Spec Homes

Contrary to our current popular belief about most American mass produced products, most spec. homes being built today are relatively affordable, low in maintenance, and a quality product. With adequate maintenance, such a home can be considered a permanent structure.

Custom construction may be a nice alternative choice, but its cost is out of reach for most people. And, when custom designs, techniques, features and/or materials are incorporated into a "budget" construction, the end result is often a big headache.

Index

  • Most spec. homes are built by companies that use a variety of stock plans and relatively standard construction products. The purchaser who agrees to buy these homes prior to completion may have some limited choices regarding colors, styles of cabinetry, and some variation in the basic floor plan. The actual construction of such a home is usually performed by a series of subcontractors who are skilled and very efficient at performing standard building techniques.

    As an example, the qualified spec. home electrical subcontractor will spend about half a day or so installing the electric wires and return a few weeks later to hang the light fixtures and hook up the appliances. Such an electrical system includes the latest safety features, more than adequate receptacles for this age of electronic gadgets, and the chance to get rid of all of those extension cords and multiple plug-in devices. It might even include TV and data cables. This type of an electrical system is safe, functional and trouble free and so are its counterpart plumbing, roofing...systems.

    Spec. home systems like these are standard. That's what makes them affordable and reliable. Successful spec. builders have develop systems that allows them to build their products quickly and in ways that minimize callbacks and other problem. Time is money and service calls take money out of the bottom line.

  • Peter Seegar sang a song about the spec. homes of Daly City, California. It was called "Little Boxes" and it made fun of the ticky tacky little houses of many different colors that were all the same... But the last laugh went to those lucky folks who had to endure the fun made of their homes. Today they own some very expensive property that is located about half way between San Francisco and Silicone Valley. They bought homes in the right place and thereby confirmed the 3 most important factors in selecting real estate: (1) locations, (2) location and (3) location.

    The home purchased can be "ticky tacky" or a designers dream, but in the long run, the home's location may be the most critical factor. Proximity to desirable areas, transportation, schools, flood plains, and various environmental conditions are a few of the critical factors that must be considered in purchasing the land that comes with the spec. home.

  • Given home prices today, it may come as a surprise to find out the actual construction costs of spec. homes have not increased dramatically. Most of the increased costs have been in the area of land prices, development costs, and utility hookups. It is also important to keep in mind that the spec. home of the 1940's was much smaller, with fewer amenities. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, dryer hookups, microwave ovens, and double car garages are only a few of the standard items found in today's spec. home. In addition, today's spec. home is an energy efficiency marvel, and contrary to some rumors, a healthy and safe structure.

  • The spec. home, whose construction consists of well tested custom practices, should not be confused with the custom home. The trades involved in the construction of a custom home are accustomed to dealing with exceptions and innovations. The plans for a custom home are likely to cost ten to twenty times more than those of stock plans. The buyer who needs a unique design may be poorly served by the spec. home and its builders.

    If we compare the electrical work done on the custom home versus that of the spec. home, we will find that the electrician will spend several days in wiring, and several more in trimming out the electrical system. In the spec. home, the locations of receptacles and switches are standard, and every switch and receptacle may be marked on the blueprints. Specialty products, some never before installed by the electrician, take extra time to install and test.

    Unlike the custom home, the spec. home will not have photo-electrically controlled greenhouse window shades or $3,000 track lights. Conversely, it will have components that have been market tested by the hundreds of thousands, and were selected by the builder and the subcontractor to increase customer satisfaction and reduce the possibility of a callback.

    • Do investigate the track record of the builder.
    • Do check licenses through the state, Better Business Bureau, and the Builder's Association.
    • Do look at the model home, as well as, several other examples of this builder's work. You might want to walk through the development that was completed 3 years ago.
    • Do interview previous customers of the builder to find out their level of satisfaction, and the way in which any post-construction concerns were handled.
    • Do take the time to review the plans, and if the house has already been started, take a careful early inspection and walk through the house.
    • Do find out what standard options exist, and the deadline for selecting among those options.
    • Do make all selections on time and agreements in writing.
    • Do make sure that you have the right for a final walk through prior to closing, and an inspection by a professional home inspector.
    • Do make certain that you will receive a copy of all completed building and other permits, and a certification of occupancy.
    • Do get a copy of any builder's warranty and review the content of the warranty in order to determine what coverage is provided.
    • Don't wait to have the house inspected until all the work has been completed, a good inspector will be able to spot many potential problem early.
    • Don't try to "customize" a spec. house by trying to talk the builder into providing you with options beyond the standard options. The end product of such "customizing" is usually not satisfactory to the buyer or the builder.
    • Don't assume that everything included in the model home is also included in every unit. For example, garages in model homes are usually used as sales offices with better finish work than in the standard custom home.
    • Don't assume that projected completion dates are cast in concrete and that all details will be completed prior to closing.
    • Don't over-supervise or neglect the construction process. A visit to the construction site once a week with praise for work well done is a reasonable and productive schedule.
    • Don't miss the builder's schedule for selection of colors and products. Even if the builder has fallen behind schedule, don't provide an excuse for further delays.
    • Don't be tempted to make changes after the deadlines or after an item has already been built or installed. Such changes are very expensive, counter-productive to the builder, and a common source of problems and callbacks.

  • The foundation, framing and overall structure in today's spec. homes are basic, simple, and trustworthy. Many spec. home builders have started to use floor systems which reduce squeaks. Most builders use roof truss systems, which not only increase the structural integrity of the roof system, but also make insulation easier. It also reduces the amount of lumber used in the truss system.

    In spite of the original concern about the health effects of the new energy codes and the costs involved in the implementation of these codes, most observers agree that these new energy codes have made houses much more energy efficient. They have also increased the overall comfort, and maintained indoor air quality, all at a modest increase in building costs. Some side benefits to today's energy codes, include safer and more reliable furnaces, good venting, and an even distribution of heat.

    Many of the interior surfaces are long lasting and easier to maintain. European style cabinets are not only clean-lined and modern in appearance, but they are also easy to clean and use. No-wax vinyl flooring, stain resistant carpeting, and single piece fiberglass, or plastic laminate tub and shower areas are all easy to maintain.

    Standard twenty year fiberglass composition roofing and continuous aluminum gutters and down spouts reduce the need for roof and gutter maintenance. They tend to last well beyond the warranty period.

    Supply lines today are usually in copper or plastic, with no lead solder used in the joints. Copper is (in my opinion) the better choice of the two, put plastic is less expensive and becoming an industry standard. Such supply lines are very long lasting, trouble free and safe. Plastic waste lines are equally trouble free and have the added advantage of reducing clogged drains. "Builder" basic faucets and other plumbing fixtures tend to work well and require little maintenance.

  • The popularity of cedar roofs continues, despite the lesser quality in the product. The need for periodic roof treatments and costly replacements occur in as little as eight to fifteen years. This, in combination with the fact that the cedar used for these roofs is 200 to 600 years old and not being replanted, suggests to me that the time of cedar roofs may have passed, especially in light of the many alternative superior products. See The Ongoing Cedar Shake Roofing Dispute.

    The cedar siding used in today's spec. homes is often only half an inch thick and produced of flat grained and tight knot material. Such siding, in order to last, will have to be re-nailed, caulked, and re-stained or painted within two to five years after the construction of the house. My current favorite siding products are the concrete composite systems such as Hardi Board.

    The soil around the perimeter of the house and the subsequent landscaping with the associated bark soil covering, often results in soil-wood contact. When siding or framing of the house is in constant contact with the soil, it will likely result in wood damage from mold, bacteria, or insects. Use pressure treated lumber on all decks, and other locations where lumber will continually be wet, and unable to regularly dry out.

    While most of the fixtures and surfaces in the bathrooms of today's spec. homes are of good quality, some attention to construction practices and subsequent maintenance is important in this area of the house. In bathrooms where tile is used for the tub or shower walls, most spec. builders use a "waterproof drywall" as a substrate for the tile. While this product is an improvement over regular plaster or drywall, it is not an ideal substrate for tile in a wet situation. Regular inspection of the grout lines for cracks and deterioration should be performed, and careful use of silicone caulk is recommended for repair of cracked grout lines. In those bathrooms where fiberglass tubs, fiberglass tub walls, and plastic laminate is used, it is important to avoid the use of any types of abrasive cleaners.

    Interior wall surfaces may require some early cosmetic upgrading. It is not unusual to find a few hairline cracks, especially at doorways and above window corners, and some plasterboard nail pops or corner bead cracking. While such defects are usually not a sign of structural problems, they are deceptively hard to correct. Once the damaged area has been re-nailed, taped and re-spackelled, very skillful re-texturing will have to be performed in order to avoid "bald" or "over textured" spots. It is also not unusual for hairline cracks to reappear over time, since the basic cause of these cracks is due to some continuous movement in the framing of the house. An alternative method of repairing such cracks is the careful use of latex caulk prior to the painting. The elasticity of this material may provide a longer lasting solution.

    Many spec. homes are heated with medium efficiency gas furnaces. Given today's fuel costs, this is a very reasonable way to heat Pacific Northwest homes. While most of these furnaces are reliable and give the appearance of operating well without any service for a long period of time, they are complex mechanical devices and should be serviced every one to three years. The high efficiency gas furnaces, those with a rating above 90% in efficiency, are even more complex systems and require service every year. See the topic page on Heating Your Home.

    While most of the kitchen appliances are of good quality, there is a tendency by some spec. builders to save a few dollars and install a recirculating, ventless hood over the stove. Such hoods are of no value in exhausting any excess moisture from the kitchen. They also provide very low quality air filtration from the kitchen. Their only benefit seems to be that they can usually contain a light bulb, which helps to illuminate the stove top.

  • A rule of thumb suggests that in an average year a property requires 1-2% of its current value in maintenance costs. Some years will be higher and some a bit lower. Newer and better quality homes may have lower maintenance costs. But all homes require regular annual maintenance.

    The use of better quality materials and labor will reduce maintenance costs over the long term. The important thing to keep in mind is that a well maintained home will improve in quality over time. The poorly maintained home will eventually require major renovation, and the cost could exceed new construction costs.

    One often hears the adage, "I wish they would build them the way they used to." The statement is mostly true if we look at trim details and the extensive use of old growth fine finish lumber. However, when it comes to the basic structure, the electrical, plumbing and heating systems of today's spec. homes, we see that they are vastly superior to their turn-of-the-century counterparts with tube and knob wiring, little or no insulation, and rust clogged galvanized supply lines. It is also vastly easier to install fine inlaid hardwood flooring as a replacement to the builder's basic wall to wall carpeting (standard in today's spec. home) than to retrofit the turn-of-the-century energy guzzler.

  • Since not all spec. homes are of equal quality, it is important to take the time to investigate all aspects of the home contemplated for purchase. Having the home inspected by a professional may be just as important in a new spec. home as it is in a pre-owned home. In addition, having a clear and written understanding of all aspects of the transaction is just as important as in any other major purchase.

    If any work on the home needs to be completed after the purchase and sale agreement has been finalized, make sure that you have a detailed written document which specifies all of the work to be completed. This document must include an understanding of various remedies if the work has not been completed or is in some way defective at the time of closing.

    So: take your time, ask lots of questions, get everything in writing and enjoy your new home!