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News Flash: Good builders earn their money

by Steve McKee on December 26, 2004

Builders. They do nothing less than create the built environment in which humanity conducts its affairs. They’ve done so since ancient times. Today you can visit Roman structures that are still standing after two thousand years and marvel at the skill of the builders.

Now, can you just find a good local one to come and do your remodel project?

As a homeowner seeking to remodel, you are going to allow a builder to come in and destroy your home (your most special place in the world!) and then give them lots of money to put it back together different than it was before. It’s quite daunting, isn’t it?

Who doesn’t know a story about some homeowner left hanging when a builder departed with tens of thousands of dollars never to be seen again? Or with a project half finished. Or simply took much longer than anticipated. Or never missed a chance to try and charge for extras. There’s a vast array of ways to screw up a job.

Like the rest of the human race, there are good ones and bad ones. Luckily the system tends to reward the good ones, mainly through word-of-mouth recommendations.

Any builder you see consistently working in an area completing job after job is doing so because he’s leaving people happy. In Benicia those good ones would include the likes of John Laverty, Steve Munson and Scott Deane, among others. I specifically mention these three because I believe you could almost create fan clubs from their previous clients. I’ve seen these guys absorb extra cost on some things without passing it along to the owner, just to keep a job running smoother. I’ve also been seeing good results from Bob Loudermilk, Mark Depew, Rick Salmon, and Jim Armstrong.

After builder Steve Munson and I completed our first project together, a custom house built in 1998, the homeowner told me Munson was “the most honest man” he ever met. (This was reiterated by another since then.) I mention it here because anybody who conducts himself in such a way to earn such a comment surely deserves at least an inch or two in the Benicia Herald.

Yes, Virginia, there are good builders out there. The best of them have good people and good subs that come in and make something as difficult as building a house about as smooth as possible. They communicate well. They absorb the headaches so you don’t have to.

A notch below the “best” would be the “pretty good” ones. With these builders, the finished product is often high quality, but the process along the way may include some hiccups: things may take longer with dead days in the middle when your jobsite lies fallow, maybe a misunderstanding will emerge about what was included in the contract, or maybe you’ll need to intervene with subcontractors and even manage the work flow more than you thought you would.

House construction isn’t just one subcontractor following another until the house is done. There are numerous coordination issues and many little jobs that would otherwise fall through the cracks if a general contractor wasn’t sweating the details. For instance, knowing when to order a granite countertop and how to coordinate this with the cabinet maker and the plumber who is going to fit the unusual European faucet to the undermount sink but won’t have good access to do this if any of it’s done in the wrong order.

I used to do this contracting stuff myself for a brief period way back in a former life (i.e. during a career detour in the early nineties) and can assure you it’s a lot of work! Besides the never-ending errand running, there is a lot of micro-managing required to bring off a project smoothly. To come to grips with it all, I’d make these multileveled flow charts (“critical paths” we called them) in order to get a handle on just what had to be in place before the next step was taken, when inspections needed to be called for, what decisions were required when, and what had to be ordered how far in advance. All just to make sure I didn’t completely screw up the job.

Here’s what I appreciate about good builders, and you should too: they absorb problem after problem, day in and day out, and handle them efficiently and competently without whining. You won’t even know the problems they had to overcome. They’re the ones falling on the grenade so that the rest of us can live in nice houses. (Sorry if my metaphor skills are a little off today.) Many a lesser man or woman would wilt under such an onslaught.

A builder friend of mine recently told me that he quit general contracting to instead do framing for another builder. Now he likes the work a lot more and says his blood pressure is down. (There you go, readers, hard empirical data to support my thesis.)

I was at a job site with my favorite Lafayette general contractor (another builder who could start a fan club from his clients if he wanted) talking about some new issue that came up on a house we were doing together (such as how to switch from stucco siding to horizontal plank siding and still have the flashing details work) and he took a few cell phone calls and, as always, it was just one headache after another, piling up.

First call was his bookkeeper: Such and such a client is still withholding a final payment of fourteen thousand dollars; do they meet payroll this week by dipping into the last of the credit line?

We talked some more. He told me how the city of Lafayette is going to make him tear out a bunch of just finished and painted drywall in a house he’s building on spec because they changed their mind about making him put fire sprinklers in the house. He chuckled (in exasperation.) That one hurts.

Then his cell phone chirped in walkie talkie mode. This time his guys can’t get into a house because the homeowner for some reason took back the key that was usually left hidden outside and now the plumber (who could only get to the job on that day) will have to leave and now the whole schedule is thrown off because the tile guy will now have to go and do someone else’s job for a week and half. What should they do?

And on it went like that, just another day as a general contractor. Then he told me the so and so job is going well. It framed up real easy. I’m so glad to hear that, I said. Finally, a break for this poor guy.

This kind of thing happens all the time when I’m around a builder who does quality residential projects. This is why builders really like it when they have an architect and engineer who will support them during construction by showing up quickly for a micro meeting about some change, or produce a letter within a couple hours authorizing some structural revision in order to keep a concrete pour on schedule.

Lest I keep rambling here, let me get to the point. For a successful building project, do the following: Get good people.

First, get a good architect or designer who will take the time to get your design right, and then follow this up by creating a set of construction drawings that show your project in all its aspects (and not just the minimum drawings that just barely get you a building permit.) In other words, problem solve on paper now and save thousands later. (Sorry to shamelessly shill, but it’s true.)

Second, get a good builder who knows how to put a house together right and will make good decision at every turn. Someone who could create a well built house based on a scribble on a napkin. Get this builder a well-done design and a good set of drawings instead and the results should be splendid indeed.

The combination of these two factors will eliminate most of your problems. Get competent people and pay them their worth. They’ll earn it because they’ll absorb the trouble and, in the end, turn out wonderful houses that’ll make you happy to be alive.

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