The 94 residents of Home Town, a three-year-old community in Richmond Hills, Texas, were mostly satisfied with their townhouses until about a year ago, when signs of deterioration—fences falling down, paint peeling off exterior trim, leaking roofs—began to surface.
The community’s HOA has since spent $180,000 for repairs, paid for out of a reserve fund built up from the $159 per month maintenance fee the builder, Pasquinelli & Portrait Homes, charged each homeowner before turning over the community to the HOA two years ago. What really frustrated Bill Tidwell, the association’s president, was his inability to connect directly with the builder about these problems, much less get redress, after Illinois-based Pasquinelli suspended its building and selling in Texas. (In response, the builder’s spokesman Jonathan Dedman gave this reporter his phone number to pass along to the HOA.)
Tidwell’s experience has left him with a bad feeling about the housing industry. When it comes to quality control, he characterizes home building as a “wasteland.” That sentiment is shared by legions of other homeowners who express their anger about shoddy workmanship through blogs and other media. It’s easy to get the impression that, despite builder efforts during the last decade to upgrade their construction quality, bankruptcies, abandoned subdivisions, and mistakes made during the fast-paced boom have set the industry back.
Debates about quality construction, though, are like arguments over health care; different groups, looking at the same facts, draw wildly different conclusions. On one side are homeowners, and even some construction inspectors, who are absolutely convinced that quality took a major hit during the last housing boom. They point to the preponderance of evidence on the Internet, the platform of choice for homeowners voicing any and all complaints about construction defects, whether minor or major, legitimate or irrational. Photographic evidence is regularly attached.
Builders, on the other side of the debate, often make reports of defects sound like figments of homeowners’ imaginations. Most insist that their homes are well-built, and that the pace of construction has little to do with the quality of the finished product. They also contend that many publicly aired complaints involve easily fixable problems that, in some cases, are actually the homeowner’s responsibility.
To be sure, the wear and tear on a house are going to cause cosmetic and even structural degradation, which would be minimized if owners maintained their houses better. Though builders provide buyers with manuals on how to care for their new homes, the advice is often ignored. Builders also lay blame for homeowners’ heightened agitation about construction defects at the feet of plaintiffs’ attorneys, trawling for cases and insurance money.
The one thing builders can’t dispute is that today’s buyers have zero tolerance for defects. If anything else they buy is defective—an iPod, a refrigerator, a carpet—they can return it. So owners harbor the same attitude about their houses; anything that goes wrong is the builder’s fault.
Builders looking to head off public confrontations must inject “a culture of quality” into their construction practices, one that stays with the company through booms and busts. That begins with home designs that minimize the probability of defects, holding trades and superintendents accountable, inspecting their work rigorously, and—most important—responding quickly to homeowner complaints. “Owners will accept ‘no’ for an answer, but they won’t accept being ignored,” observes Shawn Morris, a partner with the San Diego firm Morris, Sullivan & Lemkul, which represents builders in construction defect litigation.
A ZERO-DEFECT SOCIETY
Ask builders about their construction quality, and they invariably point toward rising referral rates and customer satisfaction scores (see “The Ratings Game,” www.builderonline.com/construction/the-ratings-game.aspx). Homeowner surveys indisputably have pushed builders toward better construction practices and complaint resolution. But surveys have one major shortcoming—most homeowners aren’t engineers. Their quality assessments tend to focus on “comfort” issues, such as heating and cooling controls, or minor flaws, such as cracked tiles or nicked moldings.
Appearances can really matter to buyers. In the mid-1990s, Fieldstone Communities surveyed 11,000 homeowners, and the top quality component was jobsite cleanliness, recalls Rick Peters, Fieldstone’s former director of construction, who now evaluates distressed properties for banks.
“Customer expectations have changed dramatically,” says H. Alan Mooney, president of Portland, Maine–based home-inspection provider Criterium Engineers, “and in my estimation, unreasonably.” He notes that “shelter” has become “lifestyle,” which for many owners is about “what my friends think when they see my house. That’s an impossible standard for builders to live up to.” Case in point: A Criterium inspector recently went through a 1,400-square-foot condo in Denver. The owner had a list of 74 items he was upset about, “90 percent of which were purely cosmetic,” says Mooney.
Some of the heightened defect concerns may be rooted in consumers’ deep-seated worries that they bought lemons during the housing market’s go-go years. After all, observes Brad Oberg, a partner with Pittsburgh-based inspection consultant Build IQ, “The boom was about finding ways to build a 120-day house in 100 days.”
Every builder can recite the key components to a quality home-building program. Yet homes keep getting built and sold with haphazardly installed windows and flashing, or without barrier systems, practically inviting water penetration and retention. It’s one thing to know how to do something; it’s quite another to execute it flawlessly. Haste and sloppiness can lead to problems, especially if oversight is lax or nonexistent.
John Robinson, who owns Wood & Clay Fine Homes, a custom builder in Gilford, N.H., says he visits his jobsites two or three times a week, “just to make sure the flashing is done right.” That’s doubly important now that he’s applying spray-foam insulation. He doesn’t want water getting trapped behind walls and siding.
Some builders devote whole teams to oversight. Over the past decade, Walsh Construction, a general contractor in Portland, Ore., specializing in low-income multifamily housing, has created a quality assurance team staffed by five architects. They work with people whom Marty Houston, Walsh’s quality director, refers to as “skin doctors,” superintendents who oversee all aspects of a building’s envelope. In its effort to build houses as a system, Walsh instructs subs to install housewrap around exteriors before they cut holes for windows and doors, for one thing, to ensure that components are sealed properly.
But quality, as defined by systematic construction practices, is still alien to many builders. “Unfortunately, we’re in an industry that tests components as components,” says Jim Petersen, director of research and development for PulteGroup, the industry’s largest builder. Four years ago, Pulte addressed water intrusion blowups by re-evaluating everything from drainage plans to how contractors applied sealant. “We don’t want to let the homeowner be the first person to system-test our house.”