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They Don't Build'em Like They Used To

Updated on March 21, 2014

You hear this phrase a lot, They don't build'em like they used to. As a builder, I understand where people are coming from when they make this comment. Are homes built today really inferior to those built fifty years ago? Let's take a look at both sides of the argument.

Cheap Materials When you ask people to expand on this comment they typically mention the cheap materials used today. After all, vinyl siding is the most frequently used exterior cladding on new homes built today. Per the U.S. Census Bureaus Characteristics of New Housing, 33% of homes built in 2011 had vinyl siding. It's the least expensive of the siding options out there. We can all agree that it can look cheap when installed incorrectly with bulges and loose fit seams.

But for those of you that have vinyl siding on your home, when was the last time you painted it? One of the benefits of vinyl siding is the lack of maintenance required. I have a friend who owns an older home with hardboard siding. Every few years he must scrape off the old paint and caulk and re-apply. This is extremely time consuming and a huge hassle. So, like everything in life, there are both good and bad elements to vinyl siding.

Substandard Workmanship Unfortunately, the skilled tradespeople that take pride in their work are getting harder and harder to come by. Let's face it, the building business just isn't sexy. Why would a young kid want to learn how to swing a hammer when he/she can go into computer science with the hopes of starting the new Facebook or Twitter? One of our biggest challenges going forward is to get good quality people to dedicate themselves to building the quality homes of the future.

That being said, it's still possible to find good companies out there to construct a new home. It just takes a little more time and a laser focus by the builder to look at all aspects of the labor and materials for a project. The other option to ensure quality is to become an owner builder and do it yourself. Either way, when choosing the products to build a new home, we need to carefully review things like life cycle costs, maintenance, and energy requirements...just to name a few.

So what are some of the things that have improved in the new homes we build today?

Manufactured I-Joists in New Home
Manufactured I-Joists in New Home | Source

Structural Engineering: Most new homes today go through a rigorous engineering analysis to size each beam, truss and column. This way, we can make sure the home is sound while also being efficient. Have you ever gone down into the basement of a hundred year old home? The floor joists are absolutely huge. That sounds great but it uses wood (and trees) in an inefficient way. As a builder, I would rather put the money wasted on over sized structural components into higher quality materials elsewhere in the home. An example of this would be windows. By putting your hand next to a window in an older home on a cold day you get an indication of how tight they were built. The tight controls used in manufacturing, along with rigorous testing, allow windows to be built that are extremely tight today.

Environment: Have you ever watched an old episode of the Walton's? They cut down the biggest trees they could find for the mill they operated. In today's world, we try to use fast growing trees that can quickly be replenished instead of using old growth lumber.

We also use recycling to build many of the components in a home. Have you ever heard of finger jointed studs? These are made from smaller, recycled pieces of lumber. Not only do finger jointed studs save trees, but they are also a straighter material. Traditional wood studs warp and twist when they dry out. The finger jointed variety are much straighter because they are made from pieces of different trees.

Manufactured I-joists (see picture above) are another good example of material reuse. The webs on these are typically made from oriented strand board (OSB) which is made from gluing small pieces of wood together. These joists can span greater distances than dimensional lumber, are lighter for workers to carry, and won't twist and camber like wood joists can.

Building Science: This is really about looking at each component in a home to determine how the total package works together given the local climate. Building science came about as we realized homes needed to be built more airtight to save energy and improve comfort. Look at the energy bill of an older home and compare it to a similarly sized new home. Or walk through an older home and a new home on a cold winter day. You will definitely see the difference that building science has made.

Green Today we are more conscious of how we produce things. From paints to hardwood flooring, we want to make sure we protect both the occupants and the environment. Things like low VOC paints, cabinets, and flooring and formaldehyde free products are all considerations in homes built today. We even pay a considerable amount more for our air conditioning to prevent ozone depletion and to lower our energy consumption.

Silt Fence and Straw to Contain Silt Runoff
Silt Fence and Straw to Contain Silt Runoff

So we've established that there have been some improvements to new homes but we also acknowledge that sometimes less expensive materials are used. Why? Well, there are new costs that builders must absorb today that weren't around just twenty or thirty years ago. Let's take a quick look at some of these...

Impact Fees: Impact fees are charged by local governments to build new schools, roads, and libraries. These can add ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand dollars to the cost of a new home. This is a relatively new cost associated with each new home built as local governments look for ways to generate revenue to deal with rising populations.

Environmental Costs: Tree cutting fees are one example of an environmental cost. Many local municipalities charge a fee for each tree that is cut down when building a new home. This helps to discourage the cutting of trees while driving up the cost of a new home. No matter how careful we work to save trees, we still need to cut down those located in the house footprint and out to a 25 foot perimeter for drainage.

Storm water management (see picture above for an example) is another environmental cost that goes into a new home built today. Over the years, the EPA has realized that storm water that runs off a construction site can carry silt into streams that can kill fish and other wildlife. So when you build a new home, there are new regulations that must be met to contain the silt and soil on site. Some examples of storm water management costs include silt fence installation, street cleaning, storm drain protection and cleaning, and temporary seeding of disturbed earth. These practices can add several thousand dollars to the cost of a new home build.

Protecting Beautiful Trees
Protecting Beautiful Trees

Higher Wages and Benefits: As with all labor in the U.S., the cost has grown over the years. A good indicator of this is in the huge transfer of manufacturing to other countries. The labor costs are getting higher and higher for the same amount of output here. This is good for American workers, but bad for consumers of products made in the U.S.

So are the homes that were built fifty years ago better than those built today? It's a tough question and kind of like comparing a Model T to a Ford Fusion. The steel on the Model T was probably ten times thicker than the Fusion. But what was the gas mileage and what kind of emissions did it give off? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Build Your Own

Most people would agree that the technology behind new homes has gotten better. The costs have gone up however for all of the reason noted above. One way to get the home of your dreams and lower the costs is to build it yourself. Owner builders really can save money and get a high quality home by taking on the general contractor role.


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    • HenningEstates profile image

      Ryan VanLue 

      5 years ago from Huntley, IL

      Great post and very informative for anyone building a home! Thanks for putting this together. If you have a chance also check out my post on 50 tips for building a new home. You might find it interesting!

    • lindacee profile image

      Linda Chechar 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge of home construction. I do agree the best way to control quality is to build your own. Otherwise, buyer beware!

    • kittykfree profile image

      Kitty K. Free 

      6 years ago

      Thank you for sharing! When we moved from NY to TN we knew NOTHING about houses at all. I didn't know from vinyl siding. Had we known, we would've bought a different house.

    • Coconut Soap profile image

      John Rose 

      6 years ago from Southern Georgia, USA

      Years ago ESPN had a commercial with a walking knowledge furball thing. The more educated man watched ESPN and had a huge knowledge furball thing. Another guy didn't watch and had a small furball thing.

      This post was full of knowledge. I actually always leaned more toward older homes being better quality. I still feel that the craftmenship was better, but like you mentioned. Why would someone want to do that now when they can do something else. Anyway, you sold me. Good hub.



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