By COLLINS CONNER
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2000
A U.S. Home Corp. customer-satisfaction survey proves that a scientific poll conducted by the St. Petersburg Times is inaccurate, according to Gene Lanton, president of the builder's Central Florida division.
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Lanton said U.S. Home did its own survey, using 535 customer satisfaction reports, which represented 80.6 percent of the company's 1999 closings in Tampa Bay. It showed that 89 percent would recommend the company and 95 percent thought "the builder had made every reasonable effort to construct a zero-defect house."
According to Lanton, those are "hard facts that would say there's probably some deviation in your survey."
Lanton said his company's research was validated by the University of South Florida's Manufacturing, Training and Education Center, a non-profit agency that helps manufacturers become more competitive.
Center director Jack Doherty, whose agency billed U.S. Home $450 for the work, said he tabulated the results on a computer.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do that," said Doherty, who is not a statistician. "You can do all kinds of glorified (analyses), but . . . if you get 30 questionnaires coming back and three say no, rest say yes, just divide the min by the max times 100 and that tells you the percentage. It's pretty straightforward."
Susan MacManus, a USF political scientist and statistics expert, said Doherty clearly crunched some numbers, "but is it valid and reliable?"
A company's customer surveys are "known to be unreliable," said MacManus. Such surveys are limited to only those buyers willing to fill out the forms. "Sometimes people don't bother to fill them out," MacManus said. "They think it's hopeless, or feel it's an industry pep talk.
"It's like those customer service cards you're asked to fill out in a restaurant, where the person getting a tip is standing right over you."
A U.S. Home customer who didn't want her name used said she was given a form when she closed on her house.
"When they're standing there and you're filling out a form, it's a little intimidating," she said. That's why, after she answered no, she wouldn't hire the company a second time, she added "except under certain conditions."
To determine whose survey was valid, the Times offered to pay for an analysis of both by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, one of the country's most prestigious survey research organizations.
U.S. Home declined the offer.
The St. Petersburg Times Research Department obtained a list of the 7,049 people who bought new single-family homes in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties in 1998 and conducted telephone interviews with a random sample of 758 of those. The interviews took place between November and March 1. The overall findings have a sampling error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
The Times paid particular attention to five large builders who together hold about a third of the market. The findings involving those builders, U.S. Home, Inland Homes, Lennar, Westfield and Suarez, have a sampling error ranging from 2.5 to 8.4 percentage points. In the stories, comparisons are made between U.S. Home and the other four large builders, and in several cases U.S. Home comes out unfavorably. Those comparisons use numbers at the extremes of the sampling error to present U.S. Home in the best possible light.
If you're planning to build a home, here are 10 smart steps to take:
1. Before choosing a builder, visit a neighborhood that has several of the builder's homes and ask the homeowners about their experience. If you are hiring a custom builder, ask for the names and phone numbers of the past 15 clients.
2. Ask the builder for a list of the subcontractors who will work on your home. Call them and ask about their experience with the builder.
3. Ask to meet the construction superintendent who will oversee your job. Is he or she a licensed contractor? How long has he or she worked for the builder? What is his or her experience in the industry?
4. Call your city or county development department to check the builder's history. Though most building departments do not have detailed records, some do. Hillsborough County, for instance, tracks the number of construction citations, red tags, given to a builder each month.
5. Have a lawyer review the sales contract and explain its provisions.
6. Keep a set of your blueprints, marked with any agreed-upon changes. It is the precise diagram of how your home should be built. If the builder will not give you a set, you can buy a copy from the city or county that issued your building permit.
7. Get a copy of your construction schedule so you will know if your job is progressing as it should.
8. Hire a certified home inspector. Two home-inspection organizations test their members before certifying them: the Florida Association of Building Inspectors (FABI) and the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). The best certification an inspector can have is through the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI), which created the Standard Building Code used in Tampa Bay.
9. Have your certified home inspector check your house as often as you can afford. Some inspectors will perform as many as 18 site visits, though the cost can climb to several thousand dollars.
10. Visit the site as often as you can. Talk regularly with your builder and construction superintendent. The more you communicate, the more your job will be on his mind.
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