Building trust Featured

11:00am EDT August 26, 2003
You wake up on a Sunday morning, the Friday after you closed that big deal you've been chasing forever.

You've got a bundle, and you're ready to celebrate. You say out loud the words that will change your life forever: "Let's build a new home."

Custom building offers obvious advantages over buying an existing house or a tract home, such as not being forced to live with decisions made by a previous owner or a house designed for tract homebuilders.

But custom building also means you're going to have to make hundreds of decisions about your dream home. And, most likely, you'll be in regular contact with the builder from the moment he breaks ground until he hands over the keys to you.

Robert Heaps, owner of Sustainable Developers Inc., says that while a few customers who build homes turn the entire task over to the architect and builder, most want to be involved from start to completion.

"The biggest thing about building is that it's a relationship, not unlike a marriage," says Heaps.

And as with a marriage, the relationship will be a lot smoother if the customer and the builder are compatible. One of the most important factors, says Heaps, is the builder's communication skill. A lot of interaction is required through the building process, and having a builder you can communicate with will smooth the process.

Much of the ongoing interaction through the building process will be with the crew in the field. Heaps suggests visiting a site where the prospective builder's crew is currently working. Observe how the crew works, whether the site is reasonably neat and how the foreman and crew relate to you.

This is important, because you will likely be visiting your site from time to time to see how the work is progressing. And changes along the way that you request or that the builder suggests are inevitable.

Says Heaps: "Even well-thought-out plans will change in the field."

There are few credentialing requirements for builders outside of the city of Pittsburgh, so it pays to do your homework when it comes to selecting a contractor if you plan to build elsewhere, Heaps says. He warns against considering only those builders that an architect might refer, as they tend to work with a small number of contractors who may not be the most appropriate for your requirements or provide you with a wide enough choice.

If you are interested in using environmentally friendly materials or including new technologies like geothermal heating or cooling, some contractors may be unfamiliar with their use or reluctant to work with them.

Finally, check with owners of homes that the contractor has built, says James Rumbaugh, president of the Builders Association of Western Pennsylvania, and query the people you know and trust.

Says Rumbaugh, "Friends, relatives and neighbors can provide you with information on builders who have done work for them and let you know about their experience." How to reach: Sustainable Developers Inc., Robert Heaps, (412) 361-1165; Building Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, www.bamponline.com