If you’ve ever built a house, or talked to anyone who has, the one word that comes to mind more than any other is “aggravation.” Nothing gets done on time, everything costs more than expected, everything is a trade-off, it’s never exactly as promised, communication is lacking, the builder treats you like you’re a wart on his derriere—in short, it’s always something.
John De Zinna hates that. So he’s done something about it. The president of Coastal Cottages of South Carolina, an FHA- and VA-approved custom homebuilder with more than four decades in the home improvement and building industry, De Zinna has carved out a niche for himself as the no-aggravation builder.
Talk to De Zinna about homebuilding and nary a word about the construction process will pass his lips. What interests him most is the personal relationship he develops with each of his customers. They become his friends and he becomes their trusted advisor.
“Building your home should be one of the most enjoyable things you do,” he says, shaking his head at the news that it’s often soul-crushing and disappointing. “You’re building your dream.”
De Zinna interviews potential customers before deciding to build for them. A native New Yorker dripping with raw fugetaboutit appeal, De Zinna might not be everyone’s cup of sweet tea. “I’m brash and a no-BS guy,” De Zinna says. “I tell people that up front. They usually say, ‘Thanks for letting me know.’” Once he and a potential customer pass muster with each other, De Zinna helps them sketch out a budget and realistic expectations. Then he tells them that he manages every job personally, so if anything goes wrong, the customer knows whom to blame.
You want to make changes midway through the project? No problem, says De Zinna. If it’s small, he won’t bother nickel and diming you. If it’s significant, he’ll show you the added cost and let you decide.
In fact, De Zinna shows his customers all his invoices, including the 20 percent for his labor. “My clients always know they’re getting their money’s worth,” he says.
“John is constantly trying to do the right thing,” says Gary Light, whose home is being built by Coastal Cottages in the Darrell Creek development in North Mount Pleasant. That house—with an in-law apartment downstairs, main living quarters upstairs and three dying oak trees complicating the permitting process—has presented an endless number of challenges. But Light says De Zinna has kept him in the loop and provided solutions every step of the way.
Customers know early in the building process that they are in for a different experience. De Zinna doesn’t take deposits for houses. Instead, he bills clients as he goes, which means they only pay for work that has already been done. That keeps thousands of dollars in clients’ pockets during the months-long pre-construction phase.
De Zinna was running a landscape architectural firm when Hurricane Hugo walloped the South Carolina coast in 1989. He and his wife, Heidi, the company’s office manager, relocated here to help residents get back into their damaged homes. He’s built all kinds of houses since then—31 of them in Nelliefield Plantation off Clements Ferry Road. But he likes custom builds best because of the deep and abiding relationships he forges with clients.
De Zinna says he’ll only build five houses a year. Beyond that, he would be diluting his attention to each project—and to each customer.
There is one moment in the building process when De Zinna suddenly turns mysterious and opaque in his communication. “I don’t like the homeowner to come in the last two weeks of the build,” he admits. “I like to show them the finished product and present the keys to them when we’re done. That’s my satisfaction.”
BARRY WALDMAN is principal of Big Fly Communications, a public relations and marketing firm for small businesses and nonprofits.