Congratulations! You’re taking the first steps toward building your own custom home. You’ve probably been thinking about your dream home for quite a while. Maybe even spent a few late nights perusing Houzz to get ideas. You may have already chosen the perfect lot or sketched out ideas for a floor plan. Wherever you are in this research phase, we are thrilled that you’ve found us. We make it our mission to provide as many helpful resources to people like you who are embarking upon this exciting custom homebuilding journey.
In this post, we hope to make an incredibly important decision a little less daunting for you. Selecting the right custom home builder is absolutely the most impactful decision you will make along the road to your dream home. Choose well and you will have a true partner and advocate. With the right builder you will avoid the all-too-familiar construction horror story and instead end up with a high-quality dream home as well as an enjoyable, smooth, and creatively fulfilling experience for you and your family.
When to choose your builder
The best time to choose your builder is either before you begin the design phase with an architect or very soon after engaging an architect. Bringing a builder on board early in the design phase will ensure that your home’s design and your desired budget stay aligned throughout the process. Actually, a good custom builder will do much more than that during this architectural design phase. They will also:
- Collaborate closely with architect
- Keep plan development on schedule
- Provide unique design ideas
- Produce initial estimate based on preliminary design
- Provide valuable construction expertise & insight
- Offer value-engineering & cost-saving options
- Suggest high-performance home specs
- Mitigate potential constructability issues
Beginning your search
First, you should know that in the state of Texas anyone can be a builder. There are no licenses or certifications required by law here like there are in most other states. Because of this very low barrier to entry, there are hundreds of homebuilders in and around Houston, some better than others.
It’s always best to start your search by talking to friends, family, neighbors, and real estate professionals that you trust for any positive custom builder referrals. Chances are someone you know has heard things about a custom builder or two. Worst case scenario, these conversations may not uncover a stellar builder, but they might help you create a list of builders to AVOID. This is equally valuable.
If conversations with your trusted circle don’t uncover any superstars, turn to the world wide web… with caution. Be specific in your Google searches. Instead of searching for “Houston home builders”, search for “award-winning custom home builders in Memorial” or wherever you hope to build your custom home. Jot down a long list of about a dozen or so builders that you find, being sure NOT to include those with negative reviews or ratings.
Dig deep in your research
Now for the fun part. Time to narrow down your list to your top two or three choices. You will want to do this by digging deep with online research AND by reaching out to them through their website or by phone.
Tip for online research:
- Do as much homework as you can to gauge each builder’s experience, diversity of portfolio, strength of team members, level of quality, organizational ability, values and philosophy, communication style and industry recognition.
Tip for reaching out:
- Either call the builder’s office or submit a “Contact Us” form on their website. The correspondence that follows will give you an initial idea of their team’s responsiveness, professionalism, and willingness to help.
Interview your top 2-3 choices
This will be the most time-consuming part of this process, and also the most crucial. You will want to schedule a face-to-face meeting with each builder as well as request to visit a completed home and current jobsite with them.
The face-to-face meeting will give you the chance to assess:
- Organization, effectiveness, and transparency of their systems and processes
- Strength of their team and relevant experience
- Communication style and personality of the builder and their team
The site visit will give you a chance to assess:
- Quality of construction and finishes in their homes
- Jobsite cleanliness and safety measures
- How knowledgeable and hands-on the builder is with their team’s projects
To make this process a little easier for you, below is a list of questions you may want to consider asking when meeting with your top 2-3 builders:
How closely do you work with my architect and interior designer?
You want a builder who prioritizes a collaborative partnership with your architect and interior designer. This will prevent miscommunications that can lead to unnecessary tension, schedule delays, and extra costs. More importantly, listening to how they approach relationships with your design team will also give you a clue as to how they will approach communication with you.
Do you have experience building the style and quality of the home that I want?
This is extremely important, as each style of home presents unique challenges. You want to feel confident that your builder won’t be trying something new on your project, but instead will be applying a vast catalog of knowledge and lessons learned from similar homes they’ve built in the past.
Can you tell me a bit about your estimating process? How do you make sure your budgets are accurate?
Lots of layers here. Listen to make sure the builder’s estimating process is extremely thorough. Their preliminary estimate will be based on historical hard costs as well as current market pricing, so you want to feel confident in their custom homebuilding experience and expertise. Their detailed budget estimate (completed after plans & specs are finalized) will largely be based on hard bids from vendors and subcontractors in the builder’s network. You want to make sure that multiple bids will be secured from high-quality subcontractors and that those bids will be scrutinized to make sure they are comprehensive. You want to come away knowing that the builder’s team shoots for no holes in their budgets.
How long does it take for you to produce an estimate for my home?
A preliminary estimate can take as little as a week, and a detailed budget estimate can take as long as three weeks. If the builder thinks it will take longer than that, be sure to ask why. You may have a particularly complex home design which would understandably take longer than three weeks to estimate, or they may be overloaded which could be a red flag that your project won’t get adequate attention if you choose them as your builder.
How are you compensated for your pre-construction services?
High-end custom builders who dig deep during the pre-construction phase know just how time-consuming this endeavor is with each potential client. Really good builders will spend hours pouring over your architectural plans to identify potential cost-saving opportunities, constructability issues, and design modifications that could enhance your home. Then they will spend more hours soliciting and scrutinizing dozens of hard bids from trades to build a thorough and accurate budget. Given this time investment, it is typical for really strong builders to be compensated for their pre-construction services. You can get a variety of answers to this question; the important thing is that you feel comfortable with the compensation the builder asks for and with how they explain their role in the pre-construction process for your project.
Who will be assigned to my project, and how often will my project be under direct supervision?
If you’re early in the design phase, it’s unlikely that the builder will be able to tell you for sure who will be assigned to your project when construction finally begins months from now. Instead, you’ll hopefully learn two things from their answer:
- What each of their project teams look like (Construction manager only? Construction manager and project manager? What kind of in-office support does each project team get?)
- How heavily their project teams are loaded up at any given time (We’re talking about complex high-quality custom homes, so your project should be under direct supervision either every day or every other day.)
How will questions and concerns be addressed during construction?
Looking for a “good fit” here. Hiccups are inevitable in construction. You want to make sure that you like the builder’s communication style and that you trust the builder will value your opinions and concerns throughout construction. Bonus points if the builder tells you their team will establish a regular meeting schedule with you, your design team, and their subcontractors. This shows that they value organization, accountability, communication and efficiency.
How do you qualify the capability of the subcontractors that will work on my home?
Try to gauge how familiar the builder is with their current sub base. Have they built lasting relationships with Houston’s high-quality subs? Do they thoroughly vet any new subs before putting them on one of their projects?
In the event there are changes to the design or unforeseen conditions that result in extra cost, what does that process look like?
For high-end custom homes, it is extremely likely that you will encounter a change order due to the complexity of these projects. You want to know that when you want to make a change, they have a system in place for documenting changes, presenting costs and options to you, getting your approval, and efficiently implementing those changes.
How long do you anticipate the construction of this project will take? How do you mitigate challenges to stay on schedule during construction?
This answer will vary depending on the size and complexity of your home’s design. A custom home can take anywhere between 8 months to over 24 months. What you also want to know is how organized the builder’s systems and processes are, how experienced their team is, how diligent they are about updating your project’s schedule regularly, and how proactive they are at anticipating and solving problems before they arise.
Do you offer fixed-price or cost-plus contracts?
Hopefully, the home builder you are interviewing allows you the flexibility to choose the contract type that you feel most comfortable with. They should thoroughly and patiently explain both options to you as well as present the pros and cons of each so that you can feel good about whichever option you choose.
Can you give me examples of specific building materials you prefer to use and why?
This question is your window into two things: how deep their knowledge and expertise runs when it comes to building high-end homes, and also what level of quality represents their minimum standard. Ask follow-up questions, not to become an expert yourself, but to feel comfortable with how patiently and thoroughly they communicate themselves as the expert.
How do you service warranty issues after we move-in?
Right answer: quickly and thoroughly with minimal headaches and intrusions for you!
Can you provide me with a sample contract, budget, schedule and warranty?
The builder may not have these resources available at the time of your meeting, but they should be able to get them to you soon after.
Can you provide me with a few references, preferably one past client and one current client?
This shouldn’t be a problem for the builder. They may have to contact their homeowners to get permission first, but any other hesitation from the builder may be a red flag.
Try not to skip this step… no matter how tempted you might be. It’s a given that the references will be clients who had a positive experience with the builder, but these conversations can be helpful in getting a feel for what the builder’s specific strengths and weaknesses are.
Questions to ask references:
- Did you enjoy working with this builder?
- What would you say are their strengths?
- Was your project finished on time? If not, what were the reasons for delays?
- Did the builder communicate the schedule clearly?
- Did the builder ask for decisions in a timely manner?
- Did you feel your original budget estimate was thorough?
- Did the project finish on budget? What were the reasons for overages?
- Were your projects finances clear and transparent?
- How did the builder react in stressful situations?
- What role did the builder take once the project began?
- Who specifically worked on your project? Who would you request if you were building again?
- Was the project clean and organized?
- Were their certain subcontractors on your project that you would strongly recommend or avoid?
- How has the builder responded to warranty issues since you moved in?
- If you were building another home, would you choose this builder again?
If you have any additional questions about this step in your custom homebuilding journey, please feel free to reach out to our team. Happy hunting!