Friday, December 11, 2009

Choosing a Builder

When we began getting serious about building a house, we started contacting builders to find out what the process was like.  We were very surprised to find out that every builder we contacted was comfortable with passive solar design, building tight, highly insulated houses, and could do so for the budget we had in mind.  Of course, it didn't take long for us to realize that most builders will say anything you want to hear.

Now, I'm certainly no expert on passive solar home construction, but I've done a fair amount of research and I have a good background in thermodynamics (I'm a physicist after all), and I'm amazed at some of what I heard some of these people say. I think my favorite was the guy who was telling us about the fact that his company is all about building efficient homes. Why they are able to build homes that are 90% efficient! What, precisely, he meant by this statement is anyone's guess. I didn't have the heart to actually ask him. Suffice it to say that one should be wary of what builders tell you.

After a number of fiascos, we happened upon Bridlewood Builders at the Pennsylvania Home Show. They seemed to be exactly what we were looking for.  However, we didn't think it was wise to put all our eggs in one basket.  We zeroed in on 3 builders that seemed knowledgeable about energy-efficient building, then (prematurely) chose the company that had the strongest local track record.  Homeowners raved about this builder.  We didn't sign a contract because we had yet to see a formal bid. But we did tell the other two builders (one of which was Bridlewood) that we had picked someone else.

After the house plans were completed, we were getting more and more anxious to see a formal bid (and presumably sign a contract). Then something very strange happened. We were asked to sign a "letter of intent" with the builder we had chosen. This seemed quite reasonable; after all, putting together a formal bid was going to take a lot of effort and they wanted some assurance we would be using them as our contractor. So we agreed without much thought. But when we received the letter, we were very surprised to see that it included a non-refundable upfront payment of $12,000. Remember, at this point we haven't even seen a bid. When we asked what this was all about, we got some vague response about covering costs, and 2 hours later were told that it was all a big mistake--we were given the wrong letter of intent.

At this point, we are feeling quite uncomfortable so we approached Bridlewood again with our tail between our legs.  We told them about our red flags with the other builder, assured them we were not playing games, and asked them to go ahead with a bid for the project. As the days dragged on, Virginia and I talked more and more about the situation and we became more and more convinced that Bridlewood was the right company for us.

Then another strange thing happened. The company that we originally chose withdrew from consideration. The reason they gave is that they didn't want to begin a project "on the wrong foot". Makes sense I suppose, but I have another theory; they probably figured it was going to cost significantly more to build than we were initially prepared to spend.  Thus, they didn't want to go through all the effort of making a formal bid and then have us pull the plug on the project. Instead of discussing this up front and letting us decide whether we wanted to move forward, they asked for a non-refundable $12,000 upfront. That way, if we walk away from the project after seeing the bid, they have at least covered their costs. Of course, this is only conjecture.

The moral of the story? Well, building a home is a huge undertaking and it is very important that you can communicate with your builder. Perhaps more important than the final cost is the sense that you and the builder are on the same page, that they are on your team.  Although our project IS costing more than we had anticipated, we are completely comfortable with our builders.  Bridlewood has shown great integrity, transparency, and flexibility so far.  It was a winding road, but we feel sure we ended up with the right partners for this project.

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