How to Choose a Builder

From Naples Daily News, April 9, 2013
Blog by Ray Allain, President of the CBIA

This is a very common question for many of the existing and potential residents in Collier County. The vast majority of which are coming from different locales, each of which are as unique and different as are their projects, demands and expectations.

The decision is important for many reasons, but for the sake of this discussion I will focus on what I believe to be the three principle considerations. Cost, service and stress. Not surprising these three, are also typically very closely related.

What occurs in most building projects is sort of a marriage. I say this because the relationship will be very involved, at times very intimate, stressful, anxious, pleasant and at times distressing.

Choosing the person or firm you intend to “marry” is very important because you are making a commitment to each other that is not easy to terminate prematurely. The beginning of the selection phase would therefore be the dating portion. It is very important during dating that the client be honest with themselves as well as their prospective suitors.

As the dating begins, some people meet through friends, some from the internet, some prefer to leave it to random chance. A person can get lucky and unlucky by any of these methods. The advisable one, from my experience as both a client and a builder would be to go with a referral. If someone were to choose a different avenue for their selective suitors, everything beyond the selection should be the same.

The first date, conduct a personal interview. The second date, check verification of licenses and insurance. The third date would be to make a personal check of references. After the third date we usually have a pretty good idea if this match is good or if there is no point in pursuing further.

Unfortunately, what often happens is that there is a cursory interview, the anxiety and anxiousness caused by the impending decision induces a rash decision and people ignore some of their instincts, or fail to educate themselves thoroughly. When this happens the clients walk off with one impression while the builder/contractor walks away with another. A recipe for rough times.

So how does one avoid this and make sure that they and their builder are on the same plane? This is a much more complicated answer.

In my years of experience, I have had the opportunity to interview many, many clients. I have found that the fit has to work for both sides to ensure a successful project.

The owner has to trust the contractor to respect their wishes, be frugal with their expenses, and educate them about the difficult choices. Even if a choice could require spending more money or time, it’s the obligation of a builder to present it to the owner. While the builder has to trust the client to communicate effectively, listen to explanation, make timely decisions and pay promptly.

If an owner wants a top tier home with all the latest features and amenities, it is not in his interest to seek the lowest bidder without a detailed set of plans and specifications. If the client does not know how to make all of the decisions necessary to have a complete set of plans, it makes the selection of a contractor that much more important.

“I recently was talking to a friend of mine who wanted to build a cabana, deck, pool and outdoor living area. They selected a contractor based on price and finished their project. I happened to be with him on a trip out of town when his wife called to ask for instructions about how to turn on the spa for the pool. He spent about ten minutes trying to remember and communicate to her the positions of all the valves and switches necessary to use the spa. When they both got frustrated and hung up without him being able to explain it to her, I asked him why he elected not to put an electronic control system on the pool. He told me he wasn’t aware it was an option. He got exactly what he paid for, even though he would have gladly paid for the automated system.”

Very few people, in my experience, can bring themselves to accept the value in a complete set of plans and specifications. The time and cost of developing a thorough set, with no physically tangible product, such as brick and mortar, is very difficult for some to reconcile. Often they feel that they are being taken advantage of, or wasting time.

This coupled with the eagerness to “get started” is overwhelming. I always try to counsel them that a building project is no different from any other business venture. Good planning, good products, good decisions usually equals good outcome. Conversely, poor planning, cheap products and quick decisions… well you get the gist. This practice applies to all projects, and all contractors.

The first step in selecting a builder is that a person needs to be honest with themselves about a few issues.

Cost – What are they really comfortable paying in total, from the acquisition of the land to the last touches on the window treatments and furniture, as well as what it will cost to own, operate and maintain?

Demands – How much responsibility in this project beyond paying for it are they willing to accept, or do they want to take on?

Stress – What kind are their expectations both during construction and upon completion?

While all three of these criteria are distinct and different they also are critical in selecting a contractor/builder. In an attempt to explain this theory I will reduce contractors into three different categories. Economy, Typical and Custom. This is not to suggest that any given contractor cannot do more than one category. It is just that most, after a time in the business, tend to gravitate toward one more than the others, as they develop the different skill sets and networks required by the respective categories.

The Economy Contractor
An Economy contractor is one that predicates their pricing on a relatively rigid set of criteria, with more basic materials and methods, and tends to focus on simple projects. This type of contractor makes their living on rapid turn around of relatively straightforward projects with much less detail. Their bids will not provide a lot of time for interaction with the client, or for complicated problem solving. They will require a lot more time and supervision from the client if problems arise, because there is no provision for this scope of services in an economy bid. If a client wants to be on the job daily, have interaction with subcontractors, and make many of the routine decisions their best choice would be an Economy contractor.

The Typical Contractor
This is the category that the majority of contractors fall under. The Typical contractor is one who invests more effort to understand the needs and desires of the owner and does his best to represent what is asked for and will do an acceptable job at a fair price. Given that a Typical contractor will spend more time on each job than an economy contractor, he must charge more to cover his overhead. They will usually still require more involvement than a custom contractor, meaning direction and supervision from the client. They will also have more flexibility and time to spend solving problems than an economy contractor.

The Custom Contractor
This is the contractor which has been through the process many times and realizes the value of their own experience. They have worked for demanding clients, with complicated and or expensive products. They have to deal with a different caliber of subcontractors and vendors because many of the products and methods are atypical, obscure or new. They also realize that while they may be placed in this category of “expensive” related to the other types of contractors, they will invariably understand the expectations of the customer as well as have an empirical understanding of the finishes and costs commensurate with the type of project. The value in a Custom contractor is not to be quantified in the dollar value of the initial bid alone. But in the breadth of experience, the understanding and time that is allocated to each project, and the ability to counsel clients about the implications of complicated decisions. This is with regard to cost as well as convenience and satisfaction upon completion. The custom builder will have the time and ability to educate the clients about smart decisions and options of amenities and features that may not have been offered or even considered at the inception of the project. They also have the flexibility and time to help eliminate duplicate efforts when things aren’t well thought out or missed during the planning phases. A Custom contractor’s value is in their experience and in the time they spend with each project.

In summary, be honest with yourself, understand your limitations and expectations, and pay attention to your instincts.

Also, don’t forget the old adage “You get what you pay for,” is also true with builders/contractors. Our business is, contrary to common perception, all about service. As long as you are aware of what you are paying for, you are much less likely to be unhappy with what you are getting.