The Most Common “Shortcut” You’ll Find in New-Build Homes

published Sep 14, 2023
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Nothing says “move-in ready” like a brand-new home, right? Well, not exactly. Although you’ll have bragging rights as the first to reside there, not everything is as perfect or pristine as the model home might have led you to believe.

“There’s no such thing as a maintenance-free home or a 100 percent new build,” says Lisa Culp Taylor, a Realtor and leader of the LCT Team in Franklin, Tennessee.

Home building is an expensive, time-consuming process, and builders can (and will) take shortcuts. Some are downright shady choices that can affect internal systems like your HVAC and electrical wiring — which is why it’s a bad idea to waive a home inspection, even on a new build. But even if you’re working with a reputable home builder, unless you’ve got an unlimited budget to customize every square foot of that home, there will be some design and finish choices made for the sake of the builder’s schedule and budget. 

Don’t be alarmed — just be smart. If you’re making the open-house rounds of brand-new homes in your area, here’s what to look for to avoid spending a ton for a cheaply-made home.

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Don’t Be Fooled by the Finishes

Be on the lookout for low-cost finishes — often called “builder grade” in the biz — that might look great simply because they’re brand new, but are not as high-end as you might think. Here are some spots to consider:

Flooring

“Not all flooring is equal, so you really have to look carefully to make sure it is a quality product,” says Kristen Carbine, a third-generation home building professional at Carbine & Associates and a Realtor with PARKS Realty – Downtown Franklin. “Beware of cheaper laminate or vinyl flooring.” 

There are higher-quality laminate and vinyl flooring options on the market that look great and are made to last. But even if the flooring materials are indeed high quality, Carbine says, “Check to see if the carpet has been properly stretched with no wrinkles, and make sure the hardwoods are smooth with tight seams [and] no visible gaps or warping.”

Windows and Doors

New homes are often touted for their security and energy efficiency, which is why you should be on the lookout for subpar windows and doors.

With windows, Carbine says to look out for cheap, single-hung options that are less energy-efficient because they don’t offer enough insulation. If you live in a region that sees extreme cold or heat (or maybe both) you’ll just be wasting money on utility costs each month.

If you’re able to choose doors, whether they are exterior or interior doors, steer clear of hollow core models. They might come in a style that you like, says Carbine, but they’re cheaply made.

Walls and Paint

Check to see if the walls are smooth and even — a sign that they’ve been prepared and finished properly, says Carbine. All paint and trim should be “flawless with a clean, crisp edge,” she says. 

Kitchen Cabinets and Countertops

Homeowners are known to pour tons of money into kitchen renovations, but unless you’re purchasing a high-end luxury home, your builder has likely chosen more economical finishes.

“Cars are not created equally and it’s the same for countertops,” Taylor says. There are different levels of quartz, for example, and a “granite” countertop in a laundry room could turn out to be Formica, she explains. 

As for cabinets, Carbine says don’t assume your new ones are made from solid wood — they could be constructed from medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or even particle board that won’t hold up over time. Also, make sure each door and drawer opens and closes smoothly. The hardware should be strong and sturdy, too, she says.

Carbine cautions not to be dazzled by those smooth stone countertops without first checking where the seams of those slabs connect. The industry standard for seam width is 1/16th of an inch or less, but aside from tight joinery — which ensures proper installation — you’re also looking for placement. Countertop seams should connect in a less visible spot.

Don’t Ignore These 2 Things in a New Build

If you’re considering going to the next open house with a magnifying glass in one hand and a list of building material prices in the other, know that there are a couple of bigger-picture aspects to consider as well.

“When looking for a quality-built home, you can start with the job site,” says Carbine — most notably, how clean the builder and crew are keeping it. “This can be a big indicator of how materials are being handled as well,” she says. Sawdust will be on the floor, of course, but you don’t want those brand-new appliances covered in it.

You’ll also want to ensure that you’re not confusing your home with what you’ve seen in the model home, says Taylor. “You have to look at the nitty gritty of what you’re buying,” she says. “Reading the specification sheet, no matter how boring it may seem, is critically important.” Doing so will help you avoid “surprises” at the final walk-through.