When Heather Goss walked into her first, brand-new home, one word came out of her mouth: “Finally.” For the 30-year-old Goss, buying a new home with her fiancé was a rite of passage. Purchasing a new home was more of a personal triumph for Goss, symbolizing her ascension into full-fledged adulthood. Goss had moved around from roommate to roommate about eight times over the past several years. She was ready to settle down into something more permanent—her rental-hopping days were over. “I felt like we were adults now, buying our first brand-new home,” she says.

Walking through their new Woodside Homes property for the first time, Goss was excited—she saw potential. “I couldn't wait to start furnishing the house and figuring out where to put our things,” she said.

The young couple recently bought their ranch-style, 2,730-square-foot home last April, in a community called Heritage Lake in Romoland, Calif., located in Riverside County, roughly 21 miles from the city of Riverside and about 67 miles from San Diego, Calif. They bought the three-car-garage home for about $456,000.

But while the home buying process went rather smoothly, they didn't know what to expect as first-time homeowners. Sealing the deal and getting their hands on the keys was a cinch, but Goss had no idea what would happen after all was said and done. The transition was a little unnerving.

Would the home builder leave the newly minted homeowner feeling abandoned? What if a crisis came up—say, the water heater broke, the kitchen cabinets fell off, or the carpet wasn't installed properly? Would the builder just leave the owner to their own devices?

“This was our first home; we weren't really sure what would happen,” remembers Goss. “We were actually kind of cynical about it, thinking no one would do anything [to help us] after we'd move in.”

Sure enough, the couple found just a few minor issues with the new home. For example, the drywall needed more texture and the air-conditioning wasn't hooked up entirely right. So they called the builder's customer service representatives and explained what needed to be fixed. They were pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

“They were very good at getting back to us and getting their contractors to fix our home,” says Goss. “The builder's main concern was keeping us happy. They've been good at keeping their word.”

Already the trust factor has been forged. Builder exceeds expectations and rises to the occasion, leaving the new homeowners happy—and most important, more likely to refer the builder to other prospective home buyers.

This is a scenario that's been played out countless times. Luckily, most builders continue to make customer satisfaction after the sale of the home a top priority. They know a little extra TLC to a brand-new homeowner goes a long way in terms of repeats and referrals. For most builders, referrals are vital to the strength of their business, while other builders rely on referrals to ramp up their bottom line.

Pulte Homes—which consistently ranks tops in the J.D. Power annual customer satisfaction study—knows how a strong customer satisfaction program can reap wonders for a company. About 45 percent of the builder's sales come from repeat/ referrals, Pulte officials have said. In J.D. Power and Associates 2006 New-Home Builder Customer Satisfaction Study, Pulte Homes, including its Del Webb and Divosta brands, ranked the highest in customer satisfaction in 14 of 34 markets surveyed.

As the housing market continues to cool and home prices fall, most builders know this is a critical time for them. They need to be cognizant of key customer care must-dos that can significantly affect overall home buyer and homeowner satisfaction and referral potential. The first impression counts now more than ever.

“As builders fight for every sale they close in this downturned market, a reputation for customer satisfaction becomes more important than ever, as it helps builders differentiate themselves from the competition,” states Paula Sonkin, executive director of real estate industries practice at J.D. Power.

But builders seem to know what they're up against. Edward Zinke, a senior vice president at Eliant, an Irvine, Calif.–based research and consulting firm specializing in home buyer satisfaction solutions, believes builders are on the right track. “As the market slows down, builders are recognizing the benefits of referral sales,” notes Zinke.

Zinke sees that the referral element has become more important to builders in the past six months than it has been in the past five years.

“Businesses today can't afford to ignore customer satisfaction. We know that satisfied homeowners are our best sales people,” says Wendy Marlett, senior vice president of sales and marketing at KB Home. “If they are happy with their homes, they will recommend us to their friends and family and come back to us should they decide to buy another new home down the line.”