How to Hire the Right Builder

You don't have to be a construction expert to check a builder's work, but you do need to know what signs to look for.


Enlarge Image Inspect a home under construction to get an accurate representation of your builder's work.

Checking a builder's credit history, references, and credentials provides some reassurance that your money is in capable hands, but the work itself speaks volumes about the level of quality you can expect.

Rather than visiting a model home or showhouse, walk through houses the builder has completed for ordinary clients. Extra attention to models and show-homes means they may not be the best indicator of a builder's typical level of quality. "I recommend not only going to an actual house they've built, but [also] a house that's under construction," says builder Mike Mendelsohn of Scottsdale, Arizona. "Talk to the owners of the house, and it wouldn't hurt to talk to the neighbors. Sometimes they watch builders a little more closely."

Ask the homeowners whether the builder delivered the homes on schedule, what problems may have surfaced after the move-in, and how they were resolved.

Get a complete list of all the homes the builder has constructed in the past year, advises Bill Martin, a designer and former builder from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Builders tend to give out the names of their most satisfied customers, but you want to hear as many viewpoints as possible.

Enlarge Image If a builder allows substandard trim work, chances are the less visible work is substandard as well.

Of the many elements involved in building a house, Martin says, the interior trim is the most revealing. If a builder allows substandard trim work, chances are the less visible work is substandard as well.

Manchester, Connecticut, builder Chris Nelson also looks for quality trim work as he's walking through other builders' houses. "It's easy to put a few extra pieces of molding up, but did the painters take the time to sand it down between coats and fill any gouges? If they care enough to do that, it means the builder must have been willing to pay some extra money to get that quality."

A tidy site is a good sign. "Good quality of work occurs on a clean site," says Sanford, Florida, builder Dave Brewer. If the job site is a mess, "I would wonder how much attention and detail [the builder] was putting into the house."

Home building is not a perfect science, and certain flaws are to be expected. For example, hairline cracks occur as a concrete foundation dries and the house settles. What you should be concerned about are major cracks -- 1/4 inch or wider -- especially if they happen before the house is finished.

The following checklists will help you evaluate a builder's work. If you are building a home for the first time and feel uncertain about judging the fine points, hire a professional third party, such as a home inspector or construction manager, to accompany you.

Homes Under Constuction
Enlarge Image Bring a level with you to check top plates on walls; they should be horizontal.

As a homeowner, when making job site visits, come prepared with a flashlight, paper and pencil, 25-foot measuring tape, screwdriver (with interchangeable bits for checking behind outlets), impact-resistant bubble level or laser level, binoculars for checking roof shingle installations, and an electronic measuring tool for checking the dimensions of large spaces. Some two-piece electronic measuring tools can even be used to gauge lot sizes.

  • If you live in an area where most homes have basements, study the builder's foundation techniques. A poured concrete foundation makes a better basement than concrete blocks because it is one continuous structure that is less likely to leak or let in cold air. There should also be some type of waterproofing system. If the soil underneath the house is clay, basement floors will be prone to expansion and contraction. In these cases, drainage tiles outside the foundation will reduce movement that can cause cracking of floors and walls.
  • Also note whether the corner walls of a foundation meet at 90-degree angles. For any rectangular space, the two diagonals between the opposite corners should be the same length. If they're not, the foundation isn't squared off properly.
  • A good framer will make clean, uniform cuts. Look up at the rafters to see that they're joined tightly and that all the cuts are clean and at uniform angles. A poor framing job can result in cornice lines that are uneven or bent.
  • Walls that are framed with 2 x 6 beams instead of 2x4s create a larger cavity for insulation, an important consideration in climates with long, cold winters.
  • Bring a level with you to check top plates on walls; they should be horizontal.
  • Look for wall studs that are badly warped, and for misaligned studs and joists.
  • See if the drywall is being fastened with nails or screws. Nails are more likely to pull away from the studs and pop through the surface later on.
  • Neatness counts in plumbing, electrical, and HVAC installation. Fittings and joints should be secure, and air-conditioning ducts should be taped together smoothly to avoid air leaks.
  • Cement backer board should be used behind tile in wet areas, such as bathrooms. A waterproofing membrane between the backer board and the framework is required for areas such as showers.
  • Openings around doors, windows, pipes, ducts, and wiring -- anywhere air infiltration can occur -- should be caulked or insulated. Doors and windows should be weather-stripped.
  • Notice what kind of framing materials are being used. Engineered, or manufactured, floor joists are partially made of particleboard and may look cheap, but they're actually stronger and more stable than dimensional lumber, which comes straight from the tree and is full of sap, bends, and cracks. Dimensional lumber will shrink during the first year the house is occupied, causing the floor to move slightly. Also, doors can become hard to open as the framework dries and the house settles, and nail pops and cracks will appear in the drywall. Another benefit of engineered truss joists is that they result in a more level floor that doesn't squeak.
Finished Homes
Enlarge Image Bowed or warped wall studs result in walls with bumps and ridges. A quality-conscious builder will not use warped studs.
  • There should be no gaps where different exterior materials meet -- between brick and lap siding, for example. Siding panels should be securely fastened through the nail flanges, not nailed through the face of the panel. The inclusion of a frieze board between the top edge of the exterior siding and the soffit shows attention to detail.
  • All exterior wood trim should be caulked, primed, and painted.
  • Interior and exterior walls should be straight and flat, with no waves or shadowing. Shine a flashlight along the side of each interior wall to check for drywall imperfections and studs that bow in and out. Imperfections can range from drywall joints that weren't taped together properly to warped studs that will lead to nail pops.
  • Check for dampness or leaks in basements and attics, and inspect all exposed components, such as joists, insulation, and wiring, for defects.
  • Large cracks in concrete (anything exceeding 1/4 inch) indicate sloppy workmanship and future problems. There should not be a crack running all the way through the thickness of a basement wall or garage floor. Normally, straight lines called expansion joints are troweled into concrete floors to control cracking.
  • Roof shingles should be flat and tight, and gutters and downspouts should be secure. Flashing should be in place around the chimney and where roof edges meet walls.
  • Look at interior trim and moldings carefully to see that the joints butt together evenly and that the cuts are mitered cleanly. There should be no gaps between walls and moldings. A gap large enough to require caulk means the job wasn't done properly.
  • Examine painted surfaces to see that the paint covers the surface and trim smoothly. There should not be any paint spatters on the walls, woodwork, floors, or other interior surfaces. Bare wood trim used outdoors should be primed before being painted.
  • Carpet seams should be nearly invisible, and vinyl flooring should not have ridges or seam gaps. There should be no gaps larger than 1/8 inch between strip hardwood floorboards.
  • Open and close all doors and windows to be sure they operate correctly and seal tightly. Check the alignment on cabinet doors; they should close smoothly and without banging.
  • The real test of window quality is energy efficiency and low maintenance. A window with argon-filled, low-E glass is more energy-efficient. If it has an exterior cladding of vinyl or aluminum, it will never need painting. Unclad wood windows must be painted every three to five years.
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