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.

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