Beginning this past June and every couple of months since, the staff at T.H. Properties (THP), a private developer/builder serving the Philadelphia metro market, hosts a barbecue in one of its communities. Amid the fun and food, THP's in-house customer service representatives lead demonstrations of common home-care tasks, such as spackling and nail pop repair, of which homeowners are invited to participate or simply watch and learn.

The point of these periodic Customer Care Days, as THP coins them, are as much to acknowledge and commune with recent homeowners as to educate them about their responsibilities since close of escrow--and even more so after the builder's warranty expires two years later. "We want our buyers to know we're here to help, but also how to do it," says Jennifer Wiker, THP's customer experience coordinator. "If a homeowner really wants to learn, we make ourselves available to them."

That extended view of customer service and satisfaction has helped THP to become one of the fastest-growing private residential development firms in the country while boosting the builder's market reputation, reducing costs, and stemming after-warranty claims and potential lawsuits.

But it's also a view that begins well before settlement and includes much more than curbside workshops every other month. "We set the expectation [for the owner's responsibilities after closing and warranty] in the sales process," says Bob Gollwitzer, the company's director of marketing. "Our job is to reassure them that we won't up and leave them after settlement," but also prepare them to take the reins of responsibility as the warranty period concludes.

While most builders have long recognized (and paid for) the value of an efficient warranty service program, only recently and primarily due to construction defect litigation has the industry become aware of the benefits of effectively passing the baton--and even taking care of claims after the warranty's expiration. "There has to be a willingness to serve the customer beyond the formal warranty, especially if there's a legitimate issue," says Jeff Masters, a litigation partner at the law firm of Cox, Castle, and Nicholson in Los Angeles, who represents several home builders and developers. "Customer service is always an exercise in judgment, and even more so outside the length of the warranty. It's a fine balance between delivering great customer service and getting owners on their own two feet."

Passing the baton without making the homeowner feel abandoned (even after a year or two of occupancy) is a balancing act that relatively few builders have mastered. In fact, those on the cutting edge will say it's a perpetual exercise that is constantly being tweaked and refined.

There are common cornerstones, however, as well as innovative uses of modern communications technology mixed with old-school savvy that go a long way toward satisfied--and self-sufficient--homeowners.

The New Book on Manuals

Few builders these days cut the apron strings of responsibility without a homeowner's manual. But the days of simply slapping user's guides and warranty registration cards into a cheap three-ring binder are over.

In its stead is a bible of home-maintenance lessons and ready references to resources during and after the warranty period. "You want a manual that covers the major components that [historically] lead to the bulk of problems," says Masters, specifically water and moisture infiltration points that have become a feeding frenzy for attorneys trolling for latent construction-defect claims. Educate homeowners about periodic or as-needed caulking, roofing, and siding maintenance, and proper re-grading (among other issues, ideally tailored from a builder's history of production walk-throughs and warranty calls), he says, and claims have less of a leg to stand on.

Masters advises his builder clients to use the manual during the warranty period to train homeowners once the policy expires, thus expanding its value as a long-term home-maintenance tool. "Whenever you respond to a claim, reference the issue in the manual and try to coach the owners about making the repair themselves," once the warranty period is over, he says.

Paul Scholes, vice president of operations for Moser Builders, a 50-unit-per-year operation also in the Philadelphia area, added references to the NAHB's "Residential Construction Performance Guidelines" in his company's homeowner manual to create a baseline of expectations and mitigate debates with buyers. "Those references provide third-party credibility as opposed to arguing my own or an owner's self-interests," says Scholes. "If an issue is outside the scope of the guidelines, [the document] mitigates a service call and educates the homeowner [about how to address the issue]."

That being said, the guidelines don't stop Scholes from making exceptions. "If a homeowner is particularly difficult or adamant, we'll exceed the guidelines and make the repair," he says.