Code Talk 

If you’re going to buy a brand-new house, do your, um, homework

Here we are creeping up on the spring house-buying season, and I know a lot of you are wondering: how can I pick out a good house and avoid the dreaded money pit?

Here we are creeping up on the spring house-buying season, and I know a lot of you are wondering: how can I pick out a good house and avoid the dreaded money pit? Well, I don’t have all the answers, but after a 20-year spell of inspecting houses, I’m pretty sure I have some of them.

Here’s the first thing you do: try to find an existing house in an established neighborhood. The best houses in and around Nashville are about 40 years old and older. Just about any knowledgeable home inspector, architect, engineer, tradesman or retired builder will tell you that the quality of local homebuilding started to slide around 1965. Quality got steadily worse until about 1985, when it got shockingly bad.

Since 1985, quality has slipped, but only a little. These days, most new houses are just a little worse than shockingly bad. From what I’ve seen, the $3 million houses in the gated communities are built to the same quality as the $200,000 houses across town. Besides nicer countertops, appliances and fixtures, the only difference between a high-end house and a starter house is that the high-end house has more cubic feet of air and more crown molding.

I know, I know. The builders in those fancy new subdivisions have all kinds of awards and plaques hung up in their model homes, and the salespeople in the models are sweet as sugar. They pour you coffee, feed you chocolate-chip cookies and compliment your children. Their houses, they’ll tell you, come with a warranty. And of course all of their houses passed their codes inspections. Each and every builder and salesperson will tell you that the subdivision contains only “quality” homes.

If you take a step back and break all this down, here’s what you learn:

Salespeople are personable and persuasive. Don’t let the sales talk get you all excited.

All new houses pass their codes inspections. If they don’t pass their codes inspections, nobody can live in them. If you were to park outside a new house on codes-inspection day and watch for the municipal codes inspector, you’d see that he spends just a few minutes inspecting. Sometimes, he won’t even get out of his car.

It’s nice to have a warranty on your house-to-be, but if you read the warranty carefully, you’ll see that it doesn’t cover a lot of the bad things that might happen. If a problem pops up, the warranty most likely requires the builder to perform a one-time temporary repair.

If you’ve got your heart set on a new house, here’s what you do: find a local builder with a long-standing good reputation and a crew who’s been working for him a long time. You want a builder who builds just a few houses—say fewer than 10—a year.

If you want a “quality” house, you’re going to have to do most of the quality control. You don’t want to rely on the municipal codes inspectors. Not to be harsh, but they just don’t have the time or training to do any meaningful inspecting. Even if you’re a naive homebuyer, if you buy a copy of the International Residential Code (IRC), you can probably glean more knowledge than the municipal inspectors possess. Make sure you get the right books—your city or county could be working with the 2000, 2003 or (soon) the 2006 code. Code books aren’t exciting reading, but they are pretty easy to understand these days. There are plenty of tables and pictures. If you’ve got the time and inclination, you can use the code books to figure out if your builder is doing things right. If you check the house while it’s being built, you might even be able to get your municipal codes enforcers to come out to your house and enforce the code.

While you’re buying books, pick up a set of the Code Check books, which are a pretty easy read. The books are loaded with graphics that show how things should be done, and each graphic links to a specific code section. The Code Check books are wonderful argument-settlers.

Finally, get yourself a copy of the National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) Residential Construction Performance Guidelines, Third Edition. It’ll give you some insight into how builders’ warranties work, and just how little protection they afford. You can find all these books at amazon.com .

You can probably find code books at your local library. Code Check books are available in big-box stores such as Home Depot. The whole pile of books will probably cost a little less than $200.00. It’s money well spent.

Finally, there’s this: you’ll need to hire a home inspector. You want an independent and honest home inspector, not one who’s joined the real estate sales team. I’ve seen inspection reports from home inspectors who’ve joined the sales team. One such report, on a brand-new house, found no defects, and had just this one comment: “Well-built house!” Well, that well-built house had about $30,000 worth of defects.

Find your own home inspector, interview him and read at least one of his reports. Ask him if he’ll back up his opinions with references to the building code. If he says something like, “I don’t do codes inspections,” or “I don’t quote code,” find another home inspector who can back up his findings.

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