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Buying

4 Ways to Keep New Construction From Going Wrong

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new-house-construction (Justin Horrocks)

When Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell was building her home, she lived 300 miles away from the construction site deep in the Ozark Mountain woods. Unable to make the long drive on a frequent basis, she relied on her contractor and project manager -- a family member -- to build her dream cabin, a 480-square-foot lakeside abode.

"Imagine our excitement to drive up to our little lake home … and find out it was facing the wrong direction," she says. "There was a massive communications breakdown."

Instead of the front of the home facing the driveway, it looked into the woods. And the back deck -- once intended to overlook the lake -- now was situated on the side of the property.

"The contractor didn't think his directions were correct, but he was in the woods, miles from a phone with no cell service at the time," says Fivecoat-Campbell, the author of " Living Large in Our Little House."

With an estimated cost of $6,000 to fix everything but no desire to cause a family rift, Fivecoat-Campbell and her husband decided to leave things be.

"All worked out in the end," she says. "We can easily see guests driving into the drive from the 'back' deck."

The potential problems with new construction are terrifying -- like your home literally built backward, mold, or poor foundation -- but there are ways to prevent the panic in the first place. Here's what builders recommend.

1. Stalk the construction site

When it comes to new construction, perhaps the most frightening part is all the unknowns. Maybe a rainy summer and poor site management left your lumber with the beginnings of wood rot, or subcontractors failed to nail down the subfloors properly. Or perhaps the whole darned house is backward.

That's why you need to try to stop by the site frequently. We mean, like, a lot. The final walk-through should never be the first time you see the space, says Howie Berman, COO of The Ruby Group, a development and construction management company in Goshen, NY.

Berman's company recommends three sets of walk-throughs:

  • After the home has been surveyed and staked (an ideal time to make sure it's situated properly)
  • After framing is completed and mechanical installation is underway (this is the best time to address any problems within the walls, like electrical wiring or ventilation)
  • The final walk-through, where you and the builder will review the punch list (more on that later)

 

But feel free to come by more often -- up to every day. The earlier you can bring up potential issues, the better your chances of a quick and simple resolution.

"Mistakes are certainly made, and there is nothing wrong with bringing them up," Berman says. "Most problems can be handled fairly easily through communication. The biggest thing is in how you approach the conversation. No one wants to hear it start with, 'My brother-in-law is in construction, and he said…'"

Keep in mind that something might look like a problem, but is really just incomplete construction.

"It's not always discernible to the untrained eye," Berman says. Bring up problems with your builder, but understand that he may have a plan in place to fix -- or finish -- the apparent issue.

2. Pay attention to your punch list

Before closing, developers or builders will walk you through your newly built home and let you point out any defects or imperfections that need to be fixed before moving day. If there's anything wrong -- from disconnected light switches to broken cabinetry to scratches on the wall -- now is your opportunity to bring it up.

Bring a pre-made checklist, and don't feel bad about being thorough. (Some construction teams may even have specialized software to help you create this list, commonly called a punch list in the construction world.)

Bottom line: If you see something, say something -- builders can't correct problems they don't know about.

Once all of the items on your punch list have been resolved, you can feel comfortable closing on the house -- which should ideally happen after builders fix the problems.

3. Get familiar with your warranty -- and don't be afraid to use it

Most states mandate construction warranties for new homes, often backed by the builders and usually spanning one or more years. Making a claim on your policy is the best way to fix latent problems caused by errors, poor craftsmanship, or dumb luck -- like mold, an increasingly common problem in new homes.

Another frequently found defect, especially in the Northeast, is poorly installed windows. If the silicone sealant isn't applied properly, "there could be a small, slow leak that could go undetected for a long time, leading to significant damage to the framing," Berman says.

Some problems may take time to appear -- cracks might appear in the walls, or crown molding might separate as the home settles -- so consider hiring an inspector for an "11th month warranty inspection." Consider it a final final walk-through: They'll find any new or emerging problems before your one-year warranty expires.

Asking your builders about their warranty is an excellent way to vet the company.

"Be on the lookout to see if the builder has a process for making a warranty claim," Berman says. "This will show you whether or not the builder is prepared to lead the process, which he should be."

4. Stay flexible with your timeline

You might be eager to move in, but construction works on its own schedule -- which might not even line up with your contractor's estimated time frame.

"Homebuilding is a complex process that's subject to all sorts of things like changing weather conditions," Berman says. "The time estimate is likely to change over the course of a project."

Very few builders will agree to any contract that assigns penalties for delays. There are too many things that can go wrong, from a freak snowstorm to unexpected foundation problems. Instead, discuss milestones (think: completed framing or roofing), and time frames expected for each.

If you're on a tight deadline and would like your builder to commit to a timeline, Berman says you should "be prepared to give something up."

You might pay a higher price for the rushed work, but at least you'll have the security of a contract. But if your time frame is flexible, allowing the builders an adaptable timeline might mean fewer long-term errors -- and a happier you in your brand-new home.