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Quality Control Week #2: Recognizing Low Quality

Hey all! Sorry about the silence last week. Between business and the recent floods in my neighborhood it was absolutely frantic. As always, my clients come first.

So when we left off we were talking about the factors that make for a high quality home. Today we’re going to talk about how to spot symptoms of poor construction and quality when you’re in a showing. After all, a home with even medium quality construction will suffice for many of you, especially for renters who are only going to be living there for a short while. Poor construction and materials, however, can be dangerous and costly. You would not want to purchase a cheaply-made home without budgeting time and cash for major capital improvements to occur before you move in.

Sometimes it's easy to spot a cheap knockoff. Here's how to spot them when you're looking for real estate.

Sometimes it’s easy to spot a cheap knockoff. Here’s how to spot them when you’re looking for real estate.

Preparations

You’ll want to do a little research before you get started.

Learn the names of the current specialty appliance lines.

I recently worked with a buyer who rejected all homes with American appliances. If the kitchen had Maytag, GE, Whirlpool or Frigidaire appliances it was immediately off the list. He was only interested in imported labels like Bosch, LG and Samsung. In truth, every manufacturer has different lines of appliances with varying levels of quality and warranty. For example, GE currently has it’s basic line, as well as the Cafe, Profile and Monogram lines. Whirlpool Corporation owns the Amana, Maytag and Whirlpool labels, each label having multiple lines of appliances. There’s a big difference between a regular GE fridge and a GE Monogram fridge – a difference of several thousand dollars and several years of longevity.

The seller of a kitchen full of Amana (budget line) and no-name appliances will expect you to replace them when you move in. They’re basically placeholders. However, a seller who’s sunk a lot of money into top of the line gear will expect you to recognize their taste and pay more for it.

The same goes for IKEA. Yes, they’re known for cheap furniture, but some of their lines are well-respected for durability.

Take a trip to Home Depot

Home Depot is not known for their contractor-grade supplies. If you see a home that’s been outfitted with nothing but Home Depot fixtures, you can be pretty sure that the owner has been skimping on quality. It’s worth taking a look around to see what the cheaper stuff looks like, especially the lighting fixtures, bathroom fixtures and kitchen cabinets.

Oh, and if you watch a lot of HGTV, remember that their main purpose is to drive business to their advertising sponsors. They can make crappy cabinets look nice, but a TV show won’t show their durability over time.

Your Testing Kit

Appliances and cabinets are easy to test, but testing the structural quality of a home is the toughest thing to do. Here’s some things you should bring with you that won’t draw a lot of attention.

A scarf

You’ll want to make sure that door frames and walls are straight and not sloping or bowed. A slightly heavy winter scarf will do as well as a plumb-line to accomplish this test. Hold it up to the wall or door and make sure it stays flush all the way down.

A marble

Uneven floors can indicate foundation problems. You don’t need a level to tell you if the place is sitting pretty, though – a simple marble is enough. Lay it on the floor and see if it stays put.

A ballpoint pen

Any basic ballpoint of normal barrel size will do. That’s about the minimum size hole that a mouse could fit through. You want to make sure that baseboards and floorboards meet with no gaps larger than the tip of your pen. You’ll also want to make sure that any gaps around pipes are smaller than your pen. Pay particular attention to the areas under sinks and in the mechanical room.

You can also use your pen for listening tests. Tap it against things to get an idea of their interior composition. If you’re tapping against something solid and well-insulated, you shouldn’t hear anything at all. If you’re tapping something cheap or hollow, it will sound much louder. (Don’t forget to try it on the floors, too.)

Things to Look For

As many of my physician friends like to warn me, symptoms don’t always indicate the same disease. However, if you spot a large number of these problems in the same property it’s probably best that you move along.

Air

When it comes to the components that make up your home, you want as little air as possible. Window frames and doors are the main places where a seller, landlord or developer can get cheap on the materials by installing lots of air. Hollow-core doors and hollow-frame windows are simply not as durable. You want windows and doors to serve as insulators as well as security features, and air just isn’t as good at either as something solid.

A well-built window frame will be chambered and filled, not hollow. (Image from wikipedia.)

A well-built window frame will have many chambers, like this one, and be filled with insulation. (Image from wikipedia.)

Too much air in the walls – in other words, insufficient insulation – is also a problem. On a sunny day, head to the side of the house closest to the sun and hold your hand up to the inside of the walls. (Or on a snowy day, hold your hand up against the inside of any exterior wall.) If you feel too much of the outside temperature through the wall, you could be dealing with an insulation problem.

Stopgap measures and concealers

This one only works if the home is still occupied, but it’s definitely worth considering. Don’t get me wrong – I love duct tape and WD-40 as much as any other geek, but they’re still stopgap measures. A truly “fixed” item will not use either one. Pest control items scattered throughout the house are also a temporary fix that should really be remedied through more thorough means.

A lesser known fact is that the Chicago city inspector will fine a landlord who’s got visible damage to the sills and lintels that hold windows in place on the outside of a building. However, if the damaged sills and lintels are covered so the inspector can’t see them, they will escape the fine without solving the problem. Those sills and lintels are what keep water OUT and heat IN – you really want them to be intact, not just covered up to hide a deeper problem.

Systems with single Points of failure

When it comes to major fixtures in the home, you really don’t want any system to have a single point of failure. For example, the recent flood in Albany Park demonstrated the problem with sump pumps – many of them were hooked to the electrical grid without battery backup. During the flood, power was cut to many homes, rendering their sump pumps useless.

Of course, when your street looks like this even a sump pump can't help you much.

Of course, when your street looks like this even a sump pump can’t help you much. (Albany Park 2013, photo by me, unfortunately.)

Similarly, a furnace should have a manual cut off switch attached in case the thermostat fails, and outlets close to sources of water should have breakers built in.

Lack of Detail

While a simple aesthetic is certainly valid, complexity can in some cases be equated with quality. As we discussed last week, moving parts add to the usefulness and the expense of something like a kitchen cabinet. High levels of detail in trim indicate custom builds and considerably more care invested in the installation. Basic cabinets and plain walls will look frumpy by comparison. It isn’t just the visual impact that matters, either. While you certainly want your home to make your guests say “wow,” you also want it to last for a good, long time. Lack of detail can imply lack of quality – plain cabinets can be nice and sturdy, but you’ll definitely want to take a closer look at them than ones with lots of crown molding and heavy detail.

You should also pay attention to items that seem out of place. If you spot a contractor-grade ceiling fan in a home otherwise furnished with custom-grade decor, it may be a sign that the wiring behind the fan is faulty, resulting in multiple replacements over time.

Lastly, it’s worth considering how the moving parts, well, move. Do drawers and doors slam shut or do they quietly glide closed? Do faucets and drains open and shut fully and smoothly?

We Need to Go Deeper.

These tests are all quite superficial, and failing any one of them alone is not reason to walk away from a house. If you decide to put in an offer on a home, your inspector will be able to more thoroughly test everything so that you’re aware of major problems. Unless you’re planning on gutting the place, you definitely need to probe deeper than this before you get all the way to the closing table. However, basic awareness of quality and some quick on-the-go tests can save you from getting under contract on a clunker.

I’ll be back Friday (I promise!) with a special take on quality for folks who are looking for rentals. See you then.