Bond Publishing ‘Being Constructive’

Feature Article for Triangle Newcomer Magazine

Being Constructive

If you’re new to the Triangle and can spare the six to eight months it typically takes for construction, you can team up with one of the area’s many qualified builders to create a brand new home of your own.

It’s possible to approach home building from your choice of several directions. Some customers begin by choosing an architect or designer. Others begin with a visit to the sales offices in subdivisions they like. Still others get started by choosing the builder and allowing him or her to lead them through the home building process.

Starting With the Architect or Designer

Particularly for those in the market for a high-end, custom home, the building process often begins with an architect. “Normally, you would have the design work started first, so the logical sequence is to begin with the architect,” explained Ralph Lasater, managing partner for City Planning and Architectural Associates (CPAA), a Chapel Hill architectural firm that works primarily with clients building homes in the $500,000 to $800,000 price range.

You also may consider a home design firm, such as Design Classics Unlimited in Raleigh. Gregg Sharkany, designer/owner, said a working partnership with the homeowner and the builder is invaluable to ensure a successful project. “Open communications within the partnership ensure a home design that fits the needs and personality of the homeowner as well as blends the design with the property requirements and the expertise of the builder,” said Sharkany. “As a small company, we can provide the personalized attention that every homeowner needs and requires at this important time—the construction of their home.”

While Design Classics Unlimited specializes in custom home design, stock plans also are available for both homeowners and builders. Typically, Design Classics Unlimited produces homes in the $150,000 to $500,000 range to satisfy the requirements of first-time homeowners, empty-nesters and up-and-coming executives.

Most builders also have stock plans to show you, and some offer design as well as construction services. “I design 90 percent of what I build,” said Rusty Caudill, president of Legendary Homes Inc. Caudill, who has an engineering degree from North Carolina State University, builds a limited number of custom homes each year for customers in Wake and eastern Chatham counties.

Architecture and design firms may offer consulting services that can save you money and head off problems during the building process. “We often help buyers find and evaluate building lots,” said Lasater. “We’ll go with them to look at the lots they’re considering and can tell them, before they buy it, some of the problems they may run into. The two or three hundred dollars they invest in our consulting fee could save them tens of thousands of dollars in added costs of building on a particular lot.”

If you lack the time or the expertise to supervise construction of your new home, consider arranging for construction administration or project management services. “We’ve had several clients building large, expensive homes hire us to look out for them and protect their interests during construction,” said Lasater. “We visit the site regularly, look around and make sure the work is being done properly. This is particularly helpful when the client is building the home long-distance.”

Starting With the Community

If you’ve already identified one or more subdivisions you like, you may choose to initiate the home building process through a community’s sales office. Phil Adams, MIRM, sales manager for Fortis Homes, said most clients contact Fortis through a visit to the neighborhood model home/sales office. “Either they’ll find a neighborhood through their own searching or with the help of a real estate agent,” Adams explained. “Then it’s a matter of determining which home site meets their needs and which model meets their needs.” Fortis builds about 300 homes in the Triangle area each year in neighborhoods it develops.

“A home’s value is determined not only by the house itself, but also by the community that surrounds it,” said Larry Witek, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Sunstar Homes. “Friendly people, tree-lined boulevards, recreational amenities and safety are of primary importance. At Sunstar Homes, we don’t just build homes, we build neighborhoods.”

“We try to buy whole sections within subdivisions and make those exclusively John Wieland homes,” said David Durham of John Wieland Homes of North Carolina Inc. In addition to building homes from scratch for customers, Durham said his company also keeps a large inventory of homes available for families who want a new home but don’t have time to build one.

Durham said John Wieland Homes builds throughout the Southeast, permitting volume purchasing on some components. At the same time, the company frequently customizes its standard plans. “We have an architectural department on staff, so we are able to customize our plans,” Durham said. “We can make any changes you want and still deliver quality and value.” The company also has an interior designer on staff.

While traditional and transitional home styles predominate the new neighborhoods, there are several communities in which builders are now creating a style of home that recalls “a vision of what neighborhoods used to be—a vision of what everybody’s grandmother’s house was like,” said Fred O’Neal, vice president of Raleigh-based Robuck Homes. Robuck builds 75 to 85 or more homes each year in the Triangle, at an average price of $245,000.

Based on concepts called “neo-traditionalism” or “new urbanism,” these new neighborhoods are designed to promote socializing with neighbors and participating in the community. “It’s an old idea being revisited to some great acclaim,” explained O’Neal. “There are sidewalks all over the neighborhood and playgrounds for the children. Most of the homes have front porches you can actually use.”

Starting With the Builder

Many home buyers begin the home building process by selecting a builder. Start by asking for recommendations from satisfied homeowners. “Our homeowners are our biggest source of referrals,” said Centex Marketing Manager Lynda Metz, adding there are about 2,500 Centex homes in the Triangle. “We also have a lot of repeat business from second- and third-time Centex buyers.”

In creating your short list of builders to contact, it is helpful to match the builder to your price range, the degree of customization you want and the neighborhood you choose. Fortunately, the Triangle has qualified builders in all categories, ranging from large production builders closing on hundreds of area homes each year to custom builders who close fewer than a dozen.

“We are a large-volume building company concentrated right here in the Triangle,” said St. Lawrence Homes President Bob Ohmann. “As such, we can offer prices and controlled quality that make large regional and national builders attractive, yet still provide the `hometown advantages’ of prompt warranty service and close communication during and after the construction phase.”

Project Manager Bruce Roth of Toll Brothers Inc., a national company that builds about 2,000 homes a year, said volume purchasing is key to his company’s ability to deliver exceptional value. “We have our own lumber yard and our own company that builds trusses, plus national accounts with major manufacturers,” Roth said. “Because of our purchasing power, we’re able to offer the final product to consumers at a lower price than if we bought everything locally or in small quantities.”

Raleigh Division President Bob Polanco of Squires Homes believes the builder’s financial strength and stability are important considerations. “A house is a complicated product,” he said. “If there’s ever a problem, you want to be sure you’re associated with someone with the financial resources to back it up.” Squires is owned by Beazer Homes USA, the nation’s sixth-largest builder. Beazer-owned companies closed nearly 6,000 homes in 1996, including 252 in the Triangle.

Patricia Jenkins, director of sales and marketing for Pulte Home Corp., agreed. “Builder reputation is of the utmost importance. How long has the builder been in business? What kind of warranty do they offer? Will they stand behind the home? The buyer needs this peace of mind.” Pulte, founded by Bill Pulte in 1950, has been building high-quality homes in the Triangle for 12 years.

According to Ray Czarnowski, vice president of sales and marketing for M/I Homes, one major advantage of dealing with his company is the access to furnished model homes. “Most people have a difficult time visualizing a house from a plan,” said Czarnowski. “The benefit of shopping our neighborhoods is instead of looking down at a line drawing, you get to see a fully furnished, fully landscaped model. The buyer can see the actual finished product.”

Czarnowski added, as a national home builder, M/I Homes has the financial strength to offer an exceptionally strong warranty. “We are the only builder in the Triangle to back our product with a 20-year transferable warranty,” he noted.

If you have your heart set on building your own home but need it completed in a hurry, Steve Tuckerman, division president for Zaring Homes in Raleigh, said his company regularly builds homes in less than 90 days—84 calendar days, to be exact. “We deliver many homes in that time frame,” said Tuckerman. “We use a system called QTM—or Quality Time Masters—and we have a vice president of process control who is responsible for seeing the homes are built on time. That’s how Zaring Homes delivers homes on time, on budget, with quality.”

Featuring “affordable pricing and good locations,” Cardinal Homes expects to build 55 new Triangle-area homes during 1997—more than twice number the company built in 1996, its first year. “Our prices—averaging $155,000—and the opportunity to enter two new communities this year account for our growth,” said Cardinal’s Kelly Dempsey.

Dempsey said customers especially like the expandable space featured in many of Cardinal’s stock home plans. “We offer large, unfinished areas the customer can finish at a later date,” he said. “We floor it, wire it, and install heating and air conditioning ducts, and the home buyer can use the space for storage until they have a need to grow and are ready to finish it.” Dempsey said about half the company’s customers take advantage of this option.

“Many of our customers are first-time home buyers, so it’s particularly important to us to make sure they have a positive experience with the whole building process,” said Mitch Huff of Homes by Huff & Co. “We particularly emphasize excellent customer service and effective, ongoing communication all along the way.

“With every project, our goal is to produce a home we’re proud of and one the customer will be proud to own. To us, that means using cutting-edge design, traditional craftsmanship and the exemplary service buyers would normally associate with more expensive homes. We give our buyers the very best value they can get at the price they can afford.”

Good Planning and Communication

According to the conventional, albeit exaggerated wisdom, building a home often takes twice as long and costs twice as much as originally anticipated. Bad weather, labor shortages and change orders can cause delays and increase costs, but even though you can’t control the weather or the area labor force, you can minimize costly, time-consuming changes through good pre-construction planning.

Engle Homes of North Carolina Inc. communicates with the home builder through a 300-plus item checklist covering all aspects of the building process—from scheduling to purchasing to quality control.

“In the type of high-end custom work we do, I know we’re going to have changes made during construction. I’d be very surprised if we didn’t,” said Mason Williams, president of Mason Williams Construction. Williams typically builds 10 custom houses a year at an average price of $400,000.

“Communication is the key, and being able to keep the customers involved in the process is crucial, so if changes occur in the schedule or in their perception of what the job is, surprises are kept to a minimum.”

“We are very change-oriented and very customer-oriented,” said Caudill. “Changes are not a problem for me. That’s how we, as a small custom builder, can compete with the big guys, giving my customers exactly what they want at very high quality.”

Good communication is most important. “I tell all my customers, `Basically we’re getting married,’” said Richard Kolarov of Specialty Builder Inc. “Just as in a marriage, we have to have absolutely excellent communication.” Kolarov said his company, which builds a dozen or so high-end custom homes each year, is recognized for individualized, in-depth client relations, unique details and superior craftsmanship.

“From the outset, the builder wants to know exactly what somebody wants in the house,” said Robert Cameron of Jerry Gower Homes. “They want to be told specifically. They don’t want to assume anything.”

The Home Building Experience

As your home is being built, most builders suggest visiting the site from one to three times weekly, depending on the stage of construction and your interest in the home building process.

“Our niche is first-home and first-move-up buyers,” said Karl Miller, sales manager for Cimarron Homes, “so we do have a lot of people who have never purchased homes before and who are anxious to see the whole production of the home. They might come out on a daily basis. At the very least, customers usually visit at least once a week.”

There are also several phases in construction at which most builders will arrange a formal meeting with you at the home site. Your first “official” visit will probably take place before grading begins, when the builder will meet with you at the building site to discuss how the lot will be cleared and how the home will be situated on the property.

“Sometimes when you’re developing property, a lot of the markers get moved when the road goes in,” said Cecil Cooke of Landwright Homes, “so in the first visit to the site with the builder, you want to make sure the lot is properly identified with the boundaries properly staked.”

Once construction begins, the average builder building the average house needs about six weeks to complete framing and to have electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems roughed in. “At this stage, you’re looking for proper wiring details—where your switches are going, where light fixtures are located,” explained Cooke. “You also need to make sure the walls are where they’re supposed to be and that the rooms are designed according to the floor plan you’ve agreed on.”

From this stage, it typically takes another six weeks to complete the home, at which time many builders schedule final walk-through and orientation meeting with their customers. According to Assistant Vice President Ralph Reinert, Toll Brothers conducts two inspections just before closing. “We review a 360-item checklist with the buyer a week before settlement and then review it a second time the day of settlement to ensure customer satisfaction,” he said.

“The final walk-through is held by our staff,” added Cooke. “After the house has been inspected and meets our standards, we have a presentation meeting with the customer where we explain how the house functions.”

“On the final walk-through, we suggest the buyers put everything they want corrected in writing and give it to us before they move in,” noted Cameron. “That way, there are no questions about who’s responsible for what.”

In addition to the evaluation before closing, many builders ask buyers to provide a second evaluation after living in the home for a month or so. “After someone’s been in the home for about 60 days, we call them and ask them to make a list of any concerns they have or things they want us to take care of,” said Miller. “At the end of one year, we do the same thing.”

David Weekley Homes also surveys homeowners in the year following their move-in. “Every homeowner is surveyed about the home building experience at least three times the first year of ownership,” said Bryon Reid.

There’s No Place Like Your New Home

Although the Triangle’s home resale market is thriving, builders report they’re staying busy filling the healthy demand for new homes throughout the area, perhaps because there’s just no place like a home you build for yourself.

“There are many rewards of building a new home,” said Tommy Thompson, director of sales and marketing at Westminster Homes. “You know it’s being built with the newest materials and the most modern technology in building. Buying a new home puts you on the cutting edge of new technology available to us today.”

“Home building is a creative experience—an opportunity for people to design their own space,” explained Deborah Isenhour, co-owner of Isenhour Enterprises Inc. “If you expect it to be fun to see something you have had a hand in creating actually come out of the ground and take shape, you will enjoy the process as well as the finished home.”

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