Is home construction really substandard?

Anecdotal evidence aside, I’m wonder if homes are really as poorly put together as is heard by “my friend’s brother’s roommate, who’s in construcion” says.

In my corner, I have modern building codes and oversight. My engineering structures classes in college showed that, where dead, live, Environmental, and vibration loads were concerned, design was often scaled above the environmental stuff in favor of reducing vibration. We also have engineered buildig materials that are more consistent, windows that are better built, siding that lasts longer.

I’ve been in many old houses that, while they’re still standing they took a LOT of mney to keep them that way, and the workmanship was far from straight and true. We also have a self selecting group of survivors. The poor ones have fallen over.

So, will my home outlive me, or is it an investment that will never pay off?

I am not sure I understand your question. Homes can be built in a great range of qualities. A home can be built to last longer and require less maintenance but will be more expensive initially. Witness some European castles and cathedrals

A house can be built which is cheaper initially but will require more maintenance. It is a matter of selecting what you want. Nothing is good or bad intrinsically. It’s like buying a cheap Chinese tool. It will not last as long as a quality tool but you only need to use it a few times then it’s all you need and buying anything better is wasting money.

American wooden-frame homes seems terribly fragile by Spanish standards and Spanish people are always amazed to see houses washed away in floods of blown away by tornadoes. Houses in Spain are built in concrete and brick and are much strurdier. Does that mean they’re better? Not really. For the same cost of a bunker style home you can have a flimsy one which is twice the size and if the flimsy one will do then why do you need the bunker? I am not in the habit of kicking walls so drywall will do. But if I am planning on holding prisoners or facing tornados then concrete would probably be better.

To decided what is better for you you would need to make some decisions on what your needs are. But as you will probably move several times in your lifetime, the best way to go is to build whatever will sell well when you move.

In all seriousness, any home requires a certain amount of maintenance to survive. A new roof every 20 to 25 years, etc. I would guess that any home that meets code and is properly maintained will last a lifetime. I can point out several homes around here built in the late 1800s that are still structurally strong.

I’ve read a few things that made we wonder about this . One thing is the category of “builder’s-grade” products. When shopping for toilets, they say the absolute cheapest ones are the ones that would be sold to be installed in new homes. Most people shopping for a toilet will pick one that’s at least a little better than that, so you would think they would also be willing to pay for them at the start.

Just from casual reading, there are a few things where people explain the best way to do something, but then mention that new homes usually don’t use it. For instance, in a bathroom there’s a kind of wallboard that’s resistant to moisture. (I think it’s called green board.) I had a couple bathrooms fall apart, and when a relative helped out with them he said they had built them with regular drywall behind the shower tiles, so they had to redo everything. I think I’ve read that it’s common for drywall to be used in that way. It seems like a clear-cut case where it would have been worth it to take the extra care in initial contruction.

I do know that my parents had their home custom-built in 1963. The builder was constantly one step away from bankruptcy, and we knew he was cutting corners. That was okay with my parents, because they wanted the home as cheap as possible, as well. What we didn’t know until after we had moved in was that there was not a single, true 90-degree angle in any interior or exterior corner in the entire house.

To be fair, however, the house is still there and except for some second-floor plumbing issues, it’s never had a major problem.

Unless all houses are built exactly the same, by definition some will be substandard. It really depends on the builder. Some won’t cut corners, some will. That’s why it’s important to check out some of the builders houses that have been lived in to see how they hold up.

Builder-grade appliances and fixtures certainly exist, but not all builders use them.

Greenboard is a standard requirement in wet environments, I’d expect that was an oversight as it would (should? oughta?) be a building code violation.

And I wasn’t really expecting this to be an international question, it was levied more against the angsty “Homes these days are so poorly made, they won’t last 60 years.” It generally comes up in the same breath with how screwed our economy is, and how nothing is as good as it used to be.

It was a post here complaining about how lightly made houses were, with new growth timber and 2x4’s that weren’t really 2" by 4".

Based on my limited experience from College (nearing 20 years ago), working home construction during the summers, and watching the builders like a hawk while they built my house, the ‘They’re little boxes made of ticky tacky’ didn’t seem to hold up.

Hence my question.

Sounds like the builder had whole-house plumbing issues…

The first rule of construction: “Code” is the minimum criteria you can design and build to without going to jail.

My parents’ current house was remarkably well built.

The house they moved our of to get into this house was preposterously bad in many respects. The two windows in the kitchen were visibly not at the same level. I don’t believe ANY of the windows worked properly. The plumbing was in poor repair upon installation. I could go on.

The houses are less than a thousand yards apart.

Every generation seems to say that the quality of home construction during the time they’re alive is the worst. Remember Malvina Richards and “little boxes of ticky tacky”? Those houses she was singing about in Daly City, California were built during the 1950s and 1960s, and most are doing quite well.

I’m working on a side project for one suburban community where the vast majority of housing was built in the 1950s. Their problem: the houses that were thought of as cheap at the time they were built are still structurally very sound. However, they’re functionally obsolete, with small rooms, limited closet space, only one bathroom, and so on. They’re basically like your grandmother’s 1972 Dodge Dart; pretty much indestructible, but they suck for typical day-to-day driving when compared to newer cars. Hard to justify getting rid of a car that still runs well, but what do you do with it?

Today, outside of the most libertarian frontier towns, houses in most of the US and Canada are built subject to strict building codes, and building permitting and inspection processes. Treated lumber that is more resistant to rot is the norm; even if they’re not “real two-by-fours” they’ll last much longer than old lumber if exposed to the elements. HVAC, electrical (outside of the aluminum wiring years of the late 1960s) and plumbing systems are all more robust than tract houses of old. Yes, houses have been mass-produced since the late 1800s, although some believe that everything before WWII is custom.

When I drive through the countryside, I see a lot of inhabited pre-WWII houses with sagging roofs, lopsided porches, old additions with floors that bend down at an angle from the main house, and so on. I almost never see such deterioration on postwar houses. When I was house-hunting in Denver a while back, looking at 1920s-era bungalows, a good number had doors that wouldn’t shut properly; a sign of severe structural settling.

How are older houses “better” than newer homes? They’re usually built with comfort in the local climate in mind, sans air conditioning. Windows are arranged to capture light and breezes more effectively than a new house, which might not even have any windows on side walls. Some of the craftsmanship is better; mainly molding, doors and tile detail. Few realize, though, that the “immigrant craftsmen who once helped build the great cathedrals of Europe” (as is so often claimed in the Rust Belt cities) that framed and finished houses of old earned just a few dollars a day, despite being skilled tradesmen. You can have the same woodwork found in a starter house of 1925 in a new build, but don’t expect to pay 1925-adjusted-for-inflation rates for such work.

The “older is better” sentiment when it comes to cars, houses, household appliances and so on is usually the result of survivor bias, plain and simple.

I just rehabbed a house that was poorly constructed and it was due to the actual construction and not the design. The plywood roof was put on with staples which pulled through under stress (warping) and they were also off the mark which means they didn’t attach to the trusses.

The shingles were put down with 4 nails set above the glue line instead of 6 nails put on below the glue line. they’re suppose to be below the glue line to catch the shingle below it. You don’t notice this until a strong wind comes along and rips them out. I always butter the edges for added strength and you can see the difference in high winds.

The rest of the house was a series of poor installation techniques that would have passed inspection but were poorly thought out.

are not as sturdy as concrete/ceramic tile ones. However, they are easy to build and easy to modify. I think only Canada and the USA have large numbers of wooden frame houses-mostly because we are blessed with lots of cheap pine lumber. If properly maintained, a woodframe house can last for hundreds of years…if not, a house can fall apart in a few decades.

I saw what you did there.

This is it. My house was built semi-custom three years ago. I think that the foundation, basic framing, electrical, etc. was done pretty well (I hope) and done to code, but the fit and finish are poorly executed and quality of the components are cheap as hell.

Among other things, I know for a fact that standard sheet rock was used in the bathrooms…and I also know that it isn’t going to last as long as it should.

Don’t get me started on the deck…


This is what scares the hell out of me…how’s the average Joe supposed to know?

Show me a 2x4 that is actually 2 inches by 4 inches, and I’ll show you a house that is overbuilt.

Mine are! Of course, my house was built in 1928. That’s the thing - I mean, there aren’t a lot of right angles in it, and window replacements would be expensive custom jobs, the thing is built like a rock. It’ll probably last another 80-some years. Was it built better than others in 1928? Possibly; it’s been continuously occupied, which means a lot to the upkeep of a building. But it also has certain advantages just because of its age - the inspector showed me how some of the wood in the windows and such is hard old-growth stuff you can’t even get anymore, and that evidently that makes it more termite resistent all on its own. Certainly the crappiest part of the house is the laundry room, which is a porch converted long after the house was built. There’s just a lot of stuff in it nobody would spend the money on now - the interior doors are solid oak, for example.

ETA - sorry, I meant to quote you. My 2x4s are two inches by four inches - at least the one I’ve seen is.

Why do the posters in this thread want to imply that all construction at particular eras was the same? It isn’t the same now, why do we think it was ever all one quality level?

Then, as now, there was a range of quality levels. Some homes were built very well, and others were built very poorly.

Sheesh. Morgenstern makes a comment that well maintained homes will “last a lifetime.” Good god, a well built and well maintained building will last many, many lifetimes. For most builders, that is hardly the objective.

It’s tough. You can listen to roofers and tell if they’re actually setting the nail or just wizzing across the tab. If you look at the bottom side of the roof you can tell because the nails are exactly in line if they did it correctly and you can count the nails per tab. I look at the current trend of staggard roof lines and shake my head. Who is going to spend the time to shingle it correctly?

The stuff that’s hidden in the walls is the worst. A couple of years ago I was on my way out the door to go to work and I was presented with water pouring out of my kitchen ceiling. The sewer pipe from the upstairs bathroom was not sloped correctly and I committed the unforgiveable sin of pouring drain cleaner into a stopped up sink. It ended up sitting in the pipe and corroding an 8 x 2 inch hole in it. Nice. When I opened up the ceiling I found a floor joist that was weakened by the plumber who incorrectly installed the sewer line. And the kitchen light was anchored incorrectly. And the water lines were run in such a way as to expose them to freezing. While I don’t mind working on my own house it took forever to splice in a new ceiling. I did take advantage of the mess to replace ALL of the drain lines with new long-radius bends. No more sink problems.

I feel sorry for houses that have the newer press-fit water connections in them. I’m talking about the kind with rubber o-rings. At some point the o-ring is going to disintegrate leaving the homeowner with a ticking time bomb. All the seals will go at once.

To answer your question, I would inspect the workmanship and material used in a house. Ball valves and copper tubing water lines versus gate valves and plastic. I would pull a switch or two and see how neatly it was wired and if any aluminum wire was used. You can also see if there is any insulation blown in. It’s amazing what an amateur can spot with a little knowledge. You can get the local construction codes and look for mandated items. Example: an area exposed to high winds would require hurricane clips for roof trusses. It’s something that is easy to spot in an inspection.

The best thing homeowners can do is to help their buddies work on their house. Usually you get paid in beer to learn the construction trade. I’ve learned everything I need to build a new house this way and have already built a garage. I also get the free labor of my buddies in return.