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How to Avoid Home-Building Heartaches
By: Katherine Salant
August 15, 2003

Most production home-building problems that I hear about fall into two broad categories: Either the buyers felt they were wronged in what the builder was supposed to deliver or the buyers were upset at the quality of what the builder did deliver.

Most of the time, the problems and occasional heartaches could have been avoided if the buyers had hired experts to advise them at various critical points as they proceeded in their home-building project. When I suggest this, many buyers react negatively�their new house is already costing them an arm and a leg. But good advice is money well spent. A Fortune 500 company doesn't enter into a deal with bankrupting potential without seeking advice first or calling on experts as things proceed�and neither should you.

When buyers complain about what the builder was supposed to deliver, it often turns out that the buyers did not study their sales contract and understand its nuances. The buyers assumed that careful study of the builder's model would provide all the information they needed. They did not appreciate that the model is not definitive, the contract is. In signing it, the buyers agreed to its terms, whether they understood this or not.

So, the first expert I would engage is a real estate attorney. You need someone to explain the terms of the contract before you sign it. Much of the contract language is straightforward, though occasionally unbelievable, but the contract may also have a fair amount of legalese that requires explanation. Before you meet with the attorney, you should read the contract yourself, even though for most people this is a trying experience.

As you read the contract it is helpful to keep in mind that a contract is always written to favor the writer, which in this case is the builder. You also need to know a production builder's biases. He builds the same house or nearly the same one over and over. His profit comes in building many houses in a relatively short period of time. His contract will be written so that he can build your house as quickly and efficiently as possible. If a decision has to be made on the spot, he wants to do it and move on without debate.

In that vein, the contract will state that the house will be "substantially similar to the model." How similar will never be strictly defined because the builder wants maximum flexibility to keep the job moving and avoid any delays. Minor mistakes will be ignored.

What the builder considers minor, however, you may consider huge. For example, a door or window location, which could affect furniture placement, might not be the same as in the model because the framers made a mistake in reading the plans.

There can be discrepancies between your house and the model because the builder had to fit the floor plan into the setbacks on the lot and he "massaged it." Some rooms may be longer and narrower than what was shown in the model or the garage could be two feet shorter. If a particular dimension is important�say you have a large car and need a garage that is at least as big as the one in the model or an unusually long sectional sofa that will just fit in the family room in the model�you need to note those specific dimensions in an addendum to your sales contact.

Another contact clause that trips up many buyers is the "substitution" one. The builder reserves the right to substitute any item with something similar of "equal or greater value" if what he normally uses is not available. You can pay extra to get those gorgeous 6-by-6-inch aqua ceramic tiles for your master bathroom. But, if the builder can't get them for three months, he's free to install 8-by-8-inch teal ones that are more expensive. You are horrified�even the standard ones would look better�but here again, the builder is merely operating within the dictates of his contract.

Of course he should inform you and ask you to pick out something else, but if it falls through the cracks of his overworked staff, well so be it. If you really want a specific color and size of tile, or a specific finish and style of cabinet, or the exact same lighting fixture you saw in the model, you must specify this in a contract addendum.

Some readers complain about a builder's "broken promises" to include a few extras that were promised by the sales agent as an inducement to sign the sales contract. Unfortunately, if the promise is not in writing and included in a contract addendum, the builder is not obliged to honor it.

Moving from what the production builder is supposed to deliver to the quality of what he does deliver, you need to have realistic expectations. Your house will not be perfect because it won't be built in a factory with machine precision. It will be built outside with laborers who are often semi-skilled. The framing is wood, which shrinks, twists, cracks and changes dimension as it absorbs and releases moisture, causing drywall cracks and bowed walls. The question is, how much imperfection is acceptable to you?

To answer that, you need to inspect several houses built by the same firm that are nearly complete. Without all the furnishings, glitzy decorator items and pricey options in the model, you will see what your house is more likely to look like. The care taken with standard details that you can see can be an indication of the care taken with the things you can't see. Are the plates for light switches and outlets square or slightly askew? Do the walls bow excessively? Can you open all the doors and windows? Send someone upstairs to flush the toilet. Does it sound like Niagara Falls? Will this bother you? Is the plumbing stack in your dining room where you plan a lot of formal dinners? Or in the laundry room where it won't bother anyone?

If you deem the quality acceptable, how can you ensure that it will be delivered in your house? You need to engage another expert, a professional home inspector, to inspect your house at critical points during the construction. Although a municipal building inspector will also be inspecting the house, the two inspectors look for different things.

The municipal man is concerned with the safety of the occupants and the crews building the house. The home inspector also examines the quality of the work, which building codes do not address, and he spends more time than a municipal inspector, who often does as many as thirty inspections in a day, can devote. To get the most benefit from a home inspector's expertise, you should engage him to make an inspection after the footings, foundation walls and drain tiles have been installed, after the framing is finished and the plumbing, electrical wiring and the heating and air conditioning systems are still exposed, after the insulation is in and when the house is finished.

If you don't feel sufficiently confident to determine the quality of construction, you can engage the professional inspector to help you sort this out as well.

Queries or questions? Syndicated columnist and author of "The Brand New House Book," Katherine Salant can be contacted at

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