November 5, 2007
FROM: Jean Van Rensselar 630-363-8081, fax: (630) 355-5966
Get the New Home You Pay For
Judging quality – it’s as easy as choosing a new car.
For many people, buying a new home means depleting savings accounts and even
borrowing from relatives. It’s risky business unless you know what to look for in the
way of quality. This means determining if your builder is reputable, identifying solid
interior and exterior design, identifying sound construction materials and techniques, and
knowing what constitutes superior service.
In many ways, the process is the same as choosing a new car – reputable brand,
style and design, quality components and workmanship, and expectations of customer
Buying a New vs. an Existing Home
The world is divided into two camps – those who love the appeal of existing
homes and those who love the personalization, assurance and excitement of new homes.
While existing homes may have mature landscaping; charming design touches, such as
carved moldings; and are built with expensive building materials difficult to afford in a
new home - such as full brick exteriors, today’s new homes have many advantages.
There are no surprises when you move in. Hopefully, you know how your
home was built and what materials and techniques were used to build it. A
reputable builder will also be sure that you know how to operate everything
before you move in.
Builders offer a wide selection of standard and upgrade options, from exterior
materials to walkout basements to cabinets to floor coverings – to ensure you
get exactly what you want. In addition, today’s design standards offer more
interior open space, which combined with flexible floor plans, allows for
greater interaction among family members and guests.
Home building techniques have advanced at lighting speed - new homes are
built with the highest quality construction, as well as safeguard features such
as built-in carbon monoxide and smoke detectors and, often, fire sprinkler
systems. Most are both energy efficient and have superior indoor air quality
Get the New Home You Pay For, 10/15/07, p.2
– important facets of today’s green building movement. Building products
work better, last longer and are more visually appealing without using
dangerous materials such as lead and asbestos.
The quality of your home will always depend on the quality and reputation of
your builder. With a new home, you know the builder.
New homes are in communities designed for livability. The site designs
balance private and public areas and often feature varied setbacks and mature
landscaping. Expect paths for walking and bicycles; and space for play.
New homes come with warranties. All reputable builders will include a one-
year comprehensive warranty and a 10-year structural warranty. Often
extended warranty programs are available.
In the end, a new home is generally equipped with a more livable floor plan;
easier and less expensive to maintain; less expensive to heat and cool; safer; and healthier.
If you’ve read all this and have decided on new, read on – not all new homes are
A new car is one of the most expensive purchases you will ever make, but it pales
in comparison to the expense of a new home. If you follow the same procedure in
choosing both, you can’t go wrong.
Choosing a Builder and Community
Even if you aren’t status conscious, you associate certain automobile companies
with quality. A company that has been in business for many decades and conjures up
positive experiences for you is more attractive than a company that is either unfamiliar or
If you are like most consumers, the first thing you’ll consider when buying a car
is the price tag and the second thing is the brand. Without the backing of a reputable
company, most consumers associate low price with poor quality.
However, think about how you feel when you find a car in your price range
manufactured by a company that signifies quality to you – you start to get serious, right?
It’s the same with choosing a new home. You know what you can afford and you
look for homes in that price range. You drive to a number of communities, but some
don’t feel right – you don’t know the builder, you don’t know anyone who’s bought a
home from that builder, and you see from the sales brochure that the company hasn’t
been in business very long.
According to Nancy Johnson, Director of Warranty Services for metropolitan
Chicago-based builder, Wiseman-Hughes Enterprises, new homebuyers should look for a
builder that has been in business for at least 25 years – the longer the better.
“You can only stay in business for a long time if you are doing everything right,”
she explained. “This means that you have a proven track record for quality construction,
providing the types of homes that will stand the test of time, and a good reputation that
brings in the referrals a builder needs to stay in business.”i
Get the New Home You Pay For, 10/15/07, p.3
A reputable builder will provide an easy to understand warranty. It should be all-
encompassing, covering material and workmanship for at least the first year and the
structure (foundation, walls, and support elements) for 10 years.
When it comes to choosing the community, first think about the location and your
lifestyle. Dallas-based new home expert and TV host, Michael Holigan offers these
Is it convenient to your work?
Is it convenient to shopping?
Are there quality schools in the area?
Are there traffic problems in the area?
Are municipal services available?
Is there good police and fire protection?
Is there a good medical facility in the area?
Are parks and recreational facilities available?
Are there cultural activities in the area?
Holigan’s other community selection considerations include:
Are property values appreciating?
Is the neighborhood well maintained?
Is the neighborhood safe?
Is the area growing?
Is the land historically significant?
Are roads well maintained?
Is the local economy stable?
Is there heavy traffic in the area?
Are future highways or developments planned?
Will your children have playmates in the neighborhood?
Are animals or pets allowed?
Is there ample room for parking?
Is the property’s topography (i.e. rolling hills) appealing?
Are there open spaces or common land nearby?
Are there wetlands, ponds or streams on the property?
Is there convenient access to lots?
One of the best ways to decide if a particular new car is right for you is to go for a
test drive. The goal is to find out how comfortable it is – how it feels, without being
influenced by the appearance.
And you’ll want to get the feel of every community you visit also. When you
drive into the property the first time, pay close attention to your gut reaction. Does it feel
like home? Or do you feel vaguely uncomfortable and don’t know why?
Quality Exterior and Interior Design
Get the New Home You Pay For, 10/15/07, p.4
A great new car has electronic controls, easy to use instruments, and a
comfortable interior. It has all these functional design elements and many more. But if
it’s a keeper, it’s also attractive.
Quality cars, like quality homes, are designed to be both easy to operate and easy
on the eyes.
According to Al Bloom, president of Bloom and Fiorino, Inc., architects in Oak
Brook, Ill., a home’s exterior design should reflect the floor plan, meaning the exterior
shell should be designed to accommodate the floor plan and not the other way around. In
addition, the interior and exterior need to be proportional to each other.
What Bloom calls “articulation” is also important – the design elements, such as
the entry, that cut in and extend out. A well-articulated exterior has interesting features
that provide an appealing mix of light and shadow; prominence and recession. Examples
of design articulations are bay windows; chimneys; cupolas; turrets; cantilevers that
project out over the first and second floor; and roof dormers. These quality design
ingredients provide focal points, but be prepared to pay more – they generally add to the
price of a home.
Porches have the look of quality, as do homes with raised foundations and stately
front steps. Anything else that creates projections, such as columns, signals quality.
A home with an exterior that is not well proportioned is out of scale. Most people
would find it unappealing, although they wouldn’t know what was wrong with it.
The shape of the roof – whether gabled, dormer, flat, or hip should be in
proportion to the size of the structure that is underneath. Roofing materials also add to
the quality of a home. Heavy asphalt or Fiberglas shingles are thicker and break the roof
up into smaller patterns.
As far as the interior goes…
“There should be sense of comfort when you walk into the entry of a home,”
Bloom said. “This usually means a high ceiling, two-stories and an appealing staircase.
The great example is the circular stairway in Gone with the Wind where the Southern
belles came floating down to meet their suitors.”iii
A quality floor plan is both functional and flexible. The entry should provide
immediate access to public areas, such as living rooms and dining rooms. Semipublic
areas such as kitchens, breakfast rooms, dens, and family areas – are deeper into the
home. Assuming there are no handicap issues, private first floor spaces, such as
bedrooms, should be designed into secluded areas.
According to Dan O’Malley, a partner with the architectural firm, BSB Design,
Inc., headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, a well designed home has a good line of sight
from the front door into the home.
“We don’t like to put too many spaces into a home plan,” he said. “We call that
over-programming – where there are too many compartments. It detracts from the
livability of a home. Even first-time homebuyers recognize the discomfort of a plan that
is too compartmentalized. They can see that it constricts social interaction.”iv
Buyers should look for a mix of formal and informal spaces, such as a family
center that includes a kitchen, breakfast area, and family room. These rooms usually
connect and are open to each other. The family center should have access to outdoor
space, whether it’s a backyard, patio, or deck.
Get the New Home You Pay For, 10/15/07, p.5
On the other hand, living rooms, dining rooms, and dens are considered formal.
Although they usually connect with each other, they usually don’t connect to the informal
O’Malley added that a quality interior home design should include aesthetic
details, such as arches, furniture niches, alcoves, and plant shelves.
“I’ve found that people care more almost as much about visual appeal as they do
functionality,” he said. “My favorite detail is a little valet counter by the garage entry
into the home where family members can set down keys, small packages and other things
they don’t want to forget.”
Interesting, easy to use staircases also signal design quality. Instead of long
straight-run stairs, look for staircases with extra-deep landings that have features such as
an appealing window pattern and/or a window seat.
Quality Construction Materials and Techniques
If you know quality, you’ll look at the car’s materials; aluminum engine, leather
seats, triple-coated finish, etc. and you’ll also look at how the car is put together – is the
gap around the hood uniform, are the doors solid, is everything on the undercarriage
secure? None of these things will matter for the first few months, but shoddy materials
and workmanship will reveal themselves a year or two down the road.
It’s the same with new homes.
When it comes to building materials, Bloom believes quality windows and doors
“Windows and doors are basically holes in the building and have to be sealed
properly,” he said. “Better quality windows are double or triple-paned and have low-e
While recognizable door and window brands are some indicator of quality, many
experienced builders opt for less-expensive non-name brands that perform as well. A
solid indicator of quality is the air infiltration rate – which buyers can ask their builders
Jana Hester is the production manager for Wiseman-Hughes – a position that
ensures quality control throughout the construction process.
“I realized the importance of bringing uniformity to all of our job sites,” she
explained. “The trade people that work with us know the quality we expect. Part of my
job is to be sure that everyone follows through.”v
As in most products and services, details are important. Even though you might
not be able to determine quality techniques by looking at your home as it’s being built,
the condition of the job site is an indicator of the builder’s care.
“It’s important to see how the site is run,” Hester said. “Are the fixtures, such as
bathtubs, protected; is it broom clean, is debris at a minimum? How do the lots look; are
the dumpsters overflowing; how is the builder managing the job site?”
Don Zierer, Wiseman-Hughes’ director of field operations, agrees.
“There are basic nuances of quality,” he said. “A home and jobsite that is well-
maintained and cleaned up, signals excellence. The amount of debris left around the
Get the New Home You Pay For, 10/15/07, p.6
house tells you what the individual tradesmen believe is expected of them in the way of
A good builder will meet with you at the site well before the home is finished.
You should be able to inspect the structure before it is insulated and dry-walled, so that
you can see structural elements before they are covered. These inspections can disclose
an option that was missed or one that was put in by mistake. They also indicate the
Zierer explained, “If you are walking through a home before it is drywalled, look
for signs of recent water - a stress crack in the foundation wall or water dripping through
and around flashings and plywood decks. A pool of water in the basement needs to be
“All of the sealants that stop drafts, fires and air infiltration should be there before
the drywall and insulation are in, so check to be sure that there are sealants around all
windows and doors. You shouldn’t be able to see any light coming in through wall
surfaces or where walls join openings. In a nutshell, look for water and light.”
While it may be difficult to inspect the lumber, “Grade 3” lumber is inferior and
not acceptable for home construction. If you see any lumber stamped with this grade,
point it out to the builder. Also, if you see a strip of bark on the lumber that is more than
a quarter-inch wide, bring this up. Bark tends to degrade lumber.
According to Chris Jennings, at Colorado State University’s Department of Forest,
Range, and Watershed Stewardship, “In almost all cases, dimension lumber (lumber that
is between two and five inches thick and at least two inches wide) requires a grade stamp
when it is to be used in structural applications, as per building code requirements.
Lumber sold in the open market will also typically require a grade stamp. In this case,
the grade stamp serves as an assurance that the lumber meets the expectations the buyer
would typically have of the material.”vii
There should also be a minimum of nails and staples exposed.
Expect an orientation walk-through well before closing. The builder’s
representative should go over everything in the house and show you how everything
works. The representative will work with a checklist and note anything that is out of
place, from a scratch on a countertop to the wrong carpet color.
Finally, your local building inspector is your friend. Most municipalities conduct
a series of rigorous inspections on every new home before it’s completed. They include
inspections of the:
Backfill – for damping-proofing;
Sewer and water connections;
Electrical, plumbing, and HVAC;
Sheeting and insulation;
Health and safety issues involving staircases, hand railings, and smoke and
CO2 detectors; and
Entire premises before you take occupancy;
Get the New Home You Pay For, 10/15/07, p.7
If you contact them, some municipalities will let you know how well your home
performed on these inspections.
Service, Service, Service and …Service
If you are buying a new car, you expect the company to stand behind its products.
This means that if you need to replace either a major engine component or an instrument
knob in ten years, you can contact the company for the parts.
If you builder has been in business for more than 10 years, excellent customer
service is one of the main reasons. No builder can survive very long without a strong
history of satisfied homeowners who continually refer new buyers.
Just like the job site, the sales office should be well manicured and clean. Does it
look professional or just one step above a small circus tent? Look at the displays – are
they neat, dust-free, and without missing letters and numbers? Is the information you
need readily available?
Expect your salespeople to be both courteous and truly helpful. This means,
expect straightforward answers to your questions, easy to understand explanations, and
prompt resolution of any issues.
If possible, talk to the community’s existing homeowners to see how satisfied
they are with the builder’s follow-through.
Putting it all Together
The cost of most new cars is a fraction of the cost of a home. Even if the car fails
to live up to your expectations, there’s not a lot of damage done.
Buying a home, on the other hand, is a decision that can affect the rest of your life.
Follow the advice of experts and do your homework. A reputable builder will appreciate
your interest and input and consider you a partner in the homebuilding process.
Good luck with your new home – although, if you’ve followed the advice here –
you won’t need it.
Interview with Nancy Johnson, Sept. 10, 2007.
Holigan, Michael. Location & Lot Selection Checklist,
Interview with Al Bloom, Sept. 11, 2007
Interview with Dan O’Malley, Sept. 13, 2007
Interview with Jana Hester, Sept. 25, 2007
Interview with Don Zierer, Sept. 26, 2007.
Jennings, Chris. Overview of Lumber Grades and Building Codes
colostate.edu/programs/.../Articles/Lumber grades building codes2.pdf