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Hiring Builder? Check Out the Subcontractors!


You can tell a lot about the overall quality of a builder by judging his subcontractors. Those are the folks actually doing the work. Visit other houses under construction in the same phase or tract and look for these clues:

Supervision: Is there a supervisor or foreman on the site? Are the subs working unsupervised? Does the supervisor just drive by from time to time and wave from his truck?

Beer bottles: It always amazes us to walk around in a new home under construction and find beer bottles and cans lying about. How exactly can you install a window properly or align something in a straight line if you just quaffed six beers?

Any builder or subcontractor who employs workers who drink beer or booze on the job is stupid. One homeowner we interviewed found an empty Jim Beam whiskey bottle in the basement; it belonged to the plumber, who had just botched the home's plumbing installation.

Trash and stacked materials: Materials and supplies should be stacked neatly, not strewn around the job site. Although most construction sites have some amount of trash, you can tell if it's accumulating.

Supplies and materials left exposed to the weather: Expensive products like windows and fireplaces should be protected from the elements. Floor joists should not be left in the open for more than a few days because they can warp. We have seen many job sites where expensive materials and supplies lie exposed to rain, wind and vandalism.

Foundations: Are anchor bolts installed? These hold the house to the foundation in severe wind storms or earthquakes.

Particle board or plywood exterior sheathing: Particle board is made of pieces of wood glued together; plywood is a single sheet of wood. Tongue-in-groove plywood is the best choice for exterior sheathing, but it's cheaper to use particle board. So guess which one many builders use? Another note: There should be no gaps between exterior sheets; each panel should be flush.

Plumbing: Here's one good sign of a quality plumber: wiped joints. When two pieces of copper pipe meet, a soldered joint holds them together. See if the plumber wiped the solder to form a smooth joint; that's a pro job. Amateurs don't wipe and leave globs of solder behind.

Drywall: Pro installers of Sheetrock work at lightning speed, and they screw and glue the drywall to the walls instead of nailing.

Paint: For the interior, professionals can be distinguished from amateurs by their equipment: heavy drop cloths, quality brushes and paint. Also, pros do a lot of prep work, like patching nail holes. Exterior painters who are pros always use a coat of primer before applying the paint; builders often cut out this step to save money. A good paint job means no paint on the trim work or window glass and no visible brush marks.

Brick work: A quality brick mason makes sure the mortar is of even depth between the bricks. Obviously, any cracks or gaps in the mortar are a telltale sign of problems. In areas where concrete block and masonry foundations are common, check to make sure mortar is between each block or brick.

Trim work with no gaps: Look at the corner of the molding along the floor. Any gaps? Real pros don't leave gaps. Good molding or trim work is evenly stained and installed without any hammer marks. Filled-in nail holes indicate quality; many builders rushing to complete a project may "forget" to do this.

"Seamless" carpet: Good installation of carpet is almost as critical as the type of carpet itself. If you see a seam, it's not a good sign. Look at the corners, doorways and walls to see if the carpet was professionally installed.

Windows: Most builders install windows and leave the name brand sticker on for a little while. This gives you a clue as to the quality level. Ask a local window supplier or home center for information on the brand.

Gutters and drainage: Downspouts should be extended at least 5 feet from the home. Even better is black plastic pipe that connects to the end of the downspout and moves water farther away from the home. The ground near the home should be graded to drain water away.

Some builders pay scant attention to these details. They think that once they have finished the inside of the house, they're done. And the home buyer doesn't notice bad drainage until water washes away dirt under a concrete sidewalk, causing it to crack and collapse, or until water floods a basement or garage.

Decks: Most deck posts are placed in cement footings. Make sure the post is in the center of the footing (as opposed to one side, which causes "eccentric loading"). Ask the builder about the grade of deck lumber. For redwood or cedar, 2-inch decking is better than thinner options.

Driveways Check out older driveways from the builder's previous customers to see how they've aged. Proper drainage off the driveway is important; you don't want water pooling near your house. Expansion joints for concrete are critical as well.

Does the builder reinforce the driveway with steel rebar, mesh or fiberglass-impregnated concrete? Is the soil under the driveway compacted before the driveway is poured? If these steps aren't taken, the chances of driveway cracks increase.

As you can tell, professional subs tend to have professional equipment trucks, ladders, large crews, etc. We urge you to visit homes under construction and look at the subs as they work. You'll either confirm that the builder you're going to hire is professional or you'll be forewarned about potential problems.


Excerpted by permission from "Your New House--The Alert Consumer's Guide to Buying and Building a Quality Home," Second Edition, by Alan and Denise Fields (Windsor Peak Press, $13.95). Available in bookstores or by calling (800) 888-0385.

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