If you’re buying a house in Knoxville any time soon, here are some tips you may find useful. I’ve learned this the hard way. Phone numbers listed are current at the time of this composition but are of course subject to change. If you live somewhere else, there are probably comparable agencies, and maybe it’ll be useful to you to know that such agencies exist. I had to do a lot of calling around and sleuthing to learn some of this stuff.
Realtors can pull tax data about properties you want to buy that will include information about things like quality of materials used for external construction. On one home I was looking at, the report my realtor gave me listed construction quality as being below average. My realtor didn’t know what this meant and suggested that I call the registrar of deeds. They didn’t know anything, so I called the vendor of the report my realtor had showed me. They didn’t know what the rubric was or what all fell under the umbrella of construction quality. They did inform me that they get their data from the tax assessor’s office. I called there to learn that the line item in question likely applied to things like vinyl siding and shingle quality and not to things like stud placement or lumber quality, etc. They also listed the quality for the house in question as being a little higher than what my realtor’s report had indicated, and that was odd. In any case, you can call the tax assessor’s office (215-2360) to ask about this sort of information for a given property.
Next, I wanted to find out information about the builder of the house I was looking at. If he’s using below average materials, then I want to see if there are any negative consumer ratings on file for him. It’s not terribly hard to find out who built a house in a subdivision in Knoxville, though it’s an elusive enough bit of information that my realtor couldn’t trace it down easily and I had to do some sleuthing on my own. Luckily, Knoxville has a nifty GIS application with a viewer that lets you look up all kinds of information about property. I went there, did an address search, clicked the parcel icon along the top, and then clicked the “owner card” report in the right-hand pane. This lets you see the general history of the deed, and for houses in subdivisions, you can usually figure that the first or second buyer is the builder. In many cases, the owner name for the builder includes “LLC” or some other corporate marking, so that’s another hint. Now that you have the name and possibly the phone number and address, you can get in touch with the Better Business Bureau (692-1600) and the Knoxville Builder’s Exchange (525-0443) and the state Contractor’s Licensing Board (800-544-7693) to try to get more information.
The Knoxville Builder’s Exchange is a dues-dependent trade organization. They don’t make recommendations and will only confirm membership of a given builder. I imagine they recommend best practices for their builders, but my understanding is that it’s not necessarily a bad sign if a builder isn’t a member (they may just not have wanted to pay dues). I gather you have at least to be a licensed builder to join, and joining means that you’re trying to be a member in good standing of the area builder’s community, though it could also mean that you’ve screwed up somewhere along the line and this is just a way of joining an organization that seems to give you some credibility without necessarily actually requiring anything of you to confer that credibility. So next you’ll want to call the licensing board to make sure the contractor’s license is current. It most likely is, but you’re probably talking about spending tens of thousands of dollars here, so a 5-minute due diligence call is probably worth your time. Finally, you can call or visit the BBB to see if the builder has bothered to become a member and if there are any claims against the builder. When I called, I was told that it’s pretty rare for the BBB to get reports on contractors (these things tend to be sorted out in court), but that if there is one, you can bet it was probably a pretty bad case (then again, some people are just complainers). Still, I figure that if a builder has bothered to join, that’s just one more thing to check on to get some degree of peace of mind.
One of these agencies suggested that I call a builder to ask for references, but I’m not convinced that’s worthwhile. Who points people to their disaster case studies when asked for references?
If you want to take the sleuthing farther than I’ve managed, you could look for other public records pertaining to the property, or you could call the city court (and presumably the county court) to try to find out how you might look up litigation the builder has been a party to.
Believe it or not, this little summary of info is the result of a full morning’s worth of calls and call-backs and web searches and hair-pulling. I document it here for my future benefit and in hopes that some of it is useful to somebody else trying to do diligence before buying a home but just not terribly sure how.