Good Site ‘Super’ Can Save Headaches


Savvy buyers of newly built homes know that checking on a building company’s reputation is important.

But few know how much this assessment rests on the diligence of the builder’s site superintendents. They’re the ones who oversee the construction of each house and ensure its quality.

“A site superintendent can make a hero or a bum out of you,” Russell Arkin, president of Arkin Homes in McLean, Va., said succinctly.


Site superintendents characterize themselves as “builders’ quarterbacks,” “orchestra directors,” “mother hens” and “skillful diplomats,” and building executives and private home inspectors agree. But what exactly does a site superintendent do, and what does it mean for buyers?

The site superintendent--also called the job foreman or the job superintendent--schedules the 30 to 40 trades subcontracted by a home-building firm to construct a typical tract house, oversees all the work, orders materials, schedules their delivery and frequently confers with the on-site sales agent and the purchasers of the houses.

The scheduling aspect of the site superintendent’s job sounds easy enough: Before the construction begins, he schedules all the trades in proper sequence over the 90 to 120 days required to build most tract houses.

Bad weather and occasional poor workmanship, however, frequently force him to stop the job and then to reschedule everybody.

The site superintendent is not required to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every trade--although many do--but he must know enough of each trade to ensure that the work is done to an acceptable level of quality and that it is 100% complete.

Ordering materials is another important part of the site superintendent’s job. He must have the proper materials at the job site for each incoming trade, but ordering anything too far in advance can create theft problems. Not only does theft slow down the job--the framers are there but someone stole a truckload of 2-by-4s the night before--it can quickly eat up a builder’s profit margin, which is typically less than 5%.


Because most buyers make frequent site visits, the site superintendent must be comfortable with answering endless questions and handling an occasional bout of anxiety, which can reach a fever pitch just before closing.

Stamina is another requirement for the site superintendent’s job. In the course of a typical 10- to 11-hour work day that begins at 6 a.m., a site superintendent makes about 40 phone calls, spends up to two hours on routine paperwork and deals with between 25 and 80 people as he checks each house at least twice, more if it is nearing completion.

How much experience does a site superintendent need before he can handle all this? In part it depends on the project.

If a subdivision is being built by a large company that has already built the house 100 times before, all the glitches in the design will have been worked out. A site superintendent does not need years of experience to run such a job well, but he “must have tenacity, if he knows something is wrong, to insist that it be done correctly and enough gumption to say ‘No way you can do this on my job,’ ” said J.D. Grewell, a private home inspector based in Silver Spring, Md.


If a subdivision has houses with many customized details--not uncommon in the higher price ranges--more experience is required. A general rule of thumb in the industry is that after five years, a site superintendent should be able to build anything.

As a prospective home buyer, how can you tell if a project has a good site superintendent?

The first thing to look for is cleanliness. Does the site look orderly or is trash strewn about? If the site superintendent is not making each crew clean up when the work is complete--as all contracts stipulate--it’s a sure sign that he’s not in control of the job.


Does there appear to be activity going on every day? There may be legitimate periods of inactivity for two to three days and sometimes as long as a week. But if nothing happens for 10 days, more than likely the job is being mismanaged.

Ask to meet the superintendent before you sign the sales contract. This is rarely requested, but most builders will accommodate you. Here’s what to ask him:

* How often does he talk with the sales agent? The sales agent works with the buyers, but the site superintendent builds the house. If the two don’t talk frequently, problems can arise. For example, changes that a buyer wants may not get incorporated into the house when they can be done at minimal cost, with minimal disruption.

* Has he run other projects for this firm and, if so, where? Go there and ask the residents about their experiences with both the firm and the superintendent. If any of the houses are occupied in the tract where you want to buy, talk with these residents also.

* Ask if the firm has a quality-control system for tracking construction. With so many bases to cover, even the most conscientious and experienced site superintendent can miss something.

Some firms have a person who follows on the heels of the site superintendent, checks for any errors that might have been missed and arranges for their correction.



Distributed by Inman News Features.