The most satisfied new-home buyers in the Washington area last year were customers of national giants Centex Homes and Pulte Homes Inc. and of Bethesda-based Winchester Homes, according to a survey released this week.

The three companies tied for first in the annual survey by J.D. Power and Associates, a California research group best known for its rankings of car buyers' satisfaction.

Arlington-based IDI Group Cos. was next in the rankings, followed by Frederick-based Ausherman Homes, a division of the Drees Co. in Kentucky, and NV Homes, a division of NVR Inc. in Reston. The survey covers only builders that closed on sales of 150 or more homes in the market.

The findings were a little different in the Baltimore area, which was surveyed for the first time.

NV Homes ranked first there. Pulte, the nation's second-biggest builder in closings last year after D.R. Horton Inc., came in second.

Atlanta-based Beazer Homes USA Inc. came in third in the Baltimore area, much better than its 17th-place ranking in the Washington area.

The Washington area included Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland; Culpeper, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties and the city of Alexandria in Virginia; and the District. The Baltimore area included Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne's counties.

The survey also found that the average price paid for a new home in the Washington area was $484,000, up from $430,000 in the 2004 study, and that about 54 percent of the buyers surveyed had previously bought a new house.

The average price paid for a new home in the Baltimore area was $360,000.

Washington area customers are also a little happier this year with their builders than last year, according to the survey. Customer satisfaction increased about 3 percent, according to the survey, but it still trails the national average by about 8 percentage points. Baltimore buyers came in about 6 percentage points lower than the national satisfaction average.

J.D. Power officials said the competition at the top is good for the industry and for consumers.

"While Pulte remains a consistent standout in the study, Centex has pulled ahead of its competition in several markets, raising the bar on customer satisfaction for all builders," said Paula Sonkin, executive director of the real estate industries practice at the company, in a news release.

In an interview, she said, "One of the things that production builders . . . have realized is that their products are not that different, but what can and will differentiate them are the non-product-related things, like customer service and home readiness, that are the two key drivers of our rankings."

The rankings are also based on customer satisfaction with the builder's sales staff, construction manager, quality of workmanship and materials, price and value, physical design elements, design center, recreational facilities and location.

"Very few home buyers are really, really unhappy overall," Sonkin said. "That's the good news for builders. The bad news is that those people can take up to 90 to 95 percent of the time, and often they're justified." She estimated that 10 percent of buyers are unhappy.

The rankings were based nationally on the responses of 73,353 buyers of newly built single-family homes who had lived in their homes for four to 18 months. In the Washington area, 3,173 buyers responded; there were 903 respondents in the Baltimore area.

The best performers nationally were Pulte, which ranked highest in 16 of the 30 markets analyzed, up from 14 out of 25 in 2004; and Centex, which ranked highest in 10 markets, up from three markets a year earlier.

"The responsible builders are working hard on customer satisfaction," said Dave Graham, president of Pulte's Washington division. With so many builders competing in the area, Graham said the survey provides useful information for shoppers.

Pulte, including its Del Webb active-adult division, had about 1,000 closings in the Washington area last year.

Winchester said "it has worked diligently to not only maintain the high level of customer service that home buyers have come to expect, but to find ways to constantly improve." Its ranking jumped from fifth to first this year. The company sold 699 new homes in the Washington area in 2004.

Pulte apologized for the Del Webb division's plunge in this year's local evaluation.

Del Webb, which dropped from third to 16th in the Washington-area rankings, started new projects but "didn't deliver homes in a timely fashion, and we realize that we didn't communicate with our customers as best as we could have," said Pulte spokeswoman Caryn Klebba. "We will be very focused on doing better next year."

Centex did not respond to a request for comment.