Serving The Customer

Callbacks: The road to happiness for the buyer of a new home is paved with good responses by the builder to problems that develop.

January 26, 2003|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MOST BUYERS are satisfied when they move into a brand-new home.

It's the customer service they receive after they unpack that many would like to see improve.

The Housing Continuum Survey, released recently by Builder magazine and the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, found that while most consumers are satisfied with the overall homebuying experience, as many as a third of new purchasers expressed dissatisfaction with callbacks - the warranty offered by most builders to fix flaws in the home that emerge after construction.

The study comes as home construction in the United States posted record sales last year thanks to historically low interest rates, a weak supply of existing homes for sale and rising real estate values.

Callbacks, which many builders offer for a year after construction, are designed to address defects and imperfections that appear once a house is lived in for a period of time. Leaks, nails that pop from drywall or loose carpeting are some of the items that builders will fix after the home has been purchased.

A customer-service expert in the industry said the callback complaints are too high, and they identify a problem that builders have been working to address during the past five years. Builders want to change perceptions that they disappear after settlement, said Daryl Spradley, an Orlando, Fla.-based consultant for the construction industry.

Spradley said that addressing those concerns is important because referrals lead to future business. And he said potential homebuyers should quiz builders about their customer service habits before choosing the company that will build their new house.

"Builders are beginning to understand that customer service is one way that they can stand out among others," the consultant said.

Local builders said their surveys show they are doing a good job of keeping customers happy. And many point to programs that help improve customer service for the industry, such as the state homebuilder association's effort to certify contractors. Several builders said they have detailed customer service programs to address concerns, but that the industry can improve.

"Builders have to do a good job of helping the customer set their expectations," said T. Kevin Carney, president of Thomas Builders Inc. in Columbia and a past president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "What I've told many of my customers is that [a home] is a handmade product of over 1 million parts. It's not going to be perfect. And even in the best management [mistakes are made, but] we try to correct them."

The survey said that while 90 percent of those buying a home were pleased with the process, about 33 percent of those buyers and 25 percent of repeat buyers were unhappy with the service during the callbacks.

"Our advice to builders is that they show new homebuyers some level of attention after the sale," said Christina Farnsworth, a senior editor of Builder magazine. "Most homes do have warranties, and one thing we recommend is that the builder contact the new homebuyer a few months before the warranty runs out to make sure that all those little things that can happen once a home is in use get taken care of."

Farnsworth suggested that builders stay connected with their customers through newsletters, e-mail and postcards for maintenance reminders.

Consumers also must do their part to ensure that their expectations are met, Farnsworth said.

"The buyer needs to do some homework," she said.

Spradley, who helps builders improve their customer service programs, said consumers also need to know what builders will fix on callbacks.

He suggested that consumers ask sales representatives about customer service while they are deciding whether to buy.

Builders who can outline detailed programs often are the ones who will do a better job, Spradley said.

He added that consumers and builders tend to spend a lot of time before settlement talking about loans, construction schedules, colors and floor plans. Once buyers move in, that communication stops, and it often leads to misunderstandings.

That's why customers should have reasonable expectations as to what will be corrected and in what time frame, Spradley said.

"I think that almost every buyer believes the builder is going to take care of everything in the house," he said. "We all think that new homes are going to be perfect, but the perfect home just doesn't exist and it never will."

The Home Builders Association of Maryland recommends that consumers carefully choose builders.

Liz Elkins, a spokeswoman for the builders group, said consumers can check if a builder is certified through the association's certified master builder or remodeler program. Each designation requires that participants meet various criteria to become certified by the association.

"The program was developed as a means for builders and remodelers to establish their company as one that meets the highest standards in the industry," Elkins said.

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