What Custom Builders Want
When it comes to their dealers, custom builders desire strong customer service, product insights— and sometimes the perfect impact-rated entry door.
Whether they’re building a $4 million home on an island outside of Seattle or a $350,000 Craftsman in the Midwest, custom builders specialize in creating one-of-a-kind homes in tune with the specific tastes of their buyers. And with that brings some unique attributes that LBM dealers should keep in mind.
Much of what this market needs should sound familiar— great customer service, on-time deliveries, and products as promised. But as smaller operations with an often exacting clientele, dealers that can provide intimate product knowledge and meticulous attention to detail are particularly highly valued. In return, custom builders bring an appreciation and loyalty that often goes far beyond price.
Here is a look at the custom builder market from the eyes of four builders around the country.
New Castle Homes: Reliable Sourcing
When your day-to-day work involves building modern green infill homes in the booming market of Austin, Texas, having reliable supply partners is just as important as any other role. That’s why when you ask Newcastle Homes about the key features it looks for in a building material dealer, customer service will almost always trump price.
One of the most important things principal Lex Zwarun seeks in his LBM dealers is truth in advertising. “If something is going to take three weeks to get, tell me it’s three weeks,” he says. “It’s about getting the right material to the right place at the right time.”
Newcastle completes about 18 to 20 custom and spec homes a year, most of which are close to Austin’s downtown core. Within that, they often add a garage condo on the property, increasing the value for both builder and buyer.
Due to its size, Newcastle relies on its suppliers to be an extension of the company and provide added value. “We are small, and we take on massive logistical headaches in certain categories, so we need fewer headaches in others,” Zwarun says. “We try to do turnkey as much as possible, including lumber, trusses, and cornice work from one supplier.”
Zwarun knows that doing their own takeoffs would save money, but having his dealer turn it around instead saves time. Still, he wishes bids were more itemized, providing detailed insights into how the individual material prices are dictating the whole.
Newcastle also has begun taking advantage of the efficiencies of precision-cut framing packages, in which the lumber is cut at the mill and then sent to the jobsite. The dealer takes the blueprints, turns them into a 3-D model, and then uses a computer-driven system to cut the lumber in advance for easier and faster assembly on the jobsite. Zwarun does caution, however, that so far the system works best on straightforward designs and production-style housing and less so on the builder’s more complicated layouts.
He’s been more hesitant to take advantage of installed sales programs, knowing that dealers are having just as many challenges with the tight labor market as builders are, but he has had success using installed millwork and window programs.
Often, the amount of dealer services Newcastle uses comes down to the quality of their reps. “I want a rep who knows what he’s talking about—who has been in construction or has learned enough about it over the years,” Zwarun says
And, of course, the basics are always essential: follow through, communicate, and be honest with turnaround times and other details. Zwarun wishes dealers understood “just how painful it is when they don’t do what they say and when.”
For example, if the lumber drop is a week late, Newcastle loses its subcontractors, who have moved on to the next project. “It’s so hard to line up labor,” Zwarun continues. “If we arrange everything and then the shipment is late or the shipment is incomplete—that kills you in a tight labor market.”
He finds that a teamwork mentality is crucial: “A lumber rep who sees themselves as part of the team will problem- solve these issues. They will help figure out how to get the lumber to work.”
Zwarun says pricing does influence his decision somewhat, including whether he’s willing to meet with a new supplier, but it’s never the deal-maker. “Pricing is awesome, but for someone to be a little less expensive but not have the experience, I know that’s not going to work for me,” he says.
To be considered, new suppliers must first and foremost have a track record of customer service and have already have proven themselves as a strong player in the local market.
Noble Ridge Construction: Team Players
The Seattle housing market is one of the hottest in the country, and as a custom builder appealing to both modern and traditional tastes across a diversity of neighborhoods and price points, Noble Ridge Construction is keeping busy. At any given time, the Bellevue, Wash.- based company is building six to 10 custom homes and selling another eight to 10. Land within Seattle city limits is tight, so the company has perfected the art of high-quality infill projects that maximize space while suiting the lot, building everything from 1,700-square-foot modern rowhouses to $4 million island estates. And it’s also not afraid to push the envelope: In 2013 Noble Ridge built the “Rogue house,” an energy-efficient, Built Green-certified contemporary home nestled among a cluster of Craftsmans.
Keeping track of everything means having suppliers that are as organized as they are. “As a general contractor, we’re looking for our [supplier and subcontractor] partners to be the subject matter experts,” says president Jason Wojtacha. This includes keeping careful track of schedules—when the builder tells a supplier materials are needed in a few weeks, reminders and follow-ups shouldn’t be needed. “There’s a bit of teamwork involved. For bidding purposes, we need them to respond and be consistent. And we expect them to be knowledgeable.”
Oftentimes, whether it’s dealers or subs, success comes down to the individual representative. Wojtacha points to his rep at a flooring distributor as an example: She has a good relationship with her installers and is continually mindful of each project’s budget and the availability of preferred products. “She makes things happen,” he says.
It’s vital for LBM dealers to remember that they are one component of many. “They have to consider the number of people we’re dealing with on each project, so we have limited time to be with them,” Wojtacha says. “They need to understand that we’re asking them to handle that part of the process, and we need to move on to our people.”
Though he subs out much of the work, Wojtacha does rely on installed sales for windows, simply because his dealer has what he feels is the best crew of installers. In fact, when his rep changed jobs, Noble Ridge followed him to his new company to continue window sales.
Reliability is key to keeping projects moving—and, as such, disorganization is the self-induced wound that can be a deal-breaker and one of the few other reasons Noble Ridge will switch suppliers. In one instance, Wojtacha worked with a dealer for all of his materials, but they kept ordering the interior doors incorrectly, forcing him to switch to a new supplier for his interior millwork.
Indeed, Wojtacha says that if the company changes suppliers it’s usually caused by a project management problem on the dealer’s part that has cost the builder money. “We’re only as good as the people we surround ourselves with.”