- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

Buying a new home is exciting there's the fun of picking floors, cabinets, carpets and numerous options and upgrades that make a house uniquely yours. While going through model homes may make you yearn, it's best to do your homework before looking for that new home.

"Before you start looking, get 3-by-5 cards and write down the most important items that you want location, features, size and start ranking in terms of importance," says Bill Young, director of Consumer Affairs for the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB). Mr. Young says once you figure out what you want, then begin the process of selecting a builder.

Now comes the hard part. With so many builders available how do you decide? Mr. Young says if buying in a subdivision, "We generally recommend calling the builder you might be interested in to find out if they have built near where you are interested in buying."

Talk to people who have purchased homes from the builder the more recent the better, Mr. Young says.

"The best time to do this is on a Saturday morning when people are usually doing yard work. Drive into one or two of the subdivisions and talk to people about their experience in dealing with the builder. Ask if there were problems and if they were fixed promptly and properly." Also, he advises, talk to at least two or three people in a subdivision to see if they all say the same things.

Go into a subdivision that is finished so you can see what it looks like after people have lived in it for a while, and ask yourself if you would like to live in a subdivision that looks like this, suggests Mr. Young.

Another way of selecting a builder is based on recommendations from friends or family members.

The Internet offers yet another option. Homebuilder.com allows a buyer to put in parameters as to location, price range and size. "You can get a lot of good information and ideas about builders by going to that site," Mr. Young says. And visit NAHB.com, especially the consumers section, for a list of articles, including one on how to choose a builder.

There are two different levels in selecting a builder the first is finding a builder, the second is checking out the builder. Mr. Young says the Internet and newspapers are the best sources to start your search. The Friday Home Guide profiles new-home communities in Maryland and Virginia every week.

Jim Williams, executive vice president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association (NVBIA) suggests going to a builder and asking for references from the owners of the last three houses the builder sold. "If the builder hesitates, there is a problem," he says.

Mr. Williams says it's also key that a builder belong to professional organizations to keep abreast of the latest information and education those groups provide. He says NVBIA has a small group of builders that is working to improve consumer relationships.

"This effort is the beginning of how to improve the whole re-lationship with the consumer and how to establish expectations, and how to choose a good builder," Mr. Williams says."

"What you should be looking for are standards," says Mike Gorman, president of Oak Ridge Builders in Leesburg. He suggests asking these questions:

• What are the industry standards?

• What are the builder's warranties? Normally, builders offer a one-year warranty.

• What, if any, third-party warranties does the builder carry? These are normally 10-year warranties.

In addition, Mr. Gorman suggests asking about the delivery time. He says it used to take 112 to 114 days to deliver a house, and it is now taking 146 days.

Other questions suggested by Homebuilder.com are:

• How long has the company been in business?

• Whom do you contact for customer service after the sale? Should requests be in writing?

• Who will be responsible for correcting problems with major appliances?

• Does the builder use state-of-the-art energy features?

Homebuilder.com not only provides a list of builders and their phone numbers, it also has a section called Home Buying Guide that has maps to the new-home developments. Under the list of builders for the Washington area, 111 builders were listed.

With so many choices, it be-comes even more important to select a builder you can work with. Mr. Gorman says, "There are going to be bumps in the road." One of those bumps has been the shortage of labor, which has added to the longer construction cycle. "We have a lot of subcontractors, but there are just not enough to keep up with demand," he says. Another bump has been rising prices. "I have seen a significant increase in my costs for construction, and land cost is up," Mr. Gorman says.

All of these factors can lead to delays and frustration for the new-home buyer.

Mr. Gorman is heading up the NVBIA group working on improving consumer relations. Still in the planning stage, it will create a conduit with customers working in conjunction with Loudoun and Fairfax counties and their consumer affairs offices.

"One of the things we are experiencing in the industry is customers being dissatisfied," says Mr. Gorman. Part of this is due to the level of activity in the new-home industry, as well as a shortage of labor, he explains. "What we are trying to do is create an atmosphere so that the customers understand what they are going to get."

Mr. Gorman provides a homeowners manual for each of his customers and tells them what to expect during the process and what to expect after moving in. "If we can educate our customers about what is going to occur, they will be happy with the process."

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