What should you expect from your home builder?

Here is a great article written by Rick Lierz of Franklin Building Supply. It was written August 2008

You have decided to buy a new home or perhaps to remodel your existing home. It’s a big decision. You are excited and, truth be told, you are probably more than a little nervous. This might be the biggest single check you will write, at least to this point in your life. You’ve dreamed about this. You want your home to fit your family’s needs. You want it to be special, to express your tastes, your lifestyle. You want to get it right.

Making it happen in the way that your mind envisions starts with choosing the right building professional for you. But, how in the world do you go about that process? There are so many homebuilders and remodel contractors to choose from. You don’t know any of them personally. Or perhaps you do, but you have no idea how to start this business relationship on equal footing. You get the feeling that this could get more complicated before it even starts.

The good news is that you can focus on just a few important points to help you make the right decision. In fact, only three criteria should help you select a professional that will make the process turn out the way you have dreamed. Let’s call these the three things that you should expect from your builder. They are: honesty, quality and customer service.

Honesty is the first qualification and the most important. Sounds obvious, right? No one wants to do business with a shady character. The trick is efficiently figuring out whether the builders you evaluate are spotless when it comes to doing business the right way. Fortunately, there are plenty of great, honest builders who are just as interested in your goals as are you.

First of all, you can’t figure this one out unless you actually interview the builder. That is the initial step and no one can do it for you. The interview should go smoothly. The builder should be willing to listen, and listen well, to what you want. The key, and this is where you need to do your careful listening part, is how the builder responds to you. Your builder should have the ability to tell you clearly whether or not he or she can deliver what you want for the price you can pay. The builder may suggest alternatives or options to you. Nothing wrong with that, but he or she should also be able to tell you politely if your expectations are not reasonable.

Don’t let yourself be fooled by slick sales talk. Let your instincts guide you and be honest with yourself. Do you trust what this person is telling you? The building process is often long, complicated and emotional, and you will be joined at the hip—or more precisely, the wallet—to the builder for several months. Can you see yourself working closely with this person in that process? If you don’t have a great feeling, walk away. A great builder will do the same thing, for the same reason.

The next thing you need to do is check them out. Call the Better Business Bureau to see if they have a record of unresolved complaints. Call the state of Idaho Contractor Registration Board to ensure the builder is properly registered. Find out if the builder is a member in good standing of the local building contractor’s association or remodeler’s association. Log onto BuildingCredibility.com to see if the builder is rated. Perhaps most importantly, ask the builder for references from people he or she has built for in recent past, and call those homeowners. Get as many references as you can, at least five, and call them all. If you find problems, find another builder.

The next criteria you need to worry about is quality. Of course everyone says that they put quality first, but in building homes quality has a certain relativity to be concerned about. There are thousands of parts and pieces that go into building a home and the project is going to be expensive. A good builder will not sacrifice quality where it counts most in order to deliver those cool “knotty alder cabinets” you keep talking about. You need to know that builders do not often operate on large profit margins. You should want your builder to make a fair profit on the project and the builder should be willing to tell you when your tastes are outside the lines for your budget. There is nothing wrong with trying to get as much home as you can for your money, but if you are not realistic and reasonable you should expect that your builder will tell you so.

So where does quality count most? It starts with the basic structure which should be sound and square. Ask your builder who will frame the home—that is, who will take the raw lumber and put it all together into a wood framed structure. Then ask how long the builder has worked with this framer. A long term relationship can indicate a good working relationship between professionals, one in which they understand how to do this important job well. Even if the framer has not worked long with this builder, don’t jump to conclusions, but ask for information about the framer. How long have they been in this business? Who else have they worked for? Do some homework before you start so that you can get a good feel for the way in which your builder thinks about quality.

The quality of materials that go into a home can make a big difference. You can’t check out everything, but you can get a feel for the quality your builder naturally selects by verifying a few items. For example, your home will have windows. Ask if your builder uses windows with low-e glass. Low-e glass provides substantial energy savings and greater comfort in both winter and summer for a small increase in price over regular glass. Since it is readily available and relatively inexpensive, a builder who does not put low-e glass in every home may be showing you his or her quality hand.

Another sign of quality is the thickness of walls. 2x6 walls allow for much greater insulating capacity. But 2x6 walls cost a fair amount more than 2x4 walls and, while it can be shown to return this investment to you over a short time, this one may be a matter for your budget discussion. If, however, you find your builder uses 2x6 walls as a standard measure, you have found a good indicator into the way your builder thinks about quality.

There are plenty more items you could discuss to discern quality, and this should not be taken as an exhaustive list. The key is trying to figure out the philosophy your builder employs when thinking about the quality of the homes that he or she builds. Don’t be embarrassed to ask your builder about these things before you make your decision.

The final test is that you should expect good customer service from your builder after the project is finished. This can be the true differentiating point between great builders and those that are run of the mill. A great builder should look at you as a potential repeat customer. You may indeed want to do this again sometime in the future such as your next move up, or perhaps when the kids leave the nest and it is time for you to reduce the space you need to take care of. If the builder looks at you as a one transaction customer, beware of what you might get.

The best way to determine this—in fact perhaps the only way—is to find out how responsive the builder is to quality issues that arise after the job is done. Every home has things that need to be tweaked. After all, constructing a home involves hundreds of different products being put together like a puzzle. Often the problems don’t become apparent right away, but when they do you deserve help.

Most builders provide at least a one year warranty on new or remodeled construction projects. Don’t rely solely on that promise. Dive into the references the builder provides. Talk to people who have experienced the builder’s after-completion service first hand. Find out how the builder communicates with the homeowners and how responsive the builder is to their needs. Did they have trouble getting calls returned? Were problems addressed promptly and with courtesy? Would they build a home with that builder again?

A builder who is honest in how he or she communicates with you, who has a straightforward business model, who doesn’t give lip service to quality, and who has a system for fixing problems and treating customers like they will do business again, is golden. When you find a builder who fits these criteria--and they are out there to be found--you stand an excellent chance of realizing your dreams.

By Rick Lierz
Owner and operator
Franklin Building Supply
On behalf of Building Contractors Association of Southwest Idaho

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