as they say it is, then you can go ahead and climb into the whirly tub, pop the cork, and celebrate.