Building a custom home can be a daunting task, and many home buyers will end up buying a spec home or working with the custom home builder to alter a home currently under construction. A spec home is one built on ‘speculation’, where the builder/developer selects and purchases a lot, then designs and builds a home for it. If the lot is good enough, and the builder has a solid reputation, often a spec home will presell before it’s even built.
The reason things often don’t work out as planned for home buyers is because the plan was flawed. There’s a common belief that the quest for a custom dream home begins with the perfect lot. Once they have the lot, they’ll have an architect draw up the plans, request a few builders bid on the project, and then hire the lowest bidder.
Home buyers often discover their vision simply won’t work on the lot they are considering or have already purchased. Disappointed, they begin discussing alternatives, trying to find something that will work on their lot; but realize that since this is no longer their “dream” house, it might just be simpler to buy a spec house, with some modifications.
The good news is that successful custom home projects usually begin in reverse order. The buyers share their vision with a designer/builder, plans are drawn up and then they work together to identify and secure the best lot on which to build the new house. Many builders have been compiling a file of potential properties, working with Realtors and owners of teardown properties, and they may have the perfect property already in mind.
Choose the highest value rather than the lowest price
When searching for the right builder for your custom home, plenty of experience, a great reputation and an impressive portfolio are important considerations, but it can be equally important to find someone who truly understands the vision you have for your dream home, who gets your personal style and also communicates well.
Everyone wants to save money, and it can be tempting to sign a contract with the builder who offers the lowest price. Be wary of builders offering to build a brand new custom home for a very low square footage price. If a builder’s bid is lower than the others there could be several reasons for this:
- The proposal has been written to be deliberately misleading
- It’s incomplete, or the information is inaccurate
- Low-quality materials will be used, and other corners are likely to be cut
- Inexperienced subcontractors and workers will be used, and the quality of work will suffer
- The builder is inexperienced and is therefore unaware of the true costs of materials and labour
- The contractor is planning to file for bankruptcy and is looking for one last influx of cash from a project deposit before shutting down
Fixing the property after the home is built could cost more than the money saved by accepting a low bid.
The best builders have been building for a considerable time. Experience has taught them to expect a few surprises and delays, and they have padded the proposal so there will be enough money to cover any contingencies. Their stellar reputations show that they consistently deliver on time and budget, and the homeowners they serve are happy.
Contractors who submit the lowest bids tend to bid too low to complete the project at the proposed price. To avoid losing money on the project they find themselves cutting corners on materials and labour, or they invent creative ways to hit you up for more money later on. Unforeseen expenses won’t have been factored into their lowball proposal and those will represent additional costs should they arise.
If you are unable to afford a quality builder at this time, it may be best to postpone the project until it can be built right.
You want a builder with excellent communication skills
A custom home will typically be the largest investment you’ll make over your lifetime, and it may be the home you live in for the rest of your days. This is a really big deal! A good builder understands just how important this home is for you and will be available to address any concerns.
You should have the cell phone number(s) of your builder. Being required to leave a message with a receptionist or answering service most of the time is unacceptable. Good builders are very busy, and may not be able to answer every call personally, but there should be a point person available who can accept your direct call. A quick follow-up email memo following a call, to confirm what was discussed, shows professionalism and helps nip any miscommunication in the bud.
It can be very frustrating working with a custom home builder that takes a long time to respond to your phone, text or email messages. If the company is so large that you are required to communicate with your builder through an intermediary, miscommunication issues are almost guaranteed.
Be upfront and transparent with your builder
It’s important that your builder carefully describes the materials and labour that will go into your finished home, so you’ll know exactly what you’re getting. In the course of discussing a custom home project, a wide range of options and possibilities are usually discussed, but only some will be considered essential based on your conversations, and those will then be itemized in the proposal. It’s imperative that you go over the proposal very carefully to make sure nothing was left out, and correct any omissions.
If it’s listed in the contract, it’s included; if it’s not listed there, it’s not. The building contractor must understand exactly what you want, so that every item will be included in the contract. Communicate, communicate, communicate! The scope of work described in the contract outlines all of the aspects of your project, with a detailed list of the work that will be completed, and specific materials and finishes that will be used.
Some buyers choose not to disclose everything they want in their new homes upfront. In some situations they decide it’s a feature they can live without; only to reconsider after the contract has been signed and work has begun, that it’s something they simply must have. Others plan to introduce more requests along the way from the outset, mistakenly believing that if these extra items aren’t on the contract they won’t have to pay for them.
Scope creep is a situation where the list of items grows after construction is underway. It can impact the entire project, resulting in the project coming in over budget, late, or both. Scope creep can create additional stress for both the homeowner and the builder. The best way to prevent it is through clear communication with your builder. Never rely on assumptions or your memory of verbal conversations you had.
Homeowners do change their minds and make additional requests. If it’s not in the contract, it’s handled with a change order. Make sure your builder has a transparent change order process in place and that you understand the process for requesting changes.
Compatibility matters; trust your intuition
It’s important to work with a builder and team you can envision working with for the duration of the project. From the initial planning stage, through to post-construction support, the process typically takes about a year. You should believe that your builder understands and shares your vision for the new home, and you should feel comfortable working with them.
When you start the project you should have a strong feeling that your builder is trustworthy, and transparent in their dealings, and that they prioritize your needs.
As we travel through life, we develop a sixth sense of people we can work well with. The contractor may have dozens of glowing reviews, but if you feel stressed whenever you speak or meet with the builder and their team members it’s something to consider. Chances are, you are about to embark upon the biggest project and adventure of your life, and you want a cooperative, enjoyable relationship with someone who gets you.
Do your due diligence
How long have they been in business? The company you choose should probably have been in business for at least 5 years. It takes time to establish a solid track record and build a portfolio of high-quality work.
Have they been building in your area long? Do they have extensive knowledge of the area where you’ll be building? Are they familiar with local weather patterns, soil conditions, and the local Energy Step Code and bylaws?
Review their portfolio Take the time to view a variety of portfolio examples, showing diversity in their projects. Confirm that the projects they work on are of a similar size, style and budget to your custom build.
Read unbiased reviews and check their BBB status Read all the reviews you can find online. Are they active on social media? Read their mission statement. Have they earned any awards?
Who do they use for sub-trades? Your builder should be contracting work to the best local tradespeople in the business.
Do they insist on using high-quality materials? Quality materials and products that exceed “builder grade” will look better, operate more efficiently, and last a lot longer.
Check references Some questions to ask previous clients are:
- Was the builder easy and enjoyable to work with?
- How did the builder handle tough situations and unforeseen problems?
- Was the building schedule explained clearly and was project management handled well?
- Was the project completed on time? If there were delays, what was the cause?
- Was the original estimate accurate, and did the project come in on budget?
- If you ever decide to build another home, would you choose this builder again?
Custom dream homes are the culmination of years of saving, daydreaming, clipping ideas and countless hours of research. And now your designer/builder can bring that dream to life, from the very first 3D renderings to the unforgettable day your site passes its final inspection and you get your occupancy permit. The custom home builder you choose should inspire you with the confidence that they will take care of everything, bringing the project across the finish line.
Reid Madiuk's been putting on a toolbelt since he was twelve years old, alongside his father, one of Whistler's first residential builders. As a third-generation Squamish and Whistler builder, Reid brings over 20 years of carpentry expertise to designing and constructing exceptional homes.