- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2003

When their builder walked out on them, David and Kathy Afzali watched their dream of building a custom home turn into a costly nightmare.

The Afzalis broke ground on the house in Middletown, Md., on July 3, 2001. The builder departed in May 2002, leaving the couple with an unfinished house and thousands of dollars worth of outstanding debts to subcontractors.

“It was a terrible miscalculation, and we lost a lot of money,” Mrs. Afzali says. “The builder just disappeared three quarters of the way through the project, and then the people he didn’t pay started suing us.”

Last month, a Frederick County judge ruled in the Afzalis’ favor, dismissing the last outstanding mechanic’s lien against their home, for a plumbing company bill of $6,350.

After spending more than a year and almost $100,000 out of pocket — including legal fees — to complete the work and get clear title to their home, Mrs. Afzali says she learned the hard way that selecting a custom builder requires thorough research and verification. A reference from a friend, she says, is not enough.

A friend, indeed, recommended the builder the Afzalis chose. The couple also was tempted by the price he quoted.

He justified his low estimate, saying he was a smaller builder and wanted new projects, Mrs. Afzali says. He told the couple he wanted to create a presence in the community.

If the Afzalis had investigated, they would have been stunned to learn that the builder didn’t have a proper license and that a number of judgments already had been filed against him.

“It makes us sound like we’re fools — but we’re intelligent people,” Mrs Afzali says. She believes what happened to her can happen to anyone, and she urges others shopping for a custom home builder to request a number of references, visit other homes the builder has constructed and get a copy of the company’s financial statement.

Most important, she says, ask a lot of questions and don’t be persuaded solely by a lower price.

“There are no cheap deals,” Mrs. Afzali says. “If you want a home with the quality you want, you need the best builder who hires the best people. The best defense is to be thorough.”

Larry Schaffert, president of Frederick County Builder’s Association and Schaffert Construction, points out a number of credentials and requirements to check for when researching a custom home builder’s history.

You can verify that the builder has completed the training necessary to earn a Certified Graduate Builder (CGB) or Certified Graduate Remodelor (CGR) certification. Mr. Schaffert himself holds a CGR.

In Maryland, Mr. Schaffert says, you can contact the state Attorney General’s Home Builder Registration Unit online (http://www.oag.state.md.us/Homebuilder/index.htm) to verify that the builder has a home builder registration number.

You also can contact the Consumer Protection Division to determine if any complaints have been filed against the builder.

Mr. Schaffert warns, however, that “just because they have a registration number, this is not a seal of approval.” He says he agrees with Mrs. Afzali that consumers must examine a custom builder from all angles before signing a contract.

Mr. Schaffert advises consumers to find an established, second-generation builder whose name is well-known, one who has been building in the community for years. He says it’s smart to get references, not from friends and family, but from homeowners who had projects completed recently, as well as houses completed one to two years ago, to see what issues came up and how the builder handled them.

Once you have done your homework and are ready to select your builder, Mr. Schaffert recommends hiring a lawyer to review the contract.

“Contract documents are often unclear, incomplete, and schedules are not well-defined,” he points out. In Maryland, he says, all items required by the Maryland Custom Home Protection Act must be included in the contract, so it’s important to hire a lawyer familiar with the building laws in your specific area.

Although clear documentation of the project is essential, a personal connection with the builder is another priority when deciding whom to hire.

Josh Baker, president of BOWA Builders Inc. in McLean, says he believes that finding the right match — the builder who has the experience needed for your unique project — is the goal.

“You are buying services, not just a product, and you’ll be working with them for a long time,” he says.

Mr. Baker advocates having direct conversations with the builder about scheduling the project and how it will be supervised. He also recommends visiting the builder’s office and visiting a site comparable to yours.

If you are working with a builder developing multiple custom homes, viewing a model can help you understand what custom features are standard and also the safety features used.

Reviewing the warranty is another important step, Mr. Baker says. Determine the type of service you can expect after you move into your new home.

Another item to consider during your analysis is whether the builder belongs to any trade or local builders associations.

If your builder is a member of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), for example, he will learn about any changes in the industry and changes to relevant laws and regulations.

“If a builder belongs to the NAHB, it’s a good indication that the builder cares about being informed and up to date,” says Donna Reichle, NAHB vice president for media relations.

Another benefit of selecting a builder who belongs to an association is that local chapters often monitor their members to ensure they are complying with the association’s code of ethics.

Tom Donaldson, president of the Custom Builders Council, affiliated with the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association (NVBIA) in Chantilly, says his group diligently monitors its code of ethics.

“We encourage our members to operate a step above how the general industry operates,” he says. “We want people to provide a better product.”

Mr. Donaldson says it’s important to select a builder who uses a design/build approach, putting together a team with the architect and the builder.

He also says that if you choose your builder first, you get the benefit of his expertise and insight when making crucial decisions about the lot, the architect and the financing. You don’t want to spend tons of money on the lot and then not have enough money left to build the type or size home you want.

Once all of the crucial decisions are made, you have selected a builder and are ready to break ground, you also want to consider the steps you can take to protect the equity of the home, to make sure it holds its value on the resale market.

Chuck Vaughan, a Realtor with the Keller Williams firm in Centreville, says to improve resale value, home builders need to maximize the important things that are difficult to change later.

He says all the little accents that dazzle people — sinks, doorknobs and lighting — can be replaced easily. However, he says, “You can’t just extend your foundation and add a walk-out basement later on.”

The experts conclude that it’s important to get the job done correctly from the start, and that begins with making an informed choice of builder.

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