Volume 39, Issue 1, January 2004

The Craft
The Ins and Outs of Working 
with Custom Homebuilders

by Penny Beverage

In a world of wealth, immediate gratification and consumers who want things the way they want them exactly, custom homebuilding is on the rise—and it’s helping many glass shops to make a great living. Some glass shops have a stock of products, including shower doors, doors and windows, which they provide homebuilders. Other shops have a showroom of products they’ve made; for these, the world is wide open—whatever the customer wants, they make, and they are paid accordingly.

Such is the case for Pittsburgh-based Rex Glass & Mirror, which makes custom shower doors, mirrors, stained glass and sandblasted products. The shop has done well selling to custom homebuilders in the area—and has built quite a rapport with the builders that keeps them coming back for more.

Attracting Homebuilders
But how does this process work? How do you get into custom jobs? Don Rectenwald, president of the company, took a few minutes to sit down with USGlass and offer some insight into the process.

The hardest part of working with custom homebuilders, Rectenwald said, is breaking into the business. He has been in the industry for nearly 50 years in the same area, so he has established relationships with tons of builders, but for a beginner, it’s not that easy.

To continually add contacts to his portfolio, Rex Glass belongs to several builders’ associations.

“We support their organization—you just become a good citizen of the [building] industry and you’re seen as someone supportive of that industry,” he said.

In addition, even though it has a number of repeat customers, some of whom he’s known his whole life, Rectenwald still spends some time cold-calling.

“If we see a high-end house going up that looks like something we could contribute to, we stop and call on them,” he said.

Rectenwald added that once you meet a few crews of builders, you’re likely meeting the next generation of contractors.

“Builders are sort of like pro-athletes—their bodies can only take the pounding for so long, and then they move on to different phases of the business, such as contracting,” he said.

On this note, Rectenwald said it is important to spend some time not only with the general contractor with whom you’re working, but also his crew as your business installs its products in the home.

“Eventually these carpenters are going to get good enough that they can be salespeople, too,” he said.

However, Rectenwald said to keep in mind that the builders with whom he works are not average builders.

“We’re talking about homebuilders who build only five to ten houses a year,” he said. “We don’t deal with many large homebuilders—actually, only one large-scale builder.”

The Initial Meeting
For Rectenwald, who has established a relationship with a number of custom homebuilders in the Pittsburgh area, the initial call on a job can take place anywhere from six months to two weeks before a house is finished.

“We’re the final subcontractor in the home,” he said.

Usually, the customer tells the builder how much he would like to spend on each area of the home—such as shower doors, for example—and the builder will relay that allowance to the glass shop. Then, a representative from the shop will sit down with the customer himself and discuss what he is looking for in a shower enclosure (or stained glass options, etc.).

“A homebuilder usually realizes that he’ll never know the tastes of his clients, so they simply work with allowances—they just inform us that they have a customer who has an allowance of XX amount and then we’re simply to meet with the clients to help them make selections of products that fit their allowances and then we bill the homebuilder.”

The company has a large showroom of projects it’s completed to help the homeowner understand its capabilities for customization. The range is so imaginable that Rectenwald said to fill the same opening with a shower enclosure, a consumer in his shop could spend anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000—hence the need for a showroom to help the client explore these options.

“We don’t expect people to buy from a brochure,” he said.

The shop will then design something that meets those specifications and falls within the given allowance (providing room for profit, of course), and subcontract the job in the home itself.

The consumer will then pay the homebuilder, who will in turn pay the glass shop and go on his way.

What Do Customers Want?
While customers’ desires may vary from job to job, one thing does not: these customers usually are not worried about price.

“We don’t have people shopping for the cheapest thing they can find,” he said. “If they come to us, they’re looking for craftsmanship, which you can’t find everywhere in the world today.”

He added, “Anyone who is looking for cheap doesn’t come through the door here.”

Most of the homes for which Rex Glass supplies its custom jobs sell for anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million in the Pittsburgh market.

Problems on the Job
Payment. It’s a problem in any business, and, let’s face it, the building industry is no different. There are people out there who don’t like to pay their bills, and, sadly, Rectenwald admits a very small minority of homebuilders follows the trend. 

“There is a certain unpredictability to some of the guys, and if one were to say, ‘What’s the negative?’ they sometimes take their horse and run out of town,” he said. “I mean, you can’t find them when it’s time to get paid.”

However, he did stress that only a small number of the ones he’s worked with have left him unpaid.

“The fact of the matter is most of these guys are very hard-working and creative and are providing us an opportunity to sell our products,” Rectenwald said. “They’re interested in making sure things don’t get held up. They want to get their money and move on.”

Necessities for All
While every now and then, there may be a problem working with a custom homebuilder, as with any job, overall Rectenwald says working with them is an important part of the industry.

“Without new home construction, we wouldn’t have that forum to approach the owner of the home,” he said. “These guys are just like us, hard-working people who just need jobs done, done well and with a high attention to detail and craftsmanship.” 


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