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How to Choose a Builder

There are many qualities to look for in a “good builder.” You will want someone who can manage well a team of craftsmen skilled at constructing a quality house.

There are other characteristics that are more difficult to evaluate, but equally important: the ability to listen, to be a partner with you in solving problems along the way, and to be honest and fair. Here are some paths you can follow to help you select the builder that is right for you.

ASK FOR REFERENCES AND CHECK THEM OUT. Thoroughly investigate at least 3-4 references for each builder you consider. The references should be people for whom the builder has completed construction of a house.

Just phoning and asking a few questions is not enough. Arrange to visit the homes of the references, so you can check for the signs of good construction detailed below.

Spend time either in person or on the telephone with the references to discuss the builder’s honesty, patience, ability to listen and problem-solving capability. Be sure to do this when the builder is not there, as his presence may inhibit the homeowners from giving you the frank and candid answers you need.

Specific questions you should pose to references include:

  • Review Understanding Building Laws in the State of Alaska
  • Did the project run smoothly? If not, what went wrong?
  • Did the job finish on schedule? If not, what held it up?
  • Were the cost estimates accurate? If they went over, where and why?
  • Was the builder helpful in solving budget or layout problems?
  • Did he make helpful suggestions or bring up ideas you had not thought of? Were his explanations clear and logical?
  • Was he frequently present on the job?
  • Have you had any major problems with the house during the time you’ve been occupying it? If there has been a problem, was the builder efficient in answering your calls and following up with you?

CHECK CREDENTIALS. Ask your prospective builders if they belong to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) or any other national or local building organization. Then you can check with that organization to see if the builder is a member in good standing. Keep in mind that there are many good builders who choose not to affiliate themselves with any industry association. Your decision on which builder to select should not be based on this type of credential alone.

LOOK FOR A BUILDER WHO CONSTRUCTS THE TYPE AND SIZE OF HOUSE YOU WANT BUILT. Builders often have areas of expertise. If you want to build a house from stock plans for $100,000, don’t talk to a custom builder who designs high-end $400,000 homes.

SELECT A BUILDER WITH EXPERIENCE. It’s hard to stay in this business a long time, and it would be difficult for a charlatan to do. There’s nothing wrong with new builders in the field, but let somebody else hire the new ones. This may be your once-in-a-lifetime chance to build your own home. Choose someone with proven experience.

ASK THE BUILDER HOW OFTEN HE’LL BE ON THE JOB SITE. And verify his answer with his references. You deserve and are paying for the builder’s time and attention. Ideally, he should be on your job site every day. In some cases, his presence two or three times a week is acceptable. If the builder’s daily presence is important to you, one expert suggests selecting a builder with a small company (under 20 employees) who can be on the job all the time because your project will be a major one for him.

SIGNS OF GOOD CONSTRUCTION

When you walk through the house of a “reference,” you need to look for signs of good building construction. These are often not obvious.

At first, you may feel embarrassed having to ask the homeowners you’re visiting if you can open their windows or doors, or look in the closets, but remember that when you build your own house, you are making the investment of a lifetime. Who you choose to be your builder will affect the quality of your life for many years to come. Surely that is worth the effort to summon up the courage to take a close and thorough look.

Here are some details to examine that indicate whether or not a house is well constructed:

  • LOOK FOR SIGNS OF ROOF LEAKS. Do the roof shingles lay flat? Leaks can be revealed from discolorations and stains in the interior ceilings or walls caused by water seeping through cracks and into the house.
  • CHECK THAT THE WALLS ARE STRAIGHT. Find an area or corner, typically in the kitchen or bath, where a row of floor tile or a patterned sheet of vinyl flooring meets a wall. If the last row of tile or vinyl patterning that is closest to the wall runs uniformly parallel to the wall, chances are the wall is straight. If the tile strip is wider at one end and narrower at the other, then the wall may not be straight.
  • CHECK THE QUALITY OF THE PAINT JOB. If the builder does the job right, he does it right everywhere, according to one expert. Look at the backside of doors. Step inside a walk-in closet and make sure the door casing on the inside is caulked and painted properly.
  • TEST THE WINDOWS AND DOORS. Pull the windows up and down; and push the doors open and closed. Do the windows go all the way up? Do they close and seal properly? Are the cracks around the door uniformly spaced to indicate that the door is hung well and the doorway is standing properly? Interior doors should open and close easily. But the tighter the house is constructed, the better it will hold up against heat, cold and other weather conditions–and the harder it will be to close the exterior door. Because it is fitted with weather stripping and is meant to be a protection against climatic elements, the exterior door shouldn’t close with the push of a fingertip.
  • CHECK FOR LEVEL COUNTER TOPS AND TIGHT SEAMS. Do objects on counter tops remain stationery or upright? Or do they roll or topple because the counter isn’t level? Tight seams on counter tops will prevent dirt from building up in them and the counter top materials from being damaged with daily use. If laminate is not properly seamed, for example, it will absorb water and swell.
  • TEST APPLIANCES AND FIXTURES TO SEE IF THEY OPERATE PROPERLY. Does the toilet flush properly? Is it evenly set on its base? Do drawers in built-in cabinets pull in and out smoothly? Do the floors or stairs squeak when walked upon?
  • LOOK FOR CLEANLY DETAILED WOODWORK. Are the cuts and patterns clean, consistent and well-detailed on the moldings and trims? Are the baseboards set evenly against the floor with no gaps?
  • ASK THE OWNERS HOW THE HOUSE IS INSULATED. How high are their heating bills? Have any energy efficient features been installed? Are there drafts from the windows?

Remember that your relationship with your builder is really like a marriage – it will have its “ups” and “downs.” But it doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t good or working during the “down” times.