Shea Homes and Standard Pacific Homes unseated Pulte from its long-term dominating position on the annual J.D. Power and Associates New-Home Builder Customer Satisfaction Study, the results of which were released Wednesday.

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. However, Pulte subsidiary Centex, which became part of the merged 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.

One notable finding from the survey: Overall, 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."

"Home quality is up and very much, and I think it is due to market conditions," he added. The reason: as builders cut staff and whittled down their subcontractor lists, they likely weeded out weaker performers, leaving only the best.

Overall customer satisfaction improved for the third consecutive year according to the J.D. Power data, 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 J.D. Power surveyed in 2009. Satisfaction also improved in eight of the nine factors about which buyers were questioned. 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 taken 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 calendar year 2009. Their names were taken from public records.

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

Another factor affecting these results is likely to be the fact that that most of the buyers purchased homes from builders' 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, Haines 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 because new-home permits in those markets 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 multifamily than a single-family new construction market.

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

Teresa Burney is a senior editor for BUILDER and BIG BUILDER magazines.

Highest-Ranked Builders in Overall Customer Satisfaction by Market

Atlanta
John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods

Austin, Texas
Standard Pacific Homes

Charlotte, N.C.
Standard Pacific Homes

Dallas/Ft. Worth
Darling Homes

Denver/Colorado Springs, Colo.
Classic Homes

Houston, Texas
Trendmaker

Las Vegas
Pardee Homes

Orlando
KB Home

Philadelphia
NV Homes

Phoenix
Shea Homes

Sacramento, Calif.
JMC (John Mourier)

San Antonio, Texas
David Weekley Homes

San Francisco
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
Ryland Homes

Austin, Texas
Centex Homes

Charlotte, N.C.
KB Home

Dallas/Ft. Worth
Highland Homes

Denver/Colorado Springs, Colo.
Classic Homes

Houston, Texas
LGI Homes

Las Vegas
Pardee Homes

Orlando
KB Home

Philadelphia
Toll Brothers

Phoenix
Centex Homes

Sacramento, Calif.
JMC (John Mourier)

San Antonio, Texas
Fieldstone Communities

San Francisco
Standard Pacific Homes

Southern California
Brookfield Homes

Tampa, Fla.
M/I Homes

Tucson, Ariz.
D.R. Horton

Washington, D.C.
M/I Homes