1. When you hire a contractor, remember, like everything else, the contract you sign controls your relationship. If it’s not in writing it doesn’t count. Make sure the contract specifically says everything that you’ve discussed and agreed upon. Don’t be forced to sign it without taking it home to read it.
2. The contract includes not just the written agreement that you sign, it also includes documents like the building plans, the specification sheet, the list of standard features if you’re buying a builders model home, the extras that you have agreed to, a cost breakdown, as well as certain notices required by law. Make sure that the contract refers to all of the documents that you are relying on and that you have and keep copies of them signed or initialed by both yourself and the contractor.
3. If you do buy a builders model that is going to be constructed for you, make sure which items are standard and which are extra. Many models that you are shown have a combination of standard and extra features already built in. If you are unsure what is included in your price, ask and get it in writing. The base price that is quoted may not include items that the contractor has included in his display model. Check the specification sheet to see exactly what you are getting and if what you want or expect is not on that sheet then question it, if you are told that the item is included get that in writing.
4. Every contractor has certain items that are ‘allowances’ for things like cabinets, flooring, appliances, lighting, plumbing fixtures or other items that may differ from person to person and house to house. Some allowances are for items that you don’t ordinarily think about like fill, driveway and sidewalks, well depth etc. Allowances are an amount that the contractor has built in to your price as a limit on what you can spend for that item without going over the contract price. Make sure that the allowances are reasonable for what you want. Any cost above the allowance listed for each item is an up-charge to you so if the allowances were too low in the original contract you are setting yourself up for extras at the end. Question each allowance as to what it buys and whether it will meet your expectations. If you are told that you went over the allowance ask to see the actual bills, this is your right.
5. When comparing prices between builders make sure that the bids are for the same thing. If one builder gives you unrealistically low allowances, his bid may look cheaper but in the long run it costs you. Check items like insulation, air conditioner size, roof shingles, specified windows and doors and other items that can be changed out to see if you’re getting the same quality in each bid. The cheaper bid often means cheaper materials.
6. Find out how hands on the actual individual contractor is. Is he just someone with a name and a license and you always deal with assistants and secretaries and never get to see him or does he become actively involved in your house? How often will he visit your house? How accessible is he to talk to?
7. Many contractors have a superintendent or foreman who takes care of the day to day building of your house as well as several other houses. Find out who yours will be and meet him, he will be your immediate contact for most simple questions. Find out how many houses he is overseeing and what his experience is. How often will he actually visit your house to check on the subcontractors and work progress? Who does the scheduling of subcontractors? Is it the foreman or someone in the office? Find out who it is so that you can contact that person if there seems to be no progress.
8. Find out some of the subcontractors your contractor will use, like block masons or framers or plumbers or electricians or others. Call them and see what they think of your contractors reputation. They may not come right out and say he’s good or no good but see if they hesitate or give a very general, unenthusiastic opinion and use your judgment.
9. Fill is a big issue in this area. Some soils have moderate to heavy clay and this is bad for foundations. The builder has to either remove the clay and put in clean fill or build up under your foundation. Some lots are low and the county requires that they be above the road height. Your septic drainfield can also be affected by the soil type, clay is bad for drainage. Question the soil on your lot, have it tested if you have any doubts, if you need extra fill then find out before you sign a contract. Fill can add many thousands of dollars to your cost. If extra fill is needed make the builder tell you before he orders it and give you a price right away. Do not let him wait until closing to tell you about the extra cost.
10. All cement will suffer cracks, there is not much you can do about it. In your garage and driveway where the cement will be exposed make sure you get sufficient expansion joints. These are spaces between slabs of concrete that help take up the settlement cracking without spoiling the smooth surface. Just remember, some hairline (about 1/8th inch) cracks are going to happen. No judge will give you money for standard settlement cracks.
11. Contractors will give you a time to expect your house to be complete. Check the contract to see if a specific time is set out. Most will have qualifiers like subject to weather or material shortage etc. This is normal. However, check when the stated time actually starts running. Is it when the contract is signed, the financing is approved, the permit is pulled or construction starts? These are some of the most common points of the contract time beginning. If it says that the house will be completed within so many days of the permit being pulled or construction commencing, you have no control over these start dates. You may sign a contract and the contractor waits months to pull the permit or turn the first spade of earth and that does not count toward your contract completion time. Get a definite start date from the moment you sign the contract.
12. Your house will be built to certain standards of quality, a house will never be perfect, it is the product of human effort with materials that have built in limitations. The construction should obviously meet building codes, but remember, this is a minimum and alone it is not acceptable. These codes are more for safety, not quality. Your house should also meet the standards of your plans and specifications and the contract. It should meet the standards of the manufacturers of the materials that went in to your house. Finally, it should be consistent with industry standards for home construction. This is somewhat vague and uncertain but it means that it should at least meet average quality for similar homes. If your builder has other homes you can look at, yours should at least be as good as those, you should not be required to settle for less.
13. Always price out change orders before they go into your house. Even if the contract says these should be in writing and they are not you will still have to pay if you accept them. Every time the contractor asks for your input like color selection, phone, cable or electric outlets, door hardware, plumbing or light fixtures or any other items, find out what is included in your price and what is extra and how much extra each item will be. Try and avoid changes if you can, they are the biggest source of sticker shock at closing.
14. Get a cost reconciliation sheet from your contractor at least a week before closing showing what you owe. Do not go into the final closing without knowing exactly what you owe on the final draw as well as all credits and extras. By then it is often too late to stop everything while you argue over the cost. If you disagree by a large enough amount be prepared to walk out and get an attorney.
15. Take pictures during construction both for memory and in the sad event things go wrong. Visit the house as it’s being built to make sure it’s done right, but do not ever talk to the subcontractors about their job or your house or any changes or corrections. If you have a complaint or a change or a problem talk to the foreman or the contractor and let them deal with the subs.