If you are building a home or an addition, here are 10 questions you should ask your prospective custom home builder to keep your home-building experience from becoming a nightmare
What you don’t know can really hurt you: Don’t assume anything.
Before we begin, we have to state our first assumption-You are looking to build a new home or addition and would want and appreciate a good experience doing it. What defines a “good experience” for you? Is it that the cost is aligned with the budget you set for the project? Is it that the quality of the work is exemplary? Is it that the timeframe given at the beginning is actually achieved? There’s an old saying that between Cost, Speed and Quality you can get any two-but not the third! I would suggest that a “good experience” would be where you have those attributes (high quality, fair cost, and reasonable timeframe) along with a feeling that the people that you’ve selected to work with you share your values and concerns, and will use their expertise for your benefit-not to game you. Unfortunately, the traditional form of contracting leaves the purchaser of contracting services more or less in a “Buyer Beware” situation. You aren’t expert in the intricacies of construction- you don’t know the difference between PVC and PEX pipe, or ABS vs. PVC, and can’t visualize what a fly rafter is. As the Buyer of these services you are at a huge disadvantage in terms of knowledge base to be able to discern the differences between companies that are going to deliver the “good experience” you are looking for and the companies that are a virtual lock for the bad experience you hear about at cocktail parties. Price, something you think you know about, is NOT a good way to start to distinguish Company A from Company B- differences in bids or costs that you perceive are almost always differences in what each Company is willing to deliver to YOU-what YOU get- not the profits from builder to builder! Our handbook is our attempt to give you a few easy to understand tools that you can use to find the company that will give you a “good experience”. It would be disingenuous for us not to remind you that we think that we DO deliver a good experience to our customers, but how can you know?
First of all, we have never heard of a custom home builder that starts off by telling you that they are going to steal from you and deliver the most minimal quality product they can get you to accept-so we start with rule #1: “Bad builders always lie” It’s not even lying to them, really-it’s how they operate. They will lie about things you need, things you don’t need, what things will cost, what things do cost, whether something is good or bad, or whether something is reasonable or not. Often, they aren’t even really lying so much as they are making something up because they simply don’t know the right or wrong way to do something and don’t want you to know. Yet, when it doesn’t work out, it’s still your house, and your problem. So how can you tell if they are lying or not? How can you, with only minimal knowledge of the arcane world of “construction” possibly navigate the selection of the most critical piece of your building team? By asking a few specific questions, you should be able to start to gauge the differences between companies that are going to try to help you, and those that are likely to hose you.
Question #1: Get References.
We think this is the most important area and so we are going to spend a little more time here. In regard to references, we’re not only talking about customer references; companies will only give you their good ones, and they avoid the bad ones. What you want to do is submit a questionnaire (see ex. 1) to each company you are considering hiring. The questionnaire should ask where they build, who they buy from, who they borrow from, and who they subcontract to, along with phone numbers and contact names.
Next, CALL THEM ALL! It is hard to understand when people have a list like this, then blow off using it and wind up having a problem anyway. You are going to ask each what their relationship to the company is, would they use them personally. For the Inspectors, they probably won’t come out and say anything negative, so be attentive to what they don’t say as much as what they do say. For the suppliers- does the company pay well, within terms, or do they have to periodically call to remind them about late payments? For trades, we call these firms our “internal customers” the same thing- plus “do you enjoy working with the company,” “would you use them yourself,” “how long have you worked with them”? This last question is important-companies that are going to disappoint you will usually disappoint others around them, and so will have relatively short term trade relationships. Companies that will care about you generally also care about their trade and supplier relationships as well, and so will have longer histories with their vendors. You don’t need to be an expert in construction techniques, laws or accounting to get a very quick read on the companies you are vetting, as long as you follow through on your calls, the differences in the companies, and the experience you are likely to have, will become very obvious.
Question # 2 – Dry Basements.
Again, you don’t need to be a construction expert to want a dry basement. Ask what the company’s standard guarantee for a dry basement is. Is there one? In writing? A company looking to give you a “good experience” will do things to ensure a basement is dry for 20 years or more. Now, here’s a clue- the building code does not require this! So, a builder can build thousands of homes, pass thousands of inspections, and still deliver damp basements! So a builder looking to deliver a better experience is going to spend a little more money here than a builder looking just to meet the code minimums- and remember the code-writers don’t care what kind of experience YOU are about to have! If you really want a good experience, you need to make sure that the companies you are looking at share your values and I doubt that you are looking for basement problems!
A pet peeve of ours is Downspout Drains. Believe it or not, there are builders that will charge over $500,000 and won’t even connect the downspouts to underground drains! They leave you with the situation that the rainwater dumps right onto the lawn and garden, blowing out your mulch and where, eventually, it will seep back into the basement. Typically, these builders do not guarantee the basements to be dry. If you ask them, they’ll tell you that the landscaper will tie the downspouts into the drains, but I’ve never yet seen a landscaper qualified to lay plumbing pipe, or ever dig up a foundation to make sure the pipes are installed below the frost level. Every time I see this, I know that eventually the basement will be wet, and the people upset. The builder will blame the landscaper, and the landscaper will blame the builder. You will be in the middle-right where you don’t want to be- and the proud owner of a wet basement! So, when you’re asking about basement waterproofing, ask about the downspout drains, too!
Question #3: Your Options and Allowances.
During the building cycle, many bad experiences are created when the Allowances given for things like cabinets and flooring don’t bear any relationship to actual selections made by the customer. Why? You have to pay the difference out of cash! SO, unless you have tens of thousands of dollars set aside for this, you want know that the builder will set the Allowances at a price-point commensurate with what you are likely to spend (then the cost is covered in your construction loan). So, another question to ask your prospective building companies is, “If we build with you, how do you figure allowances?” Be careful if they tell you they know based on experience what to set the Allowances, and don’t care where you go to buy the items! Or restricts you too much to what’s in their showroom. This is such a huge source of conflict, a Company that is interested in ensuring your “good experience” is going to exert a lot of control here-hopefully not too much-The others don’t’ care and will tell you that you can go anywhere you want and “just” pay the difference.
Question #4: Engineered Floors.
Ask them if they use engineered floor systems as a standard. If yes, then why? If no, then why not?
You don’t need to know anything more than that. How they answer that question will give you guidance into their perspective of their philosophy on building a solid home. You should know that different wood species have different strengths, and so can be used for different spans for floors and rafters. This becomes important to you if you aren’t looking for bouncy floors or a saggy roof in your new home. Ask the prospective builder what species they prefer to use for floors or rafters. You will find out right away if they are into the “science” of building, or just trying to turn dollars over.
Question # 5: Plumbing. Copper or Plastic?
Ask if they use copper or plastic pipes. Whatever they answer ask them why they chose that material. Listen to the answer. Again, you don’t need to be an expert here, but you are looking to see what drives the different companies, is it only a matter of cost?
Question # 6: Windows Casings.
The window casings are what the builder puts around the window on the inside and it includes the window sill. Ask the builder, “How do you case your windows?- Is an extended windowsill a standard part of your window trim package? Why or why not?” Why ask this? If you are reading this brochure, then you are at least interested in the benefits of having YOUR home built (not just anyone’s) and so you are looking for the finishes to be nicely designed and installed-this question will give you a window (no pun intended) into whether the company you are talking to cares about what things look like when they’re done and down the road or they just do things that you would consider standard and ordinary. Again-you have to decide what makes an experience a “good experience” for you.
Sample Pic of window with no trim: This is a sample of the ‘flat’ or unfinished window casings. You recognize that the room looks and feels ‘flat’ when you walk in.
Question # 7: I-Beams
Ask the companies you are considering, “How do you size your steel beams? If we want fewer posts in the basement, can we have that?” Listen to their answers- are they dancing or do they really know what they’re talking about. Was their answer acceptable to you? You have to decide!
Question # 8: Garages
Today, the technology exists to make garages much better than they used to be, so companies that are looking to deliver you that good experience will not blow off the garage as unimportant. Ask the companies that you’re talking to “Do you suggest we heat our garages?” (listen closely to the answer-why or why not?) “Do you insulate your garages as part of your standard insulation package?” “Do you have hot and cold water in your garages?” “How big is your garage drain?” “Have you ever had to tell a customer that they had to have a post in the garage because the engineer required it?” And ask, “Have you ever built a 3 – car garage with a post in it?” Unless you like opening your car door into a post, designing the structure to avoid that post is a matter of care and cost and so another window into the thinking of the companies you are talking to.
Question #9: Bathroom Showers:
Ask the builder, “Will you do a tile shower with a tile floor?” “Who will do that for you?” “Do you do that often?” And ask, “When you do a tile floor in the shower, what is your standard drain?”- So you know-the drains for tile showers are different than the drains for shower inserts-Listen again to the answers! Especially if they tell you that they leave that to the plumbers and don’t know, or, worse-that the tile setters install the shower drain! Tile showers installed properly don’t leak- hear what they have to say on the subject.
Question #10: Warranty:
Ask what the warranty is. Is it written? Can you have a copy? What is the term? It is normal for the warranty to only be a year, but what is covered? How specific is it? In our area, the BIA has an association-approved warranty form. If the builder is a member, he’s supposed to be using it or some version of it, and it has comprehensive standards and action triggers for things that sometimes are issues in homes-is that what you’re being offered? What kind of claims does the company usually see and what kind of response time is typical. When you contact a former customer (remember the references?) ask what their experience with call-backs, warranty issues, and service has been.
ONE LAST THING: Be careful of a custom home builder offering ‘discounts’. In reality, there are very few, if any, true discounts. Make sure you get everything in writing and then have someone you trust check it over. I hope this little booklet has been helpful to you, and my hope is that you will have a good building experience. Feel free to call me most anytime for some free advice on your next remodeling or home-building project.