1. Ask to see three or four completed projects, preferably ones that show a breadth of styles and budgets. Any builder can "WOW" you if they've been given a bottomless pit of money to do it with, but I'd be more impressed with one that could deliver that same style and quality on a more modest budget. Make note of the sort of things the builder is pointing out as you walk through the projects. Are they drawing your attention to details? Highlighting special materials? Or explaining how they tackled certain challenges? I wouldn't hesitate to ask what price range the houses you're shown fell into (usually given as a dollars per square foot figure.)
2. Ask for a tour of some CURRENT jobsites. Better yet, get the address and go by on your own. A messy site or one with a general air of confusion and disorganization is one that isn't being supervised properly.
3. Find out who would actually be in charge of your job. Often, the person who is giving you the "dog and pony show" is not the one who is actually on site building your house. Ask how many projects each manager has at a time. Most good builders have a set maximum that they will let each person oversee. If they are vague or give you an answer higher than 3 or 4, let that raise a red flag.
4. Get a feel for how they handle the flow of communication. For long distance owners who can't visit their site often, this is particularly important. Do they upload progress pictures to a website weekly? Or perhaps have a standing conference call to tackle decisions and update you? There isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer, but a builder who doesn't seem to have one at all isn't likely to keep you in the loop.
5. Similarly, what method do they have for streamlining selections? Some builders have a person on staff who makes sure that all selections are made in a timely manner and keeps track of those to make sure the right wall gets painted the right color and the right knob ends up on the right cabinet. Some builders will look to the owner or their designer to organize that information--and there's nothing wrong with that as long as they communicate when the decisions need to be made. Having a process for making and communicating the 1000s of decisions that go into a custom home is crucial. If there is no system in place, one of three things will be happening over and over: 1. the owner will have to make snap decisions on things they would have preferred having time to research, 2. work will grind to a standstill while decisions are made or while materials are ordered, or 3. the owner will end up making the same decisions over and over because they are falling through the cracks of disorganization.
6. Don't be afraid to ask them some tough questions. Ask who they consider to be their biggest competitor, and what sets them apart from that competitor. Ask them to tell you about their last UN-happy customer and how they managed the situation.
7. Ask if they work off of a fixed price, or a "cost plus" strategy, and how they manage costs to bring the project in at budget. (Familiarize yourself with the difference between the two first.) One thing I see too often is "allowance" numbers that don't come anywhere near covering what the client wants. Ask how they arrive at their allowances, and don't be afraid to ask for a typical tile or hardwood allowance that you can check against the marketplace.
8. Ask about their warranty and "after service." The "official" answer is pretty standard for most custom builders, but you'll probably get a feel from the way they answer as to who you can count on once that last check clears.
9. Naturally, you'll want to ask for and check references. If a builder provides a reference, it goes without saying that it was, overall, a pleasant experience. So ask the references what the WORST part of the building process was, what headaches they went through, what they think the builder could have done better.
10. If you're working with an architect or designer, ask them about their experience working with those professionals. A quality builder will not only have experience working with them, but will appreciate what they bring to the project. It should raise a red flag if they scoff at their involvement.
11. Finally, and this one is the most important. Trust your gut. A feeling that "this is who should build my house" is worth more than all the rest. Who sees your house as just another job and who sees it as something they can take pride in? Who do you feel you can trust and work with for the next 6 months to a year or more?
So that's my advice...what else would you add to the list?
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