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SMART MOVES : What to Look For in a Newly Built House

June 13, 1993|ELLEN JAMES MARTIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate. and

Do you descend from a long line of people who have always lived in older homes? Does your quest to buy a brand-new property place you in uncharted territory?

Then listen up. There's no reason for you to be intimidated when you visit a new-home development--even if you have scant knowledge of construction techniques.

Here are 10 pointers to guide you:

--No. 1: Start your search on your own.

"Do your own research from the beginning. Go to model homes and ask questions," suggests Michael Sumichrast, a housing economist. Spread out the real estate section of your local newspaper and select several developments to visit over a couple of weekends, says Sumichrast, the author of several books on real estate.

Are you tempted to engage a real estate agent to assist in your search? That may not be a good idea, Sumichrast says. Because agents may earn higher commissions by selling resale properties than new homes, one could conceivably try to steer you away from the new-home market, he cautions.

--No. 2: Ask whether a model home's features are standard or upgrades.

Are there extra charges for the fireplace, garage or first-floor family room? Knowing what the base price includes in the beginning could spare you disappointment later.

In rare cases, Sumichrast says, a home builder will imply that features of the model are included in the base price when they are not.

--No. 3: Translate the model to your own way of life.

"If you fall in love with the model, you need to develop an accurate interpretation of how that home would serve your own reality," says Douglas Poretz, a spokesman for NVR LP, which builds homes in six states.

A model is the creation of an interior designer with a budget to furnish a plush yet imaginary lifestyle. You're unlikely to see a TV in the model or kids' toys on the floor, for example.

To see if the home would work for you, think through how you live on average as well as special days. Where would the children play? How would the kitchen work for you? Will the king-size bed fit in the master bedroom?

--No. 4: Ask an associate with a construction background to look at one or two developments that you're seriously considering.

"Take someone from the family who understands new construction--a builder, former builder or tradesman," Sumichrast advises.

A person with a construction background can see signs of quality or its absence--even with a superficial look at such things as door fixtures, kitchen cabinets or stair railings.

--No. 5: Talk to current owners of homes done by your builder.

"Go knock on a few doors to find out if present owners are satisfied," suggests John J. Heyn, a home inspector affiliated with the American Society of Home Inspectors. Ask whether their homes were delivered on time, if the construction was good and whether the builder's service department has been responsive.

Most people will be candid about negative experiences--even though property values in their community could be affected, Heyn says. "The emotion of anger will rise up over prudence."

--No. 6: Survey the builder's subcontractors.

Like owners, subcontractors tend toward candor, says Poretz, the NVR spokesman. If the subs say the construction work is shoddy, that the builder is cutting corners or that his bills aren't paid on time, these could be warning signs for a would-be purchaser.

--No. 7: Make sure your view is protected.

Is there a beautiful wooded area behind the home site you're considering? Do you relish the thought of a delightful view through your new bay windows? Then find out whether someone has plans to obstruct that view. Ask both the builder and local government authorities about plans for the nearby property, says Heyn, the home inspector.

--No. 8: Make sure your new-home contract is reviewed--ideally by a lawyer--before you sign.

"Don't rush to sign a contract the first time you walk into the model house. Allow yourself a minimum of 24 hours," Heyn says. Beware of a builder who tries to pressure you into signing quickly on the basis that otherwise you'll miss the chance to buy the last available home in the tract.

So-called "standard contracts" are typically written to favor the builder, not the buyer. Unless you seek such, you're unlikely to get the promise of a firm delivery date for your new home--or penalties on a builder who fails to fulfill his promises, Heyn says.

--No. 9: Be sure you can take a professional inspector to your pre-closing inspection.

It's always advisable to hire a qualified home inspector to check a home before you close. But a rare home builder will give you grief about taking your inspector to the pre-closing inspection--on the basis that he still owns and controls the home, real estate specialists caution. Make sure your inspector will have access by getting this guarantee in writing ahead of time.

--No. 10: Prepare for a psychological break-in period in your brand-new home.

"You usually don't buy a finished home. The home has to be built--or at least partially built," says NVR's Poretz. No doubt you'll become absorbed in the construction process.

The obsession doesn't end when you move in. Likely you'll be fixated on the home's problems, small and large, for weeks after the moving vans have departed. This can be disconcerting for those who have always purchased older homes, Poretz says.

"Remember that the house has been a project for you," he says. "It won't automatically become a home."

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