The home buyer should be at the heart of the home-building process, according to Sara Lamia, a consumer advocate and author of “How to Enjoy Building Your Dream Home.”
Lamia, a Ft. Collins, Colo., resident who contracted with a custom-home builder when she moved to the state eight years ago, said she hopes to build industry awareness about the need for improved customer service and education.
Lamia said her own custom-home odyssey was fraught with discovery, surprise and pitfalls, and she hopes home builders, real estate agents and lenders will become better versed at working with buyers throughout the entire home-building process.
She likens the creation of a home to the birth of a child. “‘Housebirth’ is just like childbirth,” she said. “Hopefully without the pain.” But many home buyers experience the pain, she said. “If you talk to people who had a house built, they will tell you about the pain. (Some) will never do it again. That’s not good for the home industry,” she said.
Lamia said she was clueless about the home-building process at first, and she learned the undertaking was frustrating and emotional at times. The real estate agent she hired also had little experience with new-home construction, she said.
Listen to Sara Lamia speak about effective communication between builders and consumers:
“It was very stressful for me that I didn’t know how to make these decisions (about the home),” Lamia said. “It should be fun and it should come out really well. You’re creating something that’s unique for you. You’re building your nest.”
Lamia said she attempted to make changes to the design while her home was being built.
“I couldn’t sleep at night. I just was finding out the information that I needed too late. Some things (the builder) changed for me and some things he didn’t. I hated to bother him, but it was my house,” she said.
Whether the home is a production home or a fully custom home, educated buyers will have a far easier time navigating through the process than those without such knowledge, she added.
“There’s a process of education that needs to go on and someone needs to do it,” she said.
The production-home market is growing, and Lamia said the custom-home market is in need of some renovations.
“The custom home-building market I think is in jeopardy. They can’t compete on price. What they can do is provide a higher level of customization and service,” she said.
Lamia’s book is a workbook for builders and buyers that contains a series of checklists that can be filled out at different stages of the home-building process.
“It’s not a reading book. It’s really a book for information and organization. It also gives communication strategies,” she said.
The book is not her only foray in educating home buyers. Lamia also teaches local classes on “housebirth” and home design. She hosts a bi-weekly “Building Coach’s Corner” radio program on a Fort Collins radio station, and she founded a company, Home Building Coach, to carry her message to the masses.
Lamia tells builders the most important people in the home-building process are the buyers.
“The buyer is never mentioned. Nobody talks about the buyer, and they’re the ones paying for all of this,” she said during a speech at a National Association of Home Builders convention.
But Lamia said she expects a growing focus on consumer satisfaction as builders wake up to home buyers’ demands.
“I think you’re going to see a radical change coming for the rest of the decade,” she said.
A survey released in 2003 by J.D. Power and Associates ranked Pulte Homes highest in customer satisfaction in 12 U.S. markets. The study found overall customer satisfaction increased 8 percent over 2002 levels. The global marketing information firm conducts the study of customer satisfaction ratings for home builders annually.
Builders’ customer service, home readiness, sales staff, and quality of workmanship and materials, in that order, were most important to overall home buyers’ satisfaction, according to the study. About 71,300 buyers of newly built single-family homes that lived in their homes an average four to 18 months participated in the study.
“Home builders are starting to recognize that strong customer satisfaction can be vital to success in a highly competitive market, just as the auto industry did when J.D. Power and Associates first put a spotlight on that industry’s customer experiences some 30 years ago.
“Home builders are heavily dependant on buyer recommendations to promote sales, and positive brand recognition is a key differentiator. Builders can’t expect to stay competitive if they ignore what their customers are saying,” said Paula Sonkin, senior director of the real estate industries practice for J.D. Power.
This competition to win the hearts and minds of consumers is “a big help to me,” Lamia said. She plans to continue to speak to groups of Realtors, builders and lenders to spread her message on the need to better serve consumers entering the home-building process.
Home buyers also share responsibility, Lamia said. Just as consumers in the market for a new automobile would do their homework before a purchase, they must also do their homework before buying a home, she said.
“You need to get references from (builders) and you need to actually call those references and preferably go out and see the houses. You’ll learn from people who have actually used this builder,” she said.
She added, “This is too big a purchase to leave to chance.”
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