A new construction home — yours from the ground up, with no prior owners — sparkles with possibility. From the fresh paint to the shiny flooring, it’s a blank slate to make your own without dealing with any inherited problems or repairs… or so you hope.
“Unfortunately, I’ve become involved in numerous new house horror stories, most due to poor workmanship or builders that failed to follow up on warranty work as promised,” said Matt Steinhausen, an independent home inspector since 1999 in Lincoln, Nebraska, who holds an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.
Here, we’ve enlisted the expert advice of top agents, industry insiders, and recent homebuyers to address key questions to ask when buying a new construction home. Their insight and experiences can help you avoid costly problems, prevent unpleasant surprises, and make a smarter purchase.
Questions for you to ask yourself as the buyer
You’ve decided to take the plunge and buy a brand new home. It’s an exciting time, but can also feel overwhelming if you haven’t done your homework.
Take some time to ask yourself a few questions to not only figure out the type of home you want, but also to better determine how to protect yourself and your investment.
Should I hire an agent for new construction?
Since many builders have their own representatives that work with buyers, you might be wondering if you need to bring your own agent. While the builder’s rep will provide helpful information about the community, homes, amenities, and the construction process, ultimately they are representing the builder. Their responsibility is to uphold the builder’s best interests, not yours.
It may be helpful and provide peace of mind to have someone in your corner whose primary obligation is to serve your needs, especially if you’ve never purchased a new construction home before. An agent experienced with new construction can offer a wealth of information to buyers. They’re probably familiar with builders in your area, their reputations, and the quality of their craftsmanship. They should have a solid understanding of the nuances and differences of a new home purchase agreement and can offer guidance on contingencies, clauses, and other details specific to the new construction contract.
Some builders pay brokers a referral fee, which is money out of their pocket to bring in buyers like yourself. For this reason, they may encourage you to work directly with their in-house agent in an effort to save some marketing costs.
If you decide to hire an agent for your new build, be sure you include them during your first visit to the builder’s sales office and mention them during your first call or email; otherwise, some builders won’t pay the referral fee.
What type of home would I want to buy?
Before you begin touring model homes and new neighborhoods, you’ll want to have a good idea of the type of home you’re interested in buying. Whether you decide on a condo, townhome, or single-family home depends on your lifestyle preferences, financial situation, and investment goals.
Think about your daily routine and habits, and how they affect how you spend time in your home. If you desire a low-maintenance, lock-and-leave situation, a condo or townhouse with a smaller lot footprint may be a good fit. Or if you have a growing family and need space for the kids to play (and don’t mind landscape upkeep), a single-family home may work best.
Depending on availability in your area, builders may offer a hybrid option like a duet or paired home (similar to a duplex), or alley-loaded and zero-lot-line homes that offer a single-family-home living experience on smaller lots.
When purchasing a new home, consider how you want to live in the home today and five years or so down the road. If you foresee major life changes during that time (a new baby, downsizing, or caring for an aging parent), buying a home that’s flexible and accommodating to your needs will keep you happy in your space for years to come.
What kind of lot should I select?
As with most things in real estate, location is key, and that extends to your lot choice.
In addition to the lot’s size and slope, you will want to know how its location could impact your living experience. Lot configuration affects a home’s orientation and which direction most windows will face, which could in turn affect comfort and energy efficiency. If privacy is a concern, you’ll want to consider how close your home will be to that of your neighbors.
You may want to get a copy of the area’s development plans to review current and future traffic patterns. For example, if the lot’s situated along or near a busy street, there will be vehicle noise to contend with. Plans for a future park or school across the street may boost your home’s resale value, but it could also be noisy throughout the day.
If you’re in a higher density neighborhood, you might want to know if there are plans for a mid-rise or high-rise building that could obstruct your current views.
What kind of HOA oversight would work well for me?
Many new housing developments will be managed by a homeowners association (HOA), and how they’re managed will impact your lifestyle and housing costs. The HOA is responsible for the day-to-day management of the community or subdivision and handles items like resident monthly payments, budget, rule creation and enforcement, and upkeep of common areas.
You’ll probably want to know how much your monthly dues are, as that will impact your monthly housing costs. Some HOAs are more restrictive than others, so thumbing through an HOA’s CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions) will tell you what you can and can’t do to your home, and whether or not you require permission for certain renovations.
Understanding the neighborhood’s rules and restrictions will help you determine if it’s a good fit for your lifestyle.
How can I prevent buyer’s remorse?
The process of buying a brand new home is a little different from purchasing an existing home, so knowing the right questions to ask is important. The fact you’re reading this article puts you ahead of the game already!
But it’s also helpful to realize when you might need more information and guidance. That’s when having an agent in your back pocket who has worked with a lot of new construction deals can be a real benefit.
Doing some soul-searching about your lifestyle and financial goals will also help you pinpoint the type of home and community that are the best fit. Homing in on your personal style can’t hurt, either, and will put you in good shape for your personalization selections.
Picking out flooring, cabinets, countertops, and other features is an exciting part of the new build process because it’s an opportunity to make the home reflect your personality. But it can also feel pretty high-stakes. What if you select something you don’t like once it’s installed?
Sarah Reser, a homeowner who recently purchased a custom home near Portland, Oregon, stresses the importance of doing your homework.
“The selection process can be a bit overwhelming. You are constantly exposed to so much design on social media and TV shows and magazines and the internet.”
While Reser is happy with the features in her home, she wishes she would have done more research to make the design studio appointments easier. “I wish we would have done a little bit more pre-work, visiting other model homes and just taking pictures of things that we liked for examples.”
That would be first and foremost: Get references from the builder as to any other properties that they’ve built prior to this property. Maybe even visit one of those properties so you can see the finished product.
- Michele Friedler Real Estate AgentCloseMichele Friedler Real Estate Agent at Hammond Real Estate REALTOR®, SRES®, CLHMS (Certified Luxury Home Marketing Specialist)
- Years of Experience 39
- Transactions 144
- Average Price Point $819k
- Single Family Homes 86
Questions for builders
Now that you’ve figured out your dream home must-haves, it’s time to research builders in your area.
The process of buying a new home is lengthy with many stages — think of the relationship with your builder as a long-term partnership. For this reason, it’s important to ask builders lots of questions that could impact your home’s quality, completion date, and final price.
What previous homes and subdivisions have you built?
Reputable builders should welcome sharing the names and addresses of their completed communities. You may also be able to glean some information from their website.
Take a drive through a few, noting the homes’ exterior quality and curb appeal. Many builders tend to reuse their home plans, so you may even be able to check out your desired design in various architectural arrangements! It’s one thing to see your house plan in renderings, and it’s quite another to see it out in the wild.
If the builder has been in business for a while, driving by some of their older and established communities is also helpful. You’ll get an idea of their long-term construction quality and how their homes withstand the test of time (or not).
Do you have references from recent buyers?
Whether you’ve found your home in its early stages or you’ve seen the finished product, it’s always wise to talk to other buyers.
“That would be first and foremost: Get references from the builder as to any other properties that they’ve built prior to this property,” says Michele Friedler, a top real estate agent serving the Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline areas in Massachusetts. “Maybe even visit one of those properties so you can see the finished product.”
Even if your real estate agent or the builder provides references, you might want to poke around on your own to get a random sample of opinions. Drive through a recently built subdivision on a weekend while you’re checking out the homes’ quality, when homeowners might be doing chores outside.
Introduce yourself, say you’re considering buying a home from the same builder, and ask if they’re happy with their home. If people aren’t pleased, they’re usually not shy to explain exactly why!
Did they have any problems? Were these fixed properly and promptly? Would they buy another home from this builder? Don’t be afraid to take a few notes so you can review any questions you have later.
What features come standard, and what’s extra?
Is there anything more fun than spending a weekend touring model homes? Like experiencing HGTV in real life, walking a builder’s model can inspire your own style and be a source of design and decorating ideas.
But when you’re trying to figure out what features come standard and which are upgrades, you’ll want to refer to the builder’s one-sheet, not the model home. Model homes are often tricked out with high-end building products and the latest design features and appliances — many of which aren’t included in the home’s base price and come with hefty additional price tags.
Included features can vary widely from builder to builder and from one builder’s community to another. Save yourself some unpleasant surprises down the road and understand your costs to upgrade before you sign the purchase agreement.
Your agent is also probably familiar with your selected builder and might be able to provide additional insight and comparisons about the builder’s standard and upgrade offerings.
What are my financing options?
Unless you’re paying cash, you’ll be researching your financing choices to determine what works best for your situation. The type of home you’re building may also affect your mortgage loan.
For subdivision or tract homes, semi-custom homes and spec homes, the financing process can resemble that of an existing home — determining which type of mortgage makes the most sense for your financial situation and shopping for a competitive rate.
If you’re building a custom home, and for some tract homes, you may be required to carry a construction loan while the home is being built. After the home is completed, depending on your lender and situation, you may be able to roll your construction loan into a typical mortgage loan. Your builder will advise on what’s required for your specific build.
What incentives does the builder offer to use their lender?
It’s becoming a common practice for builders to require interested buyers to prequalify for a loan with the builder’s preferred lender prior to contract signing. They want to know that you’re a serious buyer who meets the minimum financial requirements to buy one of their homes. But you’re under no obligation to use that lender!
At the very least, you’ll want to get preapproved by a lender for a more detailed estimate of how much money you can borrow. Many builders have their own in-house lender or partner with a mortgage company, and some will offer incentives to use these connections. For example, a builder could throw in an upgrade allowance for flooring or cabinets, free solar panels, or a closing cost credit.
Even if a builder offers you a sweet financing deal, you still want to shop around. For instance, if you have a longstanding relationship with a bank or credit union, they might be willing to match or even beat what the builder is offering.
Can you explain the payment timeline?
Most builders require an initial non-refundable deposit when signing the purchase agreement. The exact amount should be documented in the agreement; up to 15% of the purchase price is common.
Whether you’re opting for your own lender or are going with the builder’s, it’s important to know when your interest rate will lock, for how long, and what happens to your rate should the home’s completion date be delayed. If you’re purchasing upgrades, you’ll want to be clear on whether you can roll those costs into your home loan or will need to make a cash payment to the builder at the time specified in the contract.
If you’re building a custom home and need a construction loan, your payment terms may look a little different, at least at first. Your lender will draft a draw schedule, which is a timeline that describes when certain payments are due to the builder during the construction process.
Typically you’ll be responsible for interest payments on the amount of each draw (payment) that the lender makes to the builder. After the construction is complete, you may be able to convert the construction loan to a typical mortgage, at which point you’ll likely be responsible for closing costs outlined in your contract.
Bottom line: Be sure you know the specific payment requirements for your loan type so you know exactly to whom you owe money, how much each payment will be, and when it is due.
Will there be an HOA? What will the CC&Rs look like? What amenities will it have, and what will the dues be?
As mentioned above, if a new home community will have an HOA overseeing its management and operations, it’s in your best interest to get all the details upfront so you know what you’re getting into. Some of the most important things to know include:
- How much monthly dues cost
- What amenities the HOA maintains
- Specific CC&Rs about renovations, pets, parking, and landscaping
- What landscaping is covered
- How rule enforcement is handled
Who oversees the construction?
You’re making one of the biggest financial decisions of your life, so it’s only fair that you’d like to know who’s responsible for building your home.
The construction manager or superintendent is responsible for day-to-day management and operations of a home’s job site. They’ll coordinate subcontractors, schedules, and deliveries to maintain a home’s construction timeline. They’re also responsible for job site safety, security, and cleanliness.
How much interaction you’ll have with the construction manager may vary from builder to builder. For example, you may meet them only during the frame walk and final walkthrough. Or perhaps they’re more hands-on and will provide regular construction updates by phone, text, or email.
Decide how you’d like to receive progress updates and communicate your preference to your builder’s representative.
What does the construction schedule look like?
As with anything in construction, crafting a new home involves many moving parts, often at the same time. It takes about seven to eight months on average to build a home from the ground up, but this timetable may be different depending on where you’re building (hot summers and snowy winters can affect completion dates, for example), the home’s size, the floor plan, and types of design features.
Local jurisdictions and their requirements also play a role in how long a home will take to build, according to Nancy Haskin, marketing director for Renaissance Homes in Portland, Oregon. “Most builders include a clause in their contract that outlines when a home actually starts, which is typically when the foundation is poured. Builder contracts vary with regard to completion dates.”
You’ll want to get your hands on a copy of your builder’s specific construction schedule so you know what’s happening and when. While the timeline may vary, the order of construction phases generally looks like this:
- Pre-construction work, like document preparation and permitting
- Grading, site prep, and foundation pouring
- Plumbing, electrical, and HVAC system installation
- Roofing and windows
- Insulation and drywall
- Flooring, cabinets, countertops, and other interior features
- Exterior finishing
- Draining and irrigation
- Landscaping, driveway, and sidewalks
What happens if there is a construction delay?
It takes a village to build a home, and it’s a process with many interdependencies, from subcontractors to material supplies. There’s a lot that can go wrong, which could result in a delay in your home’s final delivery date and when you can call the moving company.
Some things that may impact your home’s completion date include weather, material shipping delays, builder errors, labor shortages — and whether you changed your mind about a particular design feature at the last minute. In today’s market, builders are having a tough time keeping pace with demand, which also affects construction timelines.
Your sales contract should stipulate what happens should a construction delay arise and what constitutes an excusable delay. Have your agent or real estate attorney review the builder’s contract for this type of clause language so your interests (and move-in timeline) are protected.
What happens if the price of materials or the cost of labor goes up?
The coronavirus pandemic shook the economy (including for new home construction), and while no one really knows how everything is going to shake out when we can confidently and safely say “post-COVID world,” we know to expect the unexpected — especially when it comes to the cost and availability of materials and labor.
Builders and homebuyers have had a particularly hard time in 2020 and 2021, with skyrocketing lumber prices, material shortages, and shipping delays. Haskin notes the challenges for both builder and buyers.
To help ease the burden, “many of our vendors have been proactive with ordering products ahead of time,” she says. “We offer a price lock for our clients for several months, but if we are delayed due to permit issues or HOA issues, we outline in our contract that we have to re-price when we begin construction.”
That’s why what goes into the sales contract is so important — knowing who pays for what and how much protects both you and your builder should these types of issues occur.
Builders are increasingly including an escalation clause in their contracts that outlines how price adjustments will be handled in the event of material or labor increases. If your builder doesn’t include one, it will be up to you to request it, and your agent or attorney can help draft the specific language.
Can I provide my own materials or appliances?
If you’re looking to save some money or you want specific items for your home that the builder doesn’t offer, it may be possible to purchase your own. Builders’ policies for this are all over the map, so you’ll want to address this question early on in the process.
Builders with their own design centers often will not allow outside purchases. “Because we have long-lasting relationships with our traders and vendors, we don’t allow our clients to purchase appliances outside of what we offer. That being said, we have an extensive selection of options,” says Haskin.
Custom home builders are typically more flexible with buyers sourcing and buying their own materials…up to a point. For semi-custom and production builders, there’s less flexibility due to their vendor partner relationships and volume ordering.
Providing some of your own materials could reduce the final price of your home, too. A builder may offer you an allowance, which is a credit for what it would cost them to provide a material. For example, if your home’s base price is $400,000, and the builder offers an allowance of $10,000 for flooring, it will take the home’s final price to $390,000.
Keep in mind that it will be up to you to coordinate shipping and delivery of products to your home’s job site, which could add construction delays if they don’t arrive on time. You’ll also want to be sure to provide your builder any manufacturer-specific installation information they can pass along to subcontractors.
What energy-efficient options do you offer?
A high-performing home is good for the planet and your pocketbook, so energy-efficient materials and methods are quickly becoming standard among builders. At a minimum, you will want to learn how a builder approaches the following:
- Insulation and sealing
- Water heating
- House heating and cooling systems
- Windows and doors
Many builders, including the 20 largest in the U.S., deliver ENERGY STAR certified homes that are at least 10% more energy efficient than current code requirements. Some builders may even provide a Home Energy Score, which is a scoring system developed by the U.S. Department of Energy to determine a home’s overall energy efficiency, or a HERS Index number.
When can I visit the construction site? How involved can I be?
You’re building your dream home, so you’re probably interested in periodically checking out how construction is moving along. Some builders will offer a “dusty shoe” or frame walk appointment where they’ll show buyers their home’s construction progress before the drywall is installed.
You’ll want to bring along your agent, who’s well versed in home construction, as well as a copy of your structural options, electrical, and plumbing documents to be sure all is progressing according to plan. A final walkthrough is also common, which is when you’ll have the opportunity to identify any items requiring additional attention or repair.
If you know you’ll be interested in visiting the site often (Because why not? Building a home can be exciting!), ask the builder what’s allowed per their safety procedures. Some builders may be more flexible to multiple visits than others, and you may even have to make appointments ahead of time.
In Reser’s case, her builder welcomed visiting as often as she liked. She enjoyed the construction process so much she created a build diary on Instagram, where she regularly posts photos of the home in various stages of construction.
What if I change my mind about a feature or upgrade? What kinds of modifications can I make before closing?
You’re in the middle of a frame walk and want to add a window to the living room, or you’ve changed your mind about your kitchen cabinet color. What now?
A few things may affect if or when you can make any modifications, or “change orders,” in builder-speak. Builders will also have specific policies about change orders, including what can be modified and when. And be prepared to pay up: modifications to options and upgrades can be costly and can delay your home’s completion date.
“This can lead to upcharges,” Friedler said, because certain changes can “alter the time that it takes to complete the house, or things may need to be undone in order to be redone the way somebody wants it.”
What construction phase the home is in at time of purchase is the biggest factor, as the closer the home is to completion, the less things can be changed without resulting in exorbitant costs that will add to your home’s final price. For example, you will probably have more flexibility with a home that’s still in the pre-construction phase than you would with a home that’s ready for cabinets and countertops.
When will the landscaping and driveway be finished?
Don’t assume landscaping and driveway installation will occur the same time your home is completed — or that they’re even included at all. It’s a common buyer misconception, according to Dubois-Coté. “The landscaping and driveway have to be in the contract. Some buyers assume the builder’s going to pay for the driveway, and not all builders do.”
Rarely will a builder take care of backyard landscaping, but the front yard may be included. If you live in a region with long hot summers or wet and snowy winters, it may be impossible for the builder to complete the landscaping or driveway when your home’s structure is finished. Get it in writing to document and clarify when they will return to complete any exterior projects they are responsible for.
Do you offer a warranty program? What are the specifics?
Most home builders issue a limited warranty on their work, either within the sales contract or purchase agreement, or as a separate document. The type of work determines the length of time: typically one year for labor and materials; two years for defects to systems such as heating, plumbing and electrical; and 10 years for structural defects.
Some warranties are part of state law. For instance, Massachusetts has a 1-year builders’ warranty that covers a certain amount of labor and materials for anything that goes wrong or needs adjusting in the first 12 months after purchase, Friedler said.
That said, some builders’ warranties don’t cover everything — for instance, landscaping. What happens if the plants die within a year?
Read through any warranty paperwork with an attorney so that you understand its length, what’s covered, what’s excluded — and who is responsible for what problems. Some builders may have third-party insurance for particular items or will defer to a subcontractor who handled certain jobs.
These are the most common new home construction defects, according to the Lyon Firm, in Cincinnati, Ohio, which has handled product liability cases since 2006:
- Improperly installed roofing
For example, Steinhausen discovered that one builder had installed stone veneer and mortar on top of shingles without the proper flashing, the sheet metal or other material installed to prevent leaks at junctions.
- Inadequate electrical capabilities
- Poor placement of downspouts and gutters
This can cause water damage that affects a roofing warranty.
- Issues with exterior siding, bricks, and stucco
Concrete poured in cold weather might not cure properly and could crack, chip, or delaminate.
You should beware of structural problems, such as slanting or sagging floors, buckling walls, and doors that don’t open or close properly; these can be signs of foundation shifts.
Drainage is also a common new home construction problem. “When builders re-grade lots, they often disrupt or re-route the natural drainage and runoff systems, which can lead to water problems, especially in homes with basements,” Steinhausen says.
Although you may be able to sue a builder for poor workmanship under your state’s breach of warranty laws, you’ll want to note any maintenance obligations that the builder says are your responsibility. Failing to drain your water heater, touch up caulk or grout, or clean your gutters could count as neglect on your part and nullify any issues that you think the builder should fix.
Also, check on any deadlines you’ll have to meet to notify the responsible contractors of any defects, which can vary from state to state.
Can a home inspector examine the property before we close?
A lender typically requires a certificate of occupancy for a newly built home before you can secure financing. Your local building department issues this document (also called an occupancy permit) once it verifies that the builder completed the home’s wiring, plumbing, heating, and other specifications properly.
But a certificate of occupancy just means that a building is in “livable condition,” not that it’s flawless.
A home inspector should review the property before you close, real estate experts say, because a buyer loses some leverage to make the builder address certain problems after closing.
Many builders provide a time frame for completing repairs for items identified during the final walkthrough, and they will conduct a follow-up visit toward the end of the first year of occupancy. Some may offer information about how long certain repairs could take — but don’t expect them to dash out right away if a nail pops through the drywall as the house settles.
Plus, it’s tough to prove after closing whether a gouge in a wall or countertop is the builder’s fault or due to the clumsiness of the buyer’s movers.
Instead, the National Association of Home Builders — also known as the NAHB, a federation since the 1940s that represents more than 140,000 home builders, remodelers, and other specialists constructing new homes nationwide — recommends that buyers be thorough, observant, and ask tons of questions on their final walkthrough of the property. An experienced builder expects as much and prefers to remedy problems before buyers move in, when it’s much easier to work in an empty house.
A home inspector can examine the house before or during this walkthrough. Most of the defects that Steinhausen finds in new home construction are problems of which the builder or general contractor wasn’t aware.
“A good builder should welcome an inspection prior to closing because it might save them some grief in the long run, and it might help them address things they can improve upon with future projects,” he says.
Problems can arise because of “subcontractors doing shoddy work, or a lack of coordination between different subcontractors,” sometimes when workers complete tasks out of order, he adds.
For instance, if workers install the roof before others complete the flue pipes, sewer vents, or exhaust vents, then a builder needs to determine how to install the flashing and shingles around these components.
The average home inspection will cost you about $315. Inspections of condos and homes under 1,000 square feet can cost as little as $200, while inspecting homes over 2,000 square feet can cost $400 or more. Nevertheless, an inspection can save you a lot of headache and hassle, not to mention money in repairs.
If I’m dissatisfied with any conditions, can I back out of the contract?
Admittedly, this is a question you want to ask early in the process — and before you sign anything.
In a real estate deal that doesn’t involve a new build purchase agreement, you can back out or renegotiate if, for instance, the house appraises for less than the sale price, or if the home inspection discovers significant problems. That’s not usually the case with a custom home construction — it’s extremely rare for a builder to reduce the price if the appraisal comes in low. The buyer is on the hook for the difference, which could mean more cash required to close the deal.
Buyers also can terminate a deal throughout a contract period if they can’t secure adequate financing. In a resale transaction, buyers may be eligible to receive their earnest money back, but in a sales contract written by the builder, that might not be the case.
In a new home sale, buyers are often required to pay a non-refundable deposit in lieu of earnest money, “About 15% of the purchase price,” says Dubois-Coté. It’s rare for buyers to get their deposit back from a builder, even if their financing falls through.
Talk to your real estate agent and perhaps an attorney about the contingencies in your new home construction contract, how to end the agreement — and when you’re locked in for good.
Brand new doesn’t mean problem-free — so ask away
Technically, a new home sale occurs when a buyer signs a sales contract or a builder accepts a deposit, according to the NAHB.
Sometimes that means the home is complete; other times, you might see just a foundation or framed walls. As of October 2021, there were 389,000 new single-family homes for sale in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But remember — even if you feel like you watched your new home take shape — a new construction home can have more issues than first meets the eye.
“They may look pretty on the outside, but they may not be built well,” says Friedler. “The average layperson doesn’t know what’s inside the walls.”
Reputable builders and real estate agents both want their clients to be happy in their new homes, so if you’re uneasy about anything during this type of homebuying process, don’t hesitate to raise your concerns.
These professionals expect plenty of questions, from “What will the estimated taxes be?” to “How is the school system rated?” and “Are there homeowners’ association fees?” So be courteous but persistent in getting the answers you need.
Header Image Source: (Brett Jordan / Shutterstock)
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- "How to Choose a Home Builder," National Association of Home Builders
- "5 Types of Mortgage Loans For Homebuyers," Bankrate (April 2022)
- "How Construction Loans Help Finance Your Dream House," Nerdwallet (March 2021)
- "The Power of Escalation Clauses in Today's Hot Real Estate Market," Forbes (March 2021)