Selecting the right builder for your project
Believe it or not you will spend just as much time searching for a builder as you will to find an architect. There are several on-line services that will match home owners with builders in their area. These are helpful in that they pre-screen builders for legal and credit problems and when possible will check licenses, liability insurance, and references. You can also ask friends, Realtors, or your local home builders association for the names of builders in your area. Whatever route you take to get names of builders, you still have to go through the long arduous process of deciding on one that’s right for you.
In your initial phone call, ask the builder what kind of houses he usually builds and what size budget he typically works with. If he says a million dollars and you can spend only a third of that, ask him if he’s comfortable working at a smaller scale. You’re not giving away the ranch at this stage by giving him a ballpark figure of what you can afford and what size house you want to build. If your project is too modest and he’s not interested, you’re saving everyone’s time by learning this at the outset.
When you meet the builder face to face the first thing you need to do is size up the personality mix. You will be working very closely with the person for 6 months to a year and the project will be very stressful at times, so you need to get along. He will have a portfolio of finished projects, similar to the architects. You should look it over very carefully for both style and substance, and consider these questions:
- Does the builder have a variety of styles? If he has only one or two it maybe that he’s not comfortable building anything else. If you want something substantially different, he may be unable to deliver it. If he has worked with a variety of styles he may be very comfortable tackling anything and be willing to build what you want. This is your judgment call.
- What size house does he routinely build? If he’s used to building houses that are 2500 SF or less and you want one that’s 10,000 SF, the detailing and logistics will be different. Ask him how he would handle a difference of this magnitude.
- When you look at the builder’s portfolio ask him how much each house cost. You’ve already given him a ballpark figure of your budget in your first phone call; now ask whether or not he could build something similar for you. You may resist telling him what your true budget is, but if the builder doesn’t know your constraints as well as your goals, he can’t deliver a realistic price or product. It’s a waste of time if the builder develops a project and works up a budget for a house you can’t afford to build.
- When the inevitable cost-per-square-foot question is posed, don’t be surprised at the inevitable response, “it depends”. Square foot prices may range from $200/SF up to $800/SF, all depending on materials & finishes inside & outside the house. The builder should be able to provide some parameters so that you can correlate the house size and the finishes you want with your budget.
- How soon can he start your project? If he says six months, give him credit for being candid, but keep looking if you want to start sooner.
- Does he carry liability insurance that includes errors-and-omissions coverage? This is an important protection for both you and the builder and you should stipulate that an insurance policy be maintained for the duration of the project.
- How many houses does he build at one time? If he says more than three ask him how big his operation is and how many people are working for him. A custom-home project requires keeping track of endless details and scheduling subcontractors and deliveries of materials. If the builder has only a skeleton crew, building more than three houses at a time could mean the builder is stretching himself very thin.
- To get a true comparison among builders, ask each one for a standard specification sheet. It should list brand names, model numbers, and other descriptive information for every material. Note that many items will be listed as “allowances”, meaning that the builder allocates a specified dollar amount in the budget and you select the item yourself. Ask what kind of allowance items you can expect with your budget. Would the ceramic tile be a grade that goes for $4/SF or one that is $20/SF? Would the kitchen cabinets be custom, semi-custom or stock? Which cabinetmaker does he regularly specify?
- Many people find that going through the process of selecting everything can get overwhelming. Does the builder offer help in making selections? Does he accompany you to suppliers?
If you have any promising candidates after your initial meetings, get lists of their former clients, contact several, and arrange to see the builder’s work. Seeing a portfolio is helpful, but seeing a completed house is so much more informative. Be sure to be thorough and ask the following questions:
- Did you like the builder?
- Did your house cost what you expected?
- Were his allowances adequate to get what you wanted?
- Did you feel his costs were adequately monitored throughout the process?
- Did he answer questions promptly?
- Were you able to resolve disputes amicably?
- Was he there everyday to check the job?
- Did he come back to fix things after you moved in? This is an important point because every house will require minor adjustments after completion.
Selecting the right builder is not easy, and should be done carefully. Construction should be fun, but it can also be trying at times. The construction process is an emotional roller coaster, and having the right builder will make it all that much easier to deal with.