How To Choose A Builder

‘The 7 Deadly Mistakes to Avoid when Choosing a Builder’

blueprint2.jpgBuilding your new home may be one of the biggest investments you make in a lifetime, so you are right in doing your research first so that you can do it right. But did you know, who you choose to build it can impact the outcome dramatically.

Now I am not talking about the horror building stories that we’ve all heard or read about: the home that never got finished, the builder that cut corners and more, the chainsaw massacre remodel job. They are out there and in some cases true. I am talking about how much your builder’s experience and expertise can affect the decisions you make while building your home. The difference can be the creation of the home of your dreams or just another home. So use these tips, and choose wisely.

Mistake #1 - Failure to do proper background investigation and research

Don’t be shy about asking. If they are a reputable builder, they will want you to know their credentials. The Home Builder’s Association (HBA) will be able to tell you if the builder has any complaints against him or if he has been involved in any contractor related legal actions. Ask for references and then talk to them. Ask questions like:

  • Did the builder stay on budget?
  • Was the builder helpful with materials, finishes, recommendations?
  • Did the builder stay within the projected completion time range?
  • Did the builder return calls quickly?
  • When problems arose, how quickly was the builder able to respond to them satisfactorily?
  • Are they registered with the local Home Builders Association (HBA)?
  • How long have they been working with the same trades?
  • Have they won any awards?
  • What do they feel they excel at?

Today the building process is very complicated. Code and industry changes are happening regularly. The number of choices in materials and construction techniques has risen exponentially in the last 10 years. There are too many options, and it is a difficult process. If they are registered with the HBA there are programs and training to keep them in touch with industry trends and changes.

They say a pick-up truck makes for a great office. If you’re not so sure, check to see that they have good management skills or a strong team behind them. This won’t guarantee a better job, but it usually means that the process will go more smoothly as the builder will not have to see to everything personally.

  • Check with the local HBA to see if there have been any complaints
  • Ask for references and then talk to them.
  • Ask for the names of some of their trades and ask them if they like working for the builder? How well does he resolve problems? Does he pay on time? Does he set high job site standards? Does he cut corners on the job site? *Please handle this sensitively. Trades can be very loyal to their builder so don’t risk your future relationship with them.

Mistake #2 – Failure to choose the right builder for your job

Not every custom house build project needs the same kind of a builder. Consider your needs. Are you looking for a one man artisan who pays attention to every detail in your home? Or is it important to you that your home be built on a tight schedule and problems and challenges are addressed quickly and efficiently?

Assess your needs by asking yourself these Questions:

  • How much time do I have to invest in the home building process?
  • How much research am I you able to do for the products and finishes?
  • How much time do I have to select the material finishes?
  • How much guidance are you prepared to offer your builder in how you want your home built?

For instance, some builders are expert craftsmen. Everything they do is on the custom level. If you are looking for a lot of detailed woodwork, you might be better suited to a builder who either, 1) does it himself and stakes his reputation on it, or 2) has his own skilled people doing the work, rather than subbing the work out to (possibly) the lowest bidder.

Some builders offer a much more streamlined approach to building your home, which will save you time and may save you money. Of course you may not have the full ‘custom’ approach to every detail in the house, but do you really want to be picking out every last little thing on your house?

Mistake #3 – Failure to choose a builder you like and trust

Signing with a builder is a big commitment. If you discover halfway through the construction of your new home that you don’t like your builder, or he is too busy to ever get back to you, it is a difficult mistake to undo. If everything else checks out with the builder, go with your instincts. Do you feel you can trust him? Do you think you will enjoy working with this builder/firm for the next 6 months or so?

If not, find someone else before it’s too late. Don’t cheat yourself of the fun and excitement that comes with building a home by making a poor choice of builder.

Mistake #4 – Failure to get it in writing

Get your estimate in writing. Have the builder specify what is included in the price. Sometimes items that you see in a model home, may not be included in his standard pricing. Ask the builder for his allowance amounts for things like lighting fixtures, flooring, cabinetry. Then pay a visit with his suppliers and see if those allowances are realistic. Just how much you can get for that price? Some builders will put in lower amounts for their allowances because it makes the bid price look lower. But what you don’t pay for up front, may cost you more down the line.

If you don’t think the allowances will cover what you want to put in the home, how will the excess amount be handled? Will you have to pay for it in cash? Can you include it in your mortgage?

Have your builder specify on the estimate a list of the standard materials used, including model numbers if appropriate. It is difficult to get a good job and durability from inferior quality materials. If price is your biggest concern, I recommend building a smaller home, before paying for inferior materials or poor quality workmanship. These will not only decrease your enjoyment of your home, but will affect your resale value as well. You know what they say, “You pay for it now, or you pay for it later. Either way you pay for it.” I have found that to be true.

Get a signed Contract in writing. Please read your contract, or better yet, have a lawyer review it. You don’t want to be stuck in a contract that only benefits and protects the builder. You might consider including performance goals, ie. job completion dates, guarantees on estimates, back-up should something happen to the builder personally.

Mistake #5 – Failure to confirm liability insurance

Just because a builder has a licence doesn’t mean that he is insured against injuries, job site accidents, storm damage or other unforeseen hazards. Ask your builder to see his certificate showing that he is up to date and fully covered with liability and damage insurance. Different areas use different names for their insurance – check with the local HBA for standard coverage requirements.

Mistake #6 – Failure to understand the Builder’s Warranties

Call the HBA and find out what the local industry standard is for a home warranty. If your builder doesn’t offer at least the average warranty, find a different builder.

Mistake #7 – Failure to ask for help

I have been in the building industry for years, and I don’t know it all. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to be the expert on everything. Ask for help. But do be careful where you get your advice from. Many people like giving it, but are they really qualified to give you valuable advice. I have heard much advice on the job site from well intentioned trades people. They told me about the mistakes I was making, and how ‘nobody’ does it that way, ‘everybody’ does it this way.

Today your choices are vast and your options many. You can’t know it all. So do ask for help from experienced sources.

Congratulations on your decision to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Happy building!

Yours Truly,

Some additional thoughts:

While choosing a builder is a very important detail, do not overlook the value of good plans. See ‘How to Choose an Architect’ and ‘Tips on How to Design your Dream Home’ for more information.


How To Choose An Architect

blueprint.jpgOther than choosing a spouse, this may be one of the most important relationship decisions you make in your lifetime. Considering that the home you will be building is a legacy that will impact many users and generations to come (statistics show we live in a home for an average of about 7 years,) it is not a decision to be made lightly. And like a marriage, you will develop a relationship with your architect or architectural designer that can make the building process even more enjoyable or, well, one can only imagine.

As you begin your adventure in home building I recommend three very important aspects to consider when choosing your architect.

  1. Do your research.
  2. Be prepared.
  3. Communicate your needs and goals clearly.

Do Your Research

The Value of Good Blueprints: I cannot overestimate the value of a good architect and properly prepared plans. Today with the do-it-yourself CAD programs, it seems anyone can design a home. As builders, we have built homes that have been designed by many different architects. It doesn’t take long to know which architects are favourites. And it often doesn’t have anything to do with how much the architect charges. It’s funny how some architects designs are difficult to build. Or the blueprints of other architects have space or traffic flow that just doesn’t make sense. When you are working with an inexperienced designer, the mistakes can be disastrous. One architect whose plans we built regularly was known for not leaving enough headroom for the stair opening, and bathrooms that were too small. Once a builder knows that about an Architect, he can watch out for those details. But how can you? Check with your builder.

Get References, Referrals and Recommendations: First, if you have already selected a builder, talk to him about it. Chances are he will have some pretty good advice for you. You can also talk to friends who are happy with their homes, but many of them might not realize the problems that the builder encountered while building their home. Another good research tool is the Parade of Homes. There’s nothing like walking in a home and experiencing it to understand how a designer works.

Set Realistic Goals: Let’s face it. We all want more in a home than our budget or the square footage allows for. You know in your head that there is only so much that can fit in your desired size of home, but your heart wants to convince you otherwise. Also, size doesn’t always determine price. Many other factors like quality of finishing materials, structural and design elements, site preparation and accommodation will affect the final price. If you are realistic and specific up front with your architect, it will save you heartache later.

Check the Portfolio: Has the architect actually designed homes similar to what you have in mind? There is a big difference in designing a Lakefront home or a house on an infill lot than for a home on acreage or in a neighbourhood.

Trust Your Instincts: When you are finally interviewing your potential architect and everything else seems to be right, trust your instincts. Do you think you are going to enjoy working with the person, the firm? If not, keep looking. There’s too much at stake.

Be Prepared

Understand What you Want. I know this sounds obvious, but it is important. Collect magazine pictures, lots of them. And maybe features from other plans that are particularly appealing. This may most easily communicate to your architect the look and feel that you are after. You can tell your architect that you want a home that looks French Country, but what if his idea of that is different than your expectations?

Understand your budget. Your architect is not going to pay the bills from your builder. If you have a specific amount that you are able to invest, you need to know before you get to the cash register that you are over budget. Many architects are unaware of how much it will cost to build their blueprints. Aside from variables like your choice of finishing materials, how they structure a house can affect the cost to build it dramatically.
Check the architect’s portfolio to make sure that he designs homes for your budget. I have a favourite architect that I like to work with when there is a limited budget. When I say something like, “What do you think about putting a Cathedral ceiling in here?” and he responds with something like, ‘Well, did you want a 2 car garage instead of 3?’ I know where I stand. A good architect is going to have an understanding of how much things will cost.

Understand Your Lifestyle. Your architect is not going to live in your home. You are. Another obvious statement I know. But you may know that you usually have more than one person working in the kitchen, so the typical ‘work triangle’ may not be the best approach for you. Or that organizing your stuff is a top priority, so planning for the appropriate storage spaces, whether inside or outside your home, had better be too. Also, consider furniture layouts. A great big large room may look good on paper, but where has your architect put the room entrances for traffic flow? Will you be able to layout your furniture in a pleasing way? Make sure he is able to understand how you live, and then when he makes recommendations, take into consideration his professional expertise.


Make Sure You Tell All: Now that you know what you are looking for, and how much you want to invest, you need to tell your architect. There is no substitute for clearly conveying this to your architect. Don’t assume that he knows, because it seems obvious to you that something should be done a certain way. Remember, you are working with someone who is part Engineer, and part Artist. Enough said!

Get it in Writing: I have always had good experiences with the architects I have worked with but it is always a good idea to get it in writing. How much will the plans cost? How long will they take? How much will it cost to make changes? What if he does not have them completed when expected?

Questions to Answer: How willing is the architect to work with you? If you have a unique lot, would he be willing to walk the site with you? Does he prefer to do a typical ‘stock’ type home with front and back views, or can he think outside the box? How long does the design process typically take? How does the architect price his work? Has the architect done a broad range of designs? Does he have stock plans that you could modify to suit you? Is the architect familiar with the building codes in the area you are building your home?

Some architects will take a lot of information from you and then begin the process of the preliminary drawings. Others will sketch things out right in front of you to make sure that they are on the right track.

Review your preliminary plans with your builder. Does he think the house will come in on budget?

Remember, there is NO such thing as the perfect house. But by doing your homework, understanding your needs, goals and budget, and finding the right architect for your job you will have a rewarding home to be enjoyed for many years and hopefully have fun building it too.

Yours Truly,

Some additional thoughts:

While choosing an architect is a very important detail, do not overlook the value of a good builder or design. See ‘How to Choose a Builder ’ and ‘Tips on How to Design your Dream Home’ for more information.


Budget The Building So You Can Build The Budget

That statement seems quite simple to say and yet in over thirty years of home building experience I find “building a home that exceeds the budget” rated very high on customer’s fears; even though most people would choose the New Home that is sized and decorated to their liking.

When I ask what they have heard or experienced, it relates to two main areas; poor communication between the Builder and the Owner, and changing the scope of the project after it’s begun. A true Professional Builder should spend ADEQUATE time with you to explore all the expectations you have for size of home, how simple or complex of a design, it’s location on the site, how much detail in finishes, etc. along with your lifestyle and special features. Taking this information the Builder should be able to properly budget the project.

Setting up accurate budgets combined with clear, complete Plans, Specifications and Contract will start a project on the right foot. This alone is not the complete answer though. Regular communication updating costs and options desired during construction are a must. This will allow for adjustments before the Budget gets off track.

If you want to change or add something to your home during construction, a Change Order should be used before the change is made. This will keep an accurate account of where the budget stands.

Finally, using a professional Custom Builder, timely communication and good paperwork will position you to “Build the Budget” and hopefully have an enjoyable experience.

Dan Diephuis is the owner of Diephuis Builders , Inc. and winner of the HBAGGR 2006 Custom Builder of the Year award.


Bamboo – Self Renewing Beauty You’ll Enjoy Year After Year!

bamboo flooring Mention bamboo and most people think lucky plants and tiki torches, certainly not hardwood floors. But as environmentally conscious homeowners search for green alternatives, bamboo has become a popular flooring choice. Hold a bamboo plank and its weight and density are similar to hardwood, Yet bamboo actually is a fast-growing grass that sprouts to maturity in five to seven years. Once harvested, the plant sends up another shoot in the same spot, making it one of the most eco-friendly products on earth.

“All wood for floors is considered renewable,” said Anita Howard of the National Wood Flooring Association. “But bamboo is designated as ‘rapid renewable’ and gets higher points with LEED and other environmental groups.” And it looks good, too. Unlike traditional oaks and maple, bamboo has an exotic, tropical appearance.

Bamboo flooring comes in two basic styles, depending on the manufacturing process.
Horizontal consists of strips of solid bamboo layered on top of each other to expose the natural bamboo growth rings. Vertical is created by placing the bamboo strips on their sides and laminating them together for a linear look with more subtle markings. Some manufacturers also offer strand woven bamboo products, made by taking strips and strands and weaving them together. The product is compressed under intense pressure and heat, making it one of the hardest and most stable flooring options available.

“It’s also the most green of all products because nothing is wasted in the process,” Joe Pleune, of Green Choice Flooring International, said. Natural bamboo is a creamy blonde color. Carbonized bamboo is a smoky, caramel hue, the result of longer boiling during the manufacturing process. Bamboo also can be stained or marbled for different effects, even hand scraped to give it a distressed appearance. The cost of a bamboo floor is similar to hardwood but can vary, considerably, depending on the manufacturer.

It is important for consumers to find a reputable supplier, she said. “We discourage people from buying over the internet because they really need to look at what they are buying,” Howard said. “It’s best to go with a local business you can trust in case of any problems. Green Choice Flooring uses bamboo that comes directly from managed forests in China. Harvesting the bamboo isn’t a threat to endangered panda bears because they live at higher elevations and eat a different species of bamboo,” Pleune says. Pre-finished bamboo floors can have up to 10 layers of clear finish with scratch-resistant top coat. It’s installed in the same fashion as tongue-and-groove solid hardwood and modern laminate flooring. “Bamboo definitely has become more popular in the past few years,” Howard said. “And I think the trend will continue as long as the green movement has legs.


Will Using a Central Vacuum System Help You Breathe Easier?

I would never have believed I could be passionate about a vacuum cleaner- but now wonder why anyone wouldn’t install a Central Vacuum System when they are building a new home?

After pondering on this for some time, I have come up with 3 possible reasons.
#1) They had experience with or heard by word of mouth about the lack of suction in the original models.
#2) They don’t like cleaning out the dust filled canisters.
#3) You can’t take it with you.

I can’t imagine life without my Central Vac.  Oh sure, I do remember, distantly, those memories of lugging around the old Electrolux canister vacuum.  I even recall thinking that it worked pretty well.  But all that changed when a wonderful woman named Julia entered my life.

I was working at the time on a 100 home project in Toronto, Canada when I met her.  We were just at the pricing stage of the next phase of new homes, so her timing couldn’t have been better.  She sold me on the concept of the Central Vacuum System, and since we were building homes in the middle to upper price range, I thought it might be a good idea to at least rough it in to all the houses.   I have never looked back.

But even as I write this, we have just moved into a new (old) home without a Central Vac.  For the last 4 months I have been living life with the ‘8 lb. miracle’, and the dust bag has still not filled up. Now some people might think that is a good thing, but I am wondering where has all the dirt gone?  I know how much my Central Vac used to pick up, and now we are in an older, and even dustier home. Unfortunately, I think I know the answer.  While the beater brush is doing a wonderful job making the carpets look freshly vacuumed, the colour of the carpet is actually changing in the high traffic areas.

As wonderful as the incredible suction power of the Central Vacuum is, what adds even more value to me is all the vacuuming options I have.  Like the little stair beater brush attachment, and the sofa ‘duster’.  My husband loved being able to vacuum out his car in the garage by just hooking up the extra hose into the garage valve. And with the unit being installed in the garage, I can actually hear the phone ring while I am vacuuming.  I love the narrow tool attachment that allows me to dust under the fridge and around the laundry appliances.  And the brush tool for ‘dusting’ the window sills and baseboards is a real time saver.  (Well, maybe not.  It doesn’t get done very often now.)  And a personal favourite is the super-long-extension-spider-destructo-wand attachment.

We don’t suffer from airborne allergies in our family, but I have heard from users who love Central Vac’s for just that reason.  Since many homeowners install the unit in the garage, no dust particles whatsoever are returned to the air inside the house improving the indoor air quality.  While I don’t mind vacuuming, I do dislike dusting.

The Central Vacuum units of today are available with a bag option for clean, easy removal of the dust.  And while we are at it, let’s debunk another myth:  you CAN take it with you when you go!  There is one warning however about using your Central Vacuum.  When you experience such incredible suction power, it becomes easy to believe you can get rid of almost anything up that hose.  But do not vacuum up the needles from your Christmas tree.  They can get tangled up in the corners of the piping and when the dust and fiber particles build up and compact over them you will develop a blockage.  You will probably need a professional to come and clean this out.  Can you tell I am speaking from experience here?

When you consider the rising demand for Central Vacuum, how much will it cost you when you go to sell your home, and your buyer is hoping for a Central Vac? If you are not sold yet on the benefits of a Central Vacuum System, you can always have your home roughed-in with the pipes and cover plates.  The unit can easily be installed in the future.  So what’s to say no to?  Invest in a Central Vacuum System, you’ll be glad you did.