J.D. Power and Associates, a consumer research firm known for ranking car manufacturers in terms of customer satisfaction, announced yesterday that it will rank major home builders in the Washington area and five other top new-home markets.

The Agoura Hills, Calif., firm said it is expanding its "New-Home Builder Customer Satisfaction Study" to six of the seven biggest home-building markets in the country. Washington ranked No. 3 in 1998, with 28,770 new houses.

During the past three years, J.D. Power sampled reactions of new-home buyers in Southern California, Phoenix and Denver.

Questionnaires will be sent in April to new-home buyers whose transactions closed in 1999 and who have lived in their houses for three to 15 months. Only builders completing 250 or more homes in 1999 will be covered by the survey. About 20 builders in the Washington area fall into that category. The top area builder for 1998 was NVR Inc.-Ryan Homes, with 2,508 single-family, town-home and multifamily units. The others in the top five were Richmond American Homes, Pulte Home Corp., Washington Homes Inc. and Trafalgar House.

The survey results are scheduled for release in July 2000. Rankings of the top builders and a list of those considered below average will be made public. Detailed results of consumer concerns are offered only to builders, who must purchase the data, reportedly for thousands of dollars. The top-ranked builder can pay a fee to use that designation in its advertising.

While J.D. Power does not reveal what it charges those surveyed, at least two builders said mentioning a first-place ranking could cost $25,000 or more.

In addition to Washington, the other top markets to be surveyed next year, in order of new houses sold, are Phoenix, the No. 2 market in the country; Chicago; Dallas; Las Vegas; and Houston. The nation's top new-home market, Atlanta, may be surveyed for 2001.

The purpose of the survey, said Paula Sonkin, director of J.D. Power's real estate division, is "to assist [builders] in their efforts to better understand the wants and needs of their customers."

Some local builders contacted yesterday said they will be meeting soon with J.D. Power to discuss the survey. Some builders included in earlier surveys have criticized the high price tag on the results.

Susan Matlick, executive director of the Maryland National Capital Building Industry Association, said she was not familiar with the questionnaire but cautioned that determining customer satisfaction "is always a sensitive field."

"You are talking to people who've just made a tremendous investment" in which disagreements might arise soon after the time of purchase, she said. "Small issues could become major issues."