I built and remodeled houses from 1975 to 1997 when I became a full-time professional inspector. Since then I have inspected over 11,000 houses in the DFW area, many of which were under construction. My understanding of the home building industry is both broad and deep. I have watched the quality of construction in the residential arena devolve over time to an almost unbelievable all time low.
For years a certain subgroup of our population has been attempting to limit if not prevent immigration of workers from Mexico. They finally achieved this and even a negative net immigration figure from our neighbors to the south during 2009 – 2014 according to Pew Research Center.
At the front lines of the push to curb Mexican immigrants were the Texas home builders. No real ill effects of this maneuver were obvious during the George W. Bush – induced economic meltdown. Fast forward to the fourth quarter of 2016 when the home building industry as a whole is flourishing and the DFW builders simply cannot keep up with the number of new houses being sought by buyers.
Add to this the fact that for decades Americans have been led to believe that construction-related professions are below them and that a college education is the only way to go. This has led to the near extinction of trade schools.
All of the above has resulted in a severe labor shortage in the home building (and other) trades. And this just when we need more laborers than ever. But wait, it gets worse.
In order to keep up with the tremendous demand for affordable houses while still making a profit, and while the building codes have become gradually more restrictive, home builders have resorted to using cheaper materials and construction techniques. Examples of this are the glorified cardboard sheathing seen in abundance, “advanced framing” where up to 25% of the lumber is omitted from the structure, inherently defective vinyl windows, cut-rate builder grade appliances, slap-dash cabinetry, builder grade HVAC equipment, water heaters, plumbing and electrical fixtures, etc. ad infinitum.
When one cuts corners by using fewer structural materials, cheaper sheathing and finish materials, bottom of the line budget plumbing and electrical fixtures, et al., achieving satisfactory results takes an enormous amount of skill on the part of the tradesmen building the houses. Said another way, it takes more talent to effectively apply lipstick to a pig than to finish out a well constructed home.
Further, with the severe shortage of any kind of labor, the tail is now wagging the dog. Builders cannot find even semi- or unskilled warm bodies, not even at the labor pool in the Fiesta parking lot. They dare not fire incompetent workers for fear that they cannot be replaced. Workers who have been looked down upon, taken advantage of and nearly run out of the country on a rail for decades are now in command of the building industry. Good for them. Not so good for you though if you are looking to buy a new home.
The heightened demand for new homes and the decline in the availability of skilled workmen have also resulted in a lack of competent supervision on the jobsites. Site superintendents, who refer to themselves both euphemistically and optimistically as “builders”, are usually undereducated, inexperienced corporate employees who perform no other task than that of production expediters. Most have never built a house, are unfamiliar with the building codes, and rely solely upon the knowledge possessed (or likely not) by their subcontractors and the municipal inspectors.
In no way do I wish to be the apologist for the builders, but the homebuyers are also to blame for the decline in craftsmanship in new homes. Buyers demand more and more fashionable amenities for less and less money. This is not possible to achieve while maintaining even the lowest degree of quality. Granite countertops (which are so passé that I’ve seen them in $50K condos), wood floors (in all the wrong places), pot fillers that leak on the wood floors, frameless shower stalls that leak profusely, 20 foot plus ceilings where changing light bulbs and replacing smoke alarm batteries requires a $700 ladder, painted brick veneer, . . . the list of inane choices is long.
So, who is looking out for your best interests? According to the International Code Council – the authors of the International Residential Code used in Texas, subtitled The Worst Way to Legally Build a House, that job falls to you and, if you are wise, your independent third-party inspector. This is true whether you are buying a starter home for $200K or a mansion priced in the millions. All of the houses are built by the same contractors, being supervised by the same “builders”, using the same materials, and are being overseen by the same municipal inspectors.
Even if you wake up and realize your responsibility to perform due diligence during the construction of your new home, there will be hurdles to jump. The builders will fight you tooth and nail to avoid having competent third-party oversight. They will attempt to enthrall you with illogic such as:
(1) We have our own independent inspectors.
(2) The city of Podunk will inspect the house. They have really tough inspectors.
(3) Your inspector will have to conform with our schedule so as not to impede the production line schedule of your “custom” home, though we will not give him proper advance notice, will not provide him a set of plans to refer to, and
(4) Your inspector will need to carry liability insurance in an amount much greater than our own contractors.
(5) Your inspector is welcome, but has only one hour to perform the inspection.
(6) We will not repair anything your inspector finds to be out of compliance with the building code if the city already approved it.
That list could go on for pages, but you get the idea. So then, what is a new home buyer to do? At a minimum:
(1) Hire a competent attorney before you sign a contract with any builder. Not your family attorney who does wills and divorces, but one experienced in dealing with builders.
(2) Hire a competent inspector prior to the onset of construction. Not just any inspector, but one with a minimum of 10 years experience as a licensed or registered builder, and 2000 inspections of new construction at all phases while certified by the International Code Council as a Residential Combination Inspector. Verify their credentials here.
(3) Heed the advice of these two professionals.
(4) Take a proactive hands-on approach to dealing with your builder.
(5) Get all communications with your builder in writing.