Understanding Home Construction: Completion of the House

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Everything may seem to occur at once during the last week or two of the homebuilding process. In fact, steps completed in this period of construction add about 25 % to the value of the home. In addition, once the builder has completed the home and as soon as the lender approves the buyer’s mortgage, everyone usually wants to go to closing as quickly as possible. For that reason, the builder will likely have more than one crew working at the same time during this period.

Some of the steps the builder may complete in the final days before closing include the installation of the wall and floor coverings, appliances, and light fixtures. At this point the builder also does the final installation of the plumbing and heating and cooling system before moving on to the final exterior improvements and landscaping.

Wall Coverings

The builder usually begins the final stages of house construction by installing the wall coverings, which include paint, stains, wallpaper, and vinyl wall coverings.

Paint and Stains. The builder generally tackles painting and staining first because no one wants paint or stains to get on the carpet! Most interior walls require a prime coat and a finish coat of paint. During this process, the painter retains some of each color to touch up the walls and the woodwork in case the paint is nicked during the final work on the house.

Generally, the builder has the walls painted with a flat latex, although the kitchen walls may be painted with a semigloss paint. These paints have a satin luster and are easier to clean. If you have not visited a paint store recently, you may find that it now offers a much wider variety of paints than in the past with some interesting choices in wall colors, textures, and surfaces.

Wallpaper and Vinyl Wall Coverings. Wallpaper and vinyl wall coverings can go up anytime after the painting and staining are finished. Before applying the wallpaper, the builder needs to prepare the wall with a special sealer. With out this sealer, the wallpaper will bond directly to the plaster or drywall. However, if the builder properly prepares the wall for the paper ahead of time, then years later when the homeowner wants to redecorate the wallpaper will be easier to remove.

Floor Coverings

Choice of floor coverings include hardwood, vinyl, and carpet. Of course, each category of floor covering has many varieties and subcategories. In fact, you may have visited a home that combines two or more floor materials in one room. Generally, hardwood and vinyl floorings go in first.

Hardwood Floors. A generation ago, builders used hard wood for all floors in homes. Unfortunately, this material and its installation have become relatively expensive over the years. However, use of tongue-and-groove hardwood flooring is still very popular in certain areas of the home like the foyer and family room.

The builder installs the hardwood before nailing the base molding in place, so the molding can cover the gaps between the hardwood and the wall. The strips of hardwood have a tongue at one edge and one end and a matching groove at the other edge and end. As the flooring is laid, the edges of the strips with the tongues fit into the edges of the strips with the grooves.

Installers usually lay down the hardwood flooring in stages. They nail the hardwood in place with a nail gun that drives special flooring nails through the tongues into the sub- flooring at an angle so that the nails are concealed when the next piece of flooring is installed.

Since hardwood is subject to variations in the humidity of the air, the builder must install this type of flooring under proper conditions. If the air is too humid when the hard wood is installed, then it will shrink after installation and leave gaps. If the air is too dry, then the hardwood may expand and buckle later. The builder must carefully evaluate these factors when planning the installation of hardwood flooring. In fact, the builder may even want to heat the home in winter first to create the proper conditions for installing the hardwood floor.

After the hardwood floor is installed, the builder has it sanded and finished. The finisher sands the hardwood floor with a special floor sanding machine to the point where the floor is smooth and level. After sanding, the finisher thoroughly sweeps and vacuums the floor to remove the dust and particles. The finisher may then stain the floor and , after the stain has dried, apply one or more coats of clear finish to seal the floor.

In many homes today, builders use prefinished hardwood flooring. Since this type of flooring requires no sanding, staining, or finishing at the site, the builder can install it late in the construction process.

Vinyl Floors. After installing the hardwood floors, the builder turns to the process of laying the vinyl flooring. Vinyl roll or sheet goods have replaced linoleum as the material of choice in kitchens, utility rooms, playrooms, and other areas of heavy traffic in the house. This material requires a carefully prepared base or underlayment with a smooth surface.

Since vinyl usually comes in 6- or 12-foot-wide rolls, the vinyl installer joins the vinyl together with a seam between two sections. A good vinyl installer knows how to join the seams so the finished floor appears continuous. After installing a vinyl floor, the builder sometimes nails a small molding called a base shoe in place to cover the edges of the vinyl where the baseboard meets the floor.

Carpeting. Wall-to-wall carpeting goes in after all other interior finish work is completed. As the first step, the carpet installer tacks the padding to the subfloor. The carpet installer next lays sections of the carpet in place over the pad and pulls the sections tight to the edges of the room. The car pet installer then joins the sections of the carpet together with a special tape and uses an iron to melt the adhesive so the seams can't be seen.

The builder will often direct the homebuyer to a full-line carpet supplier who can help the person select the right grade of carpet for each room, given the person’s tastes, budget, lifestyle, and traffic patterns.

Appliances

After installing the wall and floor coverings, the builder can move on to installing the appliances in the house. These appliances may include a range, microwave oven, dish washer (see photo 6.1), refrigerator, garbage disposal, washer, dryer, central vacuum, and trash compactor. The supplier usually delivers these appliances to the house.

You may remember that the builder has already installed the electrical service and plumbing lines for the appliances at the rough-in stage. As part of this process, the builder will have sized the kitchen cabinets to accept them. The only job left for the electrician and plumber is to hook up the wiring and plumbing and to ensure that the appliances operate properly.

If this sounds easy, remember that experience is an important factor here. Moving heavy appliances on a newly installed vinyl kitchen floor requires care, the appropriate moving equipment, and a strong back. In addition, although the refrigerator, stove, washer, and dryer may plug into receptacles, many built-in appliances don’t necessarily just plug in. The electrician must then make any direct connections that are required.

6.1 Installation of Dishwasher

Light Fixtures

Besides the appliances, at this point the builder has the light fixtures installed. Soon after signing the contract, homebuyers may go to a lighting showroom to select fixtures for the new home. Based on the house plans, the lighting showroom staff can help them choose fixtures that stay within their budget. Homebuyers need to do this as soon as possible after signing the contract, because if the showroom does not have certain light fixtures in stock, ordering and delivering them can take weeks or months.

In addition, selection of the light fixtures can affect the wiring. During the completion phase, the electrician picks the fixtures up from the showroom warehouse. After the builder has finished papering or painting the walls and ceilings, the electrician then installs the light fixtures at the same time as the switches, receptacles, and doorbells. (See photo 6.2.)

Specialty subcontractors install many of the other electrical items, such as garage door openers or central vacuum cleaners. For those appliances the electrician usually only pro vides the needed power service. The electrician may also make the final connections to the heat pump or other types of heating and air conditioning systems. However, in some areas, depending on local customs, the electrician only runs the rough wiring and the heating contractor makes the electrical connection for these systems.

The electrician then notifies the municipal inspector that the home is ready for the final electrical inspection. In some jurisdictions, the official may perform this inspection separately from the final occupancy inspection. In either case, the power company must wait to turn on the power for the house until the local inspector has examined the electrical hookups and determined they are safe.

6.2 Installation of Light Fixture

Final Plumbing Installation

About the same time that the light fixtures are installed, the builder begins the final plumbing installations. At this point the plumber has to complete three tasks. First, the plumber needs to connect appliances like the dishwasher or washer.

Second, the plumber must install the plumbing fixtures and faucets. Like the light fixtures, the homebuyer must work with the builder to select the plumbing fixtures early in the process. Installing the plumbing fixtures includes setting the toilets, sinks, and other fixtures; hooking up the drains and water lines; and testing to make sure the system has no leaks.

The builder often installs toilets, bathroom vanity cabinets, and kitchen cabinets after installing vinyl floor covering. Ceramic or quarry tile floors, on the other hand, are usually installed after toilets, cabinets, and fixtures.

As the third and final step, the plumber also needs to complete the hookups to the public sewer and water service or to the well and septic tank.

Sewer and Water Service

The plumber’s responsibility regarding the sewer and water hookups varies by community. In many locations, the local sewer and water authorities provide a tap or connection into the sewer or water main.

Before the first home is built in a planned subdivision, the developer often installs a sewer lateral or branch to each lot. The sewer lateral is a 3- or 4-inch underground pipe, which is usually made of heavy plastic or cast iron and left capped until the builder constructs a home on the lot. At the appropriate time, the plumber digs a trench from the house to the end of the sewer lateral and ties the house into the community sewer.

Sewage generally needs to run downhill, although neighborhoods in hilly areas can use pumping stations to compensate for the lack of gravity-assisted flow. In addition, wherever possible, the sewage service from individual homes should run downhill. However, if a home is located downhill from the sewer, then it may also need some type of sewage pumping system. This is usually a self-contained, collection tank with a built-in electric pump that acts like a sump pump and activates when the tank fills up. These tanks are usually located in a pit in the front or rear yard.

Unlike the sewer service, the water service does not depend on the flow of gravity. A common location for the water main is under the center of the main street or within the right-of-way of the main street on one side or the other.

When a subdivision is proposed, the developer usually agrees to provide water service to each lot, generally through a 3/4 or one-inch diameter plastic or copper pipe that runs from the water main to the front yard of the proposed lot. At the appropriate time, the plumber then runs the pipe to the house. Later the water authority sets the meter, usually after the homeowner pays a deposit.

Septic Tanks and Wells

In some communities public sewer and water service are unavailable. The process for providing private sewer and water service varies by locale. Generally, a permit must be obtained from the local health department. The builder then hires specialty subcontractors to drill the well and install the septic tank, which is an onsite method of household waste disposal.

In the case of a septic tank, two things are actually needed. First, the septic tank itself is a large, concrete or fiberglass tank, located underground near the house, that collects the sewage. Bacteria in the septic tank turn the outflow into a liquid.

The second thing required for a septic tank is a leach or drain field. The drain field is a network of trenches, filled with gravel and perforated pipes, that allows the liquid waste to drain into the soil. (See drawing 6.3.) A properly operating septic system is odorless and efficient and will last for years with proper maintenance.

Before the builder installs a septic system, however, the lot must pass a percolation test administered or regulated by the local health department. With this test, the inspector care fully measures the rate at which the soil absorbs the water on the lot. If the soil absorbs the water fast enough, then the inspector is confident that the septic field will work and approves the installation of the system. As part of the testing process, the inspector may recommend a specific design for the drain field or may approve or modify a design laid out by the builder or designer.

6.3 Typical Septic System

If a site needs a well, a well driller can dig a well on the property and provide a pump to bring the water to the surface. However, the driller can't guarantee that water will be found or, once found, that it will be drinkable. For that reason, before having a well dug, the prospective homeowner should check with other homeowners in the neighborhood about their experiences with the water supply. Generally, all of the wells in a given neighborhood tap into the same aquifer or underground source of water. However, depth, volume, and water quality can still vary among neighboring wells.

The local health department may also require that an independent laboratory test a water sample from the well before it's certified. Once the well is certified, the homeowner may still want to test the water periodically. If the water is too hard or contains too many minerals, then a relatively inexpensive water softener system may cure the problem.

Besides the final electrical and plumbing work, as part of the completion of the house the builder also finishes the final hookup of the heating and cooling system.

Final Hookup of the Heating and Cooling System

Section 4 described several options for heating and cooling the home. The type of system was selected early, since the builder had to install many of the components at the rough-in stage. As you may remember, the two major choices for heating and cooling the home were an electric heat pump or a gas furnace with an electric air conditioner. At this point, the builder completes the final hookup of those systems.

Electric Heat Pump

If an electric heat pump is the primary source of heating and cooling for the house, then the builder installed several items at the rough-in stage, including the following:

• ductwork, usually either under the home or in the attic

• standard 120- and 240-volt wiring to the planned location of the air handler

• 240-volt wiring to the location of the heat pump itself, typically in an unobtrusive place outside the home

• low-voltage thermostat wiring between the planned location of the air handler and the thermostat

The final installation of an electric heat pump involves two steps. The first step is to set the air handler in the house. This is a box that primarily functions as an air handler that houses the heat pump coil and auxiliary electric heating elements. The heat pump healing capacity is supplemented with electric heating coils that function when the weather is too cold for the heat pump to operate effectively.

As part of the first step, the builder also connects the air handler to the two types of ducts running under or in the house—the supply ducts and the return ducts. The supply ducts distribute heated or cooled air throughout the home, while the return ducts bring air back to the air handler for reconditioning.

6.4 Installation of Electric Heat Pump Compressor

As the second major step to installing a heat pump, the builder sets the heat pump unit outdoors on a mounting pad or platform. The builder then connects the refrigerant lines between the outdoor heat pump compressor and the refrigerant coil on the air handler. (See photo 6.4.) Heat pumps that combine all functions in a single unit are also available for mounting on a pad or platform outside the house or on the rooftop.

Gas Furnace and Electric Air Conditioner

The final installation of a gas furnace with an electric air conditioner also has two basic steps. If the house has a typical gas furnace and an electric air conditioner combined into one system, the first major step is to install the furnace in the house, mount the cooling coil in the supply duct directly above the furnace, and connect the furnace to the duct system, much like the air handler used with a heat pump. As a second step, the builder then sets the outdoor compressor unit, again much like a heat pump except that this unit only functions for cooling. The refrigerant lines are then connected between the outdoor unit and the cooling coil above the furnace.

Other types of gas furnaces are available, which the builder can mount in an attic or crawl space or on the roof or a platform in the backyard. These units can also be used in combination with electric air conditioning.

The builder now has a certified gas plumber connect the gas supply line from the gas meter to the gas furnace. If the furnace is the only gas appliance in the home, then the gas line will run from the meter directly to the furnace. TI the home has other gas appliances, such as a gas range or water heater, then the supply lines may branch out and run through the crawl space, basement, or walls to the various appliances. Once the plumber has installed the gas lines, the builder has the local authority inspect them.

Although central heating systems in the form of an electric heat pump or a gas furnace are the most common, other systems are also available. Furnaces may be fired with natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, or fuel oil. Baseboard electric heaters are sometimes used because they have a relatively low cost for initial installation. Particularly in the Northeast, hot water baseboard (hydronic) heaters connected to a gas or oil-fired boiler are also popular. The builder can advise the homebuyer on what kind of heating system might provide the most comfort at the lowest installation and operating costs for a given climate.

At this point, house construction is essentially complete. The delivery trucks have come and gone and the dump trucks have hauled the trash away. Now the exterior of the house receives its finishing touches, including the installation of decks, patios, driveways, and walkways. At the very end of the process, the lot is landscaped. This is a general term for the final grading of the site, the laying of sod, and the planting of trees, shrubs, and grass.

Final Exterior Improvements

Before landscaping, the builder completes several exterior improvements to the house. Besides the construction of decks and patios, the driveway, and walkways, these improvements can also include the construction of screened porches, stoops, steps, and other attachments that may enhance the entry to and exit from the house.

Decks and Patios

Decks and patios are options that extend a home’s living space. The configuration of the house and yard, budget, and personal preference of the homebuyer determine the size and shape of decks and patios. Zoning laws, local ordinances, subdivision covenants, property owner association rules, and local building codes may also affect their location, size, shape, or design. In addition, climate may affect the construction of patios and decks. For example, decks or patios with light-weight or low, sloping roofs may not be appropriate in windy or snowy climates.

Decks are elevated outdoor platforms, usually constructed of pressure-treated or durable wood, such as cedar or red wood, and edged by a railing for safety and convenience. (For a picture of a recently completed deck, see photo 6.5.) On the other hand, unlike decks, patios are built directly on the ground.

Common materials for patios include concrete, brick, or stone. A variety of textures in each of these materials can give dramatic style and design to an otherwise plain patio. As the first step in constructing the patio, the builder creates forms out of 2x4s or lx4s. The surface of the patio must have a gradual slope away from the house to assure proper drainage.

Next the builder has the concrete crew pour the slab, usually 4 inches thick. The builder may include reinforcing wire mesh in the slab to minimize cracking. The patio should not be poured in very cold weather because it will not cure properly. On the other hand, concrete poured in very hot weather tends to set before the crew can properly work and finish it.

6.5 Completed Deck

Driveways

Depending on the size and shape of the house and lot, drive ways can be long, short, straight, curved, or circular. The builder often has the driveway constructed of concrete in a manner similar to the patio. However, since the driveway will carry greater loads than the patio, the builder may place a firm base material—usually sand, gravel, or crushed stone—underneath the layer of concrete. As an alternative, in areas where soil conditions are very stable, the concrete driveway may be placed directly on the soil. (See photo 6.6.)

Other common driveway materials include the following:

• asphalt, which the builder places over a compacted layer of aggregate

• brick payers, which the builder usually installs over a sand or rough concrete bed

• loose stone

6.6 Driveway under Construction

When loose material is selected for the driveway, the builder may set in place a type of edging, such as pressure-treated 1x3s or 1x4s, to keep the material within the boundary of the driveway.

Walkways

The house plans may also call for one or more walkways. Possible materials for the walkway include concrete, brick, flagstone, and asphalt. In established neighborhoods with sidewalks, the walkway may lead from the front door through the front yard to the sidewalk.

In other homes, the walkway may lead from midway up the driveway through the front yard to the front door. A builder may also build a walkway from the driveway around the side of the house to a side or rear door or patio. This type of walkway can help to direct traffic away from the front door and more formal areas of the house.

Landscaping

Once the builder has laid the patio, driveway, and walkway, the finishing touches are put on the landscaping. As the first step in landscaping, the builder uses a bulldozer or similar machine to grade and smooth the lot. As part of this process, the builder redistributes the earth left from excavating the basement. The earth should slope away from the house to assure effective drainage. Later the homeowner must care for this slope to maintain proper drainage.

In general, landscaping requires specialized skills and knowledge. In some areas, some builders may prefer that the homebuyer contract separately with a landscaping specialist to complete this final stage. In other areas, the municipality may require the builder to sow grass seed or sod the yard to assure against erosion.

Because of the appeal of trees to homebuyers, some builders may plant trees as part of their final landscaping efforts. Trees can provide decoration, privacy, shade in the summer, and protection against wind in the winter. They can also help to buffer noise and control erosion. Finally, planting trees may enhance the value of a new home if included in the final landscaping.

After the builder has completed the house and before the new homebuyer can occupy the house, the local building department must perform a final inspection of the plumbing, heating and air conditioning, and electrical systems, and the interior and exterior of the house. Once the building inspector determines that the house has been built in compliance with all applicable code and zoning requirements, a certificate of occupancy is issued and the house is ready for the builder’s and homebuyer’s final inspection.

Conclusion

Typically, just before or on the day of closing, the homebuyer and the builder walk through the house to make sure every thing is satisfactory. During this walk-through, the builder and homebuyer check for such things as whether the paint needs some final touch-ups, the carpet has a loose seam that needs tacking down, or a cabinet drawer sticks. The buyer and builder may spot several such minor items that will not prevent closing but need to be agreed upon. The builder may have a worker on hand with the necessary tools and materials to fix minor items on the spot or the builder and home- buyer may simply agree on the items to be fixed and when they will be completed.

As the homebuyer and builder walk through the house, most builders ask the buyer to make and sign a list—called a punchlist—that identifies anything the builder needs to address after closing. The builder may also ask the home- buyer to keep a second list of other items after the move-in. When a reasonable time has passed for the new homeowner to spot such items, the builder usually sends a worker to take care of them.

Even the best builders may need to return and fix a few minor items in a new home, and the new homeowner should expect this as a normal part of the process. If the home builder is backed by a recognized warranty program, then that program usually provides in general terms that the builder will resolve reasonable problems that may arise in the workmanship or materials of a new home over a specified period—perhaps a year. This is considered a reasonable time for the average homeowner to spot and report such repairs. In addition, some warranty programs may cover certain systems in the house, like the plumbing, for a longer period. Finally, major structural components of the house, like the foundation or roof, may be warranted for a more extended period.

Beyond the warranty coverage, however, the homeowner also has a very important responsibility to maintain the new home in proper working order. Proper maintenance of a home will minimize the major repairs over time and increase the homeowner’s enjoyment of the home.

So, with the help of many skilled craftspeople, the builder has pieced together a complex puzzle of elements that go to make up the completed home. As part of this process, the builder has prepared the site; laid the foundation; framed the structure of the house; installed the plumbing, heating, and electrical systems; completed the interior and exterior finish; and landscaped the site. Once the certificate of occupancy is issued and the builder and homebuyer have successfully completed their walk-through, the home is ready for closing.

Buying a new home is the largest and possibly best investment most Americans will ever make. it's hard to find a financial adviser who does not recommend homeownership as the first step in planning for a family’s financial security. Buying a newly built home also gives the homebuyer the latest in materials, appliances, equipment, design, and amenities available in homebuilding today and helps to assure the best possible resale price when it’s time for the homeowner to make that move-up buy.

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