When you buy a washing machine, a VCR, or a new car, you get
an owner's manual. Buy a house, and you get a telephone call
saying that the key is under the rock by the back door. In
fact, you get more in the way of instruction with a $5
calculator than you do with a new $500,000 home. In a time when
so much information is easily exchanged among people all over
the world, it amazes me that so few people seem to give this
out-of-balance situation any thought.
I began providing my customers with an owner's manual about
eight years ago, after hearing another builder speak about it
at a conference. I build an average of four or five custom
homes a year, and with several dozen manuals under my belt,
I've learned how to assemble a useful and good-looking one with
relatively little effort. The rewards far outweigh the small
amount of effort and expense involved.
Builder and Homeowner
The most obvious reason for providing an owner's manual is
that customers find it very reassuring. It tells them that I'm
interested in more than just getting them into their house and
moving on to the next job. I've heard a lot of favorable
comments from satisfied customers over the years, and while I
don't have hard figures to prove it, I believe this kind of
favorable word of mouth is a reliable source of new
Perfection vs. reality.
Another crucial function of the manual is to manage customer
expectations. When one of our customers moves into a new house,
everything is as close to perfect as we can make it. We fill
every nail hole, clean all the windows, and wipe down all the
But what I think of as the "Better Homes and Gardens" phase
doesn't last long. The flooring and trim pick up a few dents
and scratches as the furniture is moved in, and the customer
will notice some minor flaws and blemishes that are sometimes
practically invisible. For the first six months or so, we deal
with some incredibly minor punch-list items. It seems to take
most people about that long to realize that any lived-in house
is going to have all kinds of little imperfections.
The manual can make this transition period easier on everyone
because it prepares the customer for the appearance of
"defects" like miter joints that open up as a result of changes
in temperature or humidity. If a customer calls to complain
about cracks in the woodwork and you say they're nothing to
worry about, it can sound as if you're trying to blow him off.
But if you've described what happens in writing ahead of time,
he's more likely to accept that it really is normal.
Legal considerations. Our
manual isn't meant to be a legal document, and I haven't sought
any specific advice about how it might affect my liability. But
because it contains important safety information about the
house and its contents, it may help reduce the risk of
household accidents. Whether or not providing this information
offers me any legal protection, preventing accidents reduces
the chance that we'll be sued. (Of course, it's also the right
thing to do.)
We make an effort to keep up to date on possible dangers and
update the manual as new issues come to our attention. Not long
ago, for example, a customer hurt his fingers by pinching them
in one of the hinged joints in the garage doors. There was no
legal action involved, but the incident pointed out a possible
danger that we hadn't thought of before. Now our manual
includes a specific caution to keep your fingers away from the
joints when operating the door.
Table of Contents
Our manual comes in a good-quality three-ring binder with a
clear vinyl pocket in the cover. The pocket lets me personalize
each manual by inserting a photo of the house and the
customer's name. The contents of my manual usually take up
about 25 pages, which are simply printed on the computer,
punched with a three-ring punch, and reinforced with stick-on
plastic circles before being snapped into place. I try to
explain things in plain, easily understood language. If the
manual comes across as some sort of legal document, the
homeowner probably isn't going to read it, making the whole
thing a waste of time.
An effective new-house owner's manual
doesn't have to be complicated or expensive to produce. A
simple loose-leaf notebook containing a range of useful
information takes little time to assemble and easily pays for
itself in reduced callbacks and customer
Customer documentation. The
first page contains the customer's name and address, the
project's start and completion dates, and our company contact
information. This is followed by copies of important documents
such as contracts, spec sheets, and change orders. I include a
small copy of the plans for reference, along with a plot plan
that shows the "as built" locations of the septic system,
underground lines, and cleanouts. We also provide specs on the
depth and output of the well and well pump.
Calling all subs. The next
section of the manual contains a complete list of the
subcontractors and vendors who worked on the house or supplied
materials for the construction. This allows the customer to
call the appropriate tradesperson directly rather than going
through me if a problem crops up.
For example, my plumber recently told me that he'd received a
call from a customer about a dripping shower head. It turned
out that he was right in the area and was able to get to the
customer's house to fix the problem within two hours. If the
call had gone to me instead, our response time would have been
Shifting the load to the subs like this hasn't created any
hard feelings on their end. We have relatively few callbacks,
and when there is a problem, it doesn't matter much to the sub
whether the call comes from me or from the customer. On the
contrary, calls from the customer can be a source of additional
work for the sub. Long after the one-year warranty period is
over, when the homeowners need plumbing or electrical or tile
work done, they're not going to go to the Yellow Pages to find
someone to do the work. They're going to look up the sub who
did the work originally, knowing that he or she does quality
Maintenance information. The
longest section in the manual is devoted to information the
homeowner needs to keep materials, finishes, and systems in
good repair. These are the kinds of things you try to tell
customers in person as construction moves along, but the
message doesn't always get through. No matter how hard you try
to remember to pass along any important information in
conversation, there's always the chance that you'll forget. And
even if you do mention everything you intend to, the customer
may already be so overloaded with information that most of what
you say goes in one ear and out the other.
Either way, the builder looks bad if problems develop later.
Imagine what happens if the ventilation system stops working
two years after the customer moves in: I go out to the house,
take a look at the heat recovery ventilator, and find that it's
obviously never been cleaned and is completely clogged with
dirt. Even if I'm sure I explained the procedure for changing
filters, the customer may feel otherwise, leading to an
uncomfortable "yes-I-did-no-you-didn't" situation.
The situation is completely different if I can inspect the
clogged HRV filter and point to the page in the manual that
contains the relevant information. Now instead of blaming me --
fairly or unfairly -- the customer thanks me for taking the
time to come out when the problem obviously wasn't my fault.
Better yet, the customer read the manual in the first place,
changed the filter on schedule, and I never got a call about
Among the maintenance items featured in this section
* vinyl siding
* interior wood trim
* ceramic and stone tile and grout
* plumbing fixtures
* heating and ventilation systems
Mechanical systems. We build
energy-efficient houses with radiant-floor heating systems and
sophisticated ventilation systems for good interior air
quality. I spend at least an hour going over these things with
customers when they move in, but I don't expect them to take
detailed notes on everything I say. The written description of
the system controls and operation in the manual reinforces the
hands-on lesson and serves as a "cheat sheet" for any
adjustments the customer may want to make later.
Because most of the author's houses use
the same contruction methods and mechanical systems, much of
each manual can be printed directly from a computer template.
Pages containing plans, as-built locations, and other
information specific to an individual house are plugged in as
This section also includes some miscellaneous troubleshooting
procedures, including detailed instructions on how to get the
water back on if the low-water switch cuts off power to the
well pump during a power outage. Weather-related power outages
are fairly common in our area, especially during the winter,
and this section saves a lot of phone calls from people asking
why they don't have water.
General information and
safety. This section provides answers to frequently
asked questions about the basic construction of the house. For
example, most of our houses are built on insulated slabs, with
an outer "skirt" of rigid insulation that prevents frost from
penetrating below the foundation. I take time to explain its
value and stress the importance of protecting it from
This section includes information about surface drainage,
placement of decks and patios, integrating additions to the
home, vapor barrier issues, how to find the "panic" water valve
in case of a leak, and many other possible concerns. This is
also where I discuss safety-related information about smoke
alarms, GFCIs, propane gas, and scalding water.
Warranty and marketing
information. The next-to-last page of our manual
contains our warranty, which is followed by a one-page summary
of the quality features and construction methods that make us a
good builder. This marketing page is partly directed at the
original buyer, but it's also meant to enlighten real estate
agents and buyers who may come along later.
I've found that real estate professionals focus almost
exclusively on things like size, location, and style. Few seem
to realize that using advanced construction methods and
materials, as we do, results in a more comfortable,
energy-efficient, and long-lasting house. In addition to
helping the customer resell the home, that information markets
our company to prospective buyers who may decide to build a new
home instead of buying an existing one.
Pulling all this information together for the first time does
take some effort. Once you've developed the necessary computer
templates, though, producing a customized manual takes little
additional effort. It's basically a matter of filling in the
blanks, and I've found that my office helper is able to do most
of the work with little direct input from me.
A house is a house. The key
is to keep the manual as generic as possible overall. Our
houses are similar enough in terms of foundations, framing,
insulation, and mechanical systems that large sections of the
manual require little or no change from house to house. Where
minor modifications are called for, it's easy to go to the
template and change the wording as needed. We work with a
regular cast of subs and suppliers, so that's another area
where changes are few and infrequent.
Multiple choice. In areas
where we use a range of products or materials, the manual
contains the full slate of options, not just those that were
used on a given project. For example, we use vinyl siding on
some of our houses and cedar clapboards on others, but the
manual contains maintenance information for both. The flooring
section covers hardwood, ceramic tile, and vinyl.
Custom information. In fact,
only a few pages in the manual are specific to an individual
house. Most of those involve paperwork that I have at my
fingertips anyway, such as plans, spec sheets, and change
orders. All of those go into a paper folder dedicated to the
job. When we're ready to assemble the manual, it's a simple
matter to take them out and make photocopies.
Other site-specific information goes into the same folder. To
document the location of the septic-tank pumpout fitting, for
example, I measure off the corners of the house with two tapes.
I then draw a simple map noting the distance to the corners.
This means I have to be there when the excavator sets the tank,
but that's not hard to arrange.
The most time-consuming part of the process is compiling the
specific product listings under the "Suppliers" heading. This
includes the brands, colors, and model numbers of all the
fixtures, floor coverings, paints, and other materials, so the
customer can match them later if necessary.
In theory, that information gets keyed into the computer as it
comes in, so we can easily retrieve it when we go to print the
manual. In practice, we sometimes miss an item or two and have
to go back through the slips to find it.
is a builder in Benton, Maine.