Winning builders stand firm in recession and sputtering recovery, supported by sophisticated systems, dedication to detail, and buyer-friendly approaches. By Alison Rice

Think you're among the best? Here's a quick self-test. Could you keep your variances under 1 percent on your next house? Have you met every one of your settlement dates for the past 30 years? Who exactly purchases your homes? (And, no, "first-time buyers" doesn't count.) How many of you, in this age of NIMBYism and public fights over planning and zoning proposals, have had a day named in your honor by your city council?

If you can answer yes to these questions, congratulate yourself, for these are the hallmarks of America's Best Builders (ABB): Sattler Homes, Thompson Homes, Don Simon Homes, and Pardee Homes.

They are the best because they excel at everything they do: finance and operations, marketing, construction, customer satisfaction, and community service. As such, they share other characteristics, too. Three of the four are family-owned companies, two of which are now run by the second generation. They value their employees and know how to retain them: Thompson and Don Simon provide profit-sharing programs, and the average tenure among Pardee's senior management is 17.25 years.

These builders also aren't afraid to innovate: Pardee has developed a "LivingSmart" program that features homes with energy-conserving appliances and green products, and Don Simon builds all its homes to Wisconsin's Green Built standards.

ABB: Intro
Sattler Homes
Thompson Homes
Don Simon Homes
Pardee Homes
Wayne Homes

America's Best Builders continue this practice of innovation long after the awards plaque has been hung on the wall. This year, we're honoring our first ABB alumnus--Wayne Homes, which was named an America's Best Builder in 1995--for its move toward a paperless office. Such success doesn't surprise us. Each of these award-winning companies has based its business not on the energy of a dynamic owner or executive (as charismatic as these leaders might be), but on a strong foundation of systems: schedules, procedures, measurements. They use them daily, not just when time or inclination allows, because they know that systems--the cornerstone of a well-run home building company--can make or break the quality of a home, the trust of a customer, or the profitability of the business.