Shea Homes and Standard Pacific Homes ranked highest in J.D. Power and Associate's annual New-Home Builder Customer Satisfaction Study released Wednesday, unseating Pulte from its long-term dominating position on the list.

Shea and Standard Pacific each were the highest-ranked builders in overall customer satisfaction in three of 17 markets surveyed. The Pulte name and its active adult subsidiary Del Webb were absent from the top position in both the satisfaction and quality lists, though its subsidiary Centex, which became part of the merged company PulteGroup in August 2009, took home two highest-ranking spots for quality

In 2009 Pulte ranked first in 10 out of 24 markets for customer satisfaction and in four for quality. Del Webb took home one for satisfaction and one for quality.

Home builders may be building far fewer homes, but the people who buy them are happier both with they way they are treated as customers and the quality, according to the annual survey.

"There is some silver lining" to the housing downturn, said Dale Haines, senior director of the real estate and construction industries practice at J.D. Power.

Both (customer satisfaction and perception of quality) are improved from last year across geographies," said Haines. "So the performance improvement is pretty exciting."

Overall customer satisfaction improved for the third consecutive year, averaging 826 on a 1,000-point scale, the highest level since the study began in 1997. It also increased in 15 of the 17 markets the company surveyed in 2009. Satisfaction also improved in eight of the nine satisfaction factors buyers were questioned about. Only the recreational facilities provided by the builder category failed to improve.

Perceptions of quality also increased to an average of 844 out of 1,000, a record high and the second consecutive year of improvement. The most common quality problems reported were the same ones highlighted last year, including landscaping, kitchen-cabinet quality and finish, and heating and air conditioning.

The results were gleaned from 16,400 consumer responses to J.D. Power's survey in 17 markets. The surveys were sent to buyers between March and the end of July this year who closed on homes in the calendar year 2009. Their names were taken from public records.

The happiest consumers were in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Southern California, Orlando, and Sacramento.

"Home quality is up and very much and I think it is due to market conditions," said Haines. As builders cut staff and whittled down their subcontractor lists, they kept their best players onboard.

Another contributing factor is likely to be that most of the buyers purchased homes from builders' over-hanging inventory. That meant the houses tended to be further along in the construction process and have fewer custom options, so there were fewer opportunities for change orders and special orders that can complicate the building process and cause quality and satisfaction problems, he said.

Plus, with builders limiting the choices by paring down floor-plan and interior options, it became less likely that a mistake could be made, he added.

"All of those things kind of conspire to help initial production quality," said Haines.

The study also unveiled some changes in what satisfaction factors were most important to buyers. The importance of the builder sales staff and construction manager have become more important to buyers, while the importance of price/value and builders' warranty/customer service declined for buyers.

Home builders also became more adept at raising awareness about "green" features in 2009. Approximately 61% of new-home owners surveyed in 2010 perceived that their home is environmentally friendly, compared with 31% in 2009. Also, the proportion of new-home owners who indicated that their builder did not identify the home as green declined to 48% in 2010 from 65% in 2009.

In another sign of the times, the number of markets surveyed dropped from 24 to 17.

Chicago, Charleston, S.C., Raleigh, N.C, Jacksonville, Fla., Columbus, Ohio, and Northern New Jersey were all taken from the list essentially because new-home permits had fallen so far and/or because there weren't enough qualified builders in town for a good comparison. In the case of Chicago, it has become more of a multi-family than a single-family market.

Three markets in California were merged into one to match the way most builders have merged their operations. Inland Empire, LosAngeles/Ventura County/Bakersfield, and Orange County/San Diego were all merged into a Southern California market.

Highest-Ranked Builders in Overall Customer Satisfaction by Market

Atlanta, Ga.

John Wieland Homes andNeighborhoods

Austin, Texas

Standard Pacific Homes

Charlotte, N.C.

Standard Pacific Homes

Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas

Darling Homes

Denver/Colorado Springs, Colo.

Classic Homes

Houston, Texas

Trendmaker

Las Vegas, Nev.

Pardee Homes

Orlando, Fla.

KB Home

Philadelphia, Pa.

NV Homes

Phoenix, Ariz.

Shea Homes

Sacramento, Calif.

JMC (John Mourier)

San Antonio, Texas

David Weekley Homes

San Francisco Bay Area, Calif.

Shea Homes

Southern California

Shea Homes

Tampa, Fla.

Standard Pacific Homes

Tucson, Ariz.

KB Home

Washington, D.C.

M/I Homes

Highest-Ranked Builders in New-Home Quality by Market

Atlanta, Ga.

Ryland Homes

Austin, Texas

Centex Homes

Charlotte, N.C.

KB Home

Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas

Highland Homes

Denver/Colorado Springs, Colo.

Classic Homes

Houston, Texas

LGI Homes

Las Vegas, Nev.

Pardee Homes

Orlando, Fla.

KB Home

Philadelphia, Pa.

Toll Brothers

Phoenix, Ariz.

Centex Homes

Sacramento, Calif.

JMC (John Mourier)

San Antonio, Texas

Fieldstone Communities

San Francisco Bay Area, Calif.

Standard Pacific Homes

Southern California

Brookfield Homes

Tampa, Fla.

M/I Homes

Tucson, Ariz.

D.R. Horton

Washington, D.C.

M/I Homes

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA, San Francisco, CA.