- The Washington Times - Friday, November 16, 2001

Low inventory and diminishing available land for building have driven the demand for custom-built homes. Does quality suffer when the market gets so hot?

Builders and home inspectors say building quality is still up to snuff, but it's important for the buyer of a new house to be well-informed during all stages of the building process to avoid misunderstandings along the way.

David Lehman, owner of D.L. Lehman Inc. in Clifton, says the intricate process of building a house leaves a lot of room for errors, but a meticulous builder covers all his bases and makes sure the process is done correctly.

"That's why it is so important for a person to take the time to select the perfect builder for their project," he says. Mr. Lehman says it's important to shop around and find someone with good referrals and high qualifications. He also says to make sure the builder is properly licensed.

"There are several different types of building licenses one can get here in Virginia," he says. "A Class A license enables a person to build anything from a skyscraper to a shed. It encompasses home-building. The other two licenses (B and C) don't." Virginia Class B and C licenses restrict a builder to smaller projects, Mr. Lehman says. By ensuring a builder has the proper license, a homeowner is covering himself should there be problems down the road.

"There are those out there who claim to be home builders who aren't properly licensed," Mr. Lehman says. "Their prices are great, but they aren't legally supposed to be building homes, and if you have problems down the line, it's hard to go after them."

In Maryland, new builders are required to register with the state before building homes and to place their Maryland home-builder registration number somewhere in their advertisements.

Maryland's Consumer Protection Division in the Office of the Attorney General advises consumers to use a builder who is registered in the state to ensure their own protection under their contract. Doing business with a registered builder will ensure that a homeowner is eligible for all protections and provisions provided in the contract. If an unregistered builder is used, the contract can be voided.

Also, Maryland law doesn't allow unregistered builders to get building permits or other important documentation to build a house.

Some unscrupulous builders nevertheless still find ways around the law. Consumer groups warn that if a builder asks you to apply for a building permit with the county or state, be wary. That builder might not be eligible for a license and permitting. If a homeowner secures the required permits but hires out the work, the homeowner loses some rights and remedies if the work is done improperly.

"If you're shopping major-league for a home builder, it's important to put in a lot of time making calls and researching builders in the area," Mr. Lehman says. Don't limit research to Web sites or fliers, he adds. "Word-of-mouth is the best way to find the best builder who will fit your needs."

Mr. Lehman advises developing a good working relationship with your builder. Schedule regular meetings, but also make unexpected stops at your building site. This not only will increase your confidence in your finished home, but will let your builder know you are actively interested in the building process.

"One of the key elements in that process is the homeowner's constant input and involvement," Mr. Lehman says. "After all, it's their money and their future home."

Mr. Lehman, a builder for more than 12 years, is convinced a good builder will take the time to inform his clients what to expect while they watch their home take shape. "And he won't mind if you stop in unannounced to check up on progress," he says. "Remember, the builder works for you."

A homeowner might be able to talk to a builder about cosmetic issues without expert advice, but Mr. Lehman suggests hiring a home inspector to deal with the down-and-dirty inner workings of the home.

"If you have a home inspector in on the building process from the get-go, you're not likely to have many issues when you move in," he says.

John Bouldin, a six-year veteran of the home-inspection field, agrees.

"An independent home inspector who's working for the buyer is going to do his best to make sure the home is built strong, sturdy and correctly," he says, "but it's important to really read the contract you have with your builder to make sure you have the ability to do that."

Mr. Bouldin, who works with ProTech Home Inspection in Alexandria, says some builders write in the home contract that only builder-approved home inspectors can be used.

"This is never a good idea," Mr. Bouldin says. "If a builder is confident with his own work, he won't mind if an outside inspector comes to check it out. You will get an unbiased evaluation of the structure when the inspector is chosen by and working solely for the buyer."

All that aside, Mr. Bouldin says an independent home inspector should be brought in for critical stages of home construction. If the house is inspected correctly at each stage, that will ensure that the homeowner will move into a house that is sound structurally, mechanically and cosmetically.

One often-overlooked early building inspection is called for at the foundation-pouring phase. A home inspector will make sure the foundation is structurally sound and trenched properly and that all footings are done correctly.

"Some home inspectors aren't fully sold on the importance of this first inspection," Mr. Bouldin says. "You can take it or leave it, but it could be peace of mind for the buyer."

Another inspection comes after the house is framed and enclosed; it's called the pre-drywall inspection.

"This is when the inner workings of the home are exposed and can be looked at and evaluated," Mr. Bouldin says. "A home inspector will be able to tell if pipes are installed correctly, if seams are sealed up properly and if everything is cosmetically and mechanically ready to be prepared for home completion."

At this inspection, an inspector and owner will walk through the house and prepare a "punch" list. This list consists of items for the builder to correct or repair before drywall is installed and before final inspection is scheduled.

"It really gives the owner a chance to go through his home with a professional who understands what he's looking at," Mr. Bouldin says.

After the pre-drywall inspection, a builder finishes the house, and it's ready to be occupied.

Homeowners need to remember that builders warranty their work for one year, and appliances and other workings of the house also are guaranteed.

"So before those warranties run out, schedule one more home inspection so a professional can give you feedback on whether or not you need to go back to your builder," Mr. Bouldin says.

During the first year, he notes, the ground settles, the home has been lived in, and appliances have been tested and tried.

"That's a great time to go in and re-evaluate the home," he says. "A thorough inspection right before the warranties run out could save a homeowner a lot of money. It always seems like something breaks just a few days after the warranties expire."

Mr. Lehman says a builder should be accommodating when it comes to fixing things in a home during that one-year window and should make sure the home is completely up to the standards and expectations of the homeowner.

While you may think you have an excellent working relationship with your builder, Maryland consumer advocate groups say to make sure all complaints and promises are put in writing even if a homeowner has had results with verbal communication in the past. There is always room for something to fall through the cracks, the groups warn.

"[The builders] reputation is truly on the line here," Mr. Lehman says. "Word-of-mouth is the best friend or the darkest enemy of a builder. So a reputable one will want to do the best job possible, with the fewest problems."

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