APR 4, 2017

Home builders are willing to try new products


By Mary Salmonsen

This year more builders are setting out to try new products. Here’s how they'll choose them.

Although the old adage says that U.S. home builders are slow to adopt new technologies and ideas, the latest evidence proves otherwise.

According to the 2017 BUILDER Brand Use Survey, 64.4% of home builders say they are either “much more willing” or “somewhat more willing” to try new products in 2017 than in previous years, with a slight upward increase for projects priced over $500,000. Less than 4% of builders said they were less willing to use new products, and 31.9% reported no change in their opinion.

Far from dragging their feet on fresh ideas, many builders incorporate new products as an ongoing part of the construction process. “Not only are we willing to try new things, we’re on a constant quest to try new things,” says Richard Douglass, Southern California division president for Trumark Homes. “We want to improve our products for pure professional pride and ability, to say we’re building better products today than we were years ago.”

He cites California’s extensive and frequently updated energy and construction codes as drivers for experimentation, owing to the necessity of finding new products to meet new regulations. “We’re so heavily regulated that we’re forced to look at ways to accommodate new,” he says.

Learning Curve

Most respondents to the BUILDER Brand Use Survey say they explore new brands three to five months ahead of when they plan to use them. But where does this research occur?

Many say the best place to take in information on newly released products is at trade shows like the International Builders’ Show or PCBC. “Things are changing so quickly in today’s environment,” says Paul Alviggi, founder of Furlong, Pa.–based Hunterdon Homes, who tries new products in his homes at least once a year. “We need to stay educated. … I find talking to the representatives a very efficient use of my time, and they really know a lot about the product because they have the training and the support.”

For Jennifar Evans, director of design and coordination at Edward R. James Homes in Glenview, Ill., the main source of new product information is within the company’s existing network of suppliers. Another source is home buyers, who often come into Evans’ design studio with a product name or website that they saw on TV, Houzz, or Pinterest.

“In every homeowner meeting I have, they almost always bring me something new that they found that isn’t part of our standard offering, but that we do a little research and find out more about,” she says. “We closed nearly 150, 200 homes last year, so we get that many if not double the amount of requests. People are so educated now. They love doing the research.”

Taking The Leap

It’s a trend that builders across the country are noticing: New-home buyers have become more outspoken about the kinds of products they want. Builders say they are open to accommodating buyers’ requests, but some are wary of cost-prohibitive products, or materials they can’t source locally.

On the other hand, the high-end products on home improvement shows are exactly what some builders are looking to provide, says Jeff Benach, principal of Lexington Homes in Chicago. “What we are always doing is pushing the envelope in terms of offering the trendiest and newest of material selections,” he says. “HGTV is one example of where you really pick up on trends that people are convinced to ask about.”

Alviggi’s latest experiment is trying out tankless water heaters, particularly Rheem, Eccotemp, and Rinnai models, which enable him to satisfy his buyers’ increasing requests for energy savings.

Madison, Wis.–based Tim O’Brien Homes—known for pushing the envelope on green building practices—tries out new sustainable products several times a year. “We do a number of what I call ‘pilot homes’ once a year, where we will try to experiment with a different combination of products to try to get a lower HERS score rating,” says founder Tim O’Brien, who has also been testing smart technology in his homes to great success.

In the BUILDER Brand Use survey, 84.2% of respondents say that advanced or new product features are a big motivator behind their decision to try a new brand. Higher-volume builders (50-plus units) showed a greater share of concern for price—59.7% as opposed to 48.9% across all builders—while builders at lower average sale prices were more concerned about product quality than higher-price builders.

Alviggi rates his concern for price at about “six out of 10,” while O’Brien considers the matter situational. “If it’s a product that’s of relative low value to our client, but we see it as high value to us in building a better home, price might lean more on that category,” O’Brien says. “But if it’s a highly desired product, like a home automation product, we want to make sure that we have the service available for it if something goes wrong.”

And when tests of new products do go awry, as it did for Alviggi when his team received a shipment of siding components in the wrong color, the quality of customer support surrounding the product is vital to a project’s success. “The supplier was fantastic, they accepted a return and an exchange, which they typically don’t do,” he recalls. “But the fact that they offered three different colored whites was unbeknownst to my other supplier, and they worked out that type of situation.”

"When I get home I feel like I am on vacation, I love my new home."

- Peggy Kennedy