Volume 15, issue 2 of Canadian Homes and Cottages - Spring 2005

Boosting builders' public image

Focus groups told the Canadian Home Builder's Association that poor customer service tops a list of complaints they had about builders when they purchased a new home. Now the association is launching a plan to rebuild the public's trust.

By Jim Adair

A series of focus groups across Canada has told builders what they don't want to know - their public image could use some work.

Poor customer service, the quality of the builders' work, and salespeople who lack product knowledge were some of the complaints lodged against builders in the study, which was conducted in nine centres across Canada . Home buyers also complained that it's difficult to find out what features in the home are "standard" and those that are considered "upgrades". They felt rushed while choosing design options and upgrades.

Worst of all, many of the home buyers surveyed said that on warranty service, builders often offered poor or delayed service, and were hostile about making the repairs.

Canada 's new home market has been booming for several years, and new home prices have been rising quickly. Although it appears that the image of builders has not affected new home sales, the Canadian Home Builder's Association (CBHA) is working on a strategic plan to address the public's perception.

Last year, in a Readers' Digest poll to determine Canada 's most trusted professions, new home builders did not fare well. Only eight per cent of respondents said new home builders were "very trustworthy" and another 19 per cent said they were "trustworthy", for a combined score of 27 per cent. That put builders ahead of trade unions (21 per cent), car salespeople (10 per cent) and national politicians (nine per cent), but below lawyers (29 per cent), journalists (31 per cent) and auto mechanics (33 per cent). The most trustworthy professions are pharmacists, doctors and airline pilots, the poll said.

A similar Readers Digest poll in New Zealand , however, ranked builders as the ninth most trusted profession, just below plumbers, and ahead of car salesmen, marketers, journalists and psychologists.

In her weekly column published on the Greater Toronto Home Builders' Association website, GTHBA president Julie Di Lorenzo says, "Builders looking to bridge the gap between consumer perceptions and reality should note that the home buyer's definition of after-sales service is quite literal. They view the service phase as beginning right after they sign on the dotted line, not from the time they take occupancy."

She says, "Another source of buyer dissatisfaction is being handed-off by the original sales team to other staff in the builders' organization once the sales agreement is signed. Many buyers complained of little or no follow-up communications during the post sales/construction process."

Unhappiness with the new home buying experience has prompted a grass-roots movement to form consumer advocacy groups for buyers across Canada .

Karen Somerville took legal action against the builder from whom she and her husband bought a new home in August 2000. She says the home has a flaw that allows water into the basement, and a heating and ventilation system that is too small for the house, resulting in mould that makes it impossible for her to live there.

She formed Canadians for Properly Built Homes (www.canadiansforproperlybuilthomes.com), which calls itself the "first known national consumer protection organization in Canada related specifically to home construction and renovation."

"While many new homes and renovation projects meet appropriate building code standards, there is clear evidence that serious deficiencies exist in various regions in Canada," says a news release issued by the organization. It says tax dollars are being spent to "fix the problems caused by poor home construction and renovations. Examples include energy inefficiencies being addressed through Natural Resources Canada programs and government assistance to the leaky condominiums in British Columbia ."

B.C. has its own consumer advocacy group called Consumer Advocacy and Support to Homeowners Society (www.cashsociety.net). It was originally formed in 2000 to address issues related to the province's leaky condo crisis, in which thousands of buildings were found to have significant building defects.

Di Lorenzo says, "We builders may have raised expectations too high with our sophisticated lifestyle marketing, advertising and on-site presentation. In fact, research by Tarion Warranty Corp. identifies misaligned customer expectations as the number one source of complaints."

After hearing the results of the survey last fall, CHBA launched its plan to upgrade the image of builders. Its proposals include requiring all new home builder members to be registered with a new home warranty program. This is already mandatory in some but not all provinces, and another CHBA proposal is to lobby to make it mandatory everywhere.

The focus groups also determined that most consumers were not aware that the CHBA exists, so the association plans to promote itself better in the marketing of its members.