Once you've navigated the planning and building processes, there are a few more hurdles before you can move into your new home. Most important among those are the inspection and walk-through.
The local building department is required to complete a "final," meaning final inspection, for every new house that is built. The department will send an official to your new home to check the validity of previous inspections on the inspection card, and to ensure that building code provisions have been met. As the name implies, this will be the last time these inspections are made before you move in. It is a good idea to follow the inspector as he or she is making the rounds to ask any questions as they may arise.
The inspector will not be making any intrusive actions such as drilling or digging, so be prepared for a mainly visual inspection, focusing on mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems, and flooring. He or she will also take a look at the design of staircases and handrails, ventilation systems, light fixtures, and other areas of the house that could potentially cause harm to an occupant if they are improperly designed. If there are missing components, such as vent registers and face plates for the ventilation system, they will have to be remedied and the inspector will be required to return at a later date to sign the card and effectively approve the house for occupancy.
A house that is compliant with building codes is not necessarily well-constructed. Remember that inspection is the process that ensures that minimum standards for health and safety have been met; it does not involve assessing quality or aesthetic standards of work. The inspector will have nothing to do with issues such as shoddy workmanship, unless it puts an occupant in danger. These issues will be taken up with your builder when the two of you take your "walk-through" of your new home.
After the final inspection has been completed and the inspector has signed off on the card, the builder submits the card and any other required documents to the building department in order to secure a Certificate of Occupancy (C.O.). The building department, depending on their backlog, issues the C.O. to you, hopefully before your close of escrow. On occasion, they will issue a temporary Certificate of Occupancy, contingent on the actual one proceeding through its processes and reviews, to help you avoid issues with getting moved in or securing your interest rate or mortgage loan. The process of transferring title and handling the house begins when you receive the C.O.
The walk-through, completed after the final inspection and approval of the building department, is your opportunity to inspect the quality of workmanship, to review the operation and maintenance of systems and products, to point out any items that need touching up, and to ask your builder any questions about your new house.
Anticipating questions and concerns that you may have, some builders will conduct an internal inspection on their own a few days before they tour with you, and will compile a "punch list." The punch list (also called the new home construction punch list or builder punch list) is a roster of items that will need to be addressed either before your move-in date, or fairly soon afterwards. It usually contains anything that may be considered imperfect or that could cause you surprise or confusion when you accompany him or her on your walk-through, such as details in the operation of various systems in your home.
Also included on the punch list are minor repairs, such as broken light bulbs, paint touch-ups, or loose tiles which will usually not take more than an hour or two of a general carpenter's time to fix. You are free to amend the list during your walk-through, and it is advisable to insist on a target repair date for these items. After close of escrow, you are the legal owner of your home. While you may choose a date that falls after the close, you have more leverage with your builder before that time.
Ideally, the builder, or one of his or her sales representatives or superintendents, will schedule a date for the walk-through that falls before close of escrow and soon after the completion of the final inspection. You'll meet with the builder's representative to outline the purpose of the walk-through, your roles and responsibilities and those of the builder, and to discuss items on the punch list or any issues of concern to you.
It is during this meeting where the builder may present you with a homeowner's handbook or binder that delineates a variety of information and instructions regarding the products and systems in your home, warranty details, contact procedures, and often a list of subcontractors and emergency services for your future use. Sometimes included in the binder are courtesy items, such as coupons for household items or a certificate for paint touch-ups after you move in. The representative will sometimes take this opportunity to explain the builder's referral system and include incentives for you if you recommend him or her to another potential home builder.
Walk-throughs can take from one to four hours and average about 90 minutes, depending on the home and the scope established by the builder. Generally, walk-throughs will produce the best results if they are completed around midday when there are no shadows or glare to distort your view. Your builder may choose to use a checklist, or he or she may simply indicate punch-list items and advise you to take notes and write down any questions as they arise.
Either way, it is your responsibility to ask questions in order to understand the components of your new home. If you need to know how to program your new electronic thermostat or who to call for what issue, this is the time to document those questions.
Speak Up - Quality Workmanship Matters!
Workmanship items such as gaps between finishes should be pointed out as well. Such issues may be subjective, but are worth noting on your punch list and can often be easily fixed to your standards. Also, be sure to seek out and document incomplete or missing items, anything that doesn't match the blueprints or specifications, any systems that aren't working properly, damaged fixtures, unclean conditions, etc.
When you are finished with the walk-through, you and the builder should sit and review the punch list again, this time including any items that were added along the way. During this meeting, or once the punch list is completed, the builder will ask you to sign off on the condition of the house indicating that its quality and workmanship are up to par.
You may feel intimidated to point out errors or problems to the builder during the walk-through, but remember: This will be your home, and this is the last chance — and best opportunity — to suggest improvements and ask questions.