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Attention to detail shapes impression of home builders

Every year when I'm asked to judge parades of homes, I learn something. Let me share this year's lesson with you.

Parades are the spring showcases of new construction, sponsored by builders' associations in each county to highlight the spring home-buying season. Teams of judges — people involved in the home-building industry from outside the area — evaluate the homes on various criteria. Winning builders get a trophy and bragging rights.

This year I was a judge for the parade in North Florida, the Jacksonville area. The eye-opener for me was that one of the worst houses we saw and one of best — in the same price category — were by the same national builder, and they were proof again that the details will make you or break you.

My fellow judge and I were pretty unhappy with House A. Unbelievably sloppy paint job, dreadful drywall (you could see the drywall tape!) . . . a tray ceiling in the master bedroom badly faux-painted gold (but the lighting-fixture trim and smoke detector were left white) . . . a too-shallow kitchen sink, an outrageously cheap shower stall (one good yank and that door will come off in your hand) . . . tiny secondary bedrooms and a too-small family room . . . a floor plan in which every sound everybody makes will reverberate throughout . . . Oh, there was more, but you get the idea. Let's just say the house had been value-engineered to the point where all the value was engineered right out of it.

A couple of hours later, miles away in a different community, we visited House B. What a difference: Perfect paint job, neat drywall, the shoe molding around the baseboards perfectly fitted. The handrail on the stairs was a dark-stained clear natural wood (instead of the cheap white-painted wood so many builders use that shows every fingerprint). The rooms were well-proportioned: good-sized formal living and dining rooms and a spacious family room, which is where you'll spend most of your time. And a solid, good-quality glass shower stall.

The difference? Obviously, that somebody cared, that somebody demanded top performance, that someone was watching the details, that the trades here took pride in their work.

Too bad, because someone who sees only House A will walk away with a negative impression of that national builder. And someone who sees only House B may think every home that bears this builder's name is as carefully tended, and may be bitterly disappointed to find out that's not the case.

Creating atmosphere vs. masking smell

Just when you think you've seen everything — well, you haven't.

Walking through two of the models in the Jacksonville parade, I saw something that amazed me.

Room deodorizers.

The kind you plug into a wall outlet.

In new homes.

"What is that?" I asked, pointing to a flimsy plastic flowerlike thingie plugged into the wall in full view in the formal living room in one home. Maybe this is some new kind of home electronics device I've missed out on, I thought.

"It's a room deodorizer," my fellow judge informed me.

I was astounded. Here, in a home priced upwards of $350,000, was what I can only describe as a cheesy plastic deodorizer. (That apparently gave off no scent. I crouched down and took a whiff and sniffed nothing.)

I've got nothing against pleasant scents. Here on my desk I've got one of those aroma rings by Method that occasionally sends a scent called "sweetwater" my way. It has this unbeatable virtue: It is tucked behind my computer monitor and is essentially invisible. My office mates occasionally give me the business when I spray my cubicle with Febreze air refresher.

I'm sure the intention was to provide a pleasant aroma in the model. But for me, it backfired. Here's how I saw it: Why, in a brand-new home, do we need a room deodorizer? What awful smells are we trying to banish? Is there a mold problem here? Paint smells? If a buyer is concerned about indoor air quality or a child's asthma or her own allergies, what message does that room deodorizer send?

I've got a better idea. If the goal is to create the atmosphere of a spa — relaxing, luxurious, pampering (and I'm all in favor of those) — then use those scent sticks that stand in a jar of essential oil. Put the jar on the counter in the master bath and be upfront: We're creating a soothing atmosphere in which this lovely, subtle aroma is part of the ambience. We're not hiding anything, we're enhancing.

Don't use something we connect with doggy odor or the smell from the diaper pail.

Judy Stark can be reached at jstark@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8446.

Attention to detail shapes impression of home builders 04/25/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 25, 2008 4:32am]
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