How to Build Your Dream Custom Home

Over the next 12 weeks, we’ll lay out the key steps you need to take to build the custom home of your dreams. It won’t always be easy and it may take a while, but, at the end, if you do it right, you’ll have a beautiful home that you and your family can enjoy for many years and that leaves a little bit of you on the local landscape.

So, what comes first: the builder or the architect? The answer is – it depends. If you plan on building a cutting-edge architectural masterpiece, then the answer is most definitely the architect. The top-tier architect will then point you in the direction of the builder who is best able to execute their complicated and innovative plans. However, if your aspirations are to build a more conventional luxury home, either traditional or contemporary in style, then it’s usually best to find a reputable builder who can help you pull together a design team that suits you and the needs of your family. A reputable builder will also be able to educate you about the process and give a good indication of the likely price per square foot in your local area for the type of home you wish to build.

Finding the right design team (builder, architect, designer) is the key to a successful build. A team with a proven track record of working well together can make the difference between an efficiently-run and enjoyable experience and your worst nightmare.

1. Finding a Custom Home Builder

Finding a custom home builder can feel like a daunting task. A lot of your time and money will be invested in the project and everyone has heard horror stories of cowboy builders completing shoddy work at inflated prices, or worse, not completing work. The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is never truer than in the building industry. If you want a high-end custom home finished to flawless standards, then picking a budget builder would be a big mistake.

There are two questions to ask yourself when choosing a home builder. Firstly, does the builder you’re considering regularly build homes in your desired area at the quality and cost level that you expect? Finding a reputable builder with experience in your local area is critical – they will have relationships with all the local trades and, hopefully, will have good relationships with the local city building department. These relationships will help the project run smoothly, avoiding gaps spent trying to find trades or dealing with unexpected local planning challenges.

Secondly, you need to ask yourself – is it a good personality fit? You will spend 12-18 months in constant contact with the builder. If it’s not someone you feel comfortable with during the interview process, it’s unlikely to get better as the build progresses. Building a custom house is not like producing a car on a production line. There are many variables that are hard to predict and that can cause problems along the way, from strange discoveries underground, to unexpectedly wet winters and global pandemics affecting supply chains. Finding a builder you like and trust, who has similar values to your own, will help the builder-client relationship withstand the difficult times and should make the good times a lot more fun.

Once you’ve established the builder you’re considering builds homes locally, at the right quality / cost level, and is a good personality fit, then you need to do some due diligence. Online reviews on sites like Google and Houzz are a good start but also ask the builder to take you to some completed homes. Not all clients want their home to be a show home once they’ve moved in, but, if the builder has done enough projects and enough went well, then they should be able to show you one or two. Look at these homes carefully – is the paint finish, carpentry work and stonework all to the standard you would expect? Also, ask the builder to take you to a couple of current projects. Are they in your local area and at the scale you’re looking for? Do the job sites look clean and well managed? Finally, ask for the builder’s contact at the local city building department – they will normally be happy to discuss whether the builder builds quality homes and has a good reputation in the local area.

If you already have architectural plans, you may be considering putting your project out to bid. Making your decision about which builder to choose based solely on price can be risky, especially if the factors above haven’t been taken into account. It is also highly likely that the budget will overrun. Reputable builders are likely to provide a good budget but there is unlikely to be fat in a bid-out budget to absorb all of the unpredictable events. Unscrupulous builders may underbid because it’s a time-consuming process or, worse, because they intentionally miss items in order to win the business.

Once you have decided on a builder, have a think about how you intend to manage the relationship – do you want to be hands-on in your home build or will you step back and leave it to the professional? If it’s the former, make sure the builder knows this so you can establish a communication and involvement plan that meets your needs. If you agree the parameters up front, then you are less likely to be left in a situation where you feel excluded, or the builder starts to resent you second guessing his every move. If you’re comfortable you’ve found a good quality, reputable builder then stepping back and leaving it to them should be a less stressful and time-consuming option, but make sure you have detailed review meetings at least monthly to ensure you’re both heading in the same direction.

June 4, 2021.

2. Finding a Lot to Build Your Own Home

To find the perfect lot, head out on a rainy-sunny day and follow the rainbow, you’ll find your dream spot right at the end of it. Failing that, you’ll need to compromise. Before you drive yourself and your realtor crazy looking at every possibility in a large area, think seriously about what is important to you and separate search characteristics that are set in stone from those you’re willing to flex.

Location is arguably the most important consideration. Is a lot that’s walkable to downtown essential or are you willing to flex that requirement for a little more space? Is a specific school district non-negotiable or are you open to trying a different one? Are you set on an established neighborhood or would you consider one that’s a little more up and coming? Do you really want a yard where your kids can kick a ball around or is a nearby park enough? Are there certain infrastructure features in an area you wouldn’t even consider – septic systems, well water, unpaved roads?

Clearly, price is also a key deciding factor. Make sure you know the maximum you are willing to spend for the lot and home build combined. Hopefully, you’ve already spoken to a builder and have a rough idea of the cost for the size of home you want to build. The question then is whether you’re willing to flex the size / features of your home in order to meet some of your location requirements. Bear in mind that a good deal is important in house-hunting but be open to paying a little over the odds for a location you really like – you’re probably going to be able to make up that value by building an incredible home there. Also, it’s worth noting that tear down costs for existing homes can range from $10k to $30k depending on the size of the home.

Going into a search with a clear idea of what you definitely do or don’t want and where you’re willing to be more flexible will make the process much simpler for everyone involved. So where do you find a lot? Online search engines such as Realtor and Zillow that link to the MLS are a good start, but often realtors will have an idea of properties coming to market before they are listed. In a fast-moving market, the inside info is always helpful. Some builders will also be happy to guide you through the lot-finding process – they may have access to lots that are not listed and are likely to have a number of real estate contacts who can help you find what’s right for you and the type of home you wish to build.

Once you’ve found a lot that you think you love, it’s time to do your due diligence. Here are some questions you really should know the answer to before you finalize the sale:

  1. Is there a Homeowners’ Association for that sub-division and does its rules preclude you from building the size and style of home you want?
  2. Are there easements / other restrictions relating to the property (city, county, state) which limit the size of home you can build?
  3. Does the property have access to all the utilities you need: water, sewer, power?
  4. Is the soil condition suitable for your build? (In some locations, poor soil condition may not support foundations or a high water table may prevent a basement.)
  5. Is the location going to be marketable and appeal to others in the future?

June 10, 2021.

Coming soon…Finding architects and designers.