Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Choosing a builder

Choosing a builder for your new home is a decision that should not be taken lightly.  You'll likely be working hand in hand with this person through the entire process, so the smoother the process goes, the easier your life will be.  You want to be able to concentrate your energy on the house, not baby sitting your general contractor.

Start the selection process by visiting other new homes in your area.  Look at little details, look at sensible floor plans, and make note of the builder.  Ask your friends who have built houses what they think of their builder.

Once you've got a short list of builders, call the Better Business Bureau to check up on them.  Then call the builder and get a list of references.  Prepare a list of questions and record the answers so that you can compare multiple builders apples-to-apples.  First, we asked the following questions of the builders themselves.

1. How long has the builder been in business?  You don't want a newcomer practicing on your house.

2. How many houses does the builder have in progress at any given time?  You don't want a builder who will be spread so thin that they can't make time for you.

3. How long has the builder been working with the same subcontractors?  A good relationship is important, and if one builder provides all of the income for a sub, you know that sub will try to keep that builder happy.

4. If you already own your lot, how will the money change hands during the process?  If the builder starts out owning the lot, then you'll typically just "close" on the house when it's all finished, just as if you were buying a used house.

5. Does the builder have liability insurance in case something really bad happens?

6. If you want a particular feature, such as a unique style or the use of renewable energy sources, how much experience does the builder have with that feature?

7. What makes this builder stand out among his peers?

8.  How does communication between you & the builder work during the project?  Do you call/email the builder directly?  Does one of his office workers act as a point man for you?  Do they have an online web portal where all interaction is tracked?  How likely is it that your questions will fall through the cracks?

9. If you don't have a floor plan picked out yet, will the builder work with you personally to develop one, or will he refer you to a designer/architect to take care of that first?  Designers don't often understand the construction requirements of certain features, and architects don't understand the costs involved in certain features.  A builder that can handle all of it himself is a great asset.

10. If you do already have a final floor plan, have the builder give you a detailed price quote that you can compare apples-to-apples with other builders.

11. What mark-up does the builder add for his own profit?  Around here, custom builders generally tack on about 9-10% of the total cost as their own fee.

We then called a few references for each builder (preferably references who had similar styles and budgets to our own) and asked them these questions:

12. Did the builder stay on budget?

13. Did the builder stay within the projected completion time range?

14. Was the builder helpful with choosing materials, finishes, recommendations?

15. Did the builder return calls quickly?

16. When problems arose during the building process, how quickly was the builder able to respond to them satisfactorily?

17. Did you have any warranty issues that had to be dealt with after your house was built?  Were those taken care of satisfactorily?

18. What are your general impressions about the builder's strengths and weaknesses?

19. Did the project run smoothly?

20. Did the builder give you everything in writing?

In addition to the references, here are a few more questions you should find the answers two via any means possible.  Ask realtors.  Ask subcontractors.  Ask other builders, if you're feeling bold.  In our town, we contacted the Home Builder's Association of Lincoln.

21. Is the builder registered with the home builders association?

22. Has the builder been involved in any legal actions?  Ask home builders association, or have a lawyer search for cases against them.

23. Has the builder won any awards?

In our experience, most of the friends we asked said that they'd never recommend the contractor who built their own house.  You don't want to be in that boat, so do your homework before making the most expensive purchase of your life.

What other advice do you have for choosing a home builder?  Please share your suggestions in the comments below!

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