I looked up each of the references on the Lancaster County Assessor's web site to determine the size of the house and its approximate value. We wanted to talk with homeowners whose situation was as similar as possible to ours in regards to budgets.
I compiled a list of a dozen or so specific questions about the builder, their subs, and the whole customer experience. I'll include that list at the bottom of this post.
The short story is that every one of the references we spoke with gave their builder glowing reviews. It's nice to know that any of the three would do a good job, but it doesn't making choosing the best one any easier. Maybe we'll see more differences when the bids come in. Until then, here are some specifics for each builder:
Ironwood gave us about 15 names of people for whom they've built houses in the last few years. Some of them preferred email; others preferred phone calls. All of them were in the general price range that we're shooting for with our home. I emailed four of them with houses larger than 2000 square feet (our current plan is 3600 square feet), and heard back from three of those fairly quickly.
One of the distinguishing features of Ironwood is their web-based online client portal, which manages all of the decisions that we need to make and all of our communication with Ironwood regarding those decisions. Without exception, the references said that this portal was as amazing as it looked.
Wilderness gave us only about 6-7 references, all with phone numbers. Unfortunately, despite requesting them twice, half of the names on the list built homes costing about 60% more than ours. Even though these homeowners are still dealing with the same communication issues and subcontractors as we would, those people have very different budget constraints than we do. We did meet with one such homeowner who happened to be friends of ours and toured their house. I was able to track down email addresses for several of the other references, and they gave glowing reviews, too. Everybody said that Jess' customer service was incredible, and they were all happy with the quality of the home.
Of the lower cost homes, none we near Lincoln, and only one was even in Lancaster County. Would the distance from town affect which subs are used, what prices are paid, and how much time the builder & subs spend at the building site? The homeowners claim not. One lady who lives an hour from Lincoln (in Geneva) said that the only local sub used on her house was the electrician. All the others came from the Lincoln area.
Most of Mike Rezac's recent houses have been built in or near one development just outside of town. This neighborhood is all geothermal and is touted as being one of the greenest, most energy efficient neighborhoods in the county. All but one of his references was from this neighborhood. All were in our approximate price range, though most were considerably smaller than our house--a fact that concerns us a little. The one exception was a house built about 8 years ago. He put it on the list because it was the exact size as ours and was built in a similar "farmhouse" style.
When we contacted his references, they all raved about Mike's customer service and the quality of his homes. His subs reportedly go an extra mile for him that they don't go for other contractors. Mike is exceedingly detail oriented--much like me--and has made sub re-do work that most builders would have just lived with. One reference even reported that he came back seven years later to fix something for free just because he didn't think it should have failed that soon.
We toured the home of one of Mike's references, and were happy with the workmanship that we saw.
As mentioned above, the references were unanimously positive for all three builders. Based on these, I think we'd be quite happy to have any of these builders construct our home. We'll have to make our decision based on the bids they come back with.
As promised, here's the list of questions that we asked of each of the references. If you have any additions you'd like to suggest, please speak up in the comments below.
- Did BUILDER stay within the budget that you agreed upon at the start?
- Did you find that the allowances they gave you for things like fixtures & appliances were reasonable? Did you go over or stay under those amounts?
- How closely did they stick to the schedule that they gave you at the beginning?
- Were all of their subcontractors professional in their work?
- Was the woodwork and trim carpentry done well, with tight, smooth joints and durable assembly?
- Has the finished house met your expectations for energy efficiency? Do you feel that BUILDER had an above average familiarity with energy-efficient building?
- Were they helpful with recommending materials, fixtures, appliances, etc, that worked well with your style and budget?
- How easy were they to communicate with? Did they return phone calls or answer emails in a timely manner?
- Did any problems arise during the building process? If so, were they dealt with to your satisfaction?
- Have you had any warranty issues after the house was finished? If so, were those dealt with to your satisfaction?
- In your opinion, what are BUILDER's strengths and weaknesses compared to other custom home builders? Is there anything that makes them really stand out above (or below) the others?
- Is there anything about the process that you wish BUILDER had done differently?
- What else would you like us to know before deciding whether to use BUILDER?
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