"Builder grade" or "contractor grade" is defined as inexpensive products made from low-grade materials, as opposed to quality grade or custom grade materials that are more durable. Some builder grade products are better than others, and trying to figure out how to cut the budget for an improvement project isn’t as straightforward as making price comparisons. Here are some guidelines.
The National Fenestration Rating Council has devised an NFRC label to help consumers compare product performance to price. The council states, "The U-factor measures how well a product prevents heat from escaping. The rate of heat loss is indicated in terms of the U-factor (U-value) of a window assembly. U-factor ratings generally fall between 0.20 and 1.20. The lower the U-value, the greater a window’s resistance to heat flow and the better its insulating value."
Builder grade windows will have U-factors greater than .30 and as high as .50 because they are hollow block construction. Quality windows are multi-chambered, allowing for insulating pockets. Low quality windows typically come in stock sizes and are often ill-fitting ― leaving gaps and drafts.
Homeowners should invest in a higher quality window that will not only provide comfort but will decrease energy consumption, saving money in the long run and defraying initial cost.
Nearly all builder grade doors are hollow-core construction. Some hollow-core doors are light, easily damaged and have no sound-proofing capabilities. On the surface they are constructed of Masonite or MDF (fiberboard) of varying durability. The cheapest hollow-core doors are made of lauan, a plywood laminate derived from trees harvested in rainforests.
Before choosing doors primarily consider function ― a solid wood door will hold up well in active households and if damaged can be refinished, while the cheapest hollow-core doors require replacement. Visit local suppliers and visually inspect doors. Price range is not necessarily indicative of quality in construction and styles vary widely.
Builder’s grade tile is cheap. Period. Cheap tile translates into poor durability including future risk of fractures, chipping and problems with glazes. Rule of thumb? The more expensive the tile, the better the quality.
If you want a bargain, visit a tile retailer and ask to see samples of discontinued tiles or “end lots” from several designer companies. Hardness ratings count, but quality of clay used in basic manufacturing is important. Specialty retailers will help you find a quality product to fit your budget.
Most consumers believe builder’s grade cabinets are low quality, but that isn’t always true. Some stock cabinets are constructed from cheap material and come in limited sizes and styles, but it isn’t impossible to find a good deal and a reasonably well-built set of cabinets. For example, IKEA cabinets have been a top-rated product by Consumer Reports.
The best cabinets are made from higher quality MDF ― not particleboard ― and have solid bolt construction, high quality fasteners, with triangular blocks or beams to guarantee cabinets stay rigid, as well as hinges with three-way adjustment. Low quality builder grade cabinets will have few, if any, of these features. Shop around and you will quickly learn to look past style and recognize key differences in quality.
Open a can of cheap versus expensive paint and it’s hard to tell the difference between them. However, purchasing builder’s grade paint is a huge mistake. How well paint is manufactured determines ease of application, how effectively it hides surface imperfections and how attractive it looks over time. Low-quality binders found in inexpensive products reduce paint’s resistance to UV-light, decreasing color retention. Paint made with high-quality resins will have increased hardness and sheen.
Pigments give paint its color. Low cost bulk pigments used in builder’s grade paint, called extenders, don’t hold up as well as prime pigments like titanium dioxide (which is added to both light and dark colors). They quickly turn dull and color fades compared to top-notch paints that not only have better washability, but retain brightness and sheen.
Price is the best indicator of quality, not name brand, since most paint companies offer high and low end products. In short, bargain paint saves you a limited amount of money so it’s best to opt for expensive paint.
The bottom line on builder grade
HGTV's Kimberly Lacy said it well on Hometalk.com: "You get what you pay for. When you purchased your home you made an investment. The investment doesn't stop there. Always try to replace and update with [the best] quality materials you can afford… Plan your plan, save up your money to save more money and gain time on the back end."