In the midst of the recent recession that crippled the U.S. real estate economy, the new construction home inspection virtually disappeared. You don’t need to tell this to a builder. For several years there was too much available housing inventory at too low a price to make new buildings cost-competitive. Fast forward to the sky rocketing real estate market in many parts of the country today and new construction is back in full swing. This raises a question for home buyers: should I even bother paying for an independent home inspection on new construction?
To grab your attention, let me share some examples of new construction inspection findings I’ve seen in the last year and a half:
• Three new construction houses ended up requiring complete tear off and replacement of a brand new roof because the roof was not correctly installed.
• Several new construction houses had not been correctly insulated with some inaccessible sections of roof completely un-insulated. Think tearing out finished walls and ceilings to insulate.
• One house required extensive siding replacement due to incorrect installation techniques.
• Two houses required a structural engineer to evaluate and recommend repairs for structural issues: one with a damaged roof truss system, the 2nd an unusual floor frame configuration.
• One house had no crawl space ventilation – they simply forgot to install vents and water was beading off every surface and dripping off of the sub-floor insulation.
• One house had active water damage from a leaking booster pump that required extensive replacement of the hardwood floors.
To understand why I so strongly recommend home inspections on new construction, it’s helpful appreciate the complexity of what we call a house. According to the National Association of Home Builders, more than 3,000 components are employed in constructing a house. That is a lot of parts and that number does not even include the fine detail of how critical components such as screws, nails, adhesives and sealants are selected and installed. These 3,000 components are likely to be installed by roughly 20 different sub-contractors and each sub-contractor may employ as many as 4 to 5 different employees working on the house. Upon completion, your house could have had more than 100 different people touching the more than 3,000 components, including sub-contractors for any of these: roofing, framing, painting, drywall, electrical, flooring, appliances, insulation, and on and on.
Yes….. But it’s built to code!
I know. The house is built to code, so it should be fine right? Below are four critical points to understand about how building code impacts residential house construction.
1. Codes Are Just a Bare Minimum
The first thing you should understand about building codes is they are basically a set of minimum standards by which constructing a home to any lessor degree is essentially illegal. So building to local building codes is simply complying with local minimum standards; it does not guarantee that “best practices” are used in constructing the house.
2. Construction Varies Regionally
The next thing to understand about codes is that they are based on national standards, and quality construction is very much a regional concern; you do not want to construct a house in Mississippi in the same way you would build a house in the mountains of Colorado, it just makes no sense. Building codes do adjust for this with different wind, climate and seismic zones, but the nuance of regional construction methods, materials, techniques and environmental challenges makes it difficult for codes to adopt perfectly to localized standards and necessities.
3. Building Officials Have Very Little Time
The degree to which local building officials are able to check on construction will vary by city, state and county, but in my experience, building inspectors and building departments are generally overworked and the fee structure for permits is not adequate for detailed on-site inspection of every system. I have found local building codes and local code enforcement really helps with inspecting the structure and wiring in houses, beyond these systems, I find that inspection is inconsistent or completely lacking. I have been unable to find a study about this, but it would not surprise me if total on-site time for building officials during construction of a residential house is less than 4 hours – that is not much time to check more than 3000 components.
4. Building Codes Defer to Manufacturer’s Specifications
Many important house systems such as roofs, siding and furnaces need to be installed according to manufacturer’s specifications. Building code may have some basic standards, but proper installation will require following manufacturer’s directions and there is generally nobody checking these things.
In summary, building codes and building departments do an excellent job in helping to ensure that safe and reliable houses are being constructed, but houses are very complex systems comprised of many components that are installed by a small army of different contractors; even the best builders with the best intentions will have difficulty executing everything on a residential build and there is a huge gray area of workmanship that exists between code and best practices. It simply cannot hurt to have a fresh set of eyes look over the house to see what can be found.
A good new construction home inspection should give you the benefit of a third party looking at the house. You should gain insights into the houses’ attributes and vulnerabilities; all houses have both. A third party home inspection can add value by evaluating the overall quality and design of the building and it will give you a good idea of maintenance items to keep your eyes out for. It will almost certainly come up with a helpful punch list of small repair items that were overlooked. Occasionally, significant problems are uncovered that can save the home buyer and builder thousands of dollars and a nightmare of complex litigation and repairs.
Happy house hunting! I hope this helps