If you google "builder grade," you'll see a ton of posts celebrating basic rooms getting a major upgrade—or getting the boot entirely. The builder grade materials in questions will inevitably be described as "sad," "generic," "cheap," "boring," and, in some cases, "orange-y." But are builder grade materials all bad? What even are they? Let's explore...
Let's start with the basics. Building materials, from windows and faucets to doors and cabinets, come in four grades. From lowest to highest, they are: 1) builder; 2) quality; 3) custom; and 4) ultra-custom. To add confusion, there are also category titles such as stock, semi-stock, semi-custom, retail, and contractor grades (the last two often refer to builder grade). To add even more confusion, the grades above builder are rarely defined. Let's focus on builder grade (since it's one we're all most likely to encounter), assume "ultra-custom" means that you can have diamond cabinets and spider-silk carpets, and sort out the mid-grades as best we can.
What's in a Grade?
Originally, the term was coined to make materials sound more desirable to uninformed consumers —as if the materials were vetted and used by builders everywhere. But it's now almost synonymous with inexpensive materials: low-quality, low-grade versions of windows, doors, cabinets and roofs.
Builder-grade materials are generally mass-produced and pre-built, with a limited number of options. They are available in the most common sizes and shapes, and customizing is not available.
If I tried to break down the differences between the grades for every single building material, we would be here all week. For example, lumber is graded according to a complex system involving straightness, denseness, roughness, how green or dried it is, how knotty it is, and more. And mixed in with all the lowest-grade pieces of lumber will be some diamonds in the rough, as each board is not judged individually. Also, the way these options are labelled and priced will vary depending on material and source.
SF Gate uses carpet as a good example of this:
There is no formal definition of "builder's grade," but it typically refers to an economical carpet that only lasts about five years under heavy traffic. This is because most builder's-grade carpet has a face weight of only about 25 to 32 ounces. High-quality carpet, the type that lasts at least 12 years and often more, has a face weight of 38 ounces or more. The higher the face weight, the plusher and stronger the carpet.
Or cabinets. DoItYourself says this about them:
In overall construction, builder-grade means the most simple and bare-bones materials, including everything—paint, light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, floor coverings, roof shingle composition, adhesives, etc.
Builder-grade cabinets, for example, would often be made of particle board with plywood backing, and the doors of the builder-grade cabinets might be particle board with a wood or plastic veneer.
The thing to remember is this: whatever material you're working with, there will be higher-quality options and lower-quality options. As if there weren't enough decisions involved in any home improvement project, you want to keep the grade options in mind at every decision-making moment. Familiarize yourself with the differences and choose what makes most sense for you.
Don't Know? Just Ask
It's easy to get confused about the different grades, and you shouldn't be embarrassed to ask questions of the professionals. This is your home and your money, so get the answers you need! Your contractor might have based your estimate on builder-grade materials that you'd prefer to upgrade, or she might have based it on higher-grade materials that aren't worth the extra cost to you. Get the information you need to make informed decisions that are in-line with your budget and your priorities. When you take the time to talk to your contractor about materials they plan to use (and the warranties that come with them!), you'll avoid potential problems down the road.
Weigh All the Factors
Whenever you are contemplating a purchase, you'll be faced with tons of options. Before you pull the trigger, weigh a variety of factors:
Quality & Durability
Much of the grade differences come down to durability. The main difference between builder- and higher-grade items is the quality of the materials used in their construction. You might not be able to visually spot the difference, but builder-grade fixtures tend to wear out faster and need attention sooner than their higher-priced counterparts.
Mosby Building Arts talk about faucets as an example:
...you can usually feel a difference in the weight of the two. The retail version will be lighter because they tend to use plastic instead of metal (brass or stainless steel) for the mechanical pieces. The internal mechanics of a faucet is what works the hardest, and is what will need to be repaired or replaced. Retail-grade fixtures tend to wear out faster and need attention sooner than contractor-grade version.
Think about how long you need each element to last, how much of a pain it would be to replace it, and how much damage it could do in the meantime.
Availability and accessibility is a major difference between the grades. Any of us can waltz into Home Depot and pick up builder-grade materials on the spot, but quality-grade options usually need to be special ordered by a pro. You might not be able to wait for the a supplier to ship in six weeks (and hold up your contractor). Then, buying off the shelf might be the only option.
This is one of the most common reasons people go with builder grade: because they are less expensive and the idea of shelling out money for some basic item is repellant. While it's important to acknowledge that everyone has a different budget and priorities, using the lowest quality materials can cause harm to your home in many different ways—leaks, break-ins, flooding, water damage, and more—and end up costing you more much sooner than you think. Spend your money on materials that are crucial to the health of your home, save money on superficial aspects or elements that can be easily replaced, then upgrade when and if you can afford to.
Consider the long-term cost as well. A cheaper builder-grade faucet might be easy to upgrade in a few years when you can better afford it, but if you're dropping a ton of cash on the labor required to install new roofing or siding? A higher-quality option means you won't have to pay that installation fee again for a long time.
Figuring out what percentage of the total cost is labor will help you make an informed decision. Do you want to pay $40,000 for a new roof now ($30,000 in labor, $10,000 in materials) that you have to replace every 10 years (another $40,000), or do you want to pay $50,000 ($30,000 in labor, $20,000 in materials) for a higher quality roof that you don't have to replace for 20 years? Your answer will depend on your budget, how long you're planning on living in the house, and more, but whatever you decide, having the information is helpful.
How Good Does It Need To Be?
Angie's List, in an article with the no-punches-pulled title "Don't Build a Home with Builder Grade Materials," breaks down the differences between builder and higher grades when it comes to windows, doors, gutters, siding, and roofs. They say always opt for the high-quality material.
But these are key questions to ask yourself whenever you're faced with a decision regarding building materials. If a super-cheap 12' board is crooked, that's not going to work for building a door or a shelf, but if you're cutting it down into 1' sections, the crookedness probably won't matter. If you live somewhere with brutal winds and winters, high-quality windows and insulation are key, whereas it's not nearly as crucial or valuable in a milder climate.
The best question to ask yourself is: How long do you want it to last? If you're fixing a house to sell, builder-grade serves the purpose. If you're remodeling for a home you plan to stay in for a long time, a better grade reduces problems and gives you the long-lasting quality and efficiency you deserve.
For every project you tackle, evaluate the role of each material and ascertain how its quality—or lack thereof—will affect the health and well being of your home and its residents. In other words, better isn't always better.