Most small builders think an integrated back-office system is something that only large builders such as Centex or Lennar can afford. Builders now have a much more affordable option thanks to Intuit, which is promoting a series of new communications features in Master Builder 2004 that help builders integrate their scheduling, estimating, job costing, purchasing, and accounting operations.

Master Builder, used by some 6,500 companies, is geared toward builders with revenues of $3 million to $25 million. Many of them need something more than Intuit's Quick Books small-business accounting system. A single-user version of Master Builder with the estimating module costs $2,600, well within most builders' reach. Builders interested in enhancing Master Builder will also like its integration with sales automation software from Builder1440 and Sales Simplicity.

Robert Intersimone, Intuit's senior industry construction consultant for Master Builder, says the company spent the past year talking to builders to learn what new features they wanted to see. Here's what Intuit learned and how the company responded:

* Transmit schedules, reports, and forms. Builders told Intuit that earlier versions of Master Builder made it easy to make an adjustment such as a schedule change, but that there was no way to communicate that change to subcontractors. Now, any report or document can be sent to a sub via e-mail or fax at a time specified by the builder. A schedule update or job status report can be sent automatically every Friday to the project supers, or a builder can program the balance sheet to be sent to his accountant at the end of every month.

* Find the right information. One of the biggest challenges a builder has with new technology is getting his project supervisors to actually use the software. Builders said Master Builder let them make change orders and manage invoices, but it lacked a centralized interface that tied everything together. Master Builder 2004 has a Project Work Center screen that organizes all the major tasks for a super. Project Work Center is supported by a "Hotlist'' feature that lets the company owner, crew members, and salespeople simply click on the Hotlist box when they are doing a task to alert the super that the task needs attention. So when the supers log on to the system, they pull up Project Work Center and all the Hotlist tasks appear on the screen. They can then sign off on change orders, pay invoices automatically, amend punch lists, and review documents.

* Manage pricing information. Earlier versions of Master Builder let users import pricing information from only one vendor per product type. Master Builder 2004 lets builders import pricing information from multiple vendors. Builders can download pricing information off the Web or receive e-mails from vendors and import those data into Master Builder, which supports Excel spreadsheets and most text and database formats.

* Handle direct deposits. Master Builder now handles all three standard direct deposit formats. This helps builders who operate in multiple locations and eliminates handwritten paychecks.

* Support more accounting features. Many builders wanted Master Builder to support both last in, first out (LIFO) and first in, first out (FIFO) accounting methods for inventory valuations. The new LIFO/FIFO feature is an add-on that costs $795.