So you've decided you're ready to build your dream house. Now what? Finding the right builder that fits your needs is a great first step. A good builder can guide you through the design, permitting, construction, and warranty of your new home. A less good builder can make those processes a living nightmare and end in litigation (so let's avoid those). But what makes a "good" builder and where should you look?
What Makes a Good Builder?
For better or for worse, this profession has a low barrier of entry and minimum standards to be a builder are just that: minimal. Take your time committing to a builder because it is a huge, multi-year commitment that you want to do everything you can to get right. Here's a few good places to start:
Trust - This one is listed first for good reason. A good builder, probably more so than any other trait, is someone who you find trustworthy. Your builder is going to give you a hundred (or hundreds of) decisions to make, but will still have to make hundreds more small decisions without you. You have to trust him to make those decisions in your best interest and that he’s treating your house like he’d treat his own. You’re also making a significant financial investment in him, so you’re trusting that he’ll be a good steward of your money. Not only to not run off with your money, but also to be respectful of your budget and find value for you throughout the project. You might not be able to tell if you can trust someone after meeting them once or twice, but you can usually tell if you can’t trust them. Follow that feeling.
Communication - When talking to a builder, do you feel smarter or dumber after the conversation? A good builder will take the time to communicate and educate you as the homeowner throughout the process. You should feel empowered with knowledge each time you talk to her because you know more about building your house than you did before the conversation, not confused because she used a bunch of big words and industry terms that were confusing. A good rule of thumb is if they can't explain it to you simply, they probably don't know it well enough.
Additionally, if it's not written down, it never happened. When talking to a builder about your new home, are they taking notes? Do they try to communicate most things in writing, including a written contract? How detailed is their scope document?
Organization - A good builder is organized. They make plans, take notes, and put a lot of forethought into what problems could arise in each aspect of the project. In this profession, there are too many details to consider and coordinate to fly by the seat of your pants. Take electrical outlets as an example. It’s a seemingly simple aspect of a house, but a good builder will consider:
What height to set the outlets (wall or baseboard?)
Do you want any USB or special outlets?
Is your framing done in a way so outlets can go where they need to?
Do you want to try to hide your backsplash or bathroom outlets?
Do you need outlets in any special locations like a broom closet for a charging vacuum or in your crawl space for a smart water shutoff?
That’s only a few of the questions you can ask about outlets and outlets are just one tiny aspect of your house. How many more items as seemingly simple as outlets go into your house? How could anyone keep up with all of those details if they aren’t organized?
Do they seem to have processes in place for each step of the project? Bonus points if they use a construction management software to track the schedule, budget, selections, etc. An organized builder makes less mistakes, solves problems before they become problems, and doesn’t have to ask you every question multiple times.
Knowledge/Experience - This is a tricky one. There are plenty of people in this business who "have been doing this for 30 years" but have been doing it wrong..... for 30 years. This industry is notorious for sticking with what you know, right or wrong, so experience isn't always the positive it should be. Yes it's good to find someone who's built a house similar to what you want, but you need to make sure they're building it the right way. Knowledge is really what you're looking for. Find a builder who is constantly looking to learn more about their craft. Do they go to conventions and stay on top of their required continuing education? Do they follow other builders on social media to learn from them? Here are a few questions you can ask when interviewing builders to test their knowledge:
What is your typical drainage plane between the siding and weather barrier? (their answer doesn't matter, as long as they acknowledge what a drainage plane is and that they utilize one. It's crazy how uncommon this is)
How do you manage fresh air intake/makeup air? (this one can get complicated, but basically how do they introduce fresh air into the house so you're breathing clean air consistently and how do they introduce new air to the house when other air gets sucked out through a hood vent or something else)
Do you recommend putting my HVAC in a conditioned space? (the answer is pretty much always yes)
Does a house need to "breathe"? (No, a house needs to be able to dry and ventilate, but in a way you control, not by relying on a leaky house to hopefully do that for you)
Where should I look?
Referrals are a great place to start. If someone you know has used a builder and would use them again, that's pretty rare and someone you should definitely talk to. The same thing applies to testimonials. If a builder has testimonials on their website by previous clients who have or would work with them again, that's a great sign. If you have an architect you want to use, ask them if they recommend anyone; it's likely they know a few builders to recommend and a few to stay away from. If nothing else, find houses that you think are beautiful and feel good. Either knock on doors and ask the owner who built it or see if you can look up the permit information through the municipality.
The last thing I'll mention is how to not choose a builder, and that's by choosing the one with the lowest price. A more expensive builder doesn't always guarantee a good outcome, but the least expensive builder will guarantee you a poor one. In this business, the cost to build a home from one builder to another doesn't really change that much. Most will be within a few percentage points of each other, so the differences are either someone left something out of the scope when they bid it (which you'll still probably end up paying for) or they aren't pricing out the same scope or quality. In the long run, it'll be a much better experience and use of your money to spend it on the builder that fits your needs and that you can trust, even if it costs a little more on the front end.