Home & Garden Columns

About the House: New Houses Aren’t Quite as Trouble-Free as They Seem

By Matt Cantor
Friday August 25, 2006

Crisis is opportunity isn’t it? And some days I just have to say, Thank you, Lord Buddha, for another #$%@ing growth opportunity. 

What makes me start off this way? Well I’ll tell you. It’s the inspection of brand new houses. Some people like diving out of planes from 35,000 feet. Others like to train tigers and still others like to argue with women who are way smarter than they are. I’m not really up to any of these death-defying activities but I do, occasionally inspect a brand new house. 

When I’m feeling especially moxie-filled, I like to pick one of those 5 million dollar jobs (yes, they go way higher these days but they’re not too many around these-here parts). It really gets my blood pumping to inspect one of these houses that I am absolutely certain is going to have lots more to tell and many more defects to find in about two or three years, not to mention 10 years from now. 

That’s the thing; when a house is brand new, you just don’t know what’s going to fail. It’s like a newborn babe, all full of promise and hope. Then one day, it’s all car-jacking and unpaid alimony. Well, maybe that’s a bit over the top but you get the point. 

The problem is that people get sort of glazed over when they’re looking at a brand new house.  

Most people assume that a new house is going to be free from defect. That everything will be plumb, square and tight. Perfect. That all the outlets will work and that it won’t leak. So there’s much further to fall than when you’re buying an old fixer and you ASSUME that everything is going to need work. 

New houses are just like old houses are before they get old. But they’ll get there. After a while, they begin to exhibit all the things that old houses do and many will get there faster than you think. 

Now, new houses have many things to recommend them. Newer heating systems are superior in many ways to the earlier models. Same with water heaters and electrical systems and nice big fat copper plumbing. We also have much more rigid seismic requirements and better fire codes.  

These are all excellent things and, in many ways, well worth the trip. If I saw a new house that looked a bit more like our old Berkeley beauties, I’d almost be ready to lay the bucks on the barrel-head. But being in the business that I’m in, I’m privy to a nearly endless reservoir of stories that circulate showing us that much new construction, while looking very neat and shiny, has plenty that can go wrong in the first few years. 

Of course this is not an overall condemnation of new construction, but rather a simple myth-busting exercise in the interest of consumer protection. Many of the newer houses we’ve seen built in the last 15 years in our area have turned out to leak. This is the most common failure by far. 

Windows can leak, walls can leak, roofs can leak and, my personal favorite, decks over living space (or sealed areas) can leak. That last one is so common that many in my business are unwilling to bless any of the new tiled decks with their trust and often leave the client with subtle warnings regarding their long-range futures. 

Many new houses have Italianate ornamentation around or below their windows or along cornices that are made of Styrofoam. That’s right, Styrofoam. They’re called foam plant-on’s and they get embedded below stucco finishes. 

When you see fancy shaped stucco trims (usually 4” to 8” thick) they are probably made of this stuff. The manufacturers wisely require that a good thickness of stucco be added over the foam to make sure that they won’t be easily damaged over time but you know how things go. 

I can often push them in with my thumb clearly revealing that less than 1/4” of stucco has been installed over the foam. 

Newer houses often have uneven walls, floor and stairways. It’s just rush, rush, rush when there’s a million dollar paycheck waiting at the end of the herringbone walkway. 

Now, again, this is not the whole story. Builders work hard to build good houses as a rule. Part of the problem lies with a cornucopia of new materials that are emerging daily, each with the promise of low cost and iron-clad results. We know how that story comes out too, right? 

One major window producer is in the midst of a major recall and this isn’t a shock. New ideas are hard to get right, fresh out of the gate. I’m not exactly an old-fashioned guy but I do believe in tried and true technology and I feel as though we should adopt building techniques and products slowly with thorough testing in both lab and field. I don’t really want to live in a test case and would rather not have to sue anybody ever over anything. 

Beyond this, I do find plenty of errors made in newer construction, just as I find them in remodels and old houses. This is normal. 

The message here is to have reasonable expectations and to not fall into all-too American trap of thinking that new is always better and that a new house will free you from all possible future difficulties. Yes, a new house is very likely to be less work and less cost over the first 10 years, in general. But taking a close look is a darned good idea. So is a builder’s warrantee.  

For some, buying a condo or a townhouse can make a similar sense in that you will have less responsibility when things do go wrong or run their normal wear cycle. If you have a 5 percent or 10 percent interest in an HOA (homeowner’s association), it’s a lot less painful when a roof needs replacement or when a construction defect arises. 

As for me, I think I’ll stay in my 84-year-old house with all it’s bumps and warts. But I am thinking about taking up skydiving! 


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com.