Most newly built houses are "mediocre" or worse, a report from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment says.
Buyers need to be more questioning of builders, Cabe says
Cabe assessed 100 new housing developments across London, the South East and East of England on design and suitability for their area.
Seventeen percent were rated good or very good, with 61% average and 22% poor, Monday's report said.
However, the House Builders Federation said design was improving all the time.
Cabe is a public body set up by the government in 1999 to encourage the creation of great buildings and public spaces.
Its chief executive Richard Simmons said he was disappointed that most houses did not make the good or very good grade.
"They are the sorts of houses that don't, for example, use local materials.
"They're designed for anywhere, they're generic designs, regional designs, they're not sustainable very often and they're over-dominated by parking, by highways, so they're not very nice places to be."
Mr Simmons said the report was part of further research due out later this year and was compiled using the "building for life" industry standard.
"If you have vast swathes of tarmac, we know that people don't like that.
Quality plus quantity
"It's a question of keeping the car in second place and the pedestrian first," he said.
A website, launched with the publication of the report, outlines what buyers should look for and what questions to ask estate agents and vendors about the buildings.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said: "Quality is as important as quantity in creating sustainable communities that will stand the test of time.
"This audit shows that some house builders know the real value of investing in excellent design. Now it's time for the rest to catch up with the best."
Cabe's criticism was dismissed by House Builders Federation spokesman Pierre Williams, who said:
"There is a perception that our industry could have improved design on the styles it was building 10 to 20 years ago.
"What we say is that things have massively improved," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"Designs are quite a difficult issue to judge."
He also criticised the way the report was compiled, with a lack of actually talking to people who live in the houses.
"Whilst we appreciate more can be done, what we think best demonstrates quality of design is what people think," he said.
"Unfortunately this report doesn't take into account what people think."