If housebuilders are TV's public enemy number one, they have only themselves to blame, says Josephine Smit. With just a little communication, they could spare a lot of grief, make their customers so much happier – and attract so many more
Watchdog, World in Action, Tonight with Trevor McDonald, The UK's Worst … all these television programmes and a whole lot more have had a go at housebuilders recently. The tales of homeowners who have put their life-savings into a dream home, only to have that dream submerged by plumbing leaks and other problems that heartless housebuilders can't be bothered to put right, have become compelling viewing.

In their defence, housebuilders have argued that these programmes focus on isolated cases; they are not, they say, representative of the industry as a whole. But a survey carried out for the building guarantees division of Zurich Insurance, the provider of new homes warranties, suggests that that is simply not true: a whopping 43% of customers would not recommend their builder to a friend. And the comments of some of those surveyed could have been taken straight from one of the shock-horror consumer shows. "They lied, cheated and generally ignored us", "I will never buy new again – not from this builder anyway", and "We were pushed and bullied so hard by the builders for a quick completion that there was no time for snags to be reported prior to completion" were some of the complaints.

These were not the remarks of a few buyers of rogue houses; the survey found that many homebuyers questioned had reported problems requiring remedial work after they had moved in. Many of the those problems betray housebuilders' inability to get the basics right, with hot water, central heating and external doors topping the list of problem areas.

"Many of the defects are very, very simple," says Martin Horsler, manager of Zurich Insurance's building guarantees division. "Proper commissioning of the house would eliminate a lot of those, especially the plumbing problems. The basic build quality of new homes is good, but they are not commissioned and finished well."

Horsler believes that housebuilders' biggest failing is poor customer communication, which on television gives the impression that all they care about is trousering the customer's money. "The industry still hasn't learned to manage their customers' expectations," says Horsler. "They don't tell people enough about a new home before they move in."

Malcolm Pitcher of Pitcher Consultancy, the marketing consultant that carried out the survey, agrees. "The industry builds houses in places that people want to live, at prices that people want to pay, but the industry is failing to understand the customer's experience," he says. "Housebuilders are still not seeing the process of buying a new home from the customer's point of view. They are not empathising. They are building some fantastic-looking homes, but they are failing to understand the customer mindset."

The Zurich survey's findings on whether buyers would recommend their housebuilder to their friends are roughly on a par with the response to a similar question in the National Customer Satisfaction Survey, commissioned by the government-backed Housing Forum.

This showed little improvement in housebuilder performance in the results of its second survey, published late last year. With the best housebuilders in the UK claiming a 90% referral rating, the industry's overall figure is "appallingly low", according to Pitcher. "Customers are not saying that [they wouldn't recommend their housebuilder to a friend] because they don't like the house; they are saying that because they hated the experience, and they don't want their friend to go through that."

Both Horsler and Pitcher agree that it would be relatively simple for the industry to rectify the problems and put its house – and its houses – in order if it wanted to. But with surveys showing little sign of housebuilder improvement, there are doubts about whether housebuilders seriously want to do things differently. "There is not a lot of incentive," says Horsler. "The housing market is not really a consumer market – and while the market is as easy as it is now and second-hand homes are of such variable quality anyway, there is no need to try."

Zurich's survey does not give an entirely gloomy picture of the industry, however. "There were some great builders in this survey, who understood the benefit of giving the customer a great experience," says Pitcher.

This is the third year that Zurich has commissioned this survey and it feeds the findings into its Customer First awards scheme, which measures housebuilders on their customer satisfaction, build quality, inspection records and claims history. This year's national winners are David Wilson Homes (East Midlands), with Fisher & Dean picking up the award for best local housebuilder. Berkeley Homes (Oxford & Chiltern) won the volume housebuilder's award for best project for its Morlands Brewery site, while Par Homes was awarded the best local housebuilder prize for its Threecocks site.

James Wilson, regional managing director of David Wilson Homes, says that his company is reaping the benefit of good procedures. "We have quite a formalised handover process that seems to be well thought-of," he says. "We have various communications with the customer, in the build-up to move-in day, on what they should expect to find. A home can get cleaned three times prior to move-in and we try to give homes a "sparkle clean" – a final dust round – on move-in day. And we also have a house complete and ready for occupation two weeks before handover, and have a pre-handover meeting with the customer to allow any problems to be rectified."

Site staff are an important part of making the procedures work. "Site staff are incentivised to get it right and penalised if they get it wrong," says Wilson. "It is very difficult to get members of staff to strive for perfection on every house, but the incentive helps."

But other housebuilders apparently fail to see how much they stand to gain from changing their ways. "They are missing the longer-term issue of making new homes attractive," says Pitcher. Zurich's Horsler goes further: "If the housebuilding industry as a whole finished houses better and gave a better service, it could have a big impact," he says. "I believe that people would start to actively seek out new homes."