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The Poor Quality of American Houses

Updated on December 13, 2016
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One striking aspect of houses in America is the flimsy quality of even the most expensive ones. Houses are built literally like a house of cards. Weak beams, plywood, flimsy insulation, flimsy siding and roofing that either blows off in high winds or just rots away after a few years. Its really no wonder that come tornado or hurricane and houses are literally ripped off of their foundations and tossed into the air.

In contrast, houses and most buildings in Europe are much sturdier, being built with stone or cinder blocks or brick for the whole wall and inside walls. This is true for new houses and apartment blocks as well as old buildings. This is the reason we see buildings hundreds of years old still standing in good shape. In the US a 50 year old house is considered old and is torn down to make room for another flimsy yet expensive structure.

American houses sometimes do have the appearance of having brick walls, however these are just stuck onto the outside of the plywood walls giving a false sense of quality and strength. It is understandable that using flimsy wood is cheaper than using stone or concrete, but this is not really evidenced by the prices of houses. I have seen multi-million dollar new houses in the States that are building using the same plywood, insulation, shabby roofing material as cheaper houses. The fact that walls are paper thin and conversations can be heard 2 rooms away is nothing strange in American houses.

We also see quality problems in areas like rotting walls, water getting into insulation, termites and leaking roofs. Houses built of plywood and low quality beams will not last all that long. Using staple guns to hold plywood to beams is usually going to end up shabby. Contractors tend to use the cheapest materials and thrown up buildings as soon as they can in order to maximize profits. For some reason this shabby building tradition has become the norm in the US.

The origins of this building style can be drawn to the 1950s with the post war boom period when Americans could suddenly afford to buy homes in sprawling new suburbs where almost pre-fabricated style identical looking houses mushroomed virtually overnight.This is understandable given the economic boom coupled with the baby boom and rising incomes. However, US suburbs still tend to have a monotonous look to them, even in the nicer ones. Of course this is mostly due to the fact that many suburbs are developed by one builder who only has so many styles of houses to build. But the fact remains that the building quality has not gone up since the 1950s, and in fact may have went down in many cases due to the economy and the fact that Americans have come to expect that their houses look in a certain style.

Unfortunately it is unlikely that many US houses or other buildings will still be around say 500 years from now. The American mindset of bulldozing the old and building something new instead every few decades keeps us from having a sense of history, at least where architecture and physical structures are concerned. All great civilizations have left structures for us to admire: Rome, Egypt, Greece, Byzantium, Incas, Aztecs etc. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem likely that American civilization will leave any impressive physical structures behind for posterity, as even skyscrapers are often leveled after a few decades to make way for new ones. This is also a part of being a totally consumer society which throws away the old to make way for the supposedly goodness of the new and at the same time discarding vestiges of our past.

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      Greg 8 hours ago

      Europe probably has some 500 year old horse drawn buggy's too. Is that would we should be using on our daily commute? Times change and so should our dwellings. Sorry Europe, your houses are pathetic compared to ours. I have a home theatre bigger than many houses in Europe.

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      Greg 8 hours ago

      Really? Tiny old houses in Europe built with "added later" wiring and pluming? Houses built to fit the lifestyle of the average 18th century family is superior because they are stone? Horrible amount of ignorance in this article. We average twice the size of house, awesome. We have wiring and plumbing INSIDE our walls, awesome. And when our culture changes we can AFFORD to bulldoze and build to fit our new ways, because we are not clinging to our past like Europe, which once led the world, and now leads in tourism to show people how we once lived long ago. Couldn't pay me to go live in the past like Europe, and unlike you, I have been there and couldn't stand the crampy sqweeky creepy single pane window having, funky stair, exposed wiring, funny smelling junk they have over there.

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      Jon 5 weeks ago

      I always wonder the same thing It make no sense. And these house are well overprice. Almost every year in the Alley they get ripped apart and kill people and no one ever say why don't we start using concrete and steal.

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      ed 6 weeks ago

      americans live in sheds. remember the Three Little Pigs

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      Anne 2 months ago

      Dying in a tornado isn't really a normal thing unless you live in a trailer park or an apartment that doesn't have a basement. Almost all Americans who own a home have a basement which would be more than sufficient of protecting people from dying of a tornado. I live in tornado valley and never had an issue or met anyone who has died or had a family died in a tornado.

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      Ann 2 months ago

      Live in Missouri. I have a large and sprawling typical American house plywood and all. It's been through almost 30 tornado seasons, had a tree land on it, been through record breaking winters and summers and braces the storms every year but my house has lived to tell the tale lol. I don't really think it's necessary to change these houses despite being "cheaply" made if the house gets the job done. There are plenty of neighborhood surrounding me with houses dating back to the 50s and 60s when suburbia was really just became a thing and these types of houses first became popular. Those houses are nearly 70 years old and still look great. I like homes in suburban America... look beautiful on the outside, are huge, and relatively cheap. Would much rather live im one of those, than a brick box in the U.K.

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      Lucida Sans 3 months ago

      I honestly do not understand why these people choose such shitty materials to build their homes. Here in Puerto Rico most of our houses are made of Cinder blocks, which makes buildings be very durable [we have buildings over 100 years old made of such material which are still standing]. When I first moved to Ohio I remember feeling like I was walking over floors that would break, the fact that the floors were simply made of wood planks really made me feel uncomfortable and couldn't play DDR with my floor mat because neighbours would complain about the stepping.

      I don't get it xD

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      Randy 6 months ago

      Where I live on the West Coast of the U.S.. A brick building falls down even in small seismic event such as an earth quake which are common, unless properly reinforced with steel. Also the weather here is 70 degrees Fahrenheit plus or minus ten degrees! I don't get snow, hurricane or tornado. A wooden house with proper size beams, minimal insulation, and a cement foundation is reasonable enough for the environment but you wouldn't want to pay a million dollars for it unless you really like this weathet.

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      Chad 9 months ago

      Two points. You refer to houses and buildings being around 500 years from now. Only the most extravagant, lush, expensive houses and buildings ever survive anywhere near that long. The average person cannot afford to build something like that and never will be able to. That being said, you are correct, modern American housing is utter crap. No matter whether you are driving through an every day neighborhood or the richest around, houses being built use the shoddiest materials and are built to the bare minimum that regulations require. Entire exteriors of houses sheathed in particle board and then covered over with particle board siding. Beams in the houses made of particle board as well. Walls as thin as you can imagine. These mcmansions are basically crap. They will serve the Builder well through their life and then be worthless or fall down.

      The other point I would make is that you are correct on the large developments that happened in the nineteen-fifties, and all of them being pretty standard cookie-cutter houses. The difference though, is that those houses we're still built pretty damn well and most are still in pretty darn good condition. Totally different than the houses being built in the last 20 or so years, where everybody is out to get a buck, and everybody is out to buy a house that is way too freaking large for them.

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      Damascus ari 9 months ago

      Yeah. I absolutely hate US houses, because they are cold and wet in winter, creaking, hot and stuffy in summer, misearble to live in, with something like 0 sound insulation, and you can probably punch a wall clean through with your fist. Even in expensive houses...

      In contrast, I live in (an admittably upper-class) apartment in Warsaw, which has all brick thick walls, and lo and behold, it's nice and toasty in winter and reasonably ok in summer (no a/c). Sound is wonderfully muffled and you can speak out loud knowing your neighbors will not overhear a single word said. Punching the wall is liable to put you in a world of hurt. The windows are of a modern design (pretty much everywhere at this point), and water pressure is a non-issue.

      Fires are a non-issue too; even in older (like 50 year old) apartment blocks, if one apartment catches fire, that's... it. Cables are free to burn as much as they like (not that they do), because the wall ain't catching fire.

      Houses are pretty similar in all these terms.

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      Nick 22 months ago

      It's not a reasonable or fair comparison to focus on the cheaply made houses in the US. It's also not fair to compare houses in Europe that for the same size, could very easily cost TWICE as much to build.

      I just put a roof on my house in Sweden. It was the cheapest steel roof I could buy and before the 50% tax reduction in labor costs, it was $25,000 not even including the garage (200m^2 of roof on the house). My parents house by contrast, with 325m^2 of roof cost $7,500 to replace and that company did it in two days, not two $&#@ weeks. Will the $25k roof last longer? Yeah, duh. 30 years before the paint peels off? If you're lucky. But for 15 years, will the shingled roof be any worse? No. And my house in Sweden (that all my friends and colleagues were saying was soooo good in comparison to "American" construction quality) is built so cheaply. Flimsy construction methods, and when my house was built, the electrical and plumbing standards were about 20 years behind the US. Grounded outlets?! NOPE! Not required in Sweden until 1994. Ha! Fire safety? Nope. All particle board walls, no drywall. Almost all houses have this. And they were saying how good this house is.

      My new roof is of the same quality and style as the roof on my parent's barn (sized for truck, truck camper, two more cars and lots of equipment). Guess which was cheaper to build? The ENTIRE barn or the smaller roof on my house? Yeah, the barn in the US. Basically, if you compare construction costs, they paid for a roof and got an entire barn for free. It's even insulated with three garage doors. It's astonishingly unbelievable the difference in construction costs. I shopped around with contractors and it was the cheapest I could get. One company wanted $42,000 for a dang steel roof. And you know what, that barn will be there for many, many years. It's all steel and pressure treated lumber. What's going to happen to it? It has seen hurricane force winds, hail, huge amounts of snow, etc. And their house is all steel I-beam construction with cinderblock and brick construction. It's solid. Tornadoes have literally passed nearby and nothing happened. Directly overhead, no house can stand 500 kph wind.

      If you compare a modest but nice $200k house in the US that's the same size as a $200k house in Europe, the house in the US will be WAY better. No comparison! You can't even built a house for that much in Europe. Comparing identical construction materials, things can be a fraction of the cost in the US.

      It's like everything in the US. Yeah, there's lots of cheap crap. Duh. But if you compare for the same price, more likely than not, it will be the same or better in the US.

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      yup 2 years ago

      Yes that is correct, americans love crap; crappy food, crappy houses and cars and they definitely didn't read story about three piglets, otherwise they would build it in brick. I can't imagine having mortgage that I have to pay for the rest of my life for the house that will collapse before I die, but that's typical in america, I had friend that said he has to repair wall because insulation fell off and is freezing, imagine that happening in an UK house.. they're built like Windsor Castle.

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      aprig 2 years ago

      Wood is ok. I built several. In Romania. Where people really don't get the enormous benefits. I used 6x25 cm posts and beams and I packed them in 22 mm osb outside and 15 mm inside. No electric or plumbing in the structure. Another 2 inches spacing inside allowing room for all installations. 2 inches insulation outside and thick stucco. In structure insulation rockwool . Stands up to 1600 Celsius. Structure chemically treated. The houses will survive us for sure.

      Oh... in USA they have 2 by 4 that had that dimension theoretically. The real thing that you will gonna get regardless the price will be 1 3/4 by 3 3/4.

      That is why they have codes that prevents roof overhangs to pass 510 mm. They kinda know what's gonna happen.

      Anyway, if anybody thinks of building something really good nobody will pay for that cause they won't value it right. It is like they war born with that fan hanging out of the ceiling so nobody can live without it.

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      alex 3 years ago

      i come from a what murikans consider a "third world country" called Romania, we make the fondation of the house from reinforced concrete with rebards, then we make the structural base out of reinforced concrete with thick iron rebars. the exterior walls are made out of thick bricks, so please americans, learn to build or get out of debt so your people stop dieing in tornadoes!

      http://m2.tocmai.ro/f/i/normal/3/1171/11719033_1.j...

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      Daniel 4 years ago

      Nils, I wouldn't say that plywood is made from compressed leftovers. That makes it sound like it is some sort of restructured sawdust, which it is not. In plywood production, sheets of wood are "scraped off" from a whole, rotating log, and several of these layers then pressured on top of each other. I'm no expert in what kind of benefits and drawbacks the resulting plywood has, but it definitely isn't a waste by-product of wood processing.

      Here in Western, Southwestern Europe, there are some wood houses that have survived the generations, but they are generally not built in this kind of panel style, but boarded. Also very often, the ground floor actually has stone walls, with only the upper floors being pure wood construction.

      I have always wondered about the prevalence of plywood or OSB construction in North American houses, especially in areas that often have to deal with a lot harsher weather than we are used to where I live. A relative of mine has recently bought a new house in Los Angeles for close to a million dollars, and it is also a plywood construction. It would be unthinkable here to pay that kind of money for a plywood house. The overwhelming majority of houses are concrete, brick, or ICF. Not only for stability but also the obvious isolation benefits. However, I will also say that this hasn't really changed much about the fact that we, too, tend to rather tear down houses to build new ones after a few decades. Outside of town centers with iconic, usually protected architecture, and maybe far out in the countryside, it is relatively rare to see houses from before the 1960s, definitely the 1950s, even though their construction would have allowed them to stand for much longer. I think a major reason is that the majority of people are wary of moving into a house that is 50 years old or older, because of the stark differences in design. Central heating, modern plumbing, and bigger rooms with more windows are things most people want, and it's hard to impossible to convert old houses to that.

      And I am pretty sure that stone and concrete being too heavy is nonsense. If the ground is not stable, wooden houses will have as much, if not more, structural problems than concrete or stone houses. Or how would you explain the definitely immensely heavy steel and concrete skyscrapers of Manhatten? They seem pretty sturdy to me, yet they are built, of all places, on an island, which definitely isn't the most stable ground you can find.

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      frantisek78 5 years ago

      Thanks for your comments Nils! Yes, I agree that building with quality wood would be no problem. The real problem is the plywood used in the US which is basically cardboard.

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      Nils 5 years ago

      I have had this suspicion some time. But I have to say plywood is really not wood, but the compressed leftovers of a sawmill. It is also a huge difference between good wood, and bad wood.

      Coming from Norway, a country where wood have been the only way for thousands of years. Im afraid that what's common knowledge here, is not common on the other side of the ocean.

      Some generations ago, it was still usuall to buy houses, pick them down and rebuild them. Our summer-house have been rebuildt several times. The living room might be the thimber base from a typical medieval house. This house is set on a small island far out sea. This have been the home of my ancestors for generations. It have never suffered any rot, and survived countless hurricanes.

      Houses should be buildt by wood that is carefully picked out by professional thimbermen. Concrete and stone is too heavy, if not buildt on rock the ground will move, and the whole construction will be ruined. A good house should be buildt by wood. If your stupid and leave your window open during a hurricane. The home should be able to survive the flight.

      I really think plywood houses is illegal over here. The bad wood is sold to the paper-industry. Oh and, I know we also sell a lot of bad wood to IKEA. It gets grinded up, compressed into plywood and sold as furniture to stupid people.