Find the Perfect Builder

Chances are you have a vision for your perfect home. The challenge now: find a builder who will embrace that vision and, most importantly, help make it a reality.

Luckily, it's not a matter of chance. Follow these seven steps and you're much more likely to end up with your dream house - instead of a headache.

1. Ask for referrals from everyone you know — friends, acquaintances, or business associates. Learn about their experiences, and ask to see the builder's work. Ask whether the house was completed on time, came in on budget, and met all their needs.

2. Contact professional associations like the local builders' association or the Chamber of Commerce. Talk to people who keep tabs on the building industry, and who are qualified to give you names of trustworthy, reliable builders. Local lumberyard managers and building-supply outlets can also provide advice, including which builders may have had trouble with payments or materials. Call the Better Business Bureau, which can tell you if complaints were filed on any builders you are considering (although it is not at liberty to tell you whether those complaints were resolved).

3. Visit neighborhoods you like, or new developments, and ask people who are tending their gardens or washing their cars about their experiences. Find out if they are happy with their new homes, and whether or not they would enthusiastically recommend their builder. New homeowners are generally thrilled to share the excitement of building a new home with others. Model homes offer good opportunities to judge workmanship and the quality of materials and products that the builder deems appropriate.

4. Evaluate the level of on-site supervision provided by the builder. "A builder should be able to guarantee an end product, and the people he hires should conduct themselves properly and be well trained," says Dan Giddings, a New York-based builder. "A good builder will know how to manage his people whether or not he spends all day on site. Ultimately, he should be held accountable for any problems, and most importantly, he should be instantly accessible should problems or delays arise."

5. Once you've compiled a list of several builders, be sure each one is a member of a professional organization. Narrow the list to five candidates, and request an interview with each one at their office.

Ask for a sample copy of a contract. Find out how long they have been in business, and ask for a list of clients you can contact yourself to arrange for a tour of their homes. Always ask to see the completed work. Tell them your needs, your time frame, and your budget. Discuss warranties and ask for bank references to ensure that he is in good financial standing.

Try to determine not only whether each builder is a good match for you, but whether you are a good match for them. If the builder regularly constructs million-dollar homes, and you want to spend $200,000, you may be better off with someone else. Pay special attention to your comfort level during the meeting — do you feel as if you can communicate easily and successfully convey your wants and concerns to the builder?

6. Ask for a written estimate from the top three candidates. You'll need to compare bids on an apples-to-apples basis, so give them copies of your plans and materials list. Expect some builders to charge fees to prepare an estimate (which will probably be waived if they are awarded the project). The process takes time; do not be surprised if your bids are not ready for several weeks.

7. Analyze the completed bids not only in terms of final cost, but also for attention to detail and thorough preparation. And remember, don't select the lowest bidder unless you are sure he or she is capable of delivering a high-quality product, on time. After all, you'll be counting on this builder to make your dreams come true.