Choosing a Builder Means Asking Questions

Couple inspecting floor plan while lying on the ground and smiling. The woman is holding her mug of coffee while the man has his own by his side.

Now that you’ve decided to build your own home, it’s time to do some research on home builders. Don’t be shy — ask prospective builders questions to help you choose the right one for your needs.

Selecting the right builder for your new home can make all the difference between a satisfied building experience and a high quality, finished home and an unpleasant process that leaves you with a less-than-perfect home and a bad taste in your mouth.

Choosing the right builder can be just a matter of asking the right questions.

Ask About A Builder’s Reputation

Document the builder’s experience and professional credentials. Check the company history: How many years have they been in business? Are they bonded? Insured? Are they members of the local builder association? Are referrals available? Do they have a good reputation?

Jocelyn Cates, director of communications and social media for Drees Homes, a large-volume, multi-state builder headquartered in Fort Mitchell, Ky., queried company executives and assembled these 10 key questions a potential buyer should ask a homebuilder before making a buying decision:

How many years have you been in business?

Do you build only from floor plans that you supply?

How does the customization process work?

What energy-saving features do your homes offer?

Does the community have a home owners association? If so, may I get a packet of their rules and fees?

What’s your process for quality inspection during construction, at final walk-through and to address any corrections?

Who will be my direct contact with any questions I may have?

How often (and when) will I have access to the home during the building process?

What type of warranty do you offer?

And finally, can you give me references from prior homebuyers?

Custom builder Ryan Dunham with Oakley Home Builders in Downers Grove, Ill., advises buyers to also check references other than those provided by the builder. “Any [builder] can come up with a few good references,” says Dunham. “If you’re trying to get the nitty-gritty on a builder’s true reputation, call some local resources. I would check with local Realtors. Realtors will have connections and can tell you what they have heard about this builder or that builder.”

Housing architect Christian Gladu, of Christian Gladu Design in Bend, Ore., advises checking with the builder’s own subcontractors, vendors, banks or nearby commercial builders. Ask if they are paying their bills. Are they financially responsible? Do they do what they say they will do? Also check Better Business Bureau ratings, consumer complaint websites and independent customer satisfaction surveys. “Ask homeowners,” Gladu says, “is there something this builder could have done better to improve their process and what would it be?”

Ask About The Quality of Their Work

Be sure to also ask former buyers about the builder’s craftsmanship. Did they finish the home on time? Were cost estimates accurate? Was the punch list extensive?

“If you’re on the phone with customer references,” Dunham adds, “be sure to ask about a builder’s service history. A new home has thousands of moving parts and you will always have some service needs. The question is: Was the builder there for them? Did he walk away? Was it hard to get them back?”

Find out how the builder handles change orders, Dunham explains. “I don’t like to do a lot of change orders,” he says. “I like to do the work on the front end. I feel that if you’re going to go through the entire building process and are going to have to pull out your check book 50 times to add quality items, it’s not going to be a fun experience.” He suggests asking the builder this question: What are the top 10 quality upgrades that you already include in your homes? “Ask questions,” he explains, “so that you can verify what exactly each builder has built into their programs.”

Gladu suggests asking the builder how they qualify subcontractors. Other questions include: Will you provide a completion date and penalties if the home isn’t finished on time? Will you allow me to meet my potential project superintendent? “I like to see a working project manager on the job at least a couple of hours a day to oversee the process,” says Gladu, “and not a guy who swings by and tells the subs to do it per plan. That kind of management and attention to detail really makes a difference.”

Ask Yourself: Is The Vibe Right?

The quality of the relationship you can expect between you and your homebuilder can be just as important as the quality of a builder’s work.

Judging the character of the builder can be subjective. “You have to trust your gut a little bit,” says Gladu. Do you get good vibes about the builder? Does the builder make you feel like you will be part of their family? Is the head of the company visible? Is the firm active in the community? Do they have a number of long-term employees? Do they have a long-term relationship with many of their subcontractors? Would you work for the company?

Drees Homes’ Cates advises that potential home buyers “should look for a builder that is consistent in assuring that every aspect of the building process is transparent, meticulously managed and custom to their needs. Key factors to look for when comparing homebuilders would be to take into account their longevity in the industry, their quality standards and, of course, the integrity of the people who make up the company as a whole.”

A family-owned and operated homebuilder since 1928, Drees Homes boasts a long list of community outreach initiatives and philanthropic efforts. More than half of the employees have been with the firm more than than 10 years and 15 percent have more than 25 years of service.

Oakley Home Builders has been in business for 10 years and does about 15 homes a year. The question for buyers, says Dunham, is: Do the builders appear to take ownership of their own company? “We built our company from the ground up,” Dunham says, “and, for us, reputation is extremely important.”

That’s the attitude you want to see.

Roy Diez is a freelance writer and marketing professional specializing in the architectural, building and construction industry. He is a former editor-in-chief of Professional Builder magazine.

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