What Makes a Good Builder? / by S. Joshua Brincko

 Matt Karlstrom, master craftsman and owner of KarlstromBuilt. This guy has an eye for detail, the skill to build it, and a "no-compromise" work ethic. People say, "don't sweat the details." Matt sweats the details. He has the rare patience to truly exceed expectations.

Matt Karlstrom, master craftsman and owner of KarlstromBuilt. This guy has an eye for detail, the skill to build it, and a "no-compromise" work ethic. People say, "don't sweat the details." Matt sweats the details. He has the rare patience to truly exceed expectations.

This depends on what you are trying to achieve. Are you a developer who wants to build something fast and cheap, so you can sell it quickly and maximize your profit? Are you a first-time homeowner with a stretched budget who just wants to make the new house a bit more livable? Are you looking for a truly innovative home with all of the details fine tuned to your liking? Each of these examples are drastically different, and their are builders out there who specialize in achieving those results. Regardless of the type of project, there are some qualities that any good builder will have that you could look for:

1. Personality: This is key. Once you follow the tips you will read below, fundamentally, this is the only discernible difference between qualified builders. They are all calling the same plumbers for bids, buying the same materials from the same suppliers, and referencing the same set of plans, so their prices should all end up nearly identical as one another. If not, you should certainly ask why they are so high or so low compared to other bids. You will be working with this person every single day in person, over the phone, and through emails. You will definitely want to ensure you will ENJOY working with this person. If you wouldn't enjoy going out to dinner with the builder, then don't hire them. It's probably worth taking the prospective builder out to dinner to see if the relationship works. A personality that resonates with you will nearly guarantee a good working relationship. This personality is responsible for tearing your house apart, making it dusty, spending your life-savings, explaining mistakes and solutions to fixing them, and ensuring the design intent is met or exceeded. It's a tough journey, and you need a friendly guide to get you through it.

2. Flexibility: Construction is full of surprises. It is not possible to foresee everything that can come up: rot in walls, damaged material deliveries, postponing a plumber due to illness, changing your mind on design features, realizing better options, longer than anticipated lead times on product orders, a freak wind storm during roofing, etc. You want a builder who can be flexible as surprises happen. This is all part of the process. Some builders make such a big deal out of these things and start whining about them like a little kid. Other builders just see these as part of the process and quickly fix them rather than painting pictures of doom and gloom which causes you unnecessary stress. In interviewing builders, they will all carefully tell you about cost overrides resulting from unforeseen circumstances, so why should they get all beat out of shape when these unforeseen circumstances actually arise? They should be expected, and the good builders see this as part of their job, put their heads down, and get the job done without unnecessary complaining. A good builder is really like a concierge at a hotel...they explain everything as thoroughly as needed, and they point you in the right direction. These builders wear many hats. When they are adjusting some studs, they aren't afraid to move a little plumbing or electrical. They just make things happen. There's a lot of builders out there who will stop work, schedule an electrician to move an outlet of their way, and waste a week of time. The good ones know when it is appropriate to wear more than one hat, and they get the job done. 

3. Ownership: The best builders treat your project like it is their own. When the job is finished, they look at a bump in the wall, and they take it upon themselves to fix it. They know it could have been done better, and they own that mistake by undoing it and resolving it. These builders live, eat, and dream your project. They text you on the weekends when they come up with an idea. They offer cost-saving alternatives when appropriate. They don't charge you extra for supplies that they have leftover from some previous job. They build the project the same way they would build their own homes. They take your problems and treat them as their own problems. 

4. Inquisitive: The best builders are VERY inquisitive. They ask a lot of questions, they anticipate many answers to those questions, and they already have solutions prepared ahead of time. They read the architect's drawings very carefully, they ensure they understand the intent, and they partner with the architect to make it a strong project for both of their portfolios of finished work. These builders don't just make assumptions and start building. They pick up the phone, talk through complicated issues with the architect, text photos of the construction conditions, they ask for more details in the planning, and they carefully make it happen. This careful attitude makes the architect look successful, it makes the builder look successful, and this simply makes the project successful. Beware of a builder who does not want to involve the architect during construction. They know architects can hold them accountable for their work, so watch out for a builder who says the project is straightforward and they can take it from here without the architect. That's a red flag. Maybe the builder doesn't always need an architect to help them build something, but the architect is needed to keep them accountable. The client does not always know what standard practices are, how long they should take, level of quality to expect, etc. A good builder relies on the architect to help mitigate these things to deliver the appropriate product to the client. 

5. Open: The construction process is a huge investment, and it is very challenging. A good builder will be very open about all billing, all scheduling, and even all errors they make during construction. Good builders know that total transparency in all of these aspects leads to more successful projects and happier clients. They take the time to carefully save receipts, document them, categorize them, tally the labor to install those products, and pass them along to the architect for review. The architect verifies whether or not the items are successfully installed according to the plans before advising the client to pay the builder for those specific aspects of the work. Good builders don't simply send you an invoice with a number on it (like hospitals), and expect you to pay. They are very transparent in their workflow and budgeting. They understand they are spending your money and your time.

So how do you ensure you get a builder with these qualities? It will take some time on your behalf to ask all the right questions, spend adequate time with them, interview their previous clients, and to take the advice of your architect, friend, or relative who recommended them. I have worked with many different builders, and I have pre-qualified certain builders for certain project types. Once I get to know your personality, I offer suggestions for builders who will be a good match for you, and I work with them very closely to ensure a successful outcome.