Bison Builders

Choosing a Builder

Over the past year, I met with several builders to collect information and to find out who I felt most comfortable with. I wanted a builder that I could work closely with - one that would let me be highly involved with the project, and one that would not be annoyed by my attention to even the smallest detail. There are a lot of builders out there, but they are not created equally.

I tried the "corporate" builders - the ones that have a large organization and a sales staff, site managers, etc. Although these types of builders are good at what they do and offer some advantages - I quickly decided they were not for me. I did not care for the fact that the "builder" was not a person but an organization, and corporate builders are generally not interested in custom plans - they make their money on volume and controlling known variables in the building process.

Next I talked to a few smaller builders, and liked what I saw. These guys were small business owners, knew their trade well, and offered a very personal touch. The disadvantage is that these smaller independent guys are harder to differentiate, and you can have a bad experience if you pick the wrong one.

I got lucky - I heard that a former neighbor of mine (Mark Petersen, he had previously worked in the construction industry for a "corporate" builder) had gone out on his own and started his own building company (Bison Builders). Before I even had a chance to talk to him, I bumped into a house that he was building and walked through it. I could tell that his style was similar to what we wanted, and the construction was very high quality.

I set up a meeting with him a couple weeks later, and we discussed the project. Just a few minutes after he sat down and reviewed the plans, he started offering ideas and suggestions that were brilliant. I immediately felt very good about him - a few weeks later he had his bid back to us, and shortly thereafter we signed a contract.

I was fortunate to find someone that I already knew. Most people will not already have a personal relationship with a builder - or if you do, he may not be the right one for the job (be careful about "Cousin Lenny" or that friend of a friend who wants to build your house!)

As the project has progressed, I cannot tell you how grateful I am for Mark (our builder) and his experience. He is paying his "wage" over and over every day. Choosing the right builder is probably the most important decision you will make - so make sure you do your homework.

What I Learned

If you are like me, you will be working closely with the builder. It is important that you choose a builder whose personality blends well with yours. Also, during your initial meeting with him, share your ideas. If he seems excited, tries to catch your vision, and offers ideas that are in line with yours, you are on the right track. Some of the builders I talked to seemed to be "hassled" about my ideas - I knew that would not work for me.

It is very important to look at his past work to make sure it meets your expectations. Do not hesitate to ask him for addresses of his other projects, and do not be afraid to knock on the doors and ask the homeowners how they felt about working with him. Most homeowners are happy to share their experiences - and are not afraid to tell you if they had a poor experience.

The contract you sign with the builder is a key piece of the relationship. Builders have their own contracts - remember that the builder's contract was written by the builder's lawyer and is designed to protect his interests first. It seems that we are handed so many legal documents these days that we often sign them without even reading them. DO NOT DO THIS! Read every line carefully - if you do not understand part of it, discuss it with the builder.

Do not assume that the contract is set in stone and is a "take it or leave it" agreement. Some of the terms will be negotiable, others will not. If there is a section you don't like, talk to the builder about it and see what you can work out. Remember that you have a lot of leverage to negotiate favorable terms before you sign - after you sign, the builder has the job and your leverage is gone.

If you have a high degree of trust in the builder and his reputation, a general contract will probably work OK for you. If you do not know the builder or his reputation well, it is probably a good idea to put more specific details in your contract. Although it will cost additional money, it might not be a bad idea to have a lawyer review the contract for you. The additional cost may be worth avoiding the risk of signing an unfavorable contract.

Real Estate Agents: Typically a corporate builder will have a commission built into any bid for your real estate agent. If you do not have your own agent, the builder simply makes more money on your job - so it is a good idea to get an agent to represent you. However, the smaller independent builders generally do not have a commission built into their bid for your custom job.

Working with a real estate agent can provide valuable insight and some legal protection, but if the agent is planning on getting a percentage of the purchase price as payment, it will come out of your pocket (either the builder will tack the commission onto the bid, or you will pay the agent directly). The builder does not have room to pay this out of his margin - if he does you are probably paying him too much.

There is no requirement that you have a real estate agent - so if you are going with a smaller builder, only use an agent if you think you will get comparable value for the price you pay. However, a real estate agent can be very valuable when negotiating your contract and can "keep the builder honest" when giving you pricing for upgrades. If you are comfortable handling these elements yourself, or you have a good relationship of trust with your builder, you will probably be OK without an agent.

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