Custom Home : Choosing a Builder

I first started writing this post over a year ago, back when we were still very much in the midst of building our home. I stopped writing it then because I realized I should probably wait until I’ve at least built one home with a custom builder before deciding if I had any valuable insight to offer when it comes to choosing a builder…

Now that we are all moved in, I can honestly say that I am so grateful that we went with our gut and had the builders that we did. While we definitely had some rough patches during the process (which I now know is to be expected), they managed to build our home during a pandemic and they did it all on budget (not to say that we finished on budget but that’s because we added things, not because of anything our builder did) and with only a 2 month delay (which I also learned is not even considered a true delay in these trying times). Not only did our builders deliver on their promises, but their after market service has been impeccable. Does that mean that we have no outstanding issues with our home? No, of course not – there are thousands of details that go in to building a house, so things are bound to go wrong – but great after market service means that I can count on my builder to address the deficiencies properly and quickly.

So while I am so grateful not to have any building horror stories, I still like to think that the steps we took prior to choosing our builder helped match us with a company we knew we could work well with. Here are a few things to consider when choosing a custom home builder:

  1. Reputation within the Trades

Online reviews can help narrow down the choice for a builder but not every client will write a review; in fact, I think that unless a builder specifically asks their clients to write a review, most wouldn’t even think of doing it.

What we found to be really telling is how the trades spoke of our builder. We happen to know a few trades people in the industry and asked them if they’d heard of our builder. While none of our contacts had worked directly with them, they knew of the company and were able to ask around for reviews – all of them came back really positive.

My top recommendation when choosing a builder is to put in the leg work and ask around for honest reviews. If you don’t know anyone in your area that has the inside track into the construction world, show up at your potential builder’s job sites and see if you can get some insight from the trades that are there. Typically, a reputable builder will have their own “go-to” subcontractors that they always work with. You want to avoid the builders that hire any random trade because, without the benefit of longstanding work relationships, they can’t honestly vouch for the quality of work from that trade. So, if you show up on a site and find out that that was the first time the framers/roofers/plumbers/etc… were doing work for this particular builder, I would take that as a warning sign and do some more digging.

2. Timelines

Timelines are a really important factor, especially if you are looking to sell your home around the time that your new build is scheduled to be ready. Unfortunately, most builders won’t give you a precise timeline due to all the unknows that can occur during construction. Those that do give you a timeline, will usually include a bunch of non-liability clauses into the contract in the event that they can’t meet the deadline.

So when I say to consider timelines, I mean to consider it in the context of assessing your potential builder’s credibility. We met with several builders and general contractors before choosing ours. Some quoted us 6-8 months to build our home, others 8-10 months, one even said he could get it done in under 6 months (we wrote him off right away)… If anything, we knew from speaking to several builders that a realistic timeframe was in the 8 month-ish range (of course, at the time, no one could have predicted the impact of the pandemic).

Our builder actually came back with the longest timeframe – 1 year. While some would think that it would be best to go with someone who can get the job done faster, we appreciated the extra time because we figured it would minimize the possibility of further delays since they were already giving themselves a cushion for unforeseen events.

3. Communication

Communication is huge! If your potential builder says he’s going to send you a quote today and then a week goes by and still nothing – take that as a warning. While there may be a legitimate explanation for the delay, if a pattern of poor communication is shown prior to choosing a particular builder, you can almost be certain that it will only get worse with time.

We had one potential builder that took a month to send us a quote and when we emailed him with follow up questions (almost immediately upon receiving the quote), he took another month to respond! Needless to say, we didn’t give him a second thought.

During our build, we sent out builder a lot of emails and text messages (a lot!) and while we did have some communication issues, for the most part, they answered every email and message without us needing to follow up for a response. That is a true sign of a company that knows what they are doing and that values their clients.

4. Organization

I am a very Type-A person, so I have a deep appreciation for all things “organization”. Personally, I really believe that being organized is a non-negotiable requirement for home building.

A builder who is on top of their projects will know exactly what is happening at the location at any given time. They have their trades lined up, they give the client ample notice about deadlines for design selections, etc.

At the onset, one way to tell if a potential builder is organized is with how he delivers all of the requested information to you. For example, in our case, during one of our preliminary interviews with our builder, they suggested that we look at floor plans that they had previously done to see if there is anything there that we could work with (this would have cut back on design time). After that meeting, within less than a day, they sent us an email setting out all of the things that we had discussed and attached the floorplans.

While most would think this is standard practice, some of the builders that we met with didn’t even bring a pen and paper to our initial meetings. They didn’t remember what we were looking to build or where, even though I had set it all out in emails to them prior to the meetings. So there are definitely ways to gauge if your potential builder is organized enough prior to going with them, that will show you if they will be on the ball during the actual building process.

5. Compatibility

Maybe the one factor that you can control and that doesn’t rely on information from or observation of others is how you vibe with your potential builder.

In our case, our builders were European, like us, with similar cultures and traditions and they had young children. So I didn’t have to explain to them the need for a formal dining room, they just knew it had to be there. They knew we needed a finish space in the basement with guest room, play area and a bathroom. They understood the need for at least two freezers, a pantry and a pot filler. They just knew us. And, in turn, we felt like we knew their character as well. All of that “compatibility” was established before we signed the contract.

Signing a custom home build contract is essentially agreeing to being in a professional relationship with a builder for several years. Not only are you working with them to build the house, you also need to know that you can trust them to address any shortfalls once the house is built. You want to make sure you get along with that company before committing.

While I am sure there are much more specific factors that would appeal to each individual, these were the initial ones that we were looking for each time we met with a builder. Feel free to leave a comment or question below if there is anything else you’d like to know about hiring with a custom home builder.

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