How to Select a Custom Home Builder

Custom built rancher style home with wooden gable detailing, a triple attached garage and perennial garden in front of the house

When you decide to build your dream home, the first step is to find a builder. Sounds simple, right?!? You start talking to friends, family and colleagues only to hear the horror stories that they (or someone they know) have gone through. You decide to mitigate the hearsay and hop online to do your own research. What do you search for? How do you know that what their website says will be the truth? How will you know if you have the right chemistry with the builder and that they will understand your wants and needs? This once simple search has now become complicated.

To add complexity to this decision, working with your builder is a 2-3 year relationship when you factor in the design stage, the building stage and then the one year new home warranty after occupancy. Furthermore, this will be  one of the biggest investments of your life. No pressure- ha! 

Do not fret! In this article, we will offer you some simple tips to finding the right builder for you, your family, your budget and your dream custom home.

Before you dive deep into the searching process, we recommend you get yourself prepared first.

Get Your Ducks in a Row

  • Be Financially Prepared
    • What is your budget (comfortable vs max), we suggest that you have a little extra buffer planned for so that you can upgrade along the way or have some funds left over for new furniture and window coverings.
    • Get pre-approval from your bank.
    • Determine if you are approved for builders draw financing or a traditional completion mortgage (this will be one of the first questions a builder will ask you).

Mentally Prep

  • This is likely to be a long process, so be prepared to endure and enjoy the  journey!
  • You will need extra time in your schedule to meet with your builder, designer and suppliers, so anticipating that at the get go will eliminate the feeling of overwhelm.

When Do You Choose a Builder?

You want to choose your builder right at the start of designing your home with an architect or draftsperson. By engaging with a builder at the early stage of designing your home, they will be able to help keep you on budget right from the beginning. Too often people will over design and then realize that they are way over the price that they want to be. Your builder should have a pulse on the current cost of materials and assist you with achieving your top goals without breaking your budget.

Now that your ducks are in a row, you are ready to find your builder.

The First Step: Make a List 

Make a list of potential builders. Do an internet search for local builders. Talk to your realtor. Talk to friends, family and work colleagues. Look for signs in the community where you are planning to build. Ask your architect or drafting person for a referral.

The Second Step: Review their portfolio of past projects 

With the world of technology, photos, video, drones and gimbals it is very easy to see the work of your desired builder(s). Look at their website and their social media- this will also ensure that their style and building techniques meet your vision. If you see something you like, we suggest contacting them directly for more photos, videos and project details, as often only a small portion of their photos are posted to the public.

The Third Step: Interview Your Top Builder Choices

Meet Face-to-Face

Once you have narrowed down your top 2-3 picks, we suggest setting up an in person meeting. The face-to-face meeting will give you the chance to assess their organization, effectiveness, and transparency of their systems and processes. It will also allow you to assess the strength of their team and their communication style and personality of the builder and their team. You may arrange this at their office or at one of their job sites, we actually prefer the latter as you will immediately see the real deal. An on site meeting will give you a sneak peek into the quality of construction and finishes in their homes, jobsite cleanliness and safety measures, how knowledgeable and hands-on the builder is with their projects and also how they interact with their sub trades.

Here are some questions that can help you figure out if the builder you are interviewing is a good match for you.

  • What makes you different from other home builders?
  • What personalization options are available to me?
  • What is the design process like?
  • Roughly how much is it going to cost to buy or build?
  • What features or products are included in the cost and which are additional?
  • What is your building process like?
  • Can I see homes or photos of homes that are similar to the style I am looking for?
  • How many site visits do we get with you and your team?

The Fourth Step: Request references from past clients

Once you narrow down your search to 2 or 3 builders, we suggest asking for some references from their past and present clients. This step may actually provide you with everything you need to know to proceed with a partnership with a builder. 

Here are some questions you can ask a potential reference:

  1. How was your experience working with the builder?
  2. Were they able to deliver on budget?
  3. Did they meet your desired timelines for completion?
  4. Are you happy with the quality of the end product?
  5. Did you receive all of the right advice at the right time?
  6. How was their communication with you? Prompt? Positive? 
  7. Are you happy with your home?
  8. Were any problems or mistakes fixed promptly and properly?
  9. Would you build with this builder again?
  10. When something goes wrong with a stage of construction, how do you go about fixing it?

Usually, people tell you if they are happy with their homes. And if they are not, they’ll probably want to tell you why. Some past clients may allow you to view their home (although in our opinion, that’s a big ask of someone you do not know, but you can feel it out). At the very least, drive by and see if the exterior of the homes are visually appealing.

Attention to Detail

Noticing a builders’ attention to detail is something you will be assessing from the get go. Do they care about the quality of materials that they are putting into your home? Quality over ‘bling’ will ensure that your home ages gracefully for years to come. Do they use solid fir tongue and groove plywood rather than OSB for the floor systems? This material choice (which does cost more) will be the most sturdy base for your flooring selection (hardwood, tile, luxury vinyl plank, etc.) and help eliminate squeaking or creaking floors in the future.

As mentioned earlier, seeing an active building site will allow you to see behind the scenes for only for organization and cleanliness but also the materials being used behind the finished drywall.

Pricing

Here’s a hot tip- don’t ask a custom home builder for a firm price per square foot. While it may seem like a common question to ask, it is actually completely irrelevant to a custom built home. This method of pricing does not take into account size of kitchen, quality of cabinetry, number of bathrooms (which are more to finish than a bedroom), lighting allowances (which are generally larger for custom homes) or intricate finishing details. Another way to phrase this question is to ask for a ballpark price range of a home the similar size and finish to what you are looking for.

Review Their Contract 

You can ask to review one of their standard building contracts and this will let you know how they handle things such as Change Orders and Specifications. Keep in mind that contracts are in place to protect both you and your builder. For example at the planning stage with the draftsperson, we believe that multiple changes are okay so that the plans are 100% correct before building commences. If a builder is going to charge for every drafting change along the way, this is a warning sign to you as the client. Another aspect to look for is if applicable taxes are in the total price or added on at the final closing. If unplanned for, this could be a big surprise at the end of your build.

Personality & Communication

Communication is key to every successful relationship and we all have our desired ways to communicate. Do you prefer texting over email? Are you a phone person who likes to talk things out? Do you need to look someone in the eyes on a regular basis and have an in person meeting? What are your expectations for a response from professional relationships? Instant, 1-2 hours, within 24 hours or once a week? You will learn early on what kind of a communicator your builder is and if it’s in line with how you communicate. This is one of the key aspects to a successful relationship and in turn a successful custom build.

New Home Warranty 

The New Home Warranty is in place in the event that you and your builder can not resolve any issues directly. A couple things to look for are the builder’s track record of unresolved repairs and how many years have they been in business? Ultimately, you should never have to use this program as you will have a positive relationship with your builder BUT if you do need to use it, you will be happy it’s in place. It’s also a critical component to securing your bank financing. 

Local is the New Organic 

Choosing a builder that knows the area you are in is also something to consider. Are their trades also local? This is important as then they do not have as far to drive, especially during inclement weather and icy winter roads. We also love builders that support local suppliers as that helps to boost your local economy. 

*Red Flags to Watch For*

Here are a few red flags to watch when speaking with a potential builder:

  • Require large deposits up front
  • Not current with permitting processes
  • Uses high pressure sales tactics
  • Provides an unreasonably low quote
  • Does not provide a contract for you to sign
  • Unwilling to provide client references
  • Are unable to tell you about challenges they’ve had in the past and told you how they were able to fix things

Just remember that the best decisions are usually made with your gut … so GO WITH YOUR GUT when choosing the best builder for your project.

Embarking on the journey to custom build a home is very much a joint partnership between you and your builder. If you let go of who is working for who and enter this with equality, magic will happen. This is not to say that there will not be bumps along the way. If you consider that there are over 30 trades required to build a home, all of which are human, there WILL be human mistakes that happen. Here’s the thing, pretty much EVERY mistake can be fixed so it’s your job, as the client, to maintain your cool, be calm, and communicate in a positive and respectful way.

Wishing you success on your new, custom home venture!

New kitchen at Spring Lake Ranch featuring an island with a white granite countertop, a wet back with a black granite countertop, a gold pot filler over the stove and an oversized stainless steel side-by-side fridge/freezer

Spring Lake Ranch  has a few remaining lots for sale, which you can find here. Custom builds can be done with any builder of your choosing. Until June 30th, 2024 there is special vendor financing available for all lots being sold by Spring Lake Ranch. Click here for more details.

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Sarah Corker

Sarah has been designing homes for more than 15 years, specializing in custom homes in Edmonton, Alberta and surrounding areas. She loves collaborating with her clients to build stunning, yet functional homes that will age gracefully as design trends come and go. She loves working with natural materials, such as rock and wood and then coupling them with modern building technology and design.

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