July 2006

More New Homes Contain Life-Threatening Defects
by Broderick Perkins

Want a quality home?

Go West young person. Go West.

New homes built in the West in 2005 were constructed with better quality than those elsewhere in the nation, according to Quality Built, a risk management services firm from San Diego, CA.

Unfortunately, the study also says, wherever you go, life-threatening defects too often show up when you need your home to protect you the most.

Quality Built's study of new homes and condos in 27 states, constructed by more than 900 different builders, commonly found window flashing problems, improper roofing, missing structural hardware and other defects to be more prevalent in the eastern and southern states.

Rather than questionnaires used in other studies to sleuth quality construction, Quality Built says it used data collected by hands-on independent inspectors trained to identify high-risk construction defects.

Data for the study was gathered on 20,867 single-family and 11,128 multi-family homes inspected in 2005.

Among all homes, the three most common construction risks discovered in single-family homes were in the building envelope (41 percent), which could lead to moisture intrusion and mold; framing and structural elements (34 percent), which can affect a building's integrity during rough weather conditions or earthquakes; and in the plumbing and electrical systems (8 percent).

That indicates new home quality has worsened since 2004 when Consumer Reports' "Housewrecked" reported, based on scores of interviews with home owners, builders, inspectors, industry representatives, government officials, and lawyers, that as many as 15 percent of all new homes sold -- 150,000 a year -- had a serious defect.

Quality Built, using up-close, multi-family home inspections, life safety defects appeared 29 percent of the time; framing and structural problems were in 26 percent of the homes and building envelope issues existed in 23 percent of homes. That also means some homes likely had two or more of these defects.

The single highest risk problems identified in single-family homes included improper framing around windows and doors (a structural issue), building paper and house wrap installation flaws (moisture intrusion and energy loss) and missing structural connections, a major hazard.

In multi-family homes, the greatest danger was found in building paper and house wrap installation flaws, unprotected penetrations in life safety assemblies and missing fire-rated materials (a severe safety issue).

High risk components and systems, when improperly installed, can lead to serious safety, comfort and durability issues during home ownership, Quality reported. Some flaws, such as missing structural connections, are insidious and would not be noticed by the homeowner because they show up in the approved plans, but a catastrophic event such as an earthquake or high wind event would make the defect appear suddenly, perhaps with deadly results.

"It concerns me that we routinely find missing structural connections in buildings around the country. This is the exact type of component that builders pay thousands of dollars per home for municipal inspectors to catch. It shows to me, and is supported by litigation evidence, that the municipal inspection process is failing us and we need to take a different direction," said Stan Luhr, CEO of Quality Built and the study's author.

Of course, some of the responsibility must rest on the shoulders of builders who obviously don't get it right the first time.

The study surmised growing labor shortages and more complicated housing styles are also to blame for greater incidents of construction defects, which are not isolated events as some building officials have indicated.

California's building industry's progressive approach to the product -- builders embracing quality metrics and cultures used by other industries -- account for better quality homes in the Golden State.

"Builders are learning very quickly through new computer technologies that we can track quality metrics to justify these changes, and the changes are very good for business. Everyone wins when defects are eliminated in the construction process," said Luhr.
He also said, "This study clearly indicates a pattern of improved real construction quality, which cannot be measured by a homeowner answering a questionnaire."

And added, "These findings tell us that west coast builders are building a much better product than ever before, despite the increased complexity of the product and the diminishing labor talent. I am very pleased to see this, and also somewhat concerned that the eastern U.S. and Hawaii rankings have fallen over the prior year study."
Published: July 7, 2006