Imagine if your local newspaper hired a building inspector and two university professors, had them train 15 engineering students to look for construction defects, and sent them out to study a randomly selected sample of 406 new homes built within the last couple years. What do you think they'd find?

This isn't a hypothetical question for Orlando, Fla., builders. At press time, they were being treated to the results of such an inquiry conducted by the Orlando Sentinel and a local television station. The newspaper bills this as the first "statistically valid study done of new-home construction in Florida and likely the nation." (You can find a link to this report here.)

Not surprisingly, the newspaper found a lot to be desired in the new homes that it inspected.

Looking at homes built in 2001, inspectors found an average of 7.5 problems per home, ranging from cosmetic flaws such as uneven interior walls to "priority problems" that they said pose potential health, structural, operational, or safety risks. These included corner cracks in exterior windows, corroded air handlers, and major cracks in exterior walls, among other items. They found mold in 20 percent of the homes they inspected.

Damage report

This is one of the most damaging newspaper accounts I've read in my 20 years of covering the industry. Usually, negative newspaper reports are based on a few interviews with homeowners or a reporter following an independent home inspector around town. But the Sentinel, which is owned by The Tribune Co., also owner of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, attempted to bring science to the reporting process, though some of the text still borders on inflammatory.

The region's biggest builders were given a copy of the investigative results prior to publication of the series, but few elected to comment. Through a spokesperson, they dismissed many of the findings as cosmetic, not covered by warranty, or the result of poor homeowner maintenance. That much is undoubtedly true.

Nevertheless the survey does expose the industry's weak underbelly. Builders ask for and often receive tolerance from buyers because of the nature of construction. They point out that homes settle--windows rack, concrete cracks, nails pop. They say that it isn't humanly possible to inspect every nail hammered by every worker.

Damage control

Most major construction defects, though, can be avoided if they are identified at the right stage of construction, says Alan Mooney, president of Criterium Engineers, a consulting firm based in Portland, Maine. Criterium surveyed its national network of engineers in 67 offices for a report on common defects. You can find senior editor Matt Power's article on the report, "Reducing Your Liability Risk: Defective Thinking," in the September issue of BUILDER.

"We've looked at more than 700,000 homes [nationally] since 1998," Mooney says in the piece, "and what we've found is that construction quality is not directly related to price. A lot of times, the builder is trying to do a good job but doesn't know what to pay attention to." He recommends that builders pay particular attention to poorly trained laborers, untested products, and design that's too elaborate.

As these two reports indicate, the industry needs to place greater emphasis on quality control. As the pressure rises to build homes faster, reliance on unskilled laborers increases, and building inspectors get stretched thinner and thinner, quality can and will suffer. The industry can't let this happen, especially not with hungry attorneys at the door.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.