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First meeting with builder - what to ask?

December 25, 2009

Hello, I tried searching this forum to see if this question has been asked before, but I didn't find anything. Forgive me if this is redundant.

My husband and I are considering building a home, but the neighbor we would like to build in requires that we use one of their 4 custom home builders. I've never done this before, so I'm wondering what I need to ask each builder.

My main question is, of course, what his price per square foot is. However, if that number is higher than we would like, is it reasonable to ask that we try to figure out what can be cut out in order to lower the price?

We are not particularly fancy people, so we don't need super high-end finishes. I imagine that most custom home builders work with people who have more money than we do and who would like and can afford the very high-end finishes that make a home "custom." The only reason we are looking at a custom home builder is to get into a particular neighborhood. The outside of our home would be similar to the others in the neighborhood, but the inside would be more simple (i.e. no marble columns in the bathroom, no wine cellars, no custom sized windows, etc.).

Is it reasonable to ask a custom home builder to do that in order to keep the cost down?

Comments (17)

  • creek_side

    A lot of custom home builders are short on work, so you may be able hire one that otherwise would not be available to build a modest home.

    Don't ask for a price per square foot. It is a misleading and meaningless measure. Instead, talk to the builder about what you want and do not want. Don't be apologetic because you don't see yourselves as high end clients. Do be specific about the quality levels you expect.

    If you like the builder, be prepared to give him a full set of your plans and specifications. You should already have had extras made. Request a proposal from him. He should come back with something fairly detailed in a week or so, depending on how busy he is.

    You should do the same thing with at least two other builders. Once you have all their proposals in hand, you can sit down with the builder whose proposal strikes you as the best and work out a detailed contract. If you can agree on the contract details, you proceed from there.

  • macv

    It is important to ask about cost and scope of the work regarding finishes but remember that cost per s.f. is only useful in early discussions and means very little. If you know the approximate area and the price you can afford, the contractor might be able to show you appropriate examples and then be able to determine what kind of finishes you want. It is always wise to ask what is included in the total price (site improvements, basement, permit fees, etc.)

    It is important to determine up front what kind of contract the builder wants to use (assuming he will be writing it). Will it be a Cost of the Work with a Fixed Fee contract or a Fixed price contract. Who will design the project and what input will you have? Will there be a full set of drawings and specifications or will there be allowances? If there are change orders (including allowance buyouts) will there be markups applied and how much? Who will the subcontractors be and what choices for suppliers do you have for the allowance materials (hopefully there will be no labor included in the allowances).

    Get a list of references and check them out carefully. The attitude of the builder is very important.

  • cedar32

    I met with/interviewed/talked with about a dozen builders before I chose the one I eventually signed a contract with. Now that I look back on "the process", a lot of the it had to do with personal chemistry. And my gut feeling has paid off. Our build has had some issues that are not uncommon with building a house. Our contractor has stepped up to the plate and has really taken responsibility and resolved what needed to be taken care of. You should feel comfortable with the builder's business ethic, experience, design sense, who his subs are that he/she uses, etc.. I found it not an easy thing to pick a contractor, but I'd say you should feel totally comfortable with who you do choose.

  • sierraeast

    I'd be leary of having to choose one of four builders in a neighborhood because it is "required" you use one of the four. It's one of the biggest investments you will make and you should freely be able to interview as many builders possible in order to find the one that fits your budget and wants in a build and is willing to work with you on that. A builder that you are comfortable with that has a fine reputation checked out in depth by you with your research.

  • scrapulous

    Thank you everyone! A lot of good advice here. I do agree that I wish I could choose whatever builder I want, but I like the neighborhood enough to deal with that. They want the neighborhood to be cohesive, so there are a lot of supplements to the deed restrictions, but they are all things I agree with, so I'm okay with that, too.

  • creek_side

    Watch out for extra fees. Some of these developments charge a fee to the builder. It will come out of your pockets if they do.

  • alabamanicole

    Consider getting a copy of "What Your Contractor Can't Tell You," which has a lot of good info on the building process and items to watch out for.

  • macv

    That book was cheaper when it was published under the title "What the experts may NOT tell you about ... Building or Renovating Your Home".

    Here is a link that might be useful: book by Amy Johnston

  • adellabedella_usa

    Our approach may be a little different, but this is what we did to find our builder. Maybe it'll give you an idea of more questions to ask.

    Before we even visited with a builder, something we did was to go around and visit all of the spec homes that were on the market in our desired neighborhood. We just went around looking at design and quality of workmanship. We also had some bad weather come through and so then we drove out the next day to see what lots/roads (if any) were flooding.

    When we finally got around to interviewing builders, we asked questions about the neighborhood and what they would suggest for building on certain lots. For us, it was kind of telling that certain builders would just go ahead and build on certain lots. Some suggested bringing in a lot of fill which we didn't like. The builder we finally went with admitted that he didn't want to build on those lots because he thought they were too low and flooding would be an issue. Since, we had also gone through the spec houses previously, we had already scoped out potential problems. Our builder had gone back around and touched up paint drips and little things that didn't look right. (No house is 100% perfect.) One builder 'just noticed' a board that had been pulled off for over two weeks. This guy also built several houses over a one year period while the builder we went with only builds a few houses a year. We wanted someone who cared about the quality of his work.

    We also looked at functionality of the houses we went into. It's true that all of the builders can take a plan and build it, but we wanted someone who could look at a plan and would help us make changes because something didn't work right. For instance, if you have doors banging into each other or a 'dead' room, it's nice to get it corrected before the walls go up and you get to pay the price of a 'change order' or have to live the results.

    We showed up with a general house cost we were willing to pay. We detailed quality of finishes as compared to the spec house to see if the builder was able to build a house within the price range we were able to pay. We ended up on the lower price end of what our builder normally builds, but we haven't ended up with an inferior house. We've made sure that our house has good design. We'll upgrade finishes later if we decide we want it. Some of the common upgraded finishes really aren't functional within our daily lives. For instance, I have three elementary age kids. My kids would totally ruin a faux paint finish in the first month. It's popular in my neighborhood for bathrooms to have river rock pebbles in the showers. I am not a maid and I have no desire to clean soap scum out of the grout so we went with the easier cleaning options. When you're visiting houses with a game room upstairs, send the kids upstairs to play. See if the tromping of little feet over your head annoys you. Many of the houses in our neighborhood look like castles. We don't want or need a castle. All we really want/need is a ranch style house. We started with a box and had a designer add a few things to the exterior to make it look like we belonged in the neighborhood. The result is actually nice. We have a lot of people driving by and taking pictures of our house. I don't think in this economy that you'll have a problem finding a builder willing to go more simplistic in style. You're money coming in and if they want business, they'll work with that.

  • athensmomof3

    Going through the spec houses is a good idea and note which builder built which one. We came close to building in a neighborhood with "required builders". There was one builder who was clearly building a nicer house (at least to us) than the others - and when we talked to the builder who owned the lot we wanted to build on, lots of these things the other guy was including in his base house he considered "upgrades" and charged accordingly (such as nicer trim on coffered ceiling, more substantial crown moulding, taller baseboards, simulated divided light windows instead of snap in grills, etc.). Interestingly, the spec houses were not priced differently - just one builder built a nicer house (the other builder we decided not to use because we did not like him at all and he has since declared bankruptcy and gone through several name changes).

    Also, see how long they have been building houses under that name. Some builders change their company names like they change their clothing - a bad sign.

  • Brent B

    Really know what you want before talking to builders.

    There are so many options to include that could be more costly to do after the build; IE, outlets in soffits for X-mas lights, heat loops if necessary, more plug ins throughout the home,, wider/deeper garage, hose bibs, in-ground sprinklers, facing south/west, landscaped or not, ceiling heights, extra wiring for music/tv/computer, etc.

    Cost per square foot doesn't tell you much. The cost of a more exspensive carpet or roof can drive up the per square foot price and a miriad of other things as well.

    It's important for both, husband and wife to be on the same page, so that there are not as many grey areas to discuss and discover.

    Good luck!

  • scrapulous

    Thank you all so much! You've given me a lot to think about.

  • macv

    Increasing the cost of a carpet in a room or the roofing might seem like a lot of money but it might only raise the s.f. price of the whole house by 50¢ since the installation cost might be the same. What is as important as the cost of finishes is the area over which they are applied and more costly installation requirements.

  • Kathy Beebe

    "That book was cheaper when it was published under the title 'What the experts may NOT tell you about ... Building or Renovating Your Home'."


    Great book.

  • Brent B

    $0.50(?), I doubt it.

    Go from spec carpet to wool wall to wall, or from asphalt shingle 10 year to a cement 50 year roof.

    Come on, yer avoiding the ops qquestion, and my point.

  • macv

    I hear outlets in soffits for X-mas lights and hose bibbs are important to get a handle on at the first meeting too.

  • adellabedella_usa

    Well...Gardenweb had to restore yesterday's files so a lot of messages have been lost. I'll repost this suggestion.

    This isn't necessarily for your first visit with a builder. I would recommend getting a three ring binder to keep all your ideas in. Drive by houses and take pictures of the parts that interest you. Take pictures of entrances, brick, rock, or whatever you think that you want. Make a note of the address so if there is something like a particular brick you want, your builder can drive by and find out what it is later. When you tour homes, take pictures or sketch features, layouts, or other things you might like. A visual will help you and your builder.

    We were lucky that we liked the core design and layout(foyer/living room/kitchen/dining area) of our builder's spec home. We flipped and modified that area to fit our needs by changing room dimensions, room heights, walls, etc. Then we added the bedrooms and other configurations we wanted.

    This wasn't our first step or our first visit, but we went around the spec home with the builder and noted what what finishes, flooring, etc., that we wanted in our new house. Some things we downgraded like the paint, trim, and granite in the laundry room. Some things we upgraded like the hardwood floors in the living room instead of carpet. We tried to think about as much as we could before we went into contract. It helped us get and keep the cost closer to where we wanted it.

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