Establishing a Successful Builder/Homeowner Partnership

How to select a builder who will build you a great house and not drive you crazy (and visa versa)

One of the most important decisions you will make in the home planning process is the selection of a builder, the individual who will be primarily responsible for transforming your house plans into a wonderful three-dimensional reality.  Building a custom house is a blend of craft and organization; having the proper people to do excellent work and orchestrating their activity so that the process moves along smoothly.
Look ahead….When your new home is completed and you move in, how would you like to describe the building process and the relationship you enjoyed with your builder?  Chances are it would sound something like this:  “Our building process was successful because the house was done on time, our builder was responsive to our needs; his billings and change orders were clear, fair, and timely; and the house is very well built.”
How do you go about selecting a builder to assure that kind of a positive review of your relationship?

The choice is yours
The selection of a builder is a very personal choice.  The perfect builder for one person may not work for another.  You should be wary of circumstances where you have limited choice or where you are obligated to use one specific builder.  While professionals will no doubt have recommendations, you should maintain your independence and make that choice based on factors that are critical to you.
The price factor
While the process of selecting a builder is certainly price-dependent, it should not be the prime driver of   selection.  You should be looking for is the best builder who will build your home for a competitive price. The best builder for you may be the lowest price builder or perhaps a builder whose contract price is higher, but whose quality of work, business practices, and schedule availability might better meet your requirements. With builders, like anything else, you often get what you pay for.
A few important aspects of pricing to keep in mind:
  • A builder’s price is typically made up of the sum of subcontractor costs and the mark-up of 15-20% to cover the builder’s insurance, overhead, supervision, and, finally, profit.  The prime determinant of the final price are the subcontractor costs.  Your mission should be to determine how professional (in terms of quality and responsiveness) the builder’s subcontractors are.
  • It is critical to make certain that every builder pricing your house, is pricing from the same plans and specifications.  If one builder, for example, is pricing skim coat plaster and another standard sheetrock, the differences in specification will affect the price.  Or one builder’s price may include three zones of heat, compared to one zone in another builder’s price.  With a lower price, you might also be buying lesser specifications.  The bottom line here is that it is critical that you request and explore builder pricing with a well-documented set of specifications to avoid disparities or misunderstandings.
  • All builder’s prices includes allowances for such things as plumbing fixtures, countertops, light fixtures, appliances, floor finishes, tile work and site development.  In traditional building process many of these items are usually not selected until well into the construction process, your contract will include an allowance (read “budget”) for these items.  At Stillwater Dwellings we work hard to establish a complete set of project specifications for your homes.  Builders who are “bidding” on your project do not have to subject their budget to guess work and inaccurate “allowances”.  They have a complete list of all the components that will be used in your house.  Therefore with little planning they can compile an accurate budget that is developed for your project.
A good builder relationship is built on craft, communication, organization, and chemistry
If the framework of a good builder relationship is price, the foundation is made of equal parts craft, communication, organization and chemistry.  Everyone places different degrees of importance on each of these, so base your decision on how you feel about the builder’s qualifications in these areas.  Consider and probe these areas during builder interviews:
  • Craft: What is the builder’s attitude about quality?  How will you determine up-front if your expectations regarding quality are even realistic?  How does he ensure that you will receive the quality that you are buying?  How do his supervision practices contribute to quality?  What will he do if you don’t feel the quality is acceptable in a certain area?  Does the builder use the same subcontractors for all of his houses?  How long has he used his major subcontractors (foundation, framer, finish, electrician, plumber, and painter)? Ask to see a recent house that the builder has built.  Look at it carefully and ask plenty of questions about any areas you see that concern you.
  • Communication: How does the builder handle change orders?  How and when does he communicate overruns in allowances?  How available is he during the day to answer questions or to meet with you on-site?  When does he not expect to hear from you?  How will he help you resolve material selections that you have to make? Your communication with your builder is the key to success.  A builder who is organized and a good communicator will issue change orders with prices in writing before the change is implemented.  When you are about to go over an allowance, a good builder will tell you that.
  • Organization: How your builder organizes the project is important. This includes: coordination of subcontractor schedules; documentation of specs, allowances and change orders; maintaining a critical path schedule; site housekeeping; and site supervision (if not him, who?)
  • Chemistry: How do you feel about the builder’s style and attitude?  Is he paying equal attention to you?  Are you comfortable with the answers he is giving you?  Do you feel like you want to work with this person for the next eight months?  Do his strengths seem to correspond to your priorities?  Like a good partnership or marriage, everyone has different priorities and looks for different qualities.
Check references
How do other people view your prospective builder and his (or her) work?  Checking a select number of references may provide a great deal of insight and round out your own impressions:
  • Ask to see a recently completed house and ask for three recent customer references.  Would the homeowner work with the builder again (despite the inevitable issues along the way)?  Are they happy with the quality of the work?
  • Visit a house currently under construction.  Is the site neat and the material well protected?  Does the quality look good?  Do the subcontractors look happy and well-directed, or are they standing around?  If you visit with the builder, what things does he point out for you to see and how well does he seem to be respected by those on the job?
  • Ask for a banker and subcontractor reference and get a sense of how professional the builder is and what the subcontractor values about his relationship with the builder.
The reality of compromise
Through decades of observation, we’ve noted that there seem to be two types of skilled builders; those who are on site and are skilled craftspeople themselves, but are often not the best business people, and those who manage a job well and are well organized and professional in all their business practices, but are not on the job building.  The reality is that very few builders possess both the craft expertise and business acumen that add up to perfection.
Through decades of observation, we have also noted that few (if any) construction projects proceed from start to finish without a delay or an annoying issue that the homeowner and builder need to resolve.
For these reasons it is important that you decide for yourself which combination of skills and practices you think best suit your temperament.  Balance that with price, and make the decision to engage yourself in a relationship and nurture it!
A few words about being your own general contractor
Some consumers feel that one way to maximize what their budget will provide is to act as their own general contractor.  This means taking on responsibility for the entire construction process, including hiring and supervising all the subcontractors.  Conventional folklore even suggests that this is one way to save 10-15% of the cost of the house!
Building a house is a complex, time-consuming process, and experience can have a huge bearing on the quality of the end product.  Being a one-time general contractor is a very tough job. Most people do not have the time required, the expertise required, to command the best subcontractors at the best prices and on demanding schedules.  The end result is often a house of lesser quality that costs more and drains a great deal of time that the owner could have put to more productive use.  Unless you have had experience building, enjoy it, and have a great deal of free time, think twice (or three times!) before deciding to become your own general contractor!
How can we help?
We place a high priority on helping you select a builder who will build your Stillwater Dwellings home well.    We maintain a list of builders throughout the country who have completed a panelized or modular project successfully and happily.  While the choice of builder is ultimately yours, our preferred builders are worthy of your consideration.
If you decide on another builder, we offer an excellent builder orientation program and on-site builder consultant.
For more information…
For more information on this topic or any other aspect of our custom design and building programs, please contact our corporate offices with your questions.