Somewhere in our youth, nearly all of us have pretended to be a detective. Looking for clues, asking questions, taking notes, searching for answers… back then it was just child’s play, but who knew you were arming yourself with skills that would come in handy as a homebuyer. Now that you’re ready to make one of the largest investments of your entire life—your log cabin dream home—it’s time to channel that inner Sherlock Holmes of your childhood and really put it to work. So don that inspector’s cap and follow our five simple steps to get you started.
Compile Your List of Suspects
One of the best places to start looking for a builder is with your log home producer. Though most don’t maintain an on-staff building crew, they likely will be familiar with builders in your area and may be willing and able to provide you with a list of names (and perhaps even the inside scoop on their reputations and levels of craftsmanship) to help you jump start your search. Another great place to look is in the Builder/Dealer Directory that’s in the back of this issue and every issue of Log Cabin Homes magazine.
But the roundup shouldn’t stop there. It’s important for you to do a little investigative digging of your own. Call your local homebuilders’ association and ask for the contact information for those who list log home construction among their specialties. Real estate agents and even big-box building supply stores also can be a valuable resource. And, of course, nothing beats a good old-fashioned referral. If any of your friends or relatives who have built homes in the recent past, be sure to check in with them as well. You know their opinions will be honest to a fault.
Conduct a Background Check
To help you whittle down your list from the start, perform a few simple inquiries into each builder’s professional history. Of course, the logical place to start is with the Better Business Bureau in the area in which you’re building, but also look into surrounding areas—even surrounding states—for complaints about bad business practices. Then, take it a step further by conducting a search with the Contractors Licensing Board in the state in which each potential builder is based; but don’t search on the construction company’s name, search on the builder’s name. Doing so will show all the entities under which he or she has been doing business. If the builder changes business names or opens a lot of new businesses in a short period of time (e.g., five new business starts in five to six years), it could mean he or she is running from a bad reputation.
If any of the intelligence you gather makes you uneasy, eliminate that person from your list immediately. There’s no sense on wasting your time interviewing someone who you don’t fully trust from the beginning.
Ask the Right Questions
Schedule a face-to-face interview with each builder on your short list. Anyone can ask the obvious questions (Have you ever built a log home? Were the building sites similar to mine? What complications have you faced and how have you solved them?). But many people don’t think to ask the more obtuse questions. For example, it’s not enough to know how many homes a builder has “worked on.” If you count everything from moving a log to turning a screw, that number could be inflated to dozens, maybe even hundreds, of homes. The person you’re interviewing is going to lead the charge that will get your home move-in ready, so be sure to ask how many homes each prospect has directed from start to finish, not just how many they’ve “worked on.” This is an important distinction because it tells you how many they’ve handled themselves and what kind of site leadership abilities he/she will have to see your project through. And don’t take their word for it—get proof.
The interviews shouldn’t end with the builder. Make connections with each one’s references, particularly building supply companies. A simple inquiry to a supply store can reveal a lot about whether the builder is a steady customer (implying he/she is in demand) and if he/she pays for materials on time. As for subcontractors, a buyer should request them, but know this: A builder may be hesitant to give them for reasons unrelated to fear of exposure. Some builders are protective of the trade contractors they use for competitive reasons, so you may not get them. Still, it can’t hurt to ask. Plumbers, electricians, and landscapers also are valuable sources of information.
Investigate the “Scene of the Crime”
Okay, so construction is not a “crime”—not if it’s done right, that is. But hiring a builder without doing your due diligence would be.
It’s not enough to base your decisions on a builder’s portfolio or photos online. To truly assess their work, you need to see the real thing up close and in person. With your short list in hand, ask to visit at least two to three homes per builder. (If he/she won’t provide you with references or homes you can visit, this should raise a huge red flag.)
You should look at homes that were both recently built and ones that are over five years old. The newer ones will show you the level of work the current building crew is capable of while the older ones will demonstrate how this builder’s work (and that of the subcontractors he chooses) holds up over time. Checks (those cracks that develop in the logs as the wood dries) are not structural flaws and have nothing to do with the builder’s skill level, but you should look for separation at the joints (aka, places where water and air can leak in), for uneven settling—particularly around door jambs and window sills, as well as how the foundation and, if possible, the roof are holding up. These targeted areas will provide clues that will help you assess if that particular builder is up to snuff.
Hire the Perfect Builder
Hopefully, by now you have your list down to two or three candidates. The final step is to ask for competitive bids. To be fair, submit the exact same criteria to all potential builders; then scrutinize the bids as they come back. Is each builder offering the same level of service? Are the construction schedules comparable? The cheapest bid may not always be the smartest choice.
Then it’s decision time. Once you’ve pinpointed the builder for you, request a written contract outlining everything that’s in the bid, including an itemized description of the project. Though you will be working closely with this person for a while and will likely develop a good rapport with him/her, try to keep your relationship strictly professional. It’s a lot harder to tell a friend that you don’t approve of a particular aspect of the project than it is an employee. This is your investment. Make sure you stay in charge. i