Before You Buy: How to Spot Quality Construction

It’s a buyers market. No doubt about it. Real estate professionals and home builders have been yelling form the rooftops that “now is the time to buy!” A glut of new and existing homes are listed across the country and anyone looking to buy has plenty of choices.

With so many bargains out there buyers need to be especially vigilant about the quality of the homes they consider.

Crooked walls, broken fixtures and crummy materials aren’t very hard to spot—even for the first time home buyer with no experience to draw from. But often, the most important things to look for aren’t so obvious.

So we asked Gord Cooke, one of North America’s leading construction and energy efficiency experts, toshare tips on what to look for (and what to look out for) when considering a homes construction quality. While it is easy to spot a poor siding job from the curb or a single pane window, the bigger problems often are more difficult to spot. According to Cooke, “It can be difficult to focus on things that are not in plain sight, yet it is important to look for some tell tale signs of hidden problems.”


Since moisture is the number one thing that destroys building materials, it should be the focus of attention. According to Cooke, “professional home inspectors look for the following signs of moisture issues: cracked, peeling, stained, discolored or bubbled paint - often on window sills, under windows, in corners of rooms or closets or in basements. Another great symptom would be musty or earthy odors in basements and closets, indicating mold or water damaged materials. Even signs of recent painting can be a clue that homeowners have been trying to cover up moisture problems.”

If there are no obvious signs of moisture problems then at least a general understanding of watermanagement can be helpful. Cooke considers it wise to look at the general condition of “roof shingles, gutters and downspouts. Make sure the ground around the house is sloping away from the building. On the exterior, again look for signs of water stains, peeling of paint, damaged materials etc.”

Heating & Cooling

Regarding energy performance, we can look at the government sticker on the mechanical equipment and it will tell us how efficient the unit is supposed to be when newly installed. But what about the quality of the installation? What should we look for with heating and cooling systems in the home to know whether it is a well built system?

“Most important in furnaces is to ensure safety. If a homebuyer has any concerns about the condition of an older furnace they should insist on an inspection by an independent HVAC contractor. Older furnaces vent into chimneys. Signs of poor venting would include water staining, scorching, peeling or burn marks around the base of the chimney New high efficient furnaces are much safer. They vent through a sealed plastic pipe that goes through the side wall. Frankly, if buying a home with anything but a high efficiency furnace (over 90%), homeowners should make it a condition of sale that allowance is made to exchange the furnace.

Finally, good installation of duct work will have no obvious gaps in joints, better yet joints would be taped or sealed. Homebuyers may want to look at the condition of furnace grilles as an indication of good maintenance. Even lifting off one or two grilles from the floor and looking for excessive dust or debris in the ducts can be a good indicator. Certainly look for signs of rusting or water stains on or in the ducts.”

Indoor Air Quality

Nearly one in four children now have asthma or other respiratory issues. And since we spend 90% of our time indoors, home buyers certainly should consider the quality of the indoor environment. One of the best signs of air quality according to Cooke is odor. “The human nose is a powerful tool. Check out the odor of a home upon first entry. Don’t be fooled by air fresheners or other intentional odors such as scented candles or cooking smells. These are often used to mask musty or earthy smells that are signs of mold problems. Ask sellers to remove all scented products a few hours before a second visit to a promising home.

Check out the operation of bath fans and range hoods. First do they run, are they reasonably quiet and do they move any air. Use the old facial tissue trick - hold up a sheet to a bath fan and make sure the fan is drawing air.”


We asked Gord how can a home buyer can tell the quality of windows and if they are properly installed or even geographically appropriate (yes, windows should be appropriate for your local geographic and climatic conditions) .

According to Cooke, “the best signs are similar to those we use when considering moisture problems, look for water stains on sills, seals or frames. Open and close the window to make sure seals and latches work properly. A failed sealed in a double glazed window is usually indicated by fogging or cloudiness between the panes. An energy audit will be the best way to have windows assessed for overall performance. It is important to note that there have been tremendous improvements in windows over the last 10 years or so. Houses with windows older than 10-15 years present an excellent opportunity for replacement with much better performers.”

Energy Audit

Cooke believes energy audits are the best way to test the performance of windows but he also recommends this service be performed if someone has their list narrowed to one home. “I certainly recommend an energy audit. In many places there are state or utility run ‘weatherization’ programs that include independent audits. Otherwise folks can check out the website of the Residential Energy Services Network (www.natresnet.org). RESNET offers a directory of qualified, independent energy raters in each state.”

Typically, a homeowner can expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a professional energy audit. Don’t be afraid to ask to see the owners utility bills as well. It will give you a better idea of what to expect. When you consider the size of the investment your home is, this seems like an easy decision to make—whomever writes the check.

Final Thoughts

Before signing the check or making any decisions, always have the home inspected by an experienced, professional home inspector. Your uncle the handyman can offer helpful advice as well, but it is wise to seek counsel from someone who has climbed into hundreds of attics before making a final decision.

About Gord Cooke

As a certified Energy and Environmental Building Association (EEBA) trainer, author and industry consultant, Gord has been an effective and passionate educator and advocate for better building practices, improved indoor air quality and energy efficiency during the past two decades across North America.

Gord brings to his training, his technical and mechanical background, the logic and integrity of a professional engineer and the passion of one committed to helping the residential construction industry build and sell better homes. Based on his homebuyer market research, Gord has pioneered a new training program designed to assist builders in marketing and selling their high performing, energy efficient homes by communicating their value to their customers.

Gord’s building science training curricula covers the gamut from creating and delivering basic and advanced building science principles through managing indoor air quality and HVAC system design, to an intensive technical sales and marketing workshop.


Frequently Asked Questions About Green Remodeling

What is green remodeling?

A home can be considered green when energy efficiency, water and resource conservation, sustainable or recycled products, and indoor air quality considerations are incorporated into the process of home building. The increased availability of education for builders, growing consumer awareness and the exploding market for sustainable, environmentally friendly and recycled building products has accelerated green building’s acceptance rate and move into the mainstream. According to a recent survey, more than half of the members of the National Association of Home Builders, who build 85 percent of the homes in this country, were incorporating green practices into the development, design and construction of new homes by the end of 2007.

What are the benefits of green remodeling?

Green homeowners enjoy knowing they are doing something good for the environment, their family and the future by saving energy and precious resources. Counties can make consumers aware of rebates and credits to encourage them to build green. Many lenders now offer energy efficient mortgages . Visit: http://www.dsireusa.org/.

It’s good for the community, too. Local jurisdictions can make consumers aware of rebates and credits to encourage them to build green. By using fewer materials and generating less waste, green remodeling can help counties lower waste management fees, achieve recycling goals and delay the need for new power sources.

Who does green remodeling?

A new professional designation program from the National Association of Home Builders will soon provide home buyers with additional assurance that the remodeler they’ve chosen is authentically “green.”

The Certified Green Professional™ designation was unveiled during Green Day at the International Builders’ Show in 2008.

“We know green is the future of building. With the Certified Green Professional designation, we’re helping our qualified members demonstrate to their clients that the future is here,” said NAHB Past President Sandy Dunn, a West Virginia home builder.

Builders, remodelers, and other industry professionals must have at least two years of building industry experience to apply for the Certified Green Professional designation.

They must also complete the “Green Building for Building Professionals” course, a two-day training and education session that more than 1,200 industry leaders have already completed since the course was piloted two years ago. Candidates must also complete a University of Housing management course, agree to continuing education requirements and sign a code of ethics. The business management and Green Building for Building Professionals classes are also offered at other NAHB conferences and by local home building associations throughout the country.

Search for a Certified Green Professional in your area at www.nahbgreen.org.

How are NAHB Remodelers involved in green remodeling?

NAHB is helping its members move the practice of green building into the mainstream. Energy efficiency, water and resource conservation, sustainable or recycled products, and indoor air quality are increasingly incorporated into the everyday process of home building.

When a green home doesn’t look or feel significantly different from one built using more traditional construction methods, when builders have the tools and resources to build them without sizeable materials or labor cost increases, and when consumers readily accept the finished product, then ‘green’ has arrived.

The exploding market for sustainable, environmentally friendly and recycled building products, along with the greater availability of educational opportunities for builders, has accelerated green building’s acceptance rate .

The association prepares members with programs addressing education (such as the Certified Green Professional designation), award recognition, and market awareness.

NAHB also recently launched the NAHB National Green Building Program, a comprehensive resource on green building and remodeling at www.nahbgreen.org. NAHB is also launching a national green building and
remodeling standard.

What is the significance of NAHB’s national green building and remodeling standard?

Communities can choose from a number of nationally recognized voluntary green building programs, but right now there is no recognized standard for green building. For that reason, NAHB worked with the International Code Council to develop the first-ever residential green building standard just completed in early 2009 . The standard is based on the NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines . The American National Standards Institute certified the development process, ensuring a consensus-based document and adequate public comment. The standard requires third-party certification, above-code baselines for energy efficiency and guidelines for “right sizing” heating and air-conditioning equipment, but it does not mandate specific practices to achieve the required number of points, allowing home buyers to make choices for an affordable, flexible, regionally appropriate and “truly green” result.

There are more than 60 state and local green building programs in the United States, and you can find one by consulting this list or by contacting the state or local homebuilders association in your community.

Successful voluntary green building programs help to systematize the green design and construction process, instill consumer awareness and offer training to help the builder incorporate more green features into homes. They take advantage of tax credit programs and rebates . They often include educational initiatives for other members of the industry, including Realtors and product manufacturers. They emphasize the importance of homeowner education in maintaining the efficacy of a green-built home. Most importantly, they emphasize affordability and flexibility by allowing a menu of choices: homeowners can choose how much they want to spend and make sure that their choice is regionally and geographically appropriate.

Voluntary, market-driven programs — maintaining a choice for builders and consumers — help the dynamic process of green building to advance further.

What are some popular green remodeling options? Learn about these top 10 energy savers and wasters.

Source: Kelly Mack, National Association of Home Builders. For more information about this item, please contact Kelly at (800) 368-5242, ext. 8451 or via email .


High Performance Windows

Many ENERGY STAR qualified new homes feature high-performance windows. High-performance, energy-efficient windows can improve the energy efficiency of your home by reducing heat loss in cooler climates and heat gain in warmer climates.

image map of house with links to ducts, envelope, windows, insulation, and equipment

Window technologies have advanced dramatically and prices for these windows have dropped significantly. Look for windows with the ENERGY STAR label. Heat gain and loss through windows accounts for up to 50% of a home’s heating and cooling needs. Many technological improvements have been made in recent years that have advanced the insulating quality of windows including:

Improved Window Materials

Advances in window technology such as double glazing and low-e coatings substantially reduce heat loss and gains. Look for ENERGY STAR or National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) labels to be sure you are getting high-efficiency windows.

Improved Framing Materials

Low conductance materials, such as wood, vinyl, and fiberglass perform better than aluminum. Look for “thermal breaks” where aluminum frames are used in heating-dominated climates to avoid condensation. Insulated frames, including insulating spacers between glazings, also perform better than uninsulated frames.

Air Tightness

High-performance or advanced windows need to be sealed around framing and other gaps that may exist. Caulks, foams, and weather-stripping work well to keep drafts out.

High-performance, energy-efficient windows can offer you:

  • Quieter home interior — multiple panes and insulated frames block outside noise.
  • Reduced fading of curtains, furniture, and flooring — low-emissivity (solar window) coatings can block up to 98% of UV rays.
  • Reduced utility bills — houses lose less heat in winter and absorb less heat in summer.
  • Improved quality windows are made from better-quality materials easier to operate and carry extended warranties.

Dig Deeper

Windows typically comprise 10 to 25 percent of the exterior wall area of new homes. Research studies report that windows in heating-dominated climates account for up to 25 percent of a typical house’s heating load and that in cooling-dominated climates, windows account for up to 50 percent of the cooling load.

In recent years, many technological advances have been made that significantly enhance the thermal performance of windows. As shown in Figure 1, these technologies include improved framing materials, low-emissivity and solar control coatings, low-conductance gas fills, improved thermal breaks and edge spacers, and better edge sealing techniques. These technologies can be used independently or in combination, but must be selected based on climate to optimize performance.

Windows can improve the thermal performance of homes by minimizing heat loss in heating-dominated climates and by minimizing solar heat gain in cooling-dominated climates. Thus windows with lower U-factors or higher R-values perform better in heating-dominated climates and windows with lower solar heat gain coefficients (SHGC) perform better in cooling-dominated climates (see Figure 2). SHGC is a measure of the amount of solar energy that a glazing material allows to pass.

The materials and design of the frame also influence thermal performance. Low conductance materials, such as wood, vinyl, and fiberglass, perform better than high conductance materials such as aluminum. Look for “thermal breaks” where aluminum frames are used in heating-dominated climates to avoid condensation. And finally, insulated frames perform better than uninsulated.

Air tightness is another important consideration. Windows are now being tested and rated for air tightness. A rating of 0.2 cfm/ft (cubic feet per minute of air leakage per linear foot of window edge) or lower is considered good. The best windows have a rating of 0.1 cfm/ft or lower.

An effective building envelope is a key element for an energy-efficient home. ENERGY STAR labeled homes are often constructed with high-performance windows that can improve the effectiveness of the building envelope and improve comfort.


High-performance windows can provide many benefits including:

Improved comfort. High-performance windows reduce conductive heat losses and gains resulting in warmer interior surfaces during the winter and cooler interior surfaces during the summer. In homes, approximately 40 percent of our physical comfort is due to the radiant heat exchange between our bodies and the surrounding interior surfaces. Thus, high-performance windows improve comfort by reducing this radiant heat exchange. In addition, improved frames reduce drafts and provide more consistent temperatures throughout the house.

Quieter home. High-performance windows often utilize multiple glazing and insulated frames. These features reduce unwanted noise from the outside.

Increased quality. High-performance windows are often constructed with better quality materials that can result in stronger, easier to operate, and longer lasting windows. As a result of these improvements, manufacturers frequently offer extended warranties on these products.

Improved indoor air quality. High-performance windows often have air tightness ratings of 0.2 cfm/ft or less which reduce the amount of unconditioned air leakage into a house. This air leakage can bring in dirt, dust, and other impurities that can negatively affect indoor air quality.

Lower utility bills. High-performance windows are better insulated and more air-tight. These features reduce energy consumption for heating and cooling which result in lower utility bills, making homes less expensive to operate.

Reduced obsolescence. Based on recent trends for improved efficiency, high-performance windows are expected to become standard practice for the building industry. Since it is both difficult and costly to replace windows after a house is built, it is best to install high-performance products during the original construction. ENERGY STAR labeled homes constructed with high-performance windows are, therefore, expected to be less vulnerable to obsolescence.

Fewer condensation problems. High-performance windows stay warmer in the winter resulting in drier windows with fewer condensation-related problems. Condensation can stain fabrics, lead to mold and mildew build-up, and in cold climates cause damage due to the freeze/thaw cycle.

Reduced wear on home furnishings. Low-E coatings can block up to 98 percent of the ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun. This radiation causes curtains, window treatments, carpeting, and furniture to fade and wear faster.

Improved resale position. High-performance windows can provide the many impressive benefits listed above resulting in a more comfortable, quieter, and higher quality home with lower utility bills and fewer condensation and fading problems. These benefits can translate into higher resale value.

Source: EPA


State by State Window Recommendations