ONE COMPANY THAT'S BEEN OVERLOOKED AS A software option for home builders is Contractors Software Group (CSG), based in St. Paul, Minn.

CSG bid for software at the BuildNet auction a few years ago, when the product was known as BuildNet Advantage. Since that time, the company has added sales automation software to its estimating and accounting modules. Now, CSG offers a full construction management system.

Approximately 450 builder companies run CSG's software, a Windows-based, 32-bit system. Installation costs under $20,000, well below the price of a Timberline, BuildSoft Enterprise, or FAST deployment, which can run more than $50,000.

“We bought this out of the Build-Net debacle and have done a lot with our product in the past couple of years,” says Gary Grassle, COO at CSG. Grassle notes that CSG plans to rewrite the software's database in Microsoft's .Net platform so users can generate Web-based reports. He also adds that CSG plans to support Panasonic's Toughbook Tablet PC platform.

The .Net support will be available in the fourth quarter of 2004. Support for Toughbook has been available since January.

CSG consists of three integrated modules:

  • SalesBuilder Plus: a sales, marketing, and service warranty system.
  • TakeOff Plus: estimating and purchase order software.
  • Job Accounting Plus: an integrated job-cost accounting system that includes accounts payable, job cost, general ledger, payroll, purchase order management, subcontractor control, and accounts receivable.
  • Builders say the software is high on functionality, and most agree that customer service is what sets CSG apart.

    “With software, you need support,” says Lowell Pratt, president of construction operations and co-owner of Pratt Homes in St. Paul, which closes about 50 homes annually, selling for an average price of $700,000. “They always listen and design the system to the way we do business.”

    Shane McFarland, vice president of Greenvale Homes in Nashville, Tenn., which closes about 450 homes annually at an average cost of $135,000, had similar comments.

    “They've been really good to talk [to]. I've had several ideas that I wanted the program to have, and they've been really receptive,'' McFarland says, noting that CSG now lets builders consolidate bank loans into one lump sum and then allocate to specific jobs. In the past, for 10 jobs, the back-office workers had to make one journal entry per job, but now they can enter the loan information once, and the system automatically allocates it to the correct job.

    McFarland went live with CSG in January 2003. Prior to that, the company used BuildSoft. He says he looked at six or seven back-office products before choosing CSG, which he decided was the best integrated system available.

    Greenvale Homes builds about 75 percent to 80 percent of its homes on spec, so it tends to skip the options selection process most production builders go through. Basically, a new home is set up in estimating, and once the house plan is created in the system, purchase orders are e-mailed or automatically faxed to the company's subcontractors.

    The Nashville builder still has its subs submit invoices, but instead of having the accounting clerks retype the invoices into the system, the clerks reconcile the invoice with the purchase order on the system. If there's a variance, the clerk just types in the price change and sends the item to payment.

    “It used to take two days for our people to physically enter the lumber orders into the system,'' says McFarland. “Now, it takes a day. Everything is entered into the system; there's no need for retyping, plus it reduces errors. There's much less of a chance that we'll pay an invoice twice.”