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3 Pillar Blog

Building Success 101

Categories: Build Process, Building Success 101, Newsletter | Posted: January 9, 2018

Q: Who is responsible for the work of subcontractors?

A: The general contractor (your builder) has the final responsibility for the quality and timeliness of all subcontracted work. That’s why a professional hires reputable subs with a proven track record. And that’s why you hire a pro to manage your job rather than trying to do it yourself.

Have Questions? Ask the Builder

Categories: Build Process, Newsletter | Posted: January 2, 2018

It’s natural to have questions and changes when building a custom home. Prevent surprises and delays by getting answers from the top.

There are lots of things homeowners can do to keep their building project running smoothly. Number one is making timely product choices, but another key action is to direct all change requests and questions, no matter how small, to the builder or the builder’s representative (usually the project superintendent).

It can be tempting to ask workers to make small changes, but doing so can create stress and misunderstanding. For instance, a homeowner may ask an electrician to move the junction box for a wall sconce a few inches to one side. Simple, right? Maybe, but the electrician may have to ask the framing carpenter to add blocking at the new location, or to move a wall stud that’s now in the way.

The problem is not the change itself but the fact that the framer has to bill the builder for the additional time and materials. If the builder passes this to the homeowners, they could see it as an extra charge they hadn’t agreed to.

Another example is the homeowners who ask the architect or kitchen designer rather than the builder to change the spec for the kitchen tile. If the builder is the one responsible for ordering this item but doesn’t get the information in time, the wrong tile might show up.

Going directly to the builder with each change request ensures that the homeowners learn the cost ahead of time, so they can decide whether that cost is worth it. If they say yes, they will feel a lot better about the final bill.

So it is clear why change orders should go to the top, but why can’t the homeowner just ask tradespeople informational questions?

The answer is that these subcontractors may not have all the facts. Say the homeowner wants a different type of showerhead, but before approaching the builder casually asks the plumber how much that model usually costs. The plumber may give a ballpark cost without knowing all the other variables, creating an unrealistic expectation in the homeowner’s mind. It’s best to go to the builder, who will contact the supplier (or send the homeowner to the plumbing showroom) and then apply all markups and discounts.

The point is that, on well-run jobs, workers and subs defer to the builder. In fact, most tradespeople prefer not to be asked a lot of questions because it puts them in an awkward position: they want to be polite to the homeowners and provide good service, but they also work for the builder and are committed to following the builder’s policies.

A custom home has a lot of moving parts and keeping them all moving in the same direction is easier with one person at the wheel. That’s why it’s crucial to use the builder as the primary contact. Doing so ensures a happier experience for everyone.

Building Success 101

Categories: Build Process, Building Success 101, Newsletter | Posted: December 26, 2017

Q: Why do builders sometimes send another company on a service call?

A: Increasingly, new-home builders rely on a variety of trade (or specialty) contractors, such as electricians, plumbers, and heating and cooling experts, to help build your new house. Part of their contract is servicing their work; who better than the person who installed your faucet to fix a leak? While the builder is ultimately responsible for making sure warranty work is documented and performed, he will rely on trade contractors to make warranty service call on his behalf, to his standards, and to your satisfaction.

After the Home is Built…

Categories: Build Process, Newsletter | Posted: December 19, 2017

What ever happened to customer service?

Today, simple respect and responsiveness seems to be more the exception than the rule … especially after the sale. How a homebuilder manages after-sale service, also called warranty service or call-backs, is a key indicator of the company’s overall professionalism and ability to meet (and ideally exceed) a homebuyer’s expectations.

The goal of the professional builder is to quickly and completely respond to and resolve issues that come up during the time a home is under warranty. As a critical part of providing great housing value and achieving customer satisfaction, professional builders encourage questions from homebuyers and respond to their concerns in a timely and respectful manner.

Typically, a builder’s warranty addresses specific issues with a home related to its structural components (such as the foundation and frame), basic electrical and other mechanical systems, and the quality of workmanship for a set time period. How a builder responds to warranty service inquiries varies depending on the policy offered and sold with the house: some are defined and managed entirely by the builder, while others are defined, at least in part, by independent agencies (such as an insurance company) and administered by the builder.

Specific warranty language and procedures benefit both the builder and the homeowner. Simply, a well-defined and properly communicated warranty service policy helps eliminate confusion about who is responsible for issues, concerns, and other call-back items that may occur in the first year or so of occupancy.

While there are specific differences among builders, a superior warranty service program includes:

Documentation. A documented process for responding to call-backs and customer service inquiries creates a “paper trail” that ensures that questions and concerns are properly communicated, managed, and resolved. A professional builder will document the details of the warranty policy and keep track of inquiries, response time, and specific types of service calls from the first call to follow-up to help ensure the homeowner’s satisfaction.

Response time. Responding to a service call is more an issue of timing than time; the key is to understand which calls will be addressed immediately, and which may require or allow more time. No one likes to wonder if or when a call or email will be answered; if homeowners can depend on getting a reply from their builder within a reasonable (or better still, stated) time frame, chances are better that they’ll be satisfied with how the issue is resolved.

Collective calls. Even if a builder responds to a warranty service call within a day or so, making a visit to the house to resolve a non-emergency situation may be timed to coincide with other scheduled work at the house. This “collective call” minimizes the number of times an owner needs to be at home to make the house available to the builder’s warranty service team. Of course, emergency calls demand immediate attention, but collective calls can be a more convenient and reliable way to address a variety of concerns or maintenance issues at the same time.

Scheduled visits. Professional builders are becoming more proactive in how they address scheduled service and other routine maintenance work while a house is still under warranty. In many cases, a builder will schedule a visit and “walk through” (or tour) a new home within a month after occupancy. These visits are opportunities for homeowners to ask questions and for the builder to document or schedule service work covered by the warranty. Such visits also help builders refine their warranty service processes based on a homeowner’s feedback.

No builder follows exactly the same policies and procedures for warranty service, inquiries and incidents. Our goal as building professionals is to provide each client with the best new home buying and living experience possible. How builders refine and improve their after the sale process goes a long way toward delivering superior customer service and buyer satisfaction.

Building Success 101

Categories: Building Success 101, Design, Newsletter | Posted: December 12, 2017

Q: Which cabinet door costs more?

A: Doors and drawers fall into two general categories. Overlay styles lap over the cabinet frame at the edges, and inset styles sit flush to the frame when closed. Both include high-quality products, but the tighter tolerances required by the inset method tend to raise costs by 10 to 20 percent.

Counter Intelligence

Categories: Build Process, Design, Newsletter | Posted: December 5, 2017

Which of today’s best-selling countertop materials to choose for your new home? Here’s a short buyer’s guide.

Countertops have a lot to do with how pleasant your kitchen is to use and how easy it is to maintain. And of course, they play a big part in the first impression the space makes on visitors. It’s worth taking the time to choose the countertop materials that work best for you.

Homeowners have more choices today than ever, but let’s consider the four most popular materials: laminate, solid surfacing, granite and quartz. Each has strengths and weaknesses.

Laminate comes in several quality grades. Although most people may think first of the inexpensive grades common in rental units and entry-level homes, there are high-quality, preformed laminate counters with three times the durability and no edge seams. Homeowners can choose from a variety of colors and patterns, including some that mimic the look of stone. On the downside, even these better products can scratch and burn under some circumstances–damage that’s difficult or impossible to repair.

Solid surfacing has lost market share in kitchens but remains a top choice for bathroom vanities. Made from a blend of acrylic and polyester, solid surfacing can cost three times more than basic laminate, but it looks more stylish and doesn’t have any surface or edge seams. Homeowners can choose from a wide range of colors and patterns.

Although solid surfacing isn’t immune to scratches and burns, a skilled installer can often repair the damage. The material is also nonporous, so it’s less likely to stain than laminate.

Some people like the fact that solid surfacing doesn’t feel as hard or cold as granite, although others find it looks too artificial for their taste.

Granite has been hugely popular in custom homes for years. That’s no surprise, given this natural material’s beautiful flowing patterns and mottling, as well as each slab’s unique look. Most homeowners enjoy visiting the granite supplier and choosing the specific slab they want their countertop made from.

Costs for granite are slightly more than for solid surfacing.

Granite stands up well to heat and isn’t easily scratched, but its hardness means that ceramic dishes or cups can easily chip or break when dropped or bumped against the surface. Raw granite can also be stained by hot grease, so it needs to be sealed during fabrication and resealed at intervals recommended by the fabricator. Its heavy weight means it may not be the best choice for cabinets with particleboard frames.

Granite slabs are 9 to 10 feet long and 5 feet wide, so if you want something bigger you will have a seam.

Quartz has recently passed granite in popularity among custom homeowners, even though it costs 10 to 20 percent more. Made from a blend of crushed stone and resin, this material is harder than granite and impervious to stains, including those from cooking oil, wine and coffee. Quartz has a rich, attractive finish and a regular surface pattern. It comes in 8 x 4 feet sheets, so anything bigger will require seams.

These descriptions are just an introduction to today’s most popular countertop materials. Other options are marble, wood, stainless steel, concrete and even soapstone counters. Your professional builder can help you sort through the pros, cons and pricing of whatever materials you are considering, so that you choose the right ones for your new home.

Eliminate Surprises by Clearly Defining the Job

Categories: Build Process, Newsletter | Posted: November 21, 2017

Building a new home is one of the most important investments a family will make. In many cases it represents the single largest financial investment. The home is designed and built to provide years of pleasure, comfort, and security. It is the physical manifestation of “family” and the place where celebration and joy are expressed and experienced.

No wonder that when it comes to building a home, no one likes surprises. The document that spells out the detail and helps sets expectations for both builder and client is the contract. The contract is the roadmap that defines the destination, describes the detail of how the project will proceed, and steers everyone clear of obstructions and delays.

The contract is crafted so that it protects both builder and client, and clarifies everything about the job. It is organized into a number of sections, including information about the project location (address, lot number, etc.), permits, contractor insurance and licensing, project timetables, and payment schedules.

While all of these details are important, most builders find that if conflicts arise during construction, they’re usually caused by misunderstanding over the “who, what, and how” of the job, and an effective contract works to clarify these issues.

Who makes the decisions?

One very short but important section names the owners’ representative. This should be one person–for instance the husband or wife, but not both–who will act as the builder’s main contact for approvals, changes, and questions. Having one owner as the representative helps eliminate confusion and makes communication more efficient. Similarly, the language should define who on the builder’s team can sign off on changes–whether it’s the company owner or the owner plus the site manager or superintendent.

What, exactly, is the client buying?

The project description defines exactly what the homeowners will be getting for their investment. The more detail the better. Most contracts accomplish this by referencing the project plans and specifications.

The plans are the visual description of the new home, and include floor plans, elevation drawings, and all electrical and mechanical systems. They should note who prepared them and when they were signed. The plans should include all necessary changes–for instance, from the building department and the zoning board.

The specifications, or “specs,” are the written description of what will be done. They list all items that will be installed in the home: the carpet, flooring, door hardware and light fixtures in each room; the model numbers of kitchen appliances, furnaces, and water heaters; the brands and colors of paint and roof shingles. The project price is based in part on the specs, so clients should study these carefully to confirm that they understand what they are getting before signing the contract.

How will discretionary funds be allocated?

Discretionary funds include allowances and change orders. It’s important both be crystal clear. Allowances cover parts of the job that haven’t been fully specified yet, such as when the homeowner has yet to decide on types of flooring or faucet fixtures. The allowance should specify when the decision is needed.

The contract should also clearly explain the builder’s change-order policy, including what types of changes can be made at each stage of the project, who can sign off on changes (the owner and builder reps), and the administrative cost for preparing change orders. It’s in everyone’s interest for even small changes to be documented in writing.

A contract that clearly defines the who, what, and how of the job steers the project clear of the most common minefields. This will help ensure that the homeowners get the home they want, on the timetable and for the price they were expecting.

What Home Are You?

Categories: About Us, Design, Newsletter | Posted: October 4, 2017

Production, custom or in between? The answer depends on your priorities.

If you have done any research into new homes, you’re likely familiar with the three categories of homes and builders: production, semi-custom and custom. Which one you choose will depend on your budget and your priorities–and each type may appeal to the same people at different points in their lives.

Production

If you have lived in a tract home, it was built by a production builder. The company built it and similar homes over and over, in what amounted to an outdoor factory. The repeatability of this approach lets production builders systematically shave time from the process, while the volume of homes they build qualifies them for bulk material discounts. Production homes also tend to be built on relatively inexpensive land. These cost savings make the production home cheaper than a custom home of similar size.

The tradeoff is that you get a cookie-cutter home. It’s like buying a car: you can choose a color and opt for a sunroof, but the basic model doesn’t change. Most production builders limit the buyer to a menu of predefined options–four carpet types, three cabinet styles, six fixture lines and so on–arranged in good, better and best tiers.

The production model is for those who would rather buy than build. It’s popular among people who want a new home but don’t need something unique and don’t have time to think through a lot of choices, such as young families with two working parents.

Semi-custom: Somewhat Different

Some people don’t want a cookie-cutter home but also don’t want to start with a blank canvas. This is the person who says, “I like that floor plan, but it’s not exactly what I want.” Semi-custom builders offer these clients a portfolio of floor plans that can be customized to a greater degree than the production home.

Although customization usually includes some structural choices, the options tend to be predefined. They might include the building a master suite at the back of the house, adding a screened porch or changing the siding, all of which the builder has priced to the dollar.

Structural options make the semi-custom home more expensive than an equally sized production home and require a bit more homeowner involvement. Semi-custom homes are popular with families moving up the income ladder, as well as with retirees who want to sell their custom home and downsize.

Custom: One-of-a-kind

The custom homebuilder works with homeowners to create a home that perfectly serves their particular wants and needs. The homeowners might want a certain architectural style or specific features. Or they might not. These are people who, simply put, want what they want.

The custom home’s status as a unique reflection of its owners makes it more complex than the production or semi-custom home in design, product selection and construction. These homes are often built on the homeowners’ land, which can bring unique design and engineering challenges.

Custom builders excel at imagining and creating something unique with each home. And because these projects involve so much interaction with homeowners, the most successful builders have a company culture that revolves around customer service and customer satisfaction. Not only that, professional builders have systems, organization and subcontractor and supplier relationships in place to efficiently and cost-effectively guide their customers through a complex building project. In fact, it’s a huge part of their success.

Building Success

Categories: Build Process, Building Success 101, Newsletter | Posted: September 12, 2017

Q: What if you have a deadline?

A: Some homeowners come to the initial meeting wanting the job done by a certain date. They may want it finished in time to host a big event like a wedding or family reunion, or they may not want to pay construction loan interest any longer than necessary. These are important concerns, but making them the defining factor can cloud your choice of a contractor. It’s better to choose someone you have confidence in and trust, and then work together to establish a realistic schedule.

First Impressions

Categories: Build Process, Newsletter | Posted: September 5, 2017

The best builders know that the initial meeting is about earning your trust

A big factor in someone’s choice of a builder is their comfort with the first person they meet from the company, whether it’s the owner or a sales person. Natural rapport is important, but gut feelings also play a role–feelings some homeowners aren’t sure how to interpret.

These feelings usually grow from attitudes and actions on the part of the builder. Professional builders understand this, and they make sure to act in ways that earn their clients’ trust, starting with that first meeting.

When interviewing builders, clarity about these attitudes and actions will help you choose someone you can work well with. Before signing anything, ask yourself the following questions.

Does the builder…

1. Show up like a pro? Someone in a cluttered pickup wearing old jeans and a dirty tee shirt may be a skilled craftsman, but their appearance raises questions. Although a pressed shirt and a clean vehicle don’t guarantee a great choice, they’re the first sign of a professional who runs a real business and pays attention to detail.

2. Play by the rules? Pros know that you want assurance that whoever builds your house will do it right, and that includes knowing they will follow relevant laws and regulations. Sample contracts, as well as proof of the necessary licensing and insurance, are signs of a conscientious company that doesn’t cut corners.

3. Show emotional intelligence? A custom homebuilding project can be an emotional roller coaster or an enjoyable ride. You will naturally feel more confident in a builder who works to make it more of the latter. The best builders help people understand the ups and downs that will be likely during design and construction.

4. Take schedules seriously? Homeowners who know what will happen and when during construction suffer a lot less anxiety. That’s why you will have more confidence in a builder who clearly communicates the overall job schedule as well as the approximate timetable for each major phase of construction.

5. Commit to keeping you informed? Pros also know that you will feel more secure, and the job will go more smoothly, if there’s a regular forum for your questions and concerns. While the timing of these meetings depends on the builder and project, they’re often scheduled on the building site at the end of key job phases, such as framing and electrical/mechanical.

6. Have clear change policies? Changes have a reputation for breeding anxiety and conflict, but that can be limited if everyone knows what to expect. A good builder will make sure you understand what change orders will cost, as well as how the builder will communicate any resulting adjustments in the job schedule.

7. Offer references? Most reputable companies will provide references to past clients. If some of those clients are happy to show you their completed home, that’s even better–it’s a sign that they really like and trust the builder.

A good builder knows that reducing uncertainty and developing trust, as illustrated by the actions above, are key to helping clients manage stress during a complex building project.

By the way, the best builders will also be vetting you, and they won’t be afraid to politely decline the job if necessary. Be wary of a builder who is too eager for the work. The point here is that the initial visit shouldn’t be about dollars and cents but about finding whether the two of you are a good fit.