AFTER ONE BUILDER REPORTED THAT HE GAVE BUYERS A roll of toilet paper at move in, another said she rewarded them with an entire gift basket that included not only toilet paper but a toothbrush, soap, and coffee as well. That's nothing, said a third, who provides buyers with four hours of free “butler service.” A salesperson helps with move in, doing paint touch-ups, taking empty boxes away, and providing lunch.

And so it went round the table at a recent seminar on providing extraordinary customer service held by Irvine, Calif.–based Eliant (formerly National Survey Systems), which measures satisfaction levels for builders. An amazing amount of attention and creativity is being lavished on buyers these days, and not just at that wonderful juncture in their lives—when they finally move in. Builders are going the extra mile throughout the sales process, during construction, and even after buyers have settled into their new homes.

It's paying off. The recently released J.D. Power survey shows that customer satisfaction levels rose three points to 112 this year. The largest component of customer satisfaction, customer service, has improved dramatically from 102 in the 2001 study to 114 this year. “Home building is among the most improved industries we study,” observes Paula Sonkin, J.D. Power's executive director for Real Estate Industries Practices.

Progress Reports More and more builders are doing their own customer surveys to judge their progress, often a month after move in and then again at 11 months. Plus they are scheduling in-home visits during the first year to conduct routine maintenance—change light bulbs and filters, check windowsills—and reinforce the need for owners to do the same.

Some builders now make a point of attending HOA meetings even after they've turned the association over to the community. They take the opportunity to drive the community and see whether the landscaping has been kept up, whether people are adhering to community rules.

It wasn't long ago that builders didn't want buyers on the jobsite. Now, they may be treated to several tours, in addition to the customary one before closing. David Weekley Homes takes buyers on walk-throughs before construction, drywall, and colors. Then, a month after the pre-closing walk-through, the warranty manager comes back for a fifth tour with the new owners.

The most progressive builders try to turn the pre-closing walk-through into a formality by ferreting out and fixing defects beforehand. John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods, for instance, asks supers to fill out a 400-point checklist that's confirmed by a neighborhood quality manager. A Denver builder reported that key subs are on hand for final walkthroughs so that customers can go to closing the same day.

To win the trust of customers, some salespeople make a point to call customers any time they see a problem on the jobsite. If they see a broken window, they will leave a message to say when the window will be replaced, which may not always be right away. They may mention that certain items such as screens won't be going on the house until later, too.

Above And Beyond It's all about setting—and exceeding—expectations. The challenge for the industry is that they keep rising. Maybe one day all buyers will have to do is show up and all their belongings will be in place. Their beds will be turned down. Sound farfetched? It's actually pretty close to what happens in some luxury condo projects today.

Boyce Thompson, Editorial Director