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Riding on its reputation

Suarez Housing sells the nuts and bolts of construction quality and, according to a Times poll of Tampa Bay area buyers, it delivers on its promises.

By COLLINS CONNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2000


Morrison Homes touts its buyer's guide -- the "Little Purple Book" -- and its six-step program for customer satisfaction. Lennar pushes its "everything included" home, with lots of no-extra-charge features.

There are lots of builders with lots of sales pitches, but Suarez Housing takes a decidedly different approach, some of it probably incomprehensible to the average home buyer:

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Stem wall foundations to raise the floor level and protect against flooding. Interior studs, spaced 16 inches apart, not the usual 24, for stronger walls. A unique hurricane anchor that is easier to install and inspect.

In other words, Suarez sells the nuts and bolts of construction quality and, according to a St. Petersburg Times poll of Tampa Bay area buyers, the company delivers on its promises.

Only 1 percent of Suarez buyers reported major construction problems, compared with the 20 percent average of all area builders. Would they recommend their builder without reservation? Eighty-seven percent of Suarez buyers said yes, compared with a bay area average of 61 percent.

Company president Bob Suarez thinks that is because he tries to build houses the old-fashioned way: with doorways encased in wood; with shingles that are nailed, not stapled; with five-year, no-fee termite protection; with wood soffits and 12-inch roof overhangs.

"It's a better way of doing things," Suarez said of his two-page list of construction features.

It draws a different kind of buyer. "We sell to a buyer who's looking for a little more than price," sales manager Diane Flagg said.

One Suarez home sells for $124,900, $14,600 more than a comparably sized model by Maronda Homes in a Brandon subdivision where the builders compete. Elsewhere, Suarez's prices vary greatly from similarly sized homes of other builders -- from a few pennies less per square foot to a few dollars more.

The builder said he holds down costs and stays competitive with streamlined layouts.

"It starts at the very onset of design," he said. "We don't put angled corners on block walls -- that adds to the cost. We try to keep the corners on the outside in general at a minimum."

Suarez said he designs rooms so carpets can be laid whole, not cut and pieced. The sheets of pressed wood used to make a roof? Suarez sets the house length so they come out even.

Those steps cut waste, he said, and let the parts of a house fit together more easily.

Design economy also lets him make a profit, he said, and adequately pay subcontractors.

"My father always said, "Leave enough money on the table so everybody makes a little profit,"' Suarez said. Consequently, Suarez has some subcontractors he inherited from his father's construction business and some who were childhood friends.

"If I knew a customer didn't recommend us . . . I'd call them and say, "What can we do to change your mind?' Because that's the benchmark of customer relations: Would they recommend you?"

Of the 71 Suarez customers included in the Times' survey, only one would not recommend the builder.

That was James Nabach of Brandon, who said he was disappointed by some of the work in his house. He described a "considerable crack in the concrete cinder block, which they say is minor."

He also said his kitchen light is badly placed, markings on the slab are bleeding into the flooring and his finish moldings "aren't done as well as they should be."

Still, he said, "It was not a horrible home-buying experience at all."

Aside from Nabach's concerns, Suarez performed well, according to the Times' survey: 86 percent of Suarez buyers were "very satisfied" with the quality of construction, compared with 47 percent for U.S. Home and 61 percent for a group of three other large builders of comparably priced houses.

The company's reputation is a drawing card for buyers, the survey showed.

Like other builders, Suarez attracted about a third of its buyers with its model homes. Fifty-nine percent of its customers picked the company because it was recommended or because of its reputation. That compares with 27 percent for all builders.

"We had looked at new homes for almost two years," Suarez buyer Michael Hall said. "We wanted a well-built home.

"My daughter lives in the same subdivision; their house was built by another company. Their fascia boards are all rotting off and everything."

To Jean Durney, another Suarez customer, what mattered was service. "I had something wrong with the master bath floor and the kitchen floor. Mold came through," Durney said. "They came and changed both floors and repainted the molding. Anything I have, even if they might not feel responsible, they will come and talk to us."

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