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.
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.
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.