Quality Control Week #1: What Affects Building Quality?

You probably know that there are different grades of quality when it comes to food. The USDA has three different grades for poultry, eight for red meat, and hundreds for fruits and vegetables. Similarly, building materials come in four different official grades: building, quality, custom and ultra custom. I would add “commercial grade” to those standard four. As the quality goes up, so does the cost; in some cases it increases exponentially. Homeowners must always walk a fine line between material quality and cost, but many are unaware of the differences and how they affect the bottom line.

Condo boards also face tough decisions when it comes to major capital improvement projects. Expensive materials will last longer – in fact, they may well outlast the current residents’ tenure in the community. Convincing condo residents to take on large special assessments for maintenance that they won’t be around to use is a difficult task.

You may not be able to spot the difference between good and bad materials now, but it will become obvious in just a few years if you make the wrong choice.

You may not be able to spot the difference between good and bad materials now, but it will become obvious in just a few years if you make the wrong choice.

This week we’re going to be focusing on quality – how to recognize it and when to opt for it. Today we’ll be talking about the factors that affect a material’s quality rating and, in turn, its cost.

Longevity

If you’re laying out a large sum of cash for something in your home, you want it to last a long time. This goes especially for items that directly affect your health, like furnaces, water heaters and windows. Unexpected replacement costs – like furnace breakdowns – tend to catch homeowners without enough cash in their accounts to cover a higher quality system, but these are also precisely the things that you’ll want to last for a nice, long time.

Builder grade kitchen cabinets will cost you about $100 each to install, but you’ll have to replace them after just a few years of use. If you’re just doing a cosmetic update to your kitchen to make your home appealing to buyers, or you are outfitting a vacation home, you can probably make the low end cabinets work just fine. If you’re designing a custom kitchen to last you for decades, then you probably want to spring for the $400 custom grade cabinets instead.

Consistency

Finished products have their quality grades, but raw materials do as well. Components like lumber, concrete and paint are graded based on consistency. High quality wood has fewer knots and a straight grain, which makes it less liable to snap, splinter and warp. Quality concrete is a very smooth blend of cement, which is quite weak, with aggregates to give strength, and water without impurities that could compromise the consistency. Sloppy concrete in your foundation could lead to sinking and leaks over time. The best paint uses better chemicals to bind the pigment together, allowing for better coverage, resistance to UV rays, and durability.

Usually the exterior of a home will have higher grade materials – “pretty side out,” as it were. However, the best homes go beyond using the high quality stuff on the outside, and instead carry that quality level all throughout the construction process. When it comes to houses, beauty is more than skin deep.

Upkeep

Modern computer printers have become something of a running joke. It’s well known by now that manufacturers make cheap printers and recoup most of their money on ink and toner sales. Cars manufacturers can also get you by selling budget-friendly cars that require expensive, higher octane gas. Similarly, a low quality appliance or home fixture can require more upkeep in time and cost across its lifespan.

Sometimes the savings from a cheap start up cost will be lost many times over in maintenance expenses.

Sometimes the savings from a cheap start up cost will be lost many times over in maintenance expenses.

Cheap gutters will clog more easily. Cheap shingles won’t be as resistant to algae and moss, requiring more frequent cleaning. A cheap stovetop could have more nooks and crannies, requiring drip pans and more scrubbing to maintain. Cheap lighting fixtures will cause your light bulbs to wear faster.

Also related are the warranties that come with your home products. If you’re spending five figures on a new roof, you want the manufacturer to guarantee the products for a very long time. There’s a big difference between a 10 year warranty and a 30 year warranty. There’s also a big difference between a manufacturer sending one of their own techs to repair your product, or requiring you to mail it in for a replacement.

Detail and Durability

The cost to manufacture a product in labor and materials is reflected directly in the price you pay for it. A solid, nail-free teak wardrobe with lots of routed edges and frills made by hand in North Carolina will cost far more than a simple PAX wardrobe from IKEA. The former will last you forever and probably show up in an antique shop somewhere after you’re long gone. The latter might last you until the next time you move.

Similarly, a six-panel solid oak door will be a lot more expensive, but it will last longer, hang straighter, and endure slamming by sulky teenagers far better than a plain hollow-core door made from plastic and plywood.

Details, of course, also add aesthetic value. A living room with intricately beveled 5″ crown and baseboard moldings will look far more attractive than a room with no trim. Curtains with elaborate swags and matching tiebacks will be more impressive than simple sheers.

However, when it comes to detail and durability, you do need to consider your own personal style and how the item will be used. A closet door in a guest room can probably do just fine with a simple Home Depot door. The front door to your home, however, will have to endure the elements while serving as the first impression for every visitor – you should probably pop for the higher quality.

Moving Parts

This is somewhat derivative of detail, but it merits a mention of its own. Moving parts are a double-edged blade. More buttons, sprockets, levers and hinges generally mean that an item has more features. However, they also mean more points of failure. In determining the quality of moving parts, it’s worth looking at not only the complexity of an item but also how well that complexity is implemented. Do cabinets close smoothly without slamming? Are buttons clearly marked? Do they stay firmly depressed when you push them?

This cabinet is 18" wide with one drawer. Cost: $94.97.

This cabinet is 18″ wide with one drawer. Cost: $94.97.

A simple example of how moving parts affect quality and cost can be seen in the two fixtures pictured above and below. These are builder-grade, currently for sale at Home Depot. You’ll see them in apartments throughout the country. Well, you’ll see the top one, but very rarely the bottom one, because of the extra $20 cost.

I can frequently get a quick estimate of the caliber of a landlord by counting how many drawers they install in their kitchens. Drawers are extremely useful. Most of us have a huge number of kitchen items that need to be stored in drawers, not cabinets. However, most apartment kitchens are set up the other way around, with an abundance of cabinets and only a handful of drawers! It’s a minor cost difference for the landlord to opt for the more convenient fixture, but few ever do.

This cabinet by the same manufacturer is also 18" wide, but it has more moving parts. Cost: $114.99.

This cabinet by the same manufacturer is also 18″ wide, but it has more moving parts. Cost: $114.99.

Eco-Friendliness

As 21st century consumers we all need to be aware of the impact our purchases have on the environment. A high quality product for the home will be made using sustainable methods, and also minimize the amount of energy wasted in its use.

You’ll probably have to pay extra for EnergyStar appliances and furniture made with sustainable woods. You’ll definitely have to pay extra for top-rated dual pane windows with chambered frames and inert gas between the layers, but you’ll save money in the long run on both your heating bills and maintenance. Low VOC paint and formaldehyde-free carpets are also pretty costly, but avoid polluting the air and waterways in their creation. Going for the cheap granite countertop means you could be absorbing more radioactivity than your average nuclear power plant worker.

Eco-friendliness does not always mean high quality on other fronts. While keeping an eye on environmental concerns will always improve the baseline quality of a product, it can also mean a shorter lifespan and higher upkeep costs unless you also pay attention to the other quality factors.

Target Market

High quality items will seem out of place in a cheap home, and vice versa. A classic Victorian mansion would feel totally bizarre if outfitted with college dormitory furniture. The names of the material grades – builder, quality, custom – imply their different target markets. If you buy a top of the line, custom designed home, you need to be ready to pay for higher end fixtures in order to maintain a uniform aesthetic.

Manufacturers have made material quality a class-related thing. They go to great lengths to make higher-grade items only available through channels frequented by the wealthy. In fact, many higher-end fixtures are only available through architects and professional interior designers – you will not find them on the shelves at Best Buy and Lowe’s. This does not mean that lower income folks should settle for cheap building materials. Manufacturers want to make money, after all! However, they may have to go beyond their comfort zone and do some heavy-duty networking and research to find a good deal on higher quality supplies.

Installation

At the very highest end of appliances and materials you’ll find the commercial grade, designed for use in professional environments. These items are built to endure heavy usage, but may require special installation in order to make them fit in a residential environment. For example, your standard gas stove – even the top end luxury models – puts out maybe 15-20 BTU of power. A commercial stove, designed to bring massive pots to a boil instantly, would put out 25+ BTU easily. This would require a bigger gas line, higher utility bills, and a lot more space.

Commercial installations also have code and health issues to consider. Lead is a big factor in working with commercial grade products – lead based paint was banned in residential settings in 1978, but it’s still permitted in commercial and industrial buildings. Lead-based paint has excellent coverage and phenomenal durability. It’s also extremely poisonous and should never, ever be used in a home.

A top-notch restaurant quality stove might make your inner chef happy, but not if you have to install a bigger gas line to handle the high heat output.

A top-notch restaurant stove might make your inner chef happy, but not if you have to install a bigger gas line to handle the high heat output.

Even without making the leap to commercial grade fixtures, some high end luxury residential installations can be quite complex. Body spray showers, which feature multiple horizontal jets, require far more water pressure than your average condo can put out. A quality installation of body sprays mandates a full overhaul of the bathroom plumbing and possibly a larger water heater. Heated floors are far more complicated to install than simple forced air ducts.

Fancy gadgets may be very impressive, but unless the installation is performed by skilled, trained professionals you’re better off without them.


The choice between cost and quality is always a dilemma for current homeowners and sellers. However, when it comes to buying a home the answer is always clear – go for as much quality as you can reasonably afford. To do this, you have to be able to discern higher quality structures. Wednesday we’ll be talking about how to spot better properties in the field. See you then!

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-Kay C.

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