Q&A / 

New Home Construction Tips

DEAR TIM: We're taking the plunge and getting ready to build a new home. I'm really excited, but full of anxiety at the same time. How do you make sure the job gets done on time? What are a few of the biggest mistakes we could make before starting the house? From your perspective as a builder, what was the most enjoyable job you ever did for a homeowner and what about the experience was so special? Jane A., San Antonio, TX

DEAR JANE: Congratulations on your upcoming new house! I can clearly remember the thrill my customers would have as we had our first pre-construction meeting. The customers that were overflowing with anxiety come to mind as well. There are countless decisions to make, and some people get frozen with fear that they'll make the wrong ones. It can be paralyzing indeed.

Over the years, I've seen large books written about the new home construction process. It's absolutely impossible to cover everything you need to know in this very tiny column. However, I'll share, in my opinion, some of the biggest pitfalls and how to avoid them.

This house is under roof, but don't be fooled. There's still lots of work to do. Photo Credit: Tim Carter

Based on the hundreds of emails I get each week from homeowners who share their new construction nightmares with me, I'd say the vast majority of issues can be traced to poor planning at the outset of the job. Realize right now that the actual plans and specifications that the builder works from are the core communication document between you and him. If you want to minimize arguments, misunderstandings, and lawsuits, then have excellent detailed plans and written specifications for your new home. I've developed, over the years, a set of great specifications that can be used by many homeowners.

It pays massive dividends to take the time in the planning process to select all the materials you'll use in the job. You get the most accurate bid price doing this, and you can reduce change orders because you place the burden of getting things right on the shoulders of the builder. Change orders can be financial time bombs when you build. They must be avoided at all costs.

Imagine this conversation with your builder: "Oh, you want a full-mortise lockset for your front door? That will cost you $250 extra in labor." Your reply will be, "I'm sorry, but if you look at the door and window schedule on page eight of the plans, it clearly states that we selected that lockset. You should have paid more attention in the bidding process and calculated the correct amount of time to install it."

I highly recommend that you obtain from all builders bidding your job a highly detailed cost breakdown of the job. I created years ago a spreadsheet that lists over 125 separate items that need to have separate pricing.

Comparing bids in this fashion allows you to see quickly why one builder is either high or low. Using this comparative method, you can also ask pointed questions of each bidder as to how they arrived at a particular number in the list.

This detailed breakdown also helps protect you so that you only give the builder as much money as he deserves at each draw. Tens of thousands of trusting homeowners have advanced too much money to builders as the project progresses.

All of a sudden, the builder disappears. The homeowner may only have five percent of the funds left, but there's twenty-five percent of the work still left to do. Never ever fall into this trap. The detailed bidding checklist will save you!

You can help determine when the job will finish and how long it will take by asking the builder to provide you with a simple chart as part of the bidding process. This critical time path chart is a timeline of the job and shows how long each aspect of the job will take. You can compress the completion time at certain points in the job where different trades can be working on your house at the same time. Look for that on the chart.

You can track the progress of the job using this chart. You'll see pretty quickly if the builder is hitting his goal each week. Sometimes weather can cause delays, but a good builder will build this into his timeline chart.

The most enjoyable job I ever did for a client from a stress perspective was one where the homeowners presented me with a three-ring binder at the meeting where they awarded me the job. I had never had this happen before.

"My job requires me to be out of town frequently. I'll rarely be able to answer questions you may have and will not have the time to pick things out during the job. This binder contains our selections for all finishes, tile, cabinets, flooring, even paint chips for all colors," the husband said. He followed up with, "How do you want to be paid each month?"

Suffice it to say this was the smoothest running job of my career. I was able to order everything before we got started, the job turned out exactly like the husband and wife wanted, and I got paid on time each month. It was a dream come true for me.

I have written Contractor Hiring Guides that will help you with any home improvement project. Click here to go to my AsktheBuilder store and browse all the Contractor Hiring Guides that are available.

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