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At the Cutting Edge of Home Warranties

Is electronic monitoring part of homebuilding's future? This builder has used building science training to get ahead of that trend.

To some builders, a perfect world is one where they get through the warranty period without issues, then never hear from the homebuyer again until it's time for another new house.

Greenville, SC builder Todd Usher calls that shortsighted, and has begun differentiating his company with a bolder approach. Usher is founder and president of Addison Homes, which builds 15-20 semi-custom homes per year, and he is rolling out a series of technology enhancements that will provide homebuyers with value for years after the sale. The first enhancements will consist of sensors that monitor critical home systems and alert Usher or his staff to potential problems that require follow up.

It's the seed of what will eventually grow into a long-term warranty program that will benefit his buyers and bring in extra revenue. What has given him confidence to offer such a program? He gives much of the credit to ongoing training in high-performance building for himself and his employees.

Health Check

Usher got the monitoring idea from the auto industry. "GM sends me monthly updates on my truck's health and tells me when it needs service, so I thought 'why not do that for homebuyers?'" He realized that, done right, monitoring and notification could help him build and maintain brand loyalty.

He started with a crawlspace humidity sensor. Crawlspaces are common in the South, and Addison now installs Ultra Aire's Sentry product in all new homes. It measures humidity and temperature, and sends an alert if the numbers fall outside of pre-defined parameters. The sensor sends the data to the cloud (via the homeowner's wifi) then to a handheld app that Usher can use to keep track of multiple homes. He alerts the homeowners if anything looks like it needs a closer look.

Crawlspaces are just the start. Addison will eventually outfit homes with equipment that monitors a variety of home systems. The possibilities Usher is considering include:

  • Uponor's new Phyn Plus product to detect leaks at the main water supply
  • Navien's NaviLink to monitor system status on his homes' tankless water heating systems
  • Lennox wifi-enabled thermostats to alert him to potential problems with the heating and cooling system
  • SMA inverters to track efficiency and output of the rooftop solar panels

The ultimate goal is to offer extended warranties on all these systems. He will supplement this with warranties on additional items—for instance on termite damage if the homeowners sign up for an annual termite inspection and treatment.

While Addison does not currently charge for monitoring, that's in the works. The company will eventually give new homebuyers free monitoring for two years then offer to continue it, along with warranty protection, for a reasonable monthly fee. Usher is confident that most customers will opt-in once they get used to the benefits.

He admits that monitoring HVAC and hot water systems will take some negotiation, as manufacturers like to award that service to the dealer or installer. But he insists that homeowners prefer to deal with one trusted source. He is hoping that volume will help bring manufacturers around— Usher's company is part of the CB USA buying group, which could provide some clout —but that alone won't be enough. "We still have to demonstrate our expertise," he says.

Training Needed

Of course, before you can demonstrate that expertise you have to have it. And if you want to introduce an extended warranty program your work quality better be such that you don't get many warranty calls. That's where training comes in.

Take those Southern crawlspaces. They're notorious for condensation problems, but Usher avoids such problems by closing the crawl and bringing it into the building envelope. The benefits he has gotten from this and other high-performance building techniques have made him a big believer in training. "If you promise a durable home with no moisture or indoor air quality problems, you better learn how to deliver on that promise."

Usher's training has included Southface's Earth Craft House program as well as training on RESNET's Home Energy Rating System (HERS). But he says the most valuable ongoing education has come from the Energy and Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA), where he recently joined the board of directors.

"EEBA offers some of the best, easiest to understand building science training I've ever received," he says. "It has helped me build better homes in every way: more energy efficient, with better water and air quality, and fewer callbacks. It's also the most affordable training I know of." In fact, he now sends all of his staff through EEBA's programs.

What's the Payoff?

The bottom line, says Usher, is that learning how to build high performance homes is making it possible for him to offer value-added services he would not have otherwise considered.

As a bonus, the monitoring service is also helping him improve his product. For instance, the crawlspace moisture detector on one house was sending alerts during heavy rains. He investigated and found that while there weren't any problems, the foundation drain wasn't emptying as fast as he would like. "It told me that I needed to pitch the drain a bit more on the next house."

Monitoring also earns its keep as a marketing tool. "The feedback we've gotten from homeowners is all positive," he says.

Usher wants to grow Addison's annual volume to 30 or 40 homes over the next couple of years, and he knows that referrals from happy customers will play a big part in that growth. What better way to get those referrals than to be known as a builder who exceeds their expectations by taking care of them long after you've finished the work?

Do you want to learn how to build high-performance homes that are comfortable, durable, healthy and energy efficient? The Energy and Environmental Building Alliance offers an annual three-day Educational Summit, as well as one-day training seminars in various parts of the country. For more information or to sign up go to www.eeba.org.

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