How professional builders create a healthy indoor environment.
If you have concerns about how healthy your new home will be, you’re not alone.
In a 2021 survey of 551 American homeowners commissioned by York (a manufacturer of home heating and cooling systems) 62% of respondents said their home’s indoor air quality needed improvement. And in this group, 81% intended to make those improvements over the next 12 months.
These results come as no surprise when you consider recent events. During a presentation at a 2021 industry conference, the developer of a leading healthy home rating system described COVID-19 as a “trigger point.” He believes the pandemic will be to indoor air quality what the energy crisis of the 1970s was to energy efficient housing—an event that caused the building industry to start taking the problem seriously and devising ways to solve it.
Fortunately, the best professional builders already take their customers’ health seriously. They spend time educating themselves on indoor air quality. And they help their customers choose healthy products.
Knowledge and experience
How does a person determine if a product is, indeed, a good choice? Manufacturers can enroll in certification programs offered by government agencies and industry groups, and products that meet the program’s criteria can be labeled as healthy. But while certifications are a good starting point, they don’t tell the whole story, and some homeowners worry that manufacturers might game the system.
That’s why experienced builders make it a point to test manufacturers’ claims. An oft-cited industry quip notes that it’s bad business to make your customers sick, which is why pros keep careful records about customer satisfaction and analyze that data to confirm which products won’t contribute to health problems.
Professional builders also install high-quality mechanical systems. Today’s building codes require a tightly built, energy-efficient home, which makes high-quality ventilation equipment essential. In fact, a tight home with good ventilation will have better air quality than an old, drafty one because it gives the mechanical system more control over the indoor environment. The pro will work with the HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) contractor to make sure the home’s ventilation equipment will replace stale interior air with fresh outside air at a predictable rate.
Hidden health factors
Material choice and ventilation play obvious roles in indoor air quality, but two other factors are also important: the heating/cooling system and the ductwork.
Heating and cooling equipment that’s properly sized, with carefully installed ductwork, will use less energy and deliver better air quality. For instance, while an oversized air conditioner will keep the home cool on a muggy summer day, it won’t remove enough humidity. And ducts with leaky transitions that run through an unconditioned basement, attic or garage can draw mold, insulation fibers or chemical fumes into the living space.
The professional builder’s HVAC contractor will use the latest software to match the mechanical system to your new home’s heating and cooling needs. That includes making sure the system is correctly sized with properly sealed ducts.
The bottom line is that a new custom home is an opportunity to create a healthy indoor environment. The smart homeowner will choose a professional builder with a track record of making sure this happens.
On time, on budget, and exceeding customer expectations starts with a thorough preconstruction plan.
To finish a complex project on time and on budget, the professional builder must have a thoughtful, thorough and well-developed preconstruction planning process. It can feel like a slow way to start, but the time spent upfront pays off in more ways than some homeowners realize.
Despite its importance, planning is one of those success factors that gets too little credit. Most homeowners understand that the builder must complete the house on paper before breaking ground, but not all of them realize the full extent of the advance preparation work involved. This work goes well beyond blueprints.
For a custom home project to come off without major problems, the builder must plan every detail and activity for every stage of the project—right to the day in many cases. The builder has to put supplies in place at the right times, have workers ready to go when needed, and create contingencies for weather and other obstacles. The more detailed the plan, the more streamlined the project effort.
The scope of this build-out plan can be staggering because of the sheer number of details that need to be tracked. New homes include thousands of assemblies, colors, components, finishes, and model numbers. The absence or presence of specific words in the plans and specifications can dramatically change estimated costs, finished appearances, and scheduling. Calculating and determining correct quantities, costs, and delivery times for all these items demands real organization. A decision
made today will determine whether the right personnel and materials are on the job three months from now.
Another element of the plan addresses bureaucratic entities such as building departments and architectural review boards – their rules have to be taken into account during every step of the project, and a good plan includes all the deadlines and requirements.
Then there are communication issues. Building a new home has much in common with a relay race, where the baton gets passed between participants at key points. The most crucial of those happen during the planning phase, when a lot of information has to be passed intact from the salesperson (if one), to the designer, to the project manager, to the estimator, to the construction supervisor, etc.. A proven management system is needed to ensure that these transfers happen smoothly and accurately.
Someone on the builder’s staff must also make sure that key details are communicated to all members of the project team—homeowners, architect, interior designer, project manager, trade contractors and material suppliers —at the right time. This person must also make sure that everyone on the team understands their own, and everyone else’s, responsibilities.
A project with this type of detailed plan stands a much better chance to come in on time, on budget, and with minimal stress. The builder can ensure the best possible outcome for the homeowners by taking the time up front to think through and record decisions, establish workflow and detailed schedules, account for permitting, and plan for communication and contingencies,. The ultimate benefit of a good plan is a finished home that reflects the vision of the homeowners, and a sense of pride and satisfaction for all who had a hand in building it.
You can get more for your money by not starting with that question.
Whether it’s a $7 million custom home or a $70,000 kitchen remodel, no one wants to pay more than they have to. So it’s no surprise that the first question many people have for their architect, interior designer or builder is about cost.
That’s not a good starting point for getting the best house for the money.
The final project cost will depend on numerous factors, but that’s an obvious statement and not very helpful. A custom home is a wildly complex undertaking, and you need a builder with a process designed to tame that complexity. The process is one of discovery, in which each step reveals more about the project details and pricing. It’s a team effort where various pros collaborate with one another as well as with the homeowner.
The first step in most custom home projects is for the architect to generate a big-picture design concept that in theory can be built with the homeowner’s stated budget. We say in theory because this initial design-budget match is an educated guess and seldom accurate. The builder’s team—which can include the builder, interior designers, engineers and various trade contractors—will drill down into the details, while working closely with the homeowners on the tradeoffs needed to make the numbers work.
This discovery process gets repeated for every part of the house. Let’s illustrate with a kitchen example. We’ve heard homeowners begin the conversation about this space with something like “we want a big island with 10 chairs.” But that description also represents the idea of an eat-in kitchen where people can easily interact with one another. Although a good builder-designer team will consider the island, they will also look for alternate ways to meet the homeowners’ underlying goal, often at less cost.
This is called value engineering, and it can free up money for other features that make the kitchen a happier place, such as better lighting, storage or even some artwork. The builder’s team will repeat this process for other parts of the home.
This process of designing and costing can be creative and exciting, but it can also require tough decisions. Even with the best value engineering, chances are that, once you’ve made all your design and product choices, the final budget will still be more than you originally expected, especially in an inflationary economy where product prices change daily. That’s why your initial stated budget number should be less than your available resources. A reserve equaling around 20% is sufficient for most projects.
This gap between initial vision and final reality is also why square-foot estimating doesn’t work. Homeowners naturally think that square-foot prices are the norm because they’re available everywhere. You can get them from magazines, from realtors and even from some builders, but the truth is that they’re misleading. Square-foot prices assume a hypothetical “average” project, and average is not what you want in your new custom home.
Instead, you want a unique home that you love, and that can be built for the best possible price. The only way to get those results is to work with a professional builder’s team using the discovery process outlined above. Yes, that process will take effort and include moments of uncertainty, but you will end up with something perfectly suited to your needs. And you will have had a hand in creating it.
A smart maintenance schedule will help keep a new home healthy and good-looking for years to come.
If low maintenance is a priority, then having a new home built is a great choice. In a study by the National Association of Homebuilders, 73 percent of new homeowners reported average monthly maintenance expenses just one-fourth (25 percent) of those reported by owners of older homes. But while it’s relatively affordable to keep a new home in good working condition, proper maintenance is critical.
A new custom home will have a tightly sealed building shell. This reduces heating and cooling bills and helps the furnace and air conditioner maintain more even temperatures all year. With fewer unwanted drafts, it’s also easier for the mechanical systems to maintain ideal relative humidity (RH) levels in the home—30 to 45 percent in winter and 45 to 50 percent in summer.
Of course, the mechanicals will do a much better job of delivering these benefits if they’re well-tuned. A good ventilation system will keep the home’s air healthy, but its filters need to be kept clean, as do those in the heating and air conditioning units. It’s also a good idea to periodically clean the ductwork. (The National Duct Cleaners Association recommends a cleaning every five years, but frequency depends on factors that include homeowners’ sensitivities, the number of pets, and the surrounding environment.)
But even people who obsessively change their car’s oil on schedule may neglect these tasks. For instance, it’s not uncommon for a furnace to develop problems if the air filter hasn’t been changed for a long time. The service company shows up only to find that the motor overheated because the filter is clogged and the system can’t breathe. Fortunately, such problems are entirely avoidable: keeping your new mechanicals in good condition is a simple matter of working with your builder to develop a cost-effective maintenance schedule, and then setting reminders in your schedule to get the needed tasks done.
An added benefit from properly functioning mechanicals is that they will keep the home looking good for many years. That strip flooring is beautiful when first installed, but it could eventually swell if the indoor air is damp, while other wood products shrink if the air stays too dry for too long. (According to a leading website for finish carpenters, relative humidity in older homes can range from 25 to 65 percent in some parts of the country, a swing that can make a 12-inch maple board expand and contract by up to 1/4 inch.)
In short, regular maintenance of your home’s mechanical systems will help ensure a healthier, more comfortable space and a lower long-term cost of upkeep. Many product warranties also require regular maintenance. This is true for any home, old or new, but it’s especially important for today’s high-performance custom homes.
The specifics of the maintenance program will vary with the type of mechanical equipment as well as with the climate where the home located. Maintenance needs are usually covered in the final orientation, but homeowners who have additional questions about how to maintain a particular product or piece of equipment should ask their professional builder.
Home shows don’t reflect the reality of building a new home.
Who doesn’t love a good drama, especially one they can imagine themselves a part of? With that in mind, it’s no surprise that home and garden shows enjoy loyal viewership, and that HGTV has earned a spot as one of the top ten cable networks. It’s great fun to curl up on the couch and follow the excitement of a home being built or renovated, of obstacles being overcome, and of a happy couple swelling with pride at the project’s completion.
The only problem is that some people let their homebuilding expectations be influenced by what is, in reality, a scripted drama driven by product advertisers. And while no one would admit to falling under this spell, the influence can be both subtle and pervasive.
Take the example of schedules. In TV land, problems with building permits always get solved by airtime, and you rarely see major delays from bad weather or from special orders that were botched by the distributor. In fact, the timetable for a typical TV project can be as different from that of a real home build as the prep time for a microwave dinner is from that of a gourmet meal. (Outcomes will likely differ, too.) Intellectually this is a no-brainer, but if someone watches enough projects being finished in a weekend, they could be emotionally set up to think instant gratification is possible.
Even with guaranteed sunshine and 100 skilled tradespeople working 24/7 to rush the project to completion, what kind of quality do you think you are going to get? Contrast that to the professional builder, who creates a detailed construction timetable that gives all the trades sufficient time to do top-quality work without tripping over one another.
The difference in timetables is really a difference in priorities and mindset. The show producer has to meet a shoot schedule; the builder has to take the time needed to create a home that will satisfy the clients for many years to come.
Then there’s the budget. From what we have seen, the costs on a TV project seldom reflect the actual labor, overhead, and product costs builders have to grapple with. Given these shows’ large audience, some manufacturers pay to get their products on screen. Others may discount the price or loan a product during filming then take it back later. These deals are seldom disclosed.
Not only that, the experience of watching enough $5000 professional-style ranges being installed can make a homeowner feel cheated if they’re denied one—even if the budget will only support one half that price.
The bottom line is that the producers of these shows are under pressure to create dramatic tension and to keep advertisers and product sponsors happy. They’re not looking at your budget and they are not thinking about your ultimate satisfaction. A professional builder—someone who has real skin in your game—is focused on both.
None of this is meant to slam the producers of these shows, who no doubt try to serve viewers by showing what’s possible in an entertaining way. So watch and enjoy—you may even pick up some useful decorating tips. Just remember that it’s entertainment.
These important team members help create safe, comfortable spaces that are perfectly tailored to your needs
Homeowners sometimes ask what, exactly, interior designers bring to the table. It’s a valid question. You’ve lived in homes all your life and know what you like, so choosing products, colors and layouts shouldn’t be complicated, right?
The answer is that highly skilled designers—those who work with professional builders—have tricks up their sleeves to make your home attractive and easy to use in ways that fit your budget. It’s the kind of insight one earns from completing hundreds of projects.
The work of an experienced custom designer differs from what you see in the common tract home, where every room is configured for a hypothetical average homeowner, and little deep thought is given to things like intelligent storage, tailored lighting, and high-end finishes.
To begin, a custom designer will ask detailed questions about your tastes and lifestyle. What did you like and dislike about past homes? Which colors made you feel good and which ones didn’t? How much TV do you watch and where? What is your day-to-day family life like? Your answers will help the designer decide what suggestions to make.
This process will include every room in the house, but let’s focus on the kitchen. The designer will ask what features in past kitchens you appreciated or found frustrating. Perhaps you loved your island bar but always wished for more space in front of the microwave. Or maybe you cursed the spice containers that cluttered the countertop. Write down as many things as you can think of before the first meeting.
The designer will also discuss how you prep and cook food, and for whom. A working couple that mostly eats out will have different needs than a family with kids who invite friends over for dinner a lot. A dedicated baker who loves to roll dough may want a different work surface than someone for whom a complex meal is bacon and eggs.
When it comes to surfaces, appliances, fixtures, and cabinets, the designer will know which ones stand the test of time, and which manufacturers honor their warranties.
Here, as in other rooms, the designer will also help you choose an aesthetic. As someone who follows the latest trends, styles and colors, your designer can suggest choices that bring all the elements together.
The key word in all of this is you. The designer won’t tell you what you need, but rather will suggest options and help you navigate choices. The guiding light is your specific needs and tastes.
At the same time, the designer will make sure that the finished spaces follow best practices, including layouts that are safe and comfortable to use. The designer will also draw the elevations of finish items such as tile work and cabinetry as the associated technical details that the workers need to do a proper installation.
Good design is about making sure all the parts of your new home work in harmony and support your lifestyle. You only achieve those results by making lots of good choices, and most people will profit from the advice of someone who knows which choices tend to support your vision of your custom home. In fact, we find that the people who are happiest with their homes are those who work closely with interior design pros.
Installed costs vary greatly from product to product, but the builder can help manage them
Cost control is top-of-mind for anyone building a custom home these days. That includes keeping final product costs as close to the estimate as possible.
With this in mind, some homeowners browse at design centers and box stores, then come to the builder with lists of products they have chosen, along with prices. The problem is that those prices lack context.
That’s because the price isn’t the whole story—installed costs can vary greatly. To accurately predict those all-in costs, you need to have installed a lot of products. That’s why working closely with the builder’s team on product choices can save time, money, and anxiety.
Let’s illustrate the point with a few examples of surprising installation costs.
Take the bathroom faucet. Let’s say you have been eyeing a $250 deck-mounted faucet but then see a wall-mounted one with a similar price tag. It’s likely the wall mount will require the plumber to make more trips to the house—trips you’ll have to pay for. That may not be a problem, but it’s something you want to know about ahead of time.
Or maybe you opt for a freestanding tub instead of the standard tub you had originally chosen. Some freestanding models require exposed plumbing that looks really good. And if the tub is on raised feet, the tile will have to extend under it. The builder’s team can help you choose a tub that may not have those potential cost issues.
In the kitchen you may decide you want a porcelain farmhouse sink rather than a stainless-steel sink. Although the farmhouse model has a higher price tag, you have calculated that the budget can handle it. But have you considered that its heavy weight means the plumber will need to pay extra workers to help carry and install it?
And if the cabinet line you’ve chosen doesn’t include a farmhouse base, did you know that a standard sink base will need to be modified and reinforced to support the weight?
Another item that surprises some people is the countertop overhang. The standard overhang for a quartz counter is 15 inches, but you might want a deeper one over the bar stools on the kitchen island. As the builder will tell you, that deep overhang will require support hardware, and extra time to install it.
Even stains and paints can catch you off guard. For instance, stained interior trim will require a better wood species than painted trim. The type of wood makes a big difference on how good the stain looks.
Some flat wall paints can also add a layer of complexity and potential cost increases. While most paints look fine with one coat of primer and two coats of finish, some darker colors need a third finish coat to achieve a smooth, even surface. Depending on how much wall surface you want covered, the extra paint and labor can add up.
The painter will know which colors require more coats and should be consulted on the choice.
The best way to get the most from all your product choices is to work with the builder and the builder’s trade partners to find ways to satisfy your design preferences without over-stressing the budget.
Shopping around for products can get the imagination flowing and make selections easier. But keep in mind that sticker prices are just starting points and the builder’s team will help you fill in the rest of the story. Your decisions will be based on the best information available, and you’ll be a more savvy buyer.
New homes are built to save energy, and a primary component of that goal is insulation. The definition of insulation, however, is rapidly expanding as homebuyers and energy codes demand even better energy-use performance from new homes.
Today, there are far more options than those rolls of fiberglass you see on the shelves of big-box home improvement stores. While “batt” insulation remains an inexpensive yet effective option, other materials have emerged that help optimize thermal value in new structures or when replacing conventional insulation.
For instance, in addition to insulating between the wall studs, we typically install a one-inch thick rigid foam insulation panel behind the finish siding and stucco of a new home. That technique is commonly called a thermal break, and many of the latest energy codes and standards, such as the federal Energy Star program, require it.
In addition to taping the joints between the insulation panels, a thin, woven air-water barrier (also called a weather-resistant barrier or housewrap) or weatherproof paper is applied over the panels to shed incidental water that gets behind the siding or stucco and blocks air infiltration through the structure.
Another increasingly popular insulating technique is called blown-in-batts (“BIBS”), a practice that involves installing a netting on the interior side of the exterior walls and blowing loose fiberglass insulation into the stud bays.
When completed, it looks like firm pillow and results in all of the cavity and crevices being filled with insulation.
To achieve a lower level of air infiltration, specialty products such as Knauf EcoSeal is used at the top and bottom of the exterior walls and at the door and window openings to provide a plyable gasket to seal the drywall sheets to the wall framing members. The result is more air-tight and well-insulated wall.
Most of a home’s energy is lost through the attic or roof structure. The difference in air temperature and pressure between the attic and the living space below can be dramatic. This causes air to escape into the attic and puts an extra burden to maintain a desired temperature on the home’s heating and cooling system.
Recently adopted best practice is to install batt insulation directly under the roof deck in addition to the placement of loose fiberglass insulation that is applied on top of the ceilings.
The push to make new homes more energy efficient is driving new and better insulation products and applications, and professional builders are at the forefront of keeping up with that evolution to provide better indoor comfort and help reduce monthly energy bills.
Change orders have always led to budget increases and schedule delays, and it’s not getting any better.
With inflation showing up in the news and at the grocery store, some homeowners are asking what they can do to keep construction costs from escalating. Part of the answer is to choose the features and products you want before work begins, and then keep changes to an absolute minimum.
This has always been sound advice, but supply issues and price trends make it especially important now.
There are good reasons that builders don’t like to change orders. For one thing, a product or design that’s altered after work starts will always cost the homeowners more than one that’s chosen and planned for at the design stage. For another, most changes delay projects. In today’s environment, these delays can be significant. Increased costs and delays are not welcome by homeowners either.
Changes can also wreak havoc with the schedule. Say you want to add a couple of decorative beams to the family room ceiling. They’re nonstructural and won’t need to support the floor above, but they still need to be supported, so the framers will have to come back and add blocking to the ceiling cavity above the drywall. The electrician may also have to move recessed can lights or other fixtures so they’re centered between the new beams.
Or imagine that you tour the house after the plumbing and electrical have been roughed in and decide that you prefer a wall-mounted faucet to the originally specified counter mount. It may seem like a simple change, but that doesn’t mean it is.
The plumber will need to be called back. Electrical wires and fixtures may need to be moved. If the building inspector has already signed off on the rough plumbing, another inspection has to be scheduled. All this can potentially take weeks, delaying the drywall and cabinet installation.
These kinds of changes are more difficult than ever. Most trade contractors are overbooked and can’t find enough skilled workers to meet their needs. The plumber will likely have moved on to another job with its own schedule demands and may not be able to get back to your house on short notice.
And the supply chain remains a source of frustration. Although some of last year’s product backlogs have been cleared out, certain items remain a challenge, especially if they’re imported. We’re still experiencing backlogs of six months or more for some products. That custom iron door may be coming from a factory in Mexico or China and may not be available for a while. The builder is going to have to find a workaround for the door installation, so our clients need to be flexible.
Finally, costs continue to be a moving target. According to the January 2022 Producer Price Index (US Bureau of Labor Statistics), costs for products used in residential construction increased 2.9% from the previous month, and a whopping 31% from January 2020. Most industry observers expect those increases to continue, which means that products chosen after work starts will probably cost more.
Your builder puts a lot of effort into scheduling a project that uses labor and materials as efficiently as possible, so making product and design decisions before work starts is ultimately in your best interest.
Don’t get us wrong: we’re not against all changes. It’s your home, and if getting what you want requires a change, then make it. But it is important to understand the possible implications.
Famous football coach Bill Walsh was known for demanding perfection from his players during practices, even though he knew they would never attain it. His philosophy was if you don’t strive for perfection, you don’t have a chance to achieve it.
As professional builders, we follow the same philosophy; plan for perfection to attain excellence. Like Coach Walsh, we don’t stand a chance of delivering an excellent new home that satisfies a client’s wants and needs if we don’t set and expect the highest standards possible.
In the pursuit of excellence, we coach our clients about the building process so that their expectations are high but realistic. We want our homebuyers to push and challenge us to always do better, but it is also our job to define excellence … and point out the difference between it and perfection.
Our best and most effective method for doing that is listening. Really listening. Not just to find out which floor plan a client prefers, but why and how it will satisfy their lifestyle needs. Not just about which community they want to live in, but also their concerns and questions about the quality of nearby schools, proximity to shopping and public services, and commute routes to work.
In this discovery phase, we craft a strategy for a new home that truly addresses and justifies our client’s reasons for making such a significant investment and sets us on course to deliver it according to those expectations.
It is also critical to maintain a regular and open line of communication during the construction process. As during the planning stage, our first job is to listen to and then educate and inform our buyers about the subtleties of new-home construction that are specific to their concerns.
Responding to a buyer’s question with “that’s just the way it is” or “it’s complicated” is unacceptable. Instead, we strive to deliver details, demonstrate our methods, and ensure that questions are answered to a client’s satisfaction. That approach and level of respect for our clients helps build a better understanding of our work process all the way through the final walk-through and close of escrow.
Finally, a key component of delivering excellence comes after the sale, once a client becomes a homeowner. We make sure to communicate our policies and procedures for warranty service—once again demonstrating the difference between perfection and excellence. Ideally, we’ve done an excellent job of building their new home to the point where service callbacks are kept to a minimum; for those small warranty items that crop up after move-in, we work to be responsive and responsible to address them in a timely fashion.
As a homebuyer and owner, it’s okay to want the “perfect” home. The best we can do, however, is to strive for perfection and achieve excellence that satisfies the lifestyle needs of our clients and protects their investment now and well into the future.
Price chaos for materials has made budgeting more complicated. Here’s what you need to know.
Most people are familiar with allowances—a way to let homeowners create firm budgets for items that haven’t been specified at the time of contract signing. For instance, if the homeowners and builder concluded that $30,000 would support the quality of cabinets they wanted, then when it was time for the final choice they just had to stay within that budget. Prices were stable enough that no one worried about coming up short.
Until now, that is. As with many other things, the financial chaos of the past two years has forced allowances to adapt. The cabinets you can get for that $30,000 may be different when it’s time to order because material prices have been acting like drunken yo-yos, and because suppliers only guarantee some bids for a week or two.
In addition, some builders have been setting allowances for items that wouldn’t have been conceivable two years ago. The most notable one is framing lumber, the price of which has been on a wild ride, thanks to high demand and supply instabilities caused by COVID restrictions.
By May 2021, lumber prices had nearly quadrupled compared to the 2015-2019 average—adding $36,000 to the typical new home according to the National Association of Homebuilders. Prices fell back to earth last summer but shot up again in December to almost three times the long-term average after sawmills in British Columbia (a major supply source) were idled by floods and the US doubled tariffs on Canadian lumber imports.
US importers have responded by sourcing more lumber from Europe, but trans-Atlantic shipping rates saw a seven-fold increase last year, and a December 2021 Wall Street Journal article warned they could double again in 2022. The article also said that trucking companies are forecasting double-digit rises this year in costs to transport lumber over the roads.
Additionally, the US dollar has been losing value at an annual rate between 5% and 15%, depending on whose numbers you believe. We all see this at the grocery store, but what people who haven’t built a home lately don’t see is that price inflation for nearly all building materials (not just lumber) has been far worse. We’ve heard of builders who estimated $850,000 for a new home only to see actual costs come in at $1 million or more six or seven months later, thanks to a spike in material prices.
Some people may be inclined to wait for costs to come down before building. But while prices should eventually stabilize, inflation will continue to push them up. And budgeting will continue to be a challenge.
Now back to allowances. If material costs persist in looking like a roll of the dice, suppliers won’t be able to guarantee pricing. That means allowances won’t be as firm as in the past. The builder will have to set each allowance based on today’s pricing (because no one can predict the future), but there may be a built-in trigger that engages when prices rise or fall past certain thresholds. If an item becomes more expensive, you pay more; if it becomes less expensive, you get a credit.
Builders dislike this unpredictability as much as you do, and they don’t make a dime from it. In fact, many have been foregoing profits, as they would rather absorb small increases than pass them on to customers. However, no company can consistently lose money and still stay in business.
Today’s economic situation is why it’s more important than ever to work with a reputable professional builder. Take the time to choose someone in whom you have a high degree of trust and who you feel comfortable collaborating with on allowances and other budget items. You want a builder who will help you find ways to get the things that are most important to you with the money you have.
You just left an impressive presentation with a professional homebuilder, one among the few you’re considering for your new home project.
In addition to a brochure about his business and highlights of his recent work, he provided you with a list of recent homebuyers for you to call or email to ask about his quality, ethics, skill, and professionalism.
Now the ball is in your court to reach out to those references and gain some valuable inside knowledge about your builder before you consider negotiating and signing a contract for your project.
But what to ask? For many prospective homebuyers, we suggest a few questions to solicit the kind of information that will help them make an informed and confident decision. Of course, you may have your own agenda and priorities. If so, these questions just may help get the conversation going.
1. Was the company easy to work with? Ask how the builder managed communication with the buyers before and during construction. Most often there is one point of contact (typically the site supervisor) with the authority to make or negotiate decisions as opposed to a bureaucratic quagmire that is frustrating and confusing.
2. Was the jobsite clean? The best builders leave the job site clean at the end of each day. They sweep and haul their trash away, store or take their tools, and stack their materials. Not only does the jobsite look good (as good as anything can under construction), but also is one that is safe should the owners want to check out the progress of the job on their own.
3. Did they finish on time? Finishing on time reveals the builder’s commitment and organizational skills. If the answer is “no,” dig a little deeper into why. It may be that the owner made changes that caused some delays or that bad weather was an unavoidable factor.
4. Did they finish on budget? Like finishing on time (or within the owner’s expectations), finishing on budget indicates a builder’s organizational and business acumen, specifically his cost-estimating skills. If the answer is “no,” ask why and look for clues about change or special orders by the owners that may have been outside the scope of the original budget. Find out if the builder neglected to calculate a cost and tried to make the owners pay for it at closing.
5. Did they disappear after move-in? Perhaps a new-home owner’s biggest worry is what happens after they close escrow and move in.
A builder who is available to answer questions and respond to reasonable warranty issues is an important indicator of a builder’s long-term commitment to the quality of his homes and the ultimate satisfaction of their owners.
This handful of questions may not satisfy all your needs, but it’s a start and often will inspire more questions that further reveal whether the builder you’re considering is one you can trust and rely on to do the job right.
How do you identify a great custom builder—and choose the best one for your needs?
There’s an oft-repeated quip that building a custom home is as much about the experience as the result. Yes and no. It’s true that you will invest more emotion into the design and construction process than with an off-the-shelf tract home, but the defining experience is the result. It’s a home in which everything—from the room layout to the furniture and finishes—reflects your personality and priorities.
How do you make that defining experience a great one? The answer is that you need to choose the right builder, and that choice will depend in part on chemistry. Ultimately, you want someone with whom you click, someone who gets you and who understands your needs and wants.
Finding this person may require that you meet with a few candidates. First, however, you have to narrow the field to only those who are highly qualified.
It goes without saying that a successful builder will have a rock-solid business. Custom builders earn their business chops in a variety of ways. Some have spent time in the corporate world, while others learn by doing. The backstory matters less than an ongoing commitment to creating a stable, financially sound company that does high-quality work on time and within the budget. These are the only people you want to be talking with.
But while tract builders and custom builders both need to run a tight ship, they are fundamentally different businesses. Tract builders view homes the same way Ford and Toyota view cars: as products to be manufactured. They may sell quality homes, but the management team’s job is to optimize time and money. With a large tract builder, the buying process also resembles that at an auto dealership in that your interactions will be short-term and transactional.
By contrast, with a custom home you will collaborate with the builder and the builder’s team for months—on design, product choice and construction. That process will be way more enjoyable if these are people with whom you can develop smooth and trusting relationships.
It’s helpful to remember here that a great custom builder will have a different mindset than a tract builder. Although staying within your budget will be a priority, the custom builder will look for a way to do that while also delivering the best possible results.
It’s the difference between a factory that cranks out identical coffee tables day after day, and a skilled woodworker with a strong local following who builds a table just for you. Doing business with the woodworker will be different than buying from the furniture store.
Another way of making the comparison is that successful tract builders are corporations focused on the numbers (and publicly traded tract builders are obsessed with their stock price). While all successful custom builders run great businesses, they are craftspeople at heart. They have built a reputation on quality work, and they won’t cut corners to save a buck. The best ones view homes not as products but as commissioned works of art, with each new job presenting a blank canvas.
Finally, a great custom builder will be a good listener. He or she will listen closely to your wants and needs, then work with you to meet them given budgetary and other limitations. If you already have a set of plans, the builder will be honest about whether you can build that home given those limitations and if not, will look for other ways to satisfy your priorities.
This last point is important. The building process can include a lot of difficult decision points, and you want someone who will look out for your interest at each one. Your builder should be someone in whom you feel confident to guide you through this process.
Even if the budget is tight, this is not the place to economize. Here’s why.
If asked to describe your relationship with your home’s products, only a few would warrant the term “intimate.” One of the few is your kitchen counter. You gaze at it and rub it daily. You trust it not to contaminate your food. A quality counter will bring years of satisfaction while the frustration you feel from a not-so-great one will last just as long.
The importance of this relationship helps explain why engineered quartz slabs now outsell granite for kitchen counters, despite their higher cost. The problem is that not all quartz is equally satisfying.
Engineered quartz is made from a blend of crushed stone and resin with a bit of mineral fiber and color added. High-quality quartz is durable and attractive, with consistent patterns, many color choices, and nearly invisible seams when properly installed. It resists staining. It is antimicrobial and non-porous, with no surface irregularities that could trap bacteria or mold. It doesn’t need sealing or waxing. It’s worth every penny when you consider the alternatives.
The best quartz is made with a patented technology called “Bretonstone,” from Breton S.p.A, in Italy. Breton stone slabs have a high stone content (93% or better) and are manufactured in a process called “vibro-compression under vacuum,” in which the heated mix is vibrated and compacted until it’s super-hard, super-stable, and super-resistant to scratches, chips, and stains. Many big-name brands, as well as some smaller ones, rely on this technology.
A quartz countertop should also be certified as meeting the NSF/ANSI 51 standard for food zone surfaces from NSF International (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation) and the American National Standards Institute. This tells you the surface is safe to prepare food on. (You want certification for food zone surfaces, NOT splash zone surfaces.)
Unfortunately, not all manufacturers use Bretonstone technology and not all products meet food safety standards. These facts were driven home a few years back when the US market was flooded with quartz countertops imported from China. They were a nightmare.
To save money, the manufacturers of these counters used high resin content—from 2% to as much as 30%—and a manufacturing process that didn’t provide enough compaction. The result? Slabs that easily scratched, stained, and in some cases melted when exposed to a hot pan. Some products didn’t meet NSF/ANSI food safety standards.
The Chinese government also subsidized the manufacturers, which meant their engineered quartz could be sold below cost. The US government saw it as an attempt to put domestic manufacturers out of business and responded in 2018 with a 300% anti-dumping tariff. But while the tariff helped make Chinese quartz unaffordable, you can still find manufacturers that use too much resin and less-than-ideal manufacturing techniques.
Of course, inexpensive quartz is not automatically bad, but it takes technical knowledge and a good amount of effort to confirm its quality and safety. That makes non-certified products a buyer-beware market. It’s why the most reputable manufacturers rely on proven Bretonstone technology, and why most professional builders use quartz from those manufacturers.
A successfully managed budget is a partnership between the builder and his homebuyers
Custom builders work hard to make sure their clients get the home they want at a price they can afford. Cost-control strategies include value-engineering the structure, writing clear product specifications, and managing the construction in the most efficient manner possible. Controlling costs is a responsibility that professional builders take very seriously.
But the builder is just half the equation: a new home is a partnership between the builder and homebuyer, and there are things a homebuyer needs to do to keep the project from going over budget. Most of these have to do with decision-making.
Most homebuyers understand the importance of making timely decisions and minimizing changes once the project starts, but many lack a framework for making those decisions. The following five concepts will help a new home to come in on time and on budget.
1. Complete the creative process before breaking ground.
Some people have difficulty imagining how a finished space will look, so they postpone some design decisions until after the house has been framed, which can mean reframing certain spaces. Building something twice obviously costs more than building it once. People who have trouble envisioning spaces should be clear with the architect and builder on this difficulty early in the design process. Good tools are available—from 3D design software to physical models—to help homebuyers get a better grasp on how their rooms will look and feel.
2. Choose as many products as possible before work starts.
Even people who don’t have trouble envisioning spaces often want to change their minds about products and finishes after construction begins. But changes always add cost, even if the substitute products are comparably priced. Take the example of choosing a different bathtub for the master bath. There will be administrative charges for ordering the new tub, canceling the original order, and maybe even returning the original tub. Depending on the stage of construction, the change could also delay the drywall while the builder waits for the new tub to arrive. That, in turn, could throw off the rest of the construction schedule.
3. Understand that every item has a cost.
Some people approach the process of designing their new home as they would an all-you-can-eat buffet. They sign the contract and then act as if they can add anything they want to the plate without financial consequences. Even if the extra costs are small—a more expensive faucet in the kitchen, a better grade of carpet in the bedroom—in the end it all adds up.
4. Learn to love multiple choices.
Rather than settling on one particular product, pick good and desired options for each product category. If the budget numbers start swelling, it may help to substitute that top-of-the-line lighting package for something less expensive that still works with the rest of the decor. Defining these options ahead of time makes the process a lot more efficient.
5. Leave plenty of lead time.
The more days or weeks between the homebuyers product selections and when those products have to be installed, the better. That way, an unexpected delay from the product manufacturer or distributor won’t hold up the job.
The above guidelines are a proven framework for controlling project costs. Following them will reduce stress and help ensure a more satisfying project.
There are codes and there are standards. A great home requires both.
There was a TV commercial for kosher hot dogs that first aired in the 1970s. With a surprised and disappointed Uncle Sam as background, the narrator described how government authorities allowed the company to use ingredients like artificial colorings and non-meat fillers. The tagline was a classic: “We don’t. We’re kosher and have to answer to an even higher authority.”
It was a brilliant piece of advertising.
But it wasn’t brilliant just because of the tagline. It was also true. Government standards define what a company can get away with; they don’t ensure the best possible result. This truth also applies to building codes.
Don’t get us wrong: codes are essential. Structural codes ensure that your stairs don’t create a tripping hazard and that your home will stand up to whatever gravity and nature throw at it. Fire codes keep it from becoming a tinderbox. Electrical codes protect against fire and shock. Plumbing and sanitation codes are why you have clean water.
These and many other requirements keep you safe and healthy. We’re grateful for them and you should be, too.
However, the truth is that while codes guarantee a safe home, they don’t guarantee top-quality work. There’s a common saying in the building industry that “a house merely built to code is the worst that legally can be built.” That’s probably an overstatement but it makes a valid point—good builders hold themselves to more exacting standards.
There are a hundred possible ways to illustrate this, but let’s consider the example of floor framing. Codes specify the maximum distance that floor joists can span without support from an underlying beam. A floor built to those specs will bear the combined weight of furniture and a lot of people, but it may still bounce enough to rattle your china when the kids stomp through the dining room. Professional builders who want happy clients go beyond code by using deeper joists or shorter spans to keep the floor stiff.
The difference here is between building codes and standards of excellence. You need both to build a great house. The reason competitive bidding so often yields unsatisfying results is that the lowest bidders have little incentive to commit to any standards beyond the code.
To ensure excellence, quality-conscious professional builders follow industry best practice standards and hold workers to them. There are quantifiable standards for every part of the job, from how level the floor framing must be, to the maximum allowable moisture content of interior wood trim and flooring (for less shrinkage), to the smoothness of the drywall finish.
An established professional builder will have a team of in-house workers and subcontractors who understand—and consistently meet—the requirements that apply to their part of the job. The best teams over-build: they’re obsessed with things like straight walls, square corners, blemish-free finishes, doors that close properly, and windows that won’t leak over time.
When it comes to actual code requirements, if the team is working in an area where the code inspectors aren’t particularly fussy, these professionals will still exceed those requirements.
Great builders want their homeowner clients to be safe and happy. They want to eliminate unwelcome surprises. They want to build the best house possible. Their higher authority is a commitment to standards that ensure those results.
Consulting with a builder before drawing the plans will save expense and headaches.
Most custom builders have had clients show up at their office with a set of finished plans that, in reality, will cost 25% to 30% more than the clients’ target budget. Fortunately, this problem is easily avoided. Working with the builder on a pre-budget can eliminate unpleasant surprises and help the clients get the home they want at a price they can manage.
Pre-budgeting is essential because a lot of people base their cost expectations on average square foot prices that they got from acquaintances, the Internet, or the advertised prices of homes in new developments. But this approach is misleading when planning a custom home.
That’s because those new development homes tend to be speculative, or “spec” houses. Spec houses are built from value-engineered stock plans that eliminate features that don’t increase the home’s appraised value. For example, additional square footage adds value but a high-end built-in refrigerator does not.
Even a top-quality spec house is built using a production business model. Think of a spec house development under construction as an outdoor factory: each house uses the same menu of materials and finishes, so the builder can get volume pricing from distributors and manufacturers. Also, because all floor plans are similar (if not exactly the same), crews can assemble them quickly and efficiently. Repetition works to keep prices down.
Custom homebuilders work in a far different world. Each home they build has a unique floor plan as well as lots of products and materials that are, well, custom. The homeowners get exactly what they want, but sometimes pay a premium compared to a spec home of similar size.
With a custom home, it’s best for customers to ask a professional builder to review their initial vision before they get the plans drawn. The builder can suggest ways to value-engineer the home and to save money on products and materials. Years of experience have taught the pro the most efficient approaches to new home construction, which means the builder’s staff can work with the architect to make sure the plan minimizes waste and can be built cost-effectively.
And while custom builders may not buy products in bulk, they are highly skilled purchasers who know how to get the best-available pricing. They can suggest brands and models that look and perform as well as the ones the customers have in mind, but that are kinder to the budget.
Once the design process gets underway, it’s a good idea to have the builder do spot checks at different stages. A design-build company will do this as a matter of course, and many architects will involve a contractor in the design. Be sure to ask. If the architect doesn’t offer this type of builder review, then insist on having it done. If the contractor hasn’t been chosen yet, paying one a consulting fee could be a wise investment.
If the client needs bank financing, a pre-budget is a vital reality check. Banks generally won’t lend more than 80% of the home’s appraised value, which is based on the price of “comparable” homes. But their comparisons don’t include every feature. Expensive kitchen appliances and nice landscaping packages add cost, but in the bank’s eyes they won’t increase the home’s value. That forces the homeowners to come up with unexpected cash. A professional builder will know what features do and don’t add value in the bank or appraiser’s estimation.
The bottom line is that involving a professional builder at the earliest stages of the design is an investment that may more than pays for itself.
The best accessible features are really just good design
By some estimates, the decade from 2011 to 2021 saw a quadrupling of households with parents and grown children. Last year’s increase was especially sharp—the National Association of Realtors reported 15% growth in demand for multigenerational homes between April and June of 2020.
As home prices continue climbing, the best financial decision for a lot of families is to gather under one roof.
This poses a design challenge: How do you create spaces that are friendly to older people with physical limitations without looking like a nursing home? It may be easier than you think—if planned well, an accessible home should feel great to everyone. And when the time comes to sell, the home will have an edge in the market.
Here are some features to think about when planning your new home.
Getting in and out. Everyone loves easy entries. The ideal would be no steps to and from the garage, the front of the house and the outdoor living space. If this isn’t practical, then at least create flat or sloping access to the patio and back yard. That way, someone with difficulty with steps won’t feel trapped inside.
These are actually great ideas for all homes, when you consider that anyone north of 40 is at higher risk of orthopedic problems like broken hips and bad knees. (The average age for knee replacements is 50.)
Don’t forget hardware. Although lever door handles obviously help people with arthritic hands, they will be appreciated by anyone entering the house with an armful of groceries.
Safer sleep. A first-floor bedroom with an en suite bath is a valuable long-term asset. Leave sufficient space around the bed for caretakers and for someone with physical limitations to easily get in and out.
Making the shower floor flush to the bathroom floor eliminates a tripping hazard and provides a clean, contemporary look. If you don’t need grab bars yet, the builder can add blocking behind the drywall to support them when needed.
The bedroom can also serve as an office, den or guest suite. Some homeowners design the bath with doors leading to the bedroom as well as to a common area, so visitors can use it.
Moving around. Building codes set the minimum residential hallway width at three feet, but four is better. Wide hallways make room for wheelchairs and walkers and also feel luxurious. The downside of a wide hallway is that it takes space from adjacent rooms.
If you prefer standard-width hallways, at least consider wide interior doors. A three-foot width is just a few inches wider than a standard interior door, but it’s more accessible and simplifies the moving of furniture.
Looking great. Aging eyes will appreciate more light and better contrast between surfaces, but these elements also make for more appealing spaces. A good interior designer can make sure they’re done right.
Also consider low pathway lights to illuminate hall ways, stair treads, bathrooms and certain floor surfaces. Besides reducing the chance of falls, they help everyone get around after dark without turning on the main lights.
Other possibilities. There are plenty of additional touches to make a home work better for all who live there. For instance, an induction cooktop stays cool to the touch even when turned on, which means that old and young alike are less likely to get burned. Hard surface floors are easier than carpet for a wheelchair to navigate, and they lessen the chance of dust and mites.
The point is to bring accessibility into the discussion, even if you don’t include all these elements in the final design. That open-mindedness is a hallmark of good planning.
Some big obstacles stand in the way of the three-bid advice
Folk wisdom, online articles, and basic instincts advise homeowners to solicit bids from several qualified contractors. But three major obstacles get in the way of making those bids realistic and useful: the need for detailed plans and job specifications, the need for comparable bidders, and the need to structure the bids for easy comparisons. Getting all three right is rare.
The biggest hurdle concerns the plans and job specifications. For a bid to have meaning, it should spell out everything about the project, from the fixtures and appliances to the finishes. Detailed specifications take time and effort to write, and thus the details in a bid are often left vague. This can lead each bidder to make assumptions that yield widely divergent bids. And if the winning bidder’s assumptions differ from the homeowners’ assumptions (predictably), it plants the seeds for misunderstanding and disappointment.
Even finding three comparable bidders can be tricky. Owners may find it necessary to identify and interview four or five companies just to find two to compare. The emphasis is on comparable: for a million-dollar custom home, each bidder should have a stellar reputation as a builder of million-dollar custom homes. The architect (if the buyer has one) should be able to suggest builders with the needed experience.
Allowances are another area that creates confusion in the bidding process. An allowance is an assigned dollar amount for items that are not yet selected by the homeowner or architect. In both bids and contracts, allowances should be kept to an absolute minimum. When these selections are not made ahead of time and a dollar figure is substituted instead, the project’s schedule and budget can be compromised. Too many allowances also lead to too much guesswork in the bidding process.
Where allowances are unavoidable, each bidder needs to use the same number. For example, if the homeowners have decided to spend $30,000 on kitchen cabinets, that dollar amount needs to be on every bid.
The final element to get right is the structure of the bid. Each bidder should use the same bid sheet, with costs itemized the same way, to allow the homeowner to compare them easily. While a few architects distribute bid sheets to bidders, it is rare for contractors to use similar templates, making a real comparison very difficult and complex.
Each bid should also include a bottom-line price, an estimated completion date, and the builder’s change order policies and costs (including administrative charges). Such detailed bids take time to develop, so be reasonable when scheduling due dates for the bid. Three or four weeks is about right for a bid on a new, custom home.
Before making the final choice, the buyer and architect (if there is one) should meet with each bidder to review the bid, ask clarifying questions, and confirm numbers. This will help fix obvious discrepancies between bids and enable the homeowner to get to know the builder beyond the two-dimensional bid form.
The builders who are bidding should also have expectations. Creating a bid for a custom home can take 40 to 70 staff hours, plus additional hours from subcontractors and suppliers. Because of this, most bidders will want to know who they are bidding against. Established pros don’t want to compete with outfits with reputations for lowballing bids and then charging for extras later on. And they may insist on there being no more than three bidders, so everyone has a fair chance.
Sometimes all the bids are beyond the expected budget limitations of the client—around 20 percent of the plans custom homebuilders see are over-designed for the customer’s budget. That risk, plus the multitude of obstacles that stand in the way of an accurate bid, is good reason to skip competitive bidding altogether. A lot of people who have built homes in the past have learned this the hard way and prefer to find a reputable professional builder they trust who can be involved in the home’s design from the beginning.
Builders need a lot of information to arrive at an accurate number
Every now and then a homeowner will call to ask how much our new homes cost per square foot. The answer, of course, depends on a range of variables. Some of these are obvious, and others less so.
The differences everyone grasps have to do with the house itself. In a custom home, the architectural design and the quality of finishes (exterior siding, cabinetry, countertops, fixtures, etc.) are driven by homeowner choices and will be unique to each project. But those aren’t the only variables.
There are things beyond the homeowner’s control that also have a big impact on price.
One factor is where the home will be built. There can be a huge spread between the costs of two identical homes if lot conditions and local regulations are different enough. Not all of these will apply to you, but it’s helpful to understand the analysis that goes into an accurate price estimate.
Some lot conditions are easy to see. For instance, it costs more to build on a slope than on a flat lot. A home on a sloped lot will more excavation and a more complicated foundation. A sloped lot will also require an engineer’s survey—something you might want to do before purchasing the lot.
You also have to consider what’s beneath the ground. Soils and other subsurface conditions can vary, even in different parts of the same city. For example, the soils in the southwest Seven Oaks area vary significantly than at the east side of town such as Rio Bravo Golf Course. Foundation costs will depend partly on whether you’re building on clay or sandy loam soils.
Nature isn’t the only culprit behind lot-related variables, however. Some of the highest costs are for regulations and services.
Permits, for instance. The National Association of Homebuilders estimates that the cost of complying with government regulations has risen by about 30% in the past five years, and some jurisdictions and school districts have more costly permits fees than others.
The same goes for utilities. Lots in the city limits typically have public sewer and water but a rural lot may need a well and a septic system. You may need to also extend electric service to the house. These costs can put a real dent in the budget, so if you’re still looking for a property you may want to get estimates before purchase.
If your lot is in a community governed by a homeowner association (HOA), their covenants and architectural guidelines can impact the final home price. For instance, if the community requires that your home have a certain roof design or enhanced architectural exterior finishes such as manufactured stone siding, that can add cost.
The bottom line is that you can’t get an accurate price before understanding the variables imposed by home design, lot conditions, utility companies, governments, and HOAs. If someone gives you a square-foot cost over the phone without taking these into account, you should take it with a healthy dose of skepticism.
What do today’s best builders have in common? Although the answer includes many items, there’s a common thread running through each of them: commitment to ongoing learning. The know-how needed to build high-performance, durable homes is evolving faster than ever. That’s why top builders commit to continuing education in a variety of disciplines, including architecture, engineering, law, materials science, and management.
Here are three examples.
Processes. A custom building company assembles a massive product with thousands of interrelated parts: the finished home. That home is far more complex than most things people buy, except perhaps their car, and today’s customers rightly demand that it be completed for the contracted price, on the agreed-to schedule, with few or no defects.
Builders actually face steeper hurdles in meeting customer expectations than do car makers. Not only must they coordinate and motivate teams of independent contractors to get the job done, but they have to do it outside in all types of weather including rain, winter cold and summer heat. Keeping things on track under these circumstances demands bulletproof management and quality control, all of which must be continually honed.
Products. Building products and processes are changing more rapidly than at any time in human history. Industry trade journals showcase a seemingly endless stream of new materials and technologies, from engineered framing components, to high-tech windows, to security systems and smart
appliances. The builder has to know how to evaluate these products and, if they’re worth adopting, how to make sure they’re installed correctly and in a manner that fits into the workflow.
Regulations. Governments are exerting more control over what types of homes can be built, how they get built, and how they perform when finished.
Zoning, building, and mechanical codes govern where the house is placed and how it’s framed, plumbed, and wired. Energy codes attempt to reduce the amount of heating and cooling the home uses, with the latest codes mandating that new homes be built nearly airtight. The need to satisfy energy codes while avoiding moisture problems and maintaining a healthy indoor environment has helped spawn the field of Building Science, which maps and quantifies heat and moisture flows through the structure. Every builder needs a working knowledge of how to apply its principles.
Work crews are also more regulated than ever. Federal agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency write new work rules each year and states impose additional rules. Most of these rules include work process and record-keeping requirements, both of which are increasingly enforced. To stay compliant, builders must learn the regulations and keep current with annual changes.
Keeping up with this expanding web of new products, processes, and regulations is just half the battle. Builders who want to stay in business must adapt to these changes in a way that controls costs and keeps customers happy. Seat-of-the-pants management doesn’t cut it—the builder needs a commitment to continuing education.
This education is widely available. Professional associations offer classes and certifications in a variety of disciplines. Private training companies show builders how to comply with new codes and regulations. Trade shows introduce new products and technologies, and most shows also include seminars on design, construction, and management. Where a builder and its staff get their training matters less than the commitment to getting it. Advanced training is one sign of a professional, so it’s a fair subject to ask about when evaluating a prospective builder.
In the future, you can tell friends and family what things were like during the Great Supply Crunch
If you’re contemplating a new custom home, you’re no doubt aware of rising costs for lumber and other building materials. That problem has gotten plenty of media coverage. But price isn’t the only challenge. There’s another issue that, while it gets more attention from the business media than from the popular press, is giving headaches to builders and homeowners alike.
We’re talking about the supply chain. Over the past year, we’ve seen shortages of just about everything that goes into a home, and those shortages have rolled unpredictably from product to product. No one knows when a particular item will suddenly be back-ordered or for how long. And because building product suppliers, like those in nearly all industries, have adopted a just-in-time delivery model, they lack warehouse space to keep items in stock.
If you have built before, that means this time will be different. Your builder will get the job done, but it may take longer than either of you want, and the schedule could change at any time.
This environment of uncertainty makes it more important than ever to choose the right builder. You need an experienced pro with great management systems—systems that can mitigate the effects of shortages as much as possible.
The best builders create detailed schedules, while also remaining nimble.
The construction industry uses what’s called Critical Path Scheduling, which defines the sequence in which tasks must happen. For instance, you can’t shingle a roof before installing the sheathing.
The critical path also defines when products must be selected and ordered, and this is where homeowners are feeling the biggest impact. Basically, everything has to be ordered earlier. To visualize this, imagine a line drawn from left to right, with deadlines for selecting each item marked at intervals on the line. The entire line has shifted to the left.
Windows that took 4 weeks to get in the past now require 16 weeks. Cabinet decisions that could wait until after drywall installation may now need to be made as soon as the kitchen has been rough-framed. In some cases, the back-order may be such that keeping the job on schedule requires the homeowners to choose a different item. We’ve seen this with some ceramic tiles and garage doors.
Even with great planning and timely selections, on-time delivery isn’t 100 percent guaranteed these days. Shortages and backorders can strike unexpectedly, and that’s where nimble scheduling earns its keep.
Whether the schedule can adapt to a specific delay depends on the product. If the aforementioned roof sheathing doesn’t show up on time, the job can’t move forward. That delay is a stop sign on the critical path.
On the other hand, the builder can schedule detours around some delays. Bathroom shower and bathtub tile surrounds are typically not installed until the cabinets are installed and the paint or stain finishes are completed. In the event of the cabinets being delayed, the builder can schedule the tile crew to complete the shower and tub tile work during the cabinet delivery delay period.
Of course, you may be aware that there’s also a supply crunch when it comes to skilled trades. There simply aren’t enough electricians, plumbers, HVAC technicians, concrete finishers and others to meet current demand. That makes it tough for them to reschedule. However, these trades will be more flexible when working for an established professional with whom they have a longstanding business relationship.
That pro is the builder you want on your side under any circumstances, but even more so during this challenging time.
Building a home can be stressful. Savvy homeowners choose a builder who will make it less so. But beyond making certain the company is licensed and insured and has provided detailed pricing and a professional contract, how do owners determine whether a company will deliver on its promises and not tax their sanity? The answers lie in good systems. Companies with clearly defined management systems tend to be better organized, communicate more effectively and minimize unwanted surprises.
Three systems that are key to a comfortable building process have to do with communications, schedules, and responsibilities.
Communications. A recent Consumer Reports survey of more than 900 homeowners confirmed that, when it comes to building projects, miscommunication is the root of most ills. That’s why professional builders have solid processes for keeping homeowners informed at all times. Signs of a company that communicates well include detailed project descriptions (leaving no question about what the finished product will include), the ability to explain financial concepts (where, exactly, the dollars are going), and regular meetings.
Meetings eliminate problems by getting everyone to think through the job. A good example is the preconstruction meeting, where the homeowner meets with the builder’s team to review plans, schedules, and job rules. This is also a time for the homeowner to ask questions and go over the fine details again before construction commences.
Ongoing meetings, at a schedule, agreed on by the builder and homeowner, tend to be shorter and less formal, but keep everyone updated on job progress and let the homeowner voice concerns and questions.
Schedules and Payments. The old adage “fail to plan, plan to fail” may have been penned by a builder, Developing a schedule that details the job from start to finish is crucial to getting things done on time and within budget. Of course, weather delays, delivery problems, change orders, and other unforeseen events can shift production schedules over time, but a well-managed company starts with a plan and updates everyone should dates change.
Payment schedules are just as important. The builder receives a percentage of the job cost as a down payment, and subsequent payments on completion of certain milestones: the finish of framing, the completion of mechanical and insulation inspections, etc. Well-planned payment schedules allow owners to clearly understand what is expected of them and helps the builder to manage his resources over the course of construction.
Who, what, when? As a Professional Builder, we invest time to help our clients understand how our team is organized and how to interact with team members. We define who will be responsible for the job at each stage, including the final closeout and punch list? We detail who to contact with questions or concerns, what’s the best way to make contact, and how long before you can expect a response?
Understanding how the builder handles these kind of issues has real payoffs. The answers will indicate how effectively a builder communicates, pays attention to details, and has systems for getting things done on time and according to plan — all of which help make the building process the positive experience it should be.
This cutting-edge technology is growing fast. Is it right for you?
With solar panels sprouting on roofs from sea to shining sea, their big weakness is hitting more homeowners where it hurts—in the wallet. New technology aims to cure that weakness and to make solar a more profitable investment.
Solar has become practical in nearly all climates. Panels cost half what they did 10 years ago and generate more power per square foot of surface area. They can be a good choice for high-performance homes with low energy demands. These homes use thick insulation, great air sealing, and super-efficient heating, cooling, and lighting to reduce power needs to 40% or 50% of the maximum set by energy codes.
But no matter how efficient the house, the elephant in the room for solar has always been that it generates power only in the daytime when most of us need it least. If the utility won’t buy that excess power from you, it ends up being wasted.
At least that used to be the case.
Homeowners can now opt for cost-effective home batteries. The batteries store excess electricity generated while the sun is up, then make that stored power available for use in the evening. Battery capacities range from 4 to 12 kilowatt-hours (kWh), from manufacturers such as LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sonnen and Tesla.
According to EnergySage, an online energy marketplace, a battery investment will pay back more quickly in some utility markets than in others. It obviously earns its keep where the utility won’t buy that excess power, but the financial returns can also be good where customers are charged higher rates at certain times of day. During those times, the home can draw free power from the battery instead of from the grid. Software controls the switch and no one ever notices.
You don’t need time-of-day rates to benefit from this technology, however—a battery can lower the monthly electric bill on a solar-equipped home in any market. At dinnertime when there’s little to no sunshine and electric use is highest, it can be programmed to supply 100% of the home’s power for a few hours.
Batteries are also good to have during a power outage. The electric grid can go down anywhere, anytime—from a storm, a downed utility pole or a ransomware attack. In that case, a single, 4 kWh battery could supply up to 12 hours of power for a few lights, a refrigerator and freezer, and enough outlets for everyone’s electronic gadgets.
Not surprisingly, homeowners have warmed to these benefits. Greentech Media Research estimates that US residential battery sales grew five-fold from 2017 to 2018. They even reported growth during the second quarter of 2020, when a wide-ranging economic lockdown temporarily put the brakes on solar panel sales.
Who is buying them? While owners of high-performance custom homes are a strong market, they’re not the only ones. Batteries have also become standard equipment in some large housing developments.
Note that if you want the battery to provide backup power during outages, the home needs to be wired for it. In a new build, this is a simple matter of running the circuits the battery will serve back to an electrical subpanel. The extra cost should be quite small compared to the overall budget.
The bottom line is that while home battery technology is still fairly new, its future looks promising. The next few years should see lower equipment costs and better performance, making it a more popular option than ever.
Strict allowance policies benefit homeowners as much as builders.
Why do builders prefer that the homeowners choose every single item that will go into the house before they break ground? It’s not just for the builder’s convenience. A choice postponed may end up being made at a time when the homeowners are feeling a lot of construction stress. Decisions made under stress raise the chance of buyer remorse.
But the reality is that some people have a difficult time choosing finishes like flooring, light fixtures, tile, and carpet before the house has at least been framed and they can walk through the spaces. Allowances can be a concession to that reality. They let the homeowners choose a limited number of products after the project is underway, while still keeping the job on schedule and on budget.
It’s useful to think of an allowance like a Visa gift card. Say, for instance, that the builder and homeowners agree on a $10,000 allowance for decorative light fixtures. The homeowners can spend that money any way they want. They may want stylish chandeliers with crystal ornaments or they may opt for more simplistic fixtures or ceiling fans. They just need to stay within the allotted $10,000.
Like a gift card, an allowance will have an expiration date. That’s the date by which choices have to be made. But there’s an important difference: if someone doesn’t use a gift card on time, they lose the money; if the homeowner doesn’t make allowance choices on time, the money will still be there, but the delay will delay the job completion and may raise the final cost.
Because of their potential to cause trouble, most builders limit allowances to a few line items. These vary by builder, but common ones are lighting, slab countertops, and flooring surfaces. During the planning stage, the builder will suggest an amount that makes sense given the budget for the overall home. Homeowners who want to spend more—or less—on these items need to tell the builder at this point.
Most builders also insist that the customer purchase allowance items from their regular suppliers and that they be installed by the builder’s regular trade partners. For one thing, the builder can’t be confident in the quality of unfamiliar products from unfamiliar vendors. For another, the use of regular suppliers and installers is crucial to controlling costs. It eliminates situations like the customer who chooses carpet from a supplier unfamiliar to the builder, only to find out that it is carpet with a pattern that will leave a lot of unwanted waste (that the homeowner has to pay for) and that takes 20 weeks to get, while the house will be done in five.
When choosing multiple items like countertops and light fixtures, a budget-conscious customer will match styles. Using a different countertop in every bath raises costs; keeping the materials consistent brings more purchasing power.
The bottom line is that a well-defined allowance policy benefits the homeowners as well as the builder by controlling costs, keeping the job on schedule, and reducing unwanted stress for everyone. People who have built homes in the past usually understand this, which is why they generally prefer to work with a builder with a clear policy.
The trick is to choose the technologies you need, while ignoring those you don’t.
For some people, a new custom home is a chance to get the latest digital bells and whistles. The problem is that home automation can feel like a daunting topic and the wrong choices can lead to frustration.
Which technologies will make life easier, and which will have you cursing?
It may seem counterintuitive, but the first step to a happy outcome is to not think in terms of technology. Instead, think through what would make your day-to-day life easier and more pleasant. Then work with your builder to craft solutions.
The most common benefits homeowners want are a feeling of security, the ability to listen to music and a comfortable, well-lit interior. Technologies that enable these can be simple or complex.
Security. Some people want to see and control what’s going on in their home at all times. They might want an array of hardwired cameras, along with the ability to give temporary entry codes to guests and service providers and to track how long each person stays in the house.
But most people consider that overkill. They’re happy with a video doorbell that shows who is at the front entry, and an internet-enabled lock that lets them use their phone to open the door for Grandma so she can drop off cookies. These are popular and inexpensive.
Sound. Are you an audiophile who wants the ultimate sound system with a central music server and hardwired high-fidelity speakers in every room? Or would you be happy with a few wireless speaker locations and the ability to stream music from a phone or tablet?
Comfort. According to a 2018 study from Zillow, smart thermostats were one of the top amenities requested by homebuyers. But while the ability to control temperatures remotely sounds great, the truth is that once the thermostat setpoints have been programmed, few people ever mess with them.
Lighting. Your home’s lighting affects your safety, health and mental well- being. We think it’s something people should consider investing more in.
We often see resistance here. Most everyone wants to avoid the banks of switches that are common in some large homes, but past experiences make people worry that automated lighting controls will be complicated. The truth is that today’s best controls are intuitive and easy-to-use.
Even if you don’t want an automated whole-house system, lighting control can really earn its keep in key areas.
For instance, a bedside switch can be programmed to activate a path of low-intensity lights that get someone safely to the bathroom at night without waking their partner or risking a fall. It’s a great choice for older people, and can be easily re-programmed if needs change.
Don’t forget natural light. Automated blinds can self-adjust with the angle of the sun, which helps maintain a pleasant environment. They also reduce heating or cooling costs and create a sense of privacy.
These are just a few examples of how to approach home automation. Again, the first step is to think through your needs, then consider what technologies will best satisfy them. Your professional builder can help with that process.
The Professional Builder walks a fine line. It is our job to balance a new home’s cost and construction efficiencies while customizing our home design and specifications. We work closely with our clients to develop the ultimate look and feel of their new home so that it meets their needs and reflects their unique taste.
To that end, we encourage and enable new-home buyers to select from an increasingly diverse list of products and finishes before we begin construction. Most often, these selections are from the catalogs or websites of our trusted suppliers and feature familiar brand names with rock-solid warranties. This helps us to build efficiently and keep the budget in check.
Whenever necessary, we accommodate a special request from a homebuyer, assuming the product or system is available and within an agreed budget … or the budget is revised to include it.
This “customization” process is a two-way street of responsibility and respect. We rely on our clients to make their selections on time to avoid delays in delivery and construction.
We do our part by establishing deadlines and milestones as part of the construction agreement. We identify when materials and finishes need to be ordered so they are on the job site to maintain our construction schedule. Our schedule also confirms “lead times”—the time between when a product is ordered and when the supplier can deliver it—so that we can coordinate its installation with the proper contractor.
Every missed deadline almost always results in a delay in construction, which invariably translates to additional costs. Worse, it can trigger a domino effect, impacting not just its point in the schedule, but also several others that follow. Homebuilding is a linear process, often requiring one step to be finished before another can start; a glitch can therefore ripple through the schedule, affecting tasks and deadlines that might appear unrelated.
Over the years, we’ve not only come to expand the choices we provide homebuyers to make—from minor structural changes to any number of finishes—but also how to accommodate those choices in the overall scheme and schedule of the project. We leave plenty of leeway for lead times (especially for new or unfamiliar selections) and use technology to find reliable sources for special orders.
Our ultimate goal is to deliver a satisfying experience that will meet our clients’ expectations. We coach new-home buyers to understand the building process and the critical role they play in it, and leave ample time to enable comfortable, unrushed decisions. We are here to advise, offer choices, and ultimately fulfill dreams—as well as build homes that will stand the test of time and evoke memories that span generations.
Lumber continues to be THE big issue in homebuilding. As we write this in May 2021, costs for framing lumber and plywood are three times what they were a year ago. That’s right—they’ve tripled. It’s insane.
They might go even higher. An April 14 Business Insider article predicted a further 12% rise this year. Timber companies got way behind during the COVID shutdowns and, thanks to record low interest rates and demand for homes, have yet to catch up.
In this environment, estimating the cost of a job can feel like predicting next week’s grocery bill in Venezuelan dollars. Lumber companies that have always guaranteed pricing for 30 days or more have now cut guarantees to 7 days.
If you’re planning a custom home, all this can feel discouraging. But while the news media seems on a mission to amplify that discouragement, the fact is that good planning will ease the pain.
A professional custom builder is a powerful ally in this effort. The builder knows that lumber is just one piece of the puzzle and can suggest creative ways to reduce overall costs while still creating the home you want.
It’s called value engineering—a fancy term for carefully planning every part of the job to optimize the return on every dollar. But while the concept is simple, execution takes real know-how.
This is one of those skills that separates the real pro from the merely competent builder. The pro knows that value engineering isn’t cost-cutting per se. Rather, it’s a creative approach to meeting homeowner priorities.
Items that can be value engineered include floor plans, elevations and product choices. The builder will study the plans and specifications (or the concept, if plans haven’t been drawn) and then suggest ways to reduce cost while maintaining quality.
It’s about making creative, informed choices.
These choices aren’t what you might think. We all know that a home with a complex roof, lots of corners, upgraded counters and finishes will cost more to build than a simple box with a straight gable roof and basic finishes. But most custom homebuyers reject those sacrifices.
Real value engineering is more subtle. You may be able to shave thousands from the budget with small adjustments that have only minimal impact on how the home looks and feels—if you know what you’re doing.
How does the builder know what adjustments to make? By asking the right questions in the right way.
For instance, if the homeowners aren’t likely to use the front porch very often, making it smaller may be an option. If they care more about the master bath than the kitchen, they might be OK with chrome kitchen plumbing fixtures fixtures and ceramic tile backsplashes versus real stone.
The builder might also suggest changing the facade in places. Using a single window versus multiple windows will reduce the window packagecost. Adjusting the home’s footprint could reduce roofing and siding waste without sacrificing indoor space. Working with trade contractors to redesign their work can also save money.
The trick is knowing which more-affordable materials and designs deliver the needed performance, aesthetic and warranty features.
The bottom line is that while lumber has been getting a lot of press, it’s just one cost. Good value engineering can help offset crazy price trends by considering the house as a whole. The ability to do this well is a hallmark of a professional builder.
Your home builder needs to navigate a maze of government regulations—homeowners can help make the process easier
A successful new-home build is a predictable one, with no unpleasant surprises. Predictability comes from good planning, as well-planned projects tend to stay on budget and on schedule. Good planning includes making sure the home will meet all code and zoning requirements.
The consequences for not meeting these requirements can range from an easy fix to an expensive nightmare.
For instance, if the inspector points out that the foundation contractor didn’t install enough anchor bolts (the bolts that secure the house to the foundation) or put them in the wrong locations, that contractor will have to come back and correct the problem before framing can begin. That might hold up progress for a day.
On the other hand, if the framing inspector notes that the roof exceeds the maximum allowable height, then you’re looking at a more costly and time-consuming remedy.
These are just two of hundreds of possibilities. That’s because code and zoning requirements seem to grow each year. Depending on the city or town, the project may require signoffs from the zoning board, the building department, the health department, the fire department, the architectural review board and even the homeowners association.
You may need permits for sitework, tree removal, water and sewer systems, foundation, framing, electrical wiring, mechanical equipment and gas piping. You may need a right-of-way permit if work will spill over to the sidewalk, or a traffic control permit if you need to park a dumpster on the street or bring in a crane. And don’t forget a utility permit if that crane will require temporarily moving power lines. There are other possibilities, depending on the jurisdiction and the project.
To avoid delays at any of these stages, the builder needs to understand all the regulations enforced by the jurisdiction where the home is being built. The builder has to make sure the home plans and equipment specifications take those regulations into account and has to manage the job to ensure that workers and subcontractors follow the plans and specifications to the tee.
Speaking of plans, they can sometimes be a point of stress between the builder and the homeowner. If the plans don’t comply with code, they will be sent back for revision. So if the homeowners already have a set of plans, then the first thing the builder will do is make sure they meet code. If doing so will require the homeowners to give up some detail they really want, the builder can come across as a killjoy.
This is where homeowners can make things easier for everyone. The best way to avoid disappointment is to choose your builder before designing your home. Doing this means builder and architect can work together to ensure that the plans are drawn to meet all local requirements. (Getting a builder involved at the design stage has other benefits, such as ensuring that your budget will be enough to complete the home, but that’s another topic.)
The point here is that regulations can be a minefield. You need someone who has a good relationship with the local building department, who understands the regulations and who can navigate them without incident. It’s one of the many reasons for hiring an experienced pro to build your home.
We’ve compared a home’s framing to its skeleton, wiring to its nerves and insulation to its muscle. Now it’s time to talk about exterior finishes—a home’s “skin”.
We’re very fortunate to be designing and building homes in a time that offers a vast array of exterior finishes, including siding (or cladding), roofing, trim, and hardscapes. The choices available in each category enable us and our homebuyers to create unique combinations that both distinguish a home and add to its value.
With a wider selection of materials also comes a higher level of performance. Today’s exterior finishes and systems are tougher and more weather-resistant. These products combine good looks with durability. Because their improved quality is better able to retain paints and stains and to resist warping, cracking, and delamination, there is a reduction in both maintenance and repair costs.
Greater selection and durability has fostered a trend toward a varied mix of materials on a finished house. It’s increasingly common to see a home that tastefully combines stone, clapboard (or lap) siding, and stucco, for instance, to deliver visual interest and achieve a more comfortable scale.
Modern manufacturers, in fact, typically offer various colors, textures, and forms within the same general category of products. For example, a manufacturer of roofing may offer a harmonious array of asphalt or clay tile roofing so that roofs along the same street retain a sense of cohesiveness without being exactly the same. Manufacturers of different products, such as roofing and siding, may even partner to promote compatible combinations across product types.
From a practical point of view, the range of available choices allows our homebuyers to select exterior finish combinations that express their desired style while simultaneously complying with the codes, covenants, and regulations (CC&Rs) of the community. The result is a return to the varied streetscapes of older, historic neighborhoods that are held in such high regard. One color, one style neighborhoods are a thing of the past.
Of course, we are also mindful of retaining the regional materials and architectural styles of our homes. Proper proportion and scale are essential to ensure lasting value and timeless curb appeal. If a certain material does not suit the style of the home—picture stucco instead of shingle siding on a Cape Cod home—using it only detracts from the overall appeal and value of the house.
Being able to select from a palette of exterior finish materials is a great advantage to the new home owner. The exterior finish is a home’s first impression, its greeting to neighbors and visitors, and an indicator of the owner’s taste and style. Thankfully, we and our homebuyers have many choices that enable us to put a unique and beautiful “skin” on every home.
The construction of a new home has a particular rhythm, fluctuating from dynamic progress in the early stages, to a natural and expected ebb of activity as the house nears completion. Our clients find it useful to understand this tempo. They know what to expect and they can appreciate their new home as it takes shape.
Initially, the building process shows almost daily progress. As we build the foundation and structural frame, the general, three-dimensional shape of the house quickly takes form. The house becomes real and tangible; room sizes and locations on the floor plans become obvious within a few weeks.
The beginning phases of construction happen faster than the finishing stages later in the process. At the outset, large-dimension components, such as the wall studs and roof rafters are assembled into three-dimensional forms. At this stage, several workers often build those and other structural elements at the same time on different sections of the house. The job site is a hive of activity, and there is obvious progress.
Likewise, the windows and doors, roofing, and siding materials install nearly as quickly as the home’s foundation and structural frame, resulting in a nearly finished exterior shell. Meanwhile, the electrician, plumber, and heating contractors work inside to install their respective behind-the-wall systems before the framed walls are filled with insulation or covered over with drywall and other substrates.
It is a very encouraging time for everyone involved.
As work continues, however, the pace begins to slow considerably as the focus shifts from the so-called “rough” or early stages of construction to the finishes. Dynamic progress gives way to very subtle, yet equally critical, improvements and finishing touches toward the home’s completion.
While the placement of insulation and drywall occurs somewhat quickly and produces the dramatic effect of having the walls and ceilings nearly finished, the process of taping and texturing these surfaces to make them ready for paint, wallpaper, or other textures is necessarily slow. A drywall contractor may require a week or more to properly prepare an entire house. In addition, few other contractors can complete their work during this phase of the finishing process.
Typically, from this point to a home’s completion, the various trade contractors that once worked side-by-side must now operate in sequence. Carpenters, for instance, install the cabinets and countertops before the appliances and plumbing fixtures can be connected and finished.
Meanwhile, the painting contractor waits for the trim carpenters to finish before he can cover their work. And imagine how many faceplates, switch plates, light fixtures, and other finishes need to be fastened in place to complete the electrical system, not to mention carpeting and other floor finishes, tile work, and plumbing fixtures.
The more deliberate rate at which this stage of construction occurs can test a homebuyer’s patience. To help ease any concern or mystery, we often schedule opportunities to walk through a new home with our buyers, pointing out the understated progress going on in the latter stages of construction to assure them that their home is nearing occupancy.
Understanding the rhythm of homebuilding, from dynamic beginnings to the precision of its completion, helps our clients establish reasonable expectations and appreciate the realities of the construction process.
You may have heard that I am involved with a wonderful nonprofit, Casa Esperanza. This project aims to provide a transitional home for women and children that for various reasons have become homeless within the Bakersfield Community. By joining the home, these women will get the toolkit they need to reintegrate into the job force and gain skills to be able to transition to permanent housing.
We are thrilled to announce that we are working with Big Give Kern to raise money for Casa Esparanza. Today, I invite you to give a gift along with us! All donation amounts are welcome. Please join me in this effort to make this project a reality by visiting my fundraising page HERE. We have a matching donor that will double all donations up to $5000. Our goal is to raise $10,000. I have personally taken on the challenge to raise $5,000. Once Casa Esperanza is open, this would make it possible for us to provide job readiness skills to one of our beneficiaries. Please jump on board and help me reach this goal. The deadline is May 4th, 2021. We thank you for your consideration!
“My wife, Marilyn, and I have been blessed to have built a business that provides one of the most important things in peoples’ lives, a home for their family. We believe we have a responsibility to share our God-given talents and passion to help those that do not have a house to call their own. I am honored to be a member of Casa Esperanza as it is going to provide a family-like environment to its mothers and their children while transitioning to sustainable independence. Please join me in supporting Casa Esperanza as Marilyn and I will match the donations totaling up to $5,000.”
The short answer is no, and here’s why that’s a good thing.
Some builders are what one might call ‘order takers.’ They do anything the homeowners want within the constraints of budget, timetable, and zoning or code regulations. That’s understandable: everyone wants happy customers and positive reviews.
But the best builders understand that an anything-you-want approach really doesn’t serve customers. We would go further and caution people to beware of the builder who never pushes back.
Don’t misunderstand—all custom builders try hard to accommodate requests. After all, they are building custom homes. At the same time, they also know that protecting customers may mean vetoing certain requests.
A good way to illustrate this is with the example of an air conditioning system installed costs range from $14,000 to $24,000 in most areas of the US. (That’s on average: the range will be higher in extreme climates and for big homes.) Now imagine a homeowner who does some research and concludes that an $8,000 system will do the job. Should the builder accept that conclusion?
The answer is that while budget concerns are important, long-term satisfaction depends more on performance than on price. It’s the builder’s responsibility to help the homeowner understand that.
The builder’s heating and cooling (HVAC) engineer will calculate the optimal system needed to keep the home comfortable, energy efficient and healthy. The builder may then recommend a more expensive system or may limit choices to one or two very reliable brands.
Recommending the higher-priced product isn’t a sly attempt to jack up profits. It’s a sign that the builder is looking out for the customer’s well-being.
Builders with a reputation for durable, high-quality homes earn that reputation because everything they do supports it. Using cheap products that fall short of the builder’s performance standards would be like putting Hyundai parts in a Porsche. That’s no criticism of Hyundai; it’s a recognition that builders, like car manufacturers, have to deliver on their brand promises.
If the $8,000 system doesn’t properly cool the house in the spring or heat in the winter, then the customer will blame the builder, even if the customer asked for that system.
This is only one example. Many homeowners also request specific windows, flooring, interior paints and other products. A builder’s willingness to use them depends on whether they meet the builder’s standards. That’s a good thing for the homeowner.
Builders with great reputations put a high priority on good customer relationships. Good relationships are based on trust, and one earns trust by telling the truth.
But trustworthy builders don’t leave customers disappointed. Instead, they suggest products and designs that offer the benefits customers really want from their new home.
Traditionally, people have been conditioned to follow a certain, linear path to building a new home. That is, hire an architect or designer to create the plans, select a builder and then maybe bring in a stylist or interior designer to apply the finishing touches.
But the reality is that this step-by-step approach to getting a new house is not only outdated, but can be risky in terms of cost and quality. A better approach is to form your project team from the outset. Doing so fosters a cooperative rather than combative or competitive working environment that produces more satisfying results. It’s also a dynamic that’s more likely to ensure you’ll get what you want in a new home at the price you can afford.
By bringing your design and building professionals together as soon as possible, they can dedicate their efforts to meeting your needs and looking out for your budget.
Selecting a professional builder at the outset of your new-home project allows that person or company to work with an architect or designer to deliver plans and specifications that are realistic and can actually be built. It also increases the likelihood that the project will come in on time and on budget.
Too often, the old approach left builders having to argue changes to the plans and specifications that sometimes compromised a home’s aesthetic value, if only to make it affordable. Downsizing is difficult. No one wants to be disappointed or feel like they had to sacrifice something—especially a favorite feature or product—because it was discovered to be too pricey.
This is much less likely to happen when architect and builder are working together early in the process. By combining their expertise, they can help ensure that what’s drawn can be built without sacrificing design quality and staying within budget. This collaboration can result in a far better housing value.
Here are some additional reasons to bring in a builder early:
Materials ordering. Some products and materials require long lead times—perhaps months—between order and delivery. A professional builder can identify these situations and be able to place an order so that product delivery will not delay the construction schedule.
Code compliance. More so than design professionals, builders know the applicable building codes as interpreted by the local authority and inspectors. They can help insure that plans will be approved for a permit the first time they are submitted. When plans are kicked back for changes, a home start can be delayed, or worse, a job may be stopped midway to address a code issue.
A professional builder also will know when and how to submit for a building permit and schedule necessary inspections during construction to establish and maintain a tight building schedule from the beginning.
Buildablity. You can draw anything, but even something as seemingly simple as a window or door needs to be installed properly. If allowed to be part of your new home’s planning process, professional builders and their trade contractors can quickly and easily identify potential installation issues before they become costly problems on the job site.
A collaborative effort from the outset allows ideas and information to flow among your design professional, builder, stylist, and you before anyone commits a significant amount of time and money to your new house. Sharing ideas and alternatives to achieve the best result is a far better approach than discovering a better idea too late, or not at all.
Custom homebuyers have asked what we think about this popular flooring. Here’s our answer.
We don’t often talk about products in this newsletter, but when lots of clients ask about a specific one, we like to offer our thoughts. That’s the case with luxury vinyl flooring.. We’re not the only ones getting questions: according to some articles we’ve read, luxury vinyl is one of the world’s fastest-growing floor coverings.
These products are sold as planks, commonly referred as “LVP” or tiles, commonly referred as “LVT”. Some are glued in place, and others are installed as a floating floor. Many have a photo-realistic surface layer that mimics natural wood or stone. They’re better looking than old fashion conventional vinyl, as well as thicker and more durable. They’re more difficult to scratch than site-finished or engineered hardwood, and if a piece gets damaged it’s generally easy to replace.
A luxury vinyl floor will cost less than natural stone and resist water much better than hardwood. That makes it a great choice for rough-use areas like kitchens, mudrooms and bathrooms. Some products can even be safely installed over radiant floor heat.
Of course, no product is perfect for every application, and we discuss at length the pros and cons with homeowners before they make a final decision. We feel that sharing our understanding and research helps our clients make the best possible choice for their family.
Let’s start with aesthetics. Even though luxury vinyl products are attractive, you need to make sure you actually like the look. For instance, manufacturers advertise their plank products as being nearly indistinguishable from real hardwood. They do come close, but and in fact a lot of customers mistake the planks for wood-look ceramic tile. There’s nothing wrong with that; the only question is whether it’s what you want.
There’s also the cost. Many people assume that a faux-hardwood LVP plank will be less expensive than real wood, whether engineered or site-finished. But that’s not necessarily the case as engineered hardwood is priced based on the species, finish and warranty.
One reason for luxury vinyl’s price is it’s rising demand from homeowners. Another is that some luxury vinyl products or the job may require the installer to place an engineered underlayment between the vinyl and the subfloor or slab. The underlayment provides cushioning, muffles sound, and in certain instances serves as a moisture barrier.
Finally, there’s the issue of water from above. Luxury vinyl products are marketed for use in wet areas like baths, and they are indeed water resistent. However, if the floor will be habitually wet, or if a broken pipe floods the room, water can seep in around the edges and under the floor.
If water gets in around the edges of a glue-down floor, the problem will stay at the edges and you’ll probably only need to replace a few boards or tiles. With a floating floor, by comparison, water can seep further underneath. Part of the finished floor may need to be removed to prevent mildew problems or damage to a wood subfloor. Each type also has their own unique finish surface appearance.
The bottom line is that luxury vinyl is great for certain situations. But like most engineered products, it needs to be chosen wisely and installed in a way that ensures long-term durability. That requires a firm understanding of how the product will perform over the long term, and it’s why professional builders make a point to educate themselves on the latest product trends.
You’ve finally decided to build that dream house and have visited our model home or have directly contacted us. Now what?
As a professional home builder, we are prepared to answer any questions you have as you make a purchasing decision, arguably one of the most important financial choices in your life.
But while we encourage and welcome this dialogue, we often find that homebuyers aren’t typically prepared for that opportunity. In many cases, the questions we get are limited to how much does a new house cost (or cost per square foot), what are the countertop or cabinet choices, and information on available lots.
While those are valid questions, we think they only scratch the surface of what homebuyers need to know to help ensure a satisfying experience with our company or any professional builder.
So here are the top five questions we think homebuyers should ask when they are on the cusp of building a new home with us…and why they matter:
1. Who will run the job? We have a construction manager skilled in new home construction to be your main point of contact from groundbreaking through the final walk-through. It is important to know who that is, and how to contact him to get the most accurate and up-to-date information and answer questions about your new house. We believe this gives you the best of both worlds; a dedicated supervisor as your day-to-day go-to person along with availability from our entire staff in support of you and your new home.
2. Will workers be there all day, every day? Understanding how we work and the pacing of the new home construction process is critical to having a positive experience. In fact, sometimes, there are very few people on the job site, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t progressing. There may be an inspection scheduled or a delivery on the way that will trigger crews and subcontractors to return and continue their work…perhaps even later that day. We keep a schedule. Our business depends on being efficient, but there are occasional lulls in the process that we’ll point out when we go over the building schedule with you. COVID-19 has also impacted the scheduling of our trade partners to provide them sufficient social distancing and has resulted in supply disruptions.
3. How often can I stop by the job site? The construction manager will gladly schedule times for you to visit the site, ask any questions, and discuss the project and its progress, usually at key points in the process. Unscheduled visits can be dangerous depending on the work going on.
4. Can you supply references? We are happy to provide you with a list of people who have recently purchased homes from us, and we encourage you to call them and ask about their experience and level of satisfaction as you make your own purchasing decision. Any professional builder should have references at the ready, including financial partners, trade contractors, materials suppliers, and others we work with that can provide perspective on our professionalism and track record of performance. Some builders also use third-party companies such as Guild Quality to survey their clients during various times during and after the home building process which also provides client feedback that is available to prospective homebuyers.
5. How do you handle changes? Most people don’t ask this question because they can’t envision making a change to a decision during construction, but it happens all the time. We work diligently with you to create a detailed list of specifications for your house before we break ground, but we also have change order policies and procedures in place—which we share with you upfront and in the construction contract—to account for changes after building begins.
Armed with the answers to this handful of questions, we think you’ll be more confident in your home buying decisions and more likely to be satisfied with the end result.
Avoid the most common mistakes when searching for ideas on the web
We all love the internet. It’s a bottomless source of ideas and inspiration for any project, and most people wouldn’t think of starting a new custom home before spending some serious time online. The internet is also a valuable resource for builders: it’s where we start our research into new products, technologies and construction methods.
Despite the wealth of knowledge it offers, the internet provides its best value when you keep its limitations in mind and work with your builder to thoroughly vet that knowledge. A little skepticism will go a long way toward making your search results truly helpful.
The most common problem we see with online information is that it lacks needed context.
Take design, for instance. Pinterest is the go-to for design ideas, and there really are some great ideas there. The challenge is that most photos of architectural details only show the end result. They don’t tell you how much effort those details took to create, what unseen elements (structural blocking, for instance) were needed to support them, or what specific products and materials were used.
What about manufactured products? That new mechanical or electronic system may have a great sales page, but the skilled labor needed to install and service it may not be available in your area. Even with something simple, like a high-end soaking tub, the builder has to make sure it’s carried by the local distributor. Maybe it is readily available but only as a special order that takes too much time to get and has an unacceptably high price.
Home performance is another topic that can trip people up. That super high R-value insulation that appeared in a paid link at the top of your search results offers impressive performance, but it might be overkill for the local climate, making the extra cost unnecessary.
Or take the person who worries about condensation and, after reading about it on the web, wants to talk with the builder about wall vapor barriers. It’s a valid concern, but not all structures need a vapor barrier, and its proper place in the wall depends on the climate and the type of construction. Heat and moisture movement are complex subjects, given today’s building products and methods. That’s why cutting-edge builders seek building science education to ensure that they are handled correctly.
Some clients come to the table armed with advice they have found about how to hire a builder and how to get the best price. Much of the online advice about these topics is overly generic, as well as contrary to what experience tells us makes for a truly satisfied client.
The problem isn’t the information—it’s the expectations that are sometimes created by that information. Assumptions based solely on Google results can sow unnecessary seeds of disappointment, and that disappointment can have a negative impact on the homeowner’s relationship with the builder.
When planning a new home, it’s best to approach online research in the same spirit as when looking up symptoms before visiting the doctor. Information you find can help you have an intelligent conversation and make a good decision about treatment options. And… the doctor will have insight and knowledge that you don’t.
Just as your doctor is the expert on medicine, your professional builder is the expert on the art and science of designing, building and finishing a high-quality custom home on budget and on schedule. The best use for the information you find online is as a starting point for collaborating with your builder.
Creating a durable and efficient home is no job for amateurs.
There’s a common but flawed perception that older homes are more durable than contemporary housing, with fewer mold and moisture problems. While it’s true that some newer homes have had well-publicized mold issues, they are by no means the rule. These moldy homes do share a common denominator, however—they were built by people who didn’t understand how to get the most out of contemporary materials and construction practices. That takes an educated professional builder.
In ancient times—30 or so years ago—someone with basic construction knowledge could build a serviceable home. No more. Today, the combination of contemporary building materials and code-mandated construction practices have made homes more complex with less margin for error.
First, consider the evolution of materials. Suppliers used to sell framing lumber cut from mature trees that could absorb a lot of moisture without problems, a quality known as hygric buffer capacity. Builders put that lumber into drafty walls where any moisture absorbed by the wood could escape before it caused problems.
But those mature trees have all been harvested. Today’s homes use a combination of engineered boards and dimensional lumber cut from fast-growing species—neither of which can store and release as much moisture as old-growth wood could. To complicate things further, energy codes mandate that those materials be put into well-insulated, nearly airtight walls.
These are not drawbacks. Engineered wood offers real structural advantages, and well-insulated walls make homes more comfortable and efficient. No modern builder or homeowner would want to do without them. The materials and insulation aren’t the problem; the problem is builders who don’t know how to work with those materials.
That makes it crucial to hire a builder who understands the basic principles of moisture-related building science. Yes, good design and construction is now a science as well as an art.
Professional builders use bulletproof roofing, siding, and flashing that keep water out of the structure. They also know how to craft an efficient wall system that can handle the large amount of moisture put into the home’s air by a typical family (from activities such as cooking and showering) without problems.
These builders understand that drying potential is as important as moisture resistance, and that wall systems must be optimized for the local climate. For instance, if any of that airborne moisture works its way into a wall, it needs to dry primarily to the outside in a heating climate but to the inside in a cooling climate. The educated pro knows how to make sure that happens.
The bottom line is to build the home so that its structure stays dry no matter how wet the weather or how many long, steamy showers the occupants take. A lot of older homes did that on their own, so builders and designers could get by without much knowledge of building science. That is no longer the case.
Government rules take time, money and skill to navigate. That’s why you need a pro.
Did the budget for your new home come in higher than you expected? Part of the reason may be that the fixed costs of building anything have gone up.
By fixed costs we don’t mean building materials. While this year’s 170% lumber price increase has been painful for everyone, lumber is a variable that will eventually fall. What, we’re talking about here are fees and regulatory costs baked into the system.
Fees and regulations help explain why you see many apartment buildings under construction. The ability to spread fixed costs over more than one unit is often the only way builders and housing developers can provide affordable housing.
One fixed cost is utilities. There are minimum fees to run electric, water and sewage lines whether it’s a first time home buyer home or a large custom home.
But the most significant fixed costs are regulatory. According to the National Association of Homebuilders, regulations account for roughly 25% of what you pay for the average new home—30% more than a decade ago. Regulations imposed on manufacturers make building products more expensive, while those aimed at builders and developers do the same for construction.
Please understand that we’re not opposed to regulations. They’re necessary to ensure safe jobsites and durable homes. But regulations can be a costly minefield, and it takes a knowledgeable builder to comply with those regulations while minimizing their effect on the budget.
Those effects vary by jurisdiction and size of the home. For instance, permit fees for a $1 million home can range from $15,000 to $100,000 depending on where in the U.S. you live. Some jurisdictions charge sales tax while others don’t. Some projects require impact fees. Some require the builder to get a zoning variance, or to work with the planning or conservation commission during site development.
Building codes also vary in their financial consequences but a knowledgeable design and construction team that’s familiar with the local code can often mitigate them. A case in point is the extra cost for thicker insulation and more efficient windows mandated by energy codes. By making sure the home’s design and detailing are a perfect fit for the climate, the builder and architect can ensure that the monthly energy savings from those code requirements help offset the extra they add to the cost of a home.
The architect and builder can also control regulatory costs by getting things right the first time. That includes submitting code-compliant plans that won’t need to be sent back for a re-do and working with trade ontractors and inspectors to make sure that inspections don’t delay the construction schedule.
Some regulatory costs are hidden. Recent OSHA rules include time-consuming recordkeeping demands. Some states have costly training, licensing and insurance requirements.
The time and expense of complying with hidden costs are part of the builder’s overhead, but builders that manage them well will have lower overhead. That’s less cost passed on to the homeowner. It’s one of the advantages of hiring an experienced pro to build your new home.
Most “green building” conversations emphasize energy efficiency. By contrast, the issue of water — its scarcity, purity, and significance to sustainability — is often overlooked or discounted.
That’s because, in North America, we take water for granted; not only is it cheap, it is relatively abundant and clean. But while an average bathtub may hold 40 gallons of water, many people in developing countries survive on 8 gallons of water or less per day. In fact, an estimated 800 million people worldwide lack access to safe water supplies and 3.5 million people die each year from a water-related disease.
Domestically, recent seasonal and longer-term droughts in several areas have triggered restrictions and household quotas on water use. In fact, average residential water rates nationwide continue to rise at a steady rate.
As a professional builder who looks out for the welfare of our homebuyers and our community, we accommodate requests and comply with all building code requirements to reduce a home’s water consumption.
In many cases, we can use low-flow plumbing fixtures including toilets, faucets, and showerheads, to automatically reduce water use without our homeowners noticing much (if any) difference in their convenience and performance. The latest clothes washers, dishwashers, and water heating systems also use less water (and save energy, too). All of those products are readily available and generally affordable.
But as much as these “embedded” water savings reduce consumption, there is more that we can do. We encourage homeowners to keep their water use in check with some simple changes to their lifestyle habits.
One easy way to save water at home is to limit your showers to no more than 10 minutes and avoid filling the bathtub unless absolutely necessary. Turn off the bathroom faucet while brushing your teeth or shaving.
In addition, homeowners can save water by running only full loads of laundry and dishes. If you have to hand-wash some dishes in the kitchen, fill one basin with soapy water (to clean/scrub) and another with clear water (to rinse) rather than continuously running the faucet.
As much as those lifestyle adjustments can reduce water inside your home, making some changes outside can be even more impactful. Easy stuff, such as using a broom instead of a garden hose to clean off your driveway or patio and washing your car less often (or at a carwash that recycles its water) can save hundreds of gallons of water a year.
But the real culprit of outdoor water waste is landscaping, and especially turf grass areas. If you can adjust or replace your lawn sprinklers with more targeted, rotating heads that limit overspray and set up a drip irrigation system for trees and shrubs, you’ll see a significant reduction in your water use.
With that, consider putting your irrigation system on a timer and setting it to run in the early morning to reduce evaporation.
You can also buy and install small rainwater catchment systems from a home improvement or hardware store, which can be used for seasonal flower beds or hanging plants instead of using potable water for those needs.
With so many areas in the developing world so desperate for clean, healthy drinking water, and our costs continuing to rise, can we afford to take water for granted?
COVID is causing changes in home designs and product choices
Did you know that the half-bath became popular in the years following the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic? That’s because homeowners wanted to keep visitors’ germs out of the main bath. Did you also realize that Modern interior design first took hold in America during the Great Depression? Although embraced by the wealthy, its emphasis on practicality and simplicity seemed appropriate for a time of general economic hardship.
Which brings us to today. Whatever your opinion of COVID, the response has caused major societal shocks, and societal shocks always change what people want in their homes. So what new things are homeowners asking for?
This has been a hot topic among builders, remodelers, architects and realtors. While the specifics requests they’re hearing may differ, there are some common threads. If you’re planning a new custom home, understanding these can inform your design and product choices.
The top priority is health. Hot-selling home-health products and systems include antimicrobial countertops and door knobs, hard flooring surfaces, touchless faucets and air purification. Some homeowners even want UV scrubbers, which are placed in the home’s ductwork use ultraviolet light to kill bacteria, pollen, and mold spores.
Health concerns are also impacting floor planning. For instance mudrooms with washer/dryer nooks have become more popular. They let people shed dirty clothes before entering the home and are especially popular with healthcare workers. More homeowners are also opting for an en suite bath in every bedroom, which makes it easy to isolate sick family members while also giving everyone a bit more privacy.
At least one trend seems to have been fueled by the empty store shelves earlier this year, and people’s fear of a repeat. Researchers who track housing trends say that homeowners asking for larger pantries in particular and more built-in storage in general. The ability to pack away lots of food and other items is security against future shortages. Space for a secondary refrigerator or freezer located inside the home has also become a popular request.
Other changes are the result of people having to do more things at home. Home offices and study nooks were popular 10 years ago but fell out of favor when Wi-Fi became ubiquitous. But demand for these spaces is back with a vengeance, thanks to more people working and schooling at home and needing a quiet space to do so. Our Highgate “Farmington” model home features both a Study and Pocket Office which has been dubbed the “Zoom Room”.
Entertainment is also high on homeowners’ wish lists. A lot of people don’t want to go to movie theaters or other places where they have to interact with strangers. That has raised demand for home theaters, as well as for spaces where family members can pursue hobbies.
Outdoor living is another big winner. Outdoor rooms have been popular for years but demand has really taken off in the past few months. It seems that when people feel trapped inside they start pining for an outdoor lounge area, kitchen or garden. And because they foresee spending lots of time in that outdoor room they want thoughtful designs and quality materials.
The bottom line is that COVID has caused people to rethink their relationship with their home. In recent years, busy schedules had made the home little more than a pit stop for many families, a place to refuel before rushing off to the next activity. Now, more people are seeing it as a place where they can spend a lot of time together. Even without a pandemic, a home that enables that is a great asset.
You can tell a lot about someone by his or her associates, and that’s as true for businesses as it is for individuals. Every successful business understands the value of ongoing trust-based relationships with other industry professionals.
Take the example of builder trade partnerships. If a builder has top-notch trade partners working on its jobs, it’s a sign that the builder is top-notch as well. Birds of a feather do, in fact, tend to build together.
The rewards that come from partnerships between highly professional companies go to everyone—builder, trade partners, and clients—in ways that are obvious and also not so obvious.
First, the obvious. A builder who has a trusted cadre of great trade contractors and vendors—and who treats them well—earns the best value and the finest customer service they have to offer. The builder’s clients enjoy fair pricing and timely work. Builders are really no different than homeowners in this respect: once they find a painting or landscaping company that consistently gets things done right and on time, without the need for micromanagement, they use that company again and again. It’s smart business.
A reliable trade partner can also be trusted to take care of the client without the builder having to act as an intermediary. Consider the process of choosing decorative lighting. Our clients are best served by meeting directly with the lighting vendor’s salesperson who has the experience and training in the current lighting design trends and space planning. The ability of the lighting store to manage the process also makes scheduling easier and helps control costs.
Less obvious but equally important payoffs have to do with continual improvement. A trusted trade partner won’t be afraid to tell the builder if something can be done more efficiently, and vice-versa. In fact, good builders schedule meetings with their trade partners throughout the building process for the specific purpose of sharing feedback. Over time, everyone becomes more professional and efficient, and the clients reap the benefit of well-managed projects.
The best builders also go beyond their market. For instance, professional builders belong to a trade association that keeps them up to date on trends in design, construction, codes, and business management. Some participate in the local chapter of a large organization like the National Association of Homebuilders, which provide further opportunities to advance their home building knowledge. Others join networking groups with companies from non-competing markets who work together to help one another strengthen and grow their businesses. By sharing what works and what doesn’t, each member company becomes more successful and better able to serve its customers.
Membership in a trade group is a good sign. That’s because these groups don’t attract builders out to make a quick buck. Rather, the willingness to pay (often steep) membership fees and to participate in the organization’s activities is the mark of a company that is serious about adhering to professional standards and even helping to develop them. It’s a company that wants to improve the industry as a whole for the benefit of everyone. These are pros who treat homebuilding like the profession it is, and who take great pride in that fact.
Custom home pricing is a complex subject. Here are some ways to think about it.
Have you ever called a car dealership to ask how much cars cost per pound? You say that’s a ridiculous question? We agree. In fact, we expect the dealership’s sales staff would wonder what you had been smoking.
The serious answer is that it depends. Are you asking about a Toyota Camry or a Tesla Roadster? (That’s $8 versus $47 per pound if you’re curious.)
Then why do so many people think that a custom builder should be able to quote a standard cost-per-square foot over the phone or by email? The answer is that it’s a popular metric with the real estate industry. You’ll find cost per square foot on every Zillow listing, and it’s one of the numbers cookie-cutter tract builders use to compete with other cookie-cutter tract builders.
Unfortunately, this flawed metric has created an assumption among some people that similarly-sized homes should have roughly equivalent value. That’s simply not true.
Equivalent value may be a fair assumption with tract homes, which really are manufactured products. Their builders (especially the large, multi-state builders) have management structures similar to those used in factories, and they constantly strive to optimize production time and cost. That makes sense: the effort required to save $1000 per home pays off when you’re building 20,000 homes per year.
Of course, being efficient and not wasting time or money are values you should expect of any company you do business with. At the same time, however, tract and custom homes are different animals. The custom home is one of the world’s last great hand-crafted products; rather than being designed and built for a general demographic, everything about it has the goal of satisfying your individual wants and needs.
The great thing about a custom home is that you can get any floor plan, architectural features or products you want. That means cost is determined largely by your choices. No responsible custom builder quotes a per-square-foot price without an in-depth conversation about these choices, because doing so would risk misleading the client.
Yes, some tract builders offer limited choices in cabinets, countertop, fixtures and carpets. But you have to stick with their pre-selected options, and you have to put those options into one of their standard floor plans. Some of these builders have tried letting customers choose non-standard products, but then backed off when it raised havoc with their ordering system, their accounting department and their construction schedules.
Custom builders aren’t constrained by the need to save pennies. Instead, our overriding purpose is to help customers design and build a unique dream home. Unusual or complicated products or designs will affect the price, but we work with customers to give them as much of what they want as possible within a budget and schedule they are happy with.
That’s because our business model is based on customer service.
Here’s another way to think about it. If you spend time in the dress racks at Target you can probably find a comfortable, good-looking outfit with decent quality. But if you want something unique, something that accentuates your beauty and makes you feel great about yourself, then you’re more likely to go to a boutique store like Anthropologie, whose staff will happily work with you to style a one-of-a-kind, high-quality wardrobe that includes the dress and the accessories.
We’ll go out on a limb here and assume that the Anthropologie dress will have a higher cost per square inch of fabric. We’ll also assume that you consider it worth the price.
Neither choice is right or wrong. It’s just a question of what’s important to you.
What do today’s best builders have in common? Although the answer includes many items, there’s a common thread running through each of them: a commitment to ongoing learning. The know-how needed to build high-performance, durable homes is evolving faster than ever. That’s why top builders commit to continuing education in a variety of disciplines, including architecture, engineering, law, materials science, and management.
Here are three examples.
Processes. A custom building company assembles a massive product with thousands of interrelated parts: the finished home. That home is far more complex than most things people buy, except perhaps their car, and today’s customers rightly demand that it be completed for the contracted price, on the agreed-to schedule, with few or no defects.
Builders actually face steeper hurdles in meeting customer expectations than do car manufacturers. Not only must they coordinate and motivate teams of independent contractors to get the job done, but they have to do it outside in all types of weather including winter cold, rain and summer heat. Keeping things on track under these circumstances demands bulletproof management and quality control, all of which must be continually honed. Unexpected events such as the COVID 19 pandemic complicates the process further.
Products. Building products and processes are changing more rapidly than at any time in human history. Industry trade journals showcase a seemingly endless stream of new materials and technologies, from engineered framing components, to high-tech windows, to security systems and smart appliances. The builder has to know how to evaluate these products and, if they’re worth adopting, how to make sure they’re installed correctly and in a manner that fits into the workflow.
Regulations. Governments are exerting more control over what types of homes can be built, how they get built, and how they perform when finished.
Zoning, building, and mechanical codes govern where the house is placed and how it’s framed, plumbed, and wired. Energy codes attempt to reduce the amount of heating and cooling the home uses, with the latest codes mandating that new homes be built nearly airtight. The need to satisfy energy codes while avoiding moisture problems and maintaining a healthy indoor environment has helped spawn the field of Building Science, which maps and quantifies heat and moisture flows through the structure. Every builder needs a working knowledge of how to apply its principles.
Work crews are also more regulated than ever. Federal agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency write new work rules each year, and states impose additional rules. Most of these rules include work process and recordkeeping requirements, both of which are increasingly enforced. To stay compliant, builders have to learn the regulations and keep current with annual changes.
Keeping up with this expanding web of new products, processes, and regulations is just half the battle. Builders who want to stay in business have to adapt to these changes in a way that controls costs and keeps customers happy. Seat-of-the-pants management doesn’t cut it any more—the builder needs a commitment to continuing education.
This education is widely available. Professional associations offer classes and certifications in a variety of disciplines. Private training companies show builders how to comply with new codes and regulations. Trade shows introduce new products and technologies, and most shows also include seminars on design, construction, and management. Where a builder and its staff get their training matters less than the commitment to getting it. Advanced training is one sign of a professional, so it’s a fair subject to ask about when evaluating a prospective builder.
How to keep your new home on track amid COVID-related price spikes and shortages
If you’re ready to start a new custom home, you may need to deal with ongoing fallout from the coronavirus-related economic shutdown. That means working with your builder to mitigate its impact.
The problem, as we all know, started in March and April. Some states and localities halted all construction, and homebuyers in other areas canceled or postponed their projects. The sudden drop in demand led to plant closings throughout the building supply chain, from lumber mills to window, door and appliance manufacturers.
Housing starts bounced back quickly, thanks to a lifting of restrictions and 3.5% mortgage interest rates. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that August 2020 starts were up 22.6% from the previous month and up 23.4% from August 2019.
Unfortunately, the supply chain has been slower to rebound. Some manufacturers have two-month order backlogs, and others have been struggling to get parts. For example, most refrigerator compressors are made in Mexico, where factories also closed for a time and are still catching up.
To make things more difficult, health regulations now limit the number of workers in some plants, and some workers have opted not to return. That means those plants can’t produce as much.
Not surprisingly, manufacturers’ inability to keep up with demand has led to higher prices and delays getting certain items.
The sharpest price rises have been for framing lumber, which by August had doubled compared to the beginning of this year. That has added $16,000 to $20,000 to the cost of an average new home, which the National Association of Homebuilders defines as having just over 2,200 square feet of living area. Cost increases for bigger houses are even more.
Homeowners who can’t absorb these increases might need to look for creative solutions. One option is a slightly smaller home. Another possibility is to work with the designer and builder to make a number of small adjustments that only minimally impact the way the new home looks and feels—otherwise known as value engineering.
The value engineering process looks for ways to economize without sacrificing amenities or quality. One obvious solution is to choose less expensive products, but you can also tweak designs. For example, simplifying the exterior facade on all or part of the home—reducing the number or corners and trim details—will save labor and materials without crimping interior living space.
Making Prompt Choices
Current supply shortages include commodities like treated lumber, which is needed for areas that require moisture or termite resistance, such as deck frames and sill plates (the boards that secure the home to the foundation).
Meanwhile, there have been delays getting some manufactured products and options. For instance, some appliance companies are only making stainless-steel finishes at this time. That doesn’t mean you can’t get the items you want, but it does mean that you need to choose everything from the deck layout to the windows, doors and carpeting as early as possible, preferably before work begins.
You may need to be extra patient due to unpredictable delays in the supply chain over the next few months. These delays are out of any builders’ control. If you need to move into the house by a certain date, it’s more important than ever to speed up those design and product selections.
One final point. Material prices, order lead times and available options can vary from market to market, so a news story or the experience of a friend in another state may not apply. The only way to determine how these issues will impact you and your project—and what the proper response should be—is to discuss them with your professional builder.
Building a new home is a dynamic and exciting process. As professional homebuilders, our goal is to make the process smooth and transparent for our clients. Once the job is underway, things happen quickly, so we work with clients to make decisions well ahead of time to help ensure they get their new home on schedule and on budget, as promised.
All of the big design decisions are made before the first scoop of dirt is moved, but that is rarely the end of the decision-making process. Once construction is underway, owners often think of a few things they’d like to change. Adjustments may range from a change in kitchen cabinets, choosing different flooring in the bathroom, or just adding an extra light switch or two.
We document such requests, called “change orders,” to make sure that all parties have a clear understanding of the scope and cost of the change. It is important for the homeowner to understand how change orders affect the building process. When homeowner and builder communicate well, the impact of change orders on the construction schedule and budget can be minimized.
A change order made after construction begins always has a cost. The cost may be the time and labor to make the change or it may be the price of additional materials or products required—sometimes both.
In addition, the timing of a change order affects the cost. Changes late in the building process typically cost more than earlier ones. Some changes may be cost-prohibitive, such as altering the foundation or adding a second story once we’ve started building a home’s structural frame.
We respect our clients’ desires to get exactly the house they want. And we know that some finishes (or even floor plans) may be hard to visualize until they’re actually installed or built. From long experience, we know that changes will happen and, consequently, we aim to be systematic about managing change orders. Our process ensures good communication and provides assurances between everyone involved. It also helps us stick to the schedule and minimize additional costs.
The change order process: The most effective change order processes follow a general pattern that creates a paper trail and provides reliable cost information up front, including:
Centralization. Change order requests are managed by one person to help ensure effective communication between everyone involved. This includes specialty trade contractors, suppliers, our job site managers, and, of course, our clients. We discourage homeowners from making special requests directly to a trade contractor, as this is a quick route to misunderstandings and disrupted schedules.
Documentation. Client requests are transferred to an electronic or paper-based change order form that initiates a paper trail and helps ensure greater accuracy and clearer communication.
Terms. We anticipate the types of changes our clients may make. We have a good idea of the cost and time most changes require. As a result, we can often communicate the terms quickly so that homeowners can make an informed decision in plenty of time to make the change or decide against it.
Confirmation. It’s important to everyone involved that no change occurs without a client signature. Clients must approve the cost and terms, as well as the style, finish, or other details about the change. This also ensures that clients are made aware of how the change may affect their move-in date or other aspects of the construction schedule.
Inspection. We may ask clients to visit the new home’s job site when the change is being made to make sure they are satisfied and don’t have any questions.
Payment. Costs for change orders may be billed separately, usually as soon as the change order has been approved.
By following this simple but thorough change order process, our clients can be sure that any changes they consider—whether minor or substantial—will be handled in a timely fashion without confusion, miscommunication, or unnecessary cost.
Transparency about what you can afford is the only way to get the most house for your money
Your new custom home is likely one of your biggest-ever investments, so you obviously need a builder you can trust. Ways to confirm trustworthiness include reading online reviews, calling references and confirming the builder’s participation in professional building organizations
As important as this research is, the final choice often comes down to a gut feeling. But trusting your gut isn’t always accurate, and some people feel anxious regardless of how they choose. They fear being taken advantage of, so they hide their true construction budget from the builder.
This is understandable—go online and you will find lots of advice about how to guard against unscrupulous builders. Much of that advice treats the budget discussion as a poker game, with the builder opposite you at the table. In fact, we’ve seen articles that advise homeowners never to tell a builder their budget.
In the case of a new home, this is spectacularly bad advice and a recipe for disappointment.
We’re all for mental Texas Holdem for a one-time purchase where bargaining is expected. Buying a car comes to mind. But an agreement to build a new home isn’t a “purchase.” Instead, it’s the beginning of a partnership that will last for months and may times, years.
As with any partnership—business or personal—this one will succeed only if the two parties work side-by-side toward a common goal, which in this case is building the best possible house for the available budget. You’re not going to reach that goal unless you both know what’s in that budget.
Other hallmarks of a healthy relationship include a willingness to state uncomfortable truths if doing so will protect the other partner. That’s why a builder with integrity will level with you about how much house your budget will support.
This is a vital reality check. Some people have preconceived notions of new-home costs based on square-footage prices they have seen, but such assumptions are often wishful thinking. Some builders say that up to thirty percent of the plans they see never get built because the homeowners underestimated the cost of their vision and didn’t want to make adjustments.
A better approach is for you and your professional builder to sit down with your design (whether a set of plans or a rough concept), your finish materials and products wish list and your budget with the goal of reconciling them.
This is what we call value engineering: a collaboration between the homeowner and builder to find ways to satisfy homeowner priorities using the available funds. Tactics range from reducing floor area in ways that don’t take away from the most important spaces, to product changes like specifying carpet instead of hardwood in some rooms with the intent of upgrading later.
If you’re applying for a construction loan, the professional builder can even work with an appraiser to make sure the changes you are considering won’t reduce the home’s value. For instance, the appraisal will likely be the same whether the home has an expensive standing-seam roof or concrete tile shingles, even though the shingles will cost a lot less.
The builder can’t do this creative work without an accurate budget. In other words, an honest discussion about money is a prerequisite to getting the home you love. But it all comes back to choosing a pro that you trust to be your partner.
Some homeowners have asked: How does a builder know when a project has been a success? Well, there’s good news—the answer to this question is one of the things that define a great builder.
To a pro, every successful project crosses the finish line with three outcomes. First, the homeowners are thrilled with their new home; second, they walk away with good memories of the builder and the project; and third, they are eager to recommend the builder to friends, family, and colleagues.
While homeowners tend to focus on quality and budget, professional builders work to ensure that the clients’ experience is a good one. Builders work hard to minimize stress and eliminate surprises. Their business processes and communication protocols are engineered to do just that.
This effort starts during the sales process, where the builder helps clarify the homeowners’ vision and creates a project concept that satisfies that vision. It continues during design, where plans and specifications become the first tangible rendering of that vision. It includes a contract that eliminates surprises and clearly defines everyone’s roles and responsibilities. It then moves to a successful handoff, where the project manager studies the vision and outlines a plan for building it. The time invested during this planning stage is the foundation of a successful project and satisfied homeowners.
A successful project isn’t without occasional unforeseen problems or errors—from a defective product that has to be returned to a long rainy period before the house is weathertight. The professional owns these problems, makes sure the homeowners understand how they will impact the schedule, and corrects them where necessary.
The common threads throughout the project are solid business processes, good service, and great communication. Builders at the top of their game have gotten there because they are skilled managers and good communicators. They understand how to listen to the homeowners’ needs, hopes, and concerns. And they know how to work with the homeowners to address them. This includes regular meetings where the homeowners are kept up to date about exactly what’s going on and what’s about to happen.
Professional custom builders understand that their success depends on satisfied clients. The most powerful advertising is a referral from a delighted homeowner. Builders work hard to raise their referral rates high above the industry average. This requires top quality work and strong, trusting relationships with clients. It’s a finish where everyone wins.
This imaginative and fun exercise will get you a space that’s just right for your needs
One of the many benefits of a new custom home is that the kitchen can be perfectly tailored to support how you cook and entertain. A first step to getting that result is to think through the space in detail before meeting with the architect or designer.
When doing this, forget about preconceived notions like the “work triangle,” a concept that dates to the 1940s and defines placement of the range, sink and refrigerator. The work triangle assumes a single cook in a relatively small kitchen, but nowadays, custom homebuyers want kitchens big enough for two cooks that double as gathering spaces.
Instead, think through exactly how you want the kitchen to work. Some designers suggest imagining the steps needed to prepare a meal—a fun activity you can do alone or with your partner.
That imaginary meal can be as elaborate as you want, but something as simple as spaghetti can help clarify what works for you. Where are the most convenient locations for pots, knives and spices? What steps will you take to prepare the meal and get it on the table?
This exercise will help you visualize the best places for just about everything. If one cook will be making sauce while another chops vegetables, you’ll want a layout that keeps you from crowding one another while working together efficiently. The exercise can even get you thinking about specific details: for instance, if one person is 6’2″ and the other 5’3″, you might decide on two different counter heights.
There’s no need to sweat over triangles, but it can be helpful to think in terms of zones. An efficient kitchen will have zones for wet work, socializing, cooking and food storage.
Wet zone: Decisions here include the dishwasher location and the sink types. If the dishwasher will be next to the sink, putting it on the left will be easier for a right-handed person and on the right for a left-handed person. (Most righties hold a plate with their left hand while scraping or rinsing it with their right; they can then put the plate in the dishwasher without twisting or turning.)
As for the sink, a deep single-bowl is the most practical. Also, a sink with the drain at the back will leave more usable space in the cabinet below.
Social zone: If your kitchen will have an island, you may not want to put a sink on it. Instead, reserve the island for seating and entertaining. This is also a popular spot for a cooktop, as it lets the chef talk with guests or family members. Good task lighting is essential, and the space below the counter is perfect for a cookbook shelf.
Cooking zone: It’s fine to put wall ovens and cooktops on opposite ends of the kitchen, but you want to store cookware close to where it will be used—for instance, baking pans near the oven and large pots near the cooktop. Remember that while cabinets offer more storage volume, drawers are more accessible.
Food zone: Think about making the refrigerator and pantry easily accessible (and viewable) from the food prep area. The ability to see the contents of the pantry and fridge while standing in one place will reduce the time you spend hunting for ingredients.
It’s a good idea to do this exercise on how you’ll use the space before worrying about things like cabinet styles and colors. That’s the best way to get a kitchen that’s beautiful and functional.
The National Association of Homebuilders estimates that it takes at least 3 to 5 years to create a sustainable building business. Most builders never get there: residential contractors have a failure rate higher than nearly every other business type, surpassed only by restaurants.
Only the strongest competitors survive this winnowing.
High-end custom home building is even more competitive. The very few companies that rise to the top of this challenging niche are financially sound and professionally managed. They work to exacting quality standards. They know how to keep customers happy.
These top builders all have long experience. One only learns to excel at building complex homes for discerning customers by, well, building complex homes for discerning customers.
But it’s not just a numbers game. Besides having completed lots of homes for lots of people, the best builders make a point of learning something from each job. They spend time at the end of the project analyzing what worked and what didn’t, and they put those lessons to work on future projects. That’s one reason they have risen to the top of their markets.
Another reason is that they stay abreast of industry trends. Like everything else in today’s world, the demands on builders are growing faster than ever. They include ever-evolving tastes in home design, as well as codes, standards, and regulations that seem to get stricter by the day. Successful, experienced builders educate themselves and their staff on these trends and smoothly incorporate them into their business practices.
Depth of experience and a culture of learning have direct benefits for customers. Take, for example, a case where the customer’s desired budget and schedule don’t match their initial vision. The inexperienced builder will tend to be overly optimistic. That can-do attitude may be admirable, but if the project falls behind schedule and goes over budget, the result for everyone is disappointment and stress.
Top builders have the experience to help avoid such mistakes because they systematically track the time and money required to complete each project type. Over the years, they have learned exactly what can and cannot be accomplished with a given schedule and budget. And they have developed the communication and problem-solving skills to help customers reconcile the vision with the reality.
Experienced custom builders will also have earned the trust of their business partners. A long track record with material suppliers ensures the best prices and delivery schedules. And because like companies tend to flock together, experienced professional builders have long-term work relationships with the most experienced and professionally managed trade contractors in town, including plumbers, electricians, and HVAC companies. These relationships play a huge role in getting the job done right for a fair price and in a timely manner.
Long after the home is complete, these relationships ensure quick responses to warranty requests. In fact, customers can be confident that if a warranty item needs servicing a few years down the road, the experienced pro’s team will be around to take care of it. How many new companies can offer that peace of mind?
The point is that high integrity, great communication skills, and a track record of successful projects and satisfied customers raise the odds of a smooth building process. Hiring a professional company with the resources needed to do a great job, on time, and with minimal stress pays off big in the long run.
And to answer the question, we are proud to have celebrated our 32nd year in business making us one of Bakersfield’s oldest custom home builders.
Societal trends are making this a must-have for many homeowners, but careful planning is the key to getting a space where you can be truly productive.
Remote work arrangements have been on the upswing for a long time. Research firm Global Workplace Analytics figured in 2019 that there were 4.3 million telecommuters in the US, or about 3.2% of the workforce. That was before a pandemic-related lockdown and nationwide civil unrest. Now, with even more individuals and companies seeing this as a viable solution, those same researchers project that up to 30% of us will be working at home at least part-time by the end of next year.
It should be no surprise that this trend is elevating the home office from an amenity to a must-have. A new custom home is a chance to create an office that’s functional, useful, even life-affirming—a space you will look forward to stepping into each morning, a space where you can feel like a CEO even if you aren’t one.
The home office is also a natural multitasker. Besides hosting your day job, it can offer the kids a quiet nook for doing school projects. It can even be laid out to double as a guest room.
Of course, those elements that make a good workspace are very personal. Your interior designer can help create an aesthetic that makes you more productive, organized and efficient than would ever be possible in a soulless corporate cubicle. But you will be more likely to gain that productivity if you work with your builder to create an infrastructure that supports it.
For instance, while most people understand the importance of natural lighting, not all light is the same. North-facing windows provide diffuse light, while light from the east, south or west will vary by time of day. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to window placement, but it’s a good idea to consider your preference when planning the office.
You will also want ventilation: bringing in fresh air and reducing carbon dioxide goes a long way toward keeping you alert. If you expect to spend long hours at your desk with the door closed, think about running dedicated supply and return ventilation ducts to the office, which is fairly easy to do in new construction.
While you obviously need plenty of electrical outlets, it’s best to place them so as to minimize exposed cords. That means thinking through the location of the desk as well as of items like printers, scanners, monitors and TVs. You will also want to decide where to charge devices like phones, tablets and wireless headsets. If you don’t like clutter, you can place electrical or USB outlets in a cabinet or drawer—some outlets are specifically made for in-drawer installation.
Then there’s data. The office needs data connections for the TV and computer. When it comes to WiFi, if the router will be in another part of the house, then running data wire to the office for a wireless access point will boost the signal. Some people also like having stereo speakers in walls or ceilings.
It can be helpful to collaborate with the interior designer and builder on the office floor plan to make sure it can accommodate all the features you want. For instance, if you want to hang some favorite artwork on the wall, they can help you decide where to put it before locating those outlets and built-ins. And if you plan on doing a lot of video meetings, they can help you create a backdrop that reinforces what you want people to think about you, whether it’s a wall of books or a painting that makes a bold statement.
The bottom line is that if you will be spending a lot of time in this space, you want to invest to make sure it’s perfectly suited to your needs. You will be glad you did.
Investing in the design and construction of a new home is a daunting task, something most people do once or maybe twice in a lifetime. The last thing you need is a builder who doesn’t have it together.
Why does that matter? Simply, homebuilding today is an increasingly complex endeavor, involving dozens of trade partners and materials suppliers, requiring compliance with building codes and other regulations, demanding financial savvy and tight management, and calling for keen attention to every detail. This demands a highly organized approach to the new home construction process.
A hitch along the way can have a big impact on quality, performance, durability and satisfaction … or it can be mitigated or avoided altogether to protect your investment and give you peace of mind through the process and beyond.
The difference between these vastly different scenarios depends on how organized your builder is.
But what does an organized builder look like, and how do you evaluate a builder’s ability to guide you through this time-consuming and sometimes confusing process?
There are several signs that indicate a professional builder’s business acumen, organizational skills, and other capabilities that help ensure ultimate satisfaction with your new home.
Cleanliness. A clean and organized job site can often reflect a builder’s overall organizational competency. Beyond its aesthetic appeal, a clean job site is safer for workers and visiting homeowners, reducing liability. In addition, materials that are properly stacked, staged, and covered reflect a concern for quality construction and respect for the budget and schedule.
Technology. State of the art builders invest and utilize web-based construction management programs such as Builder Trend to become more efficient and productive.
Responsiveness. The number-one complaint among dissatisfied homebuyers is that their builder was slow to respond, or never did. By contrast, an organized builder understands the importance of being responsive from the first contact through completion and beyond.
Often, professional builders develop a process for responding to calls or emails from potential and current clients, usually within 24 hours. They articulate that policy upfront and follow it through to establish and maintain reliable expectations.
Protection. Professional builders don’t allow themselves or their clients to be at risk. To mitigate and prepare for hazards, they are fully insured and — if required by law — licensed and bonded. And if you ask about those protections, they’ll provide the necessary documentation and lead you to the proper agencies and organizations for more information.
In addition, an organized builder pays his trade contractors and materials suppliers from your job (and only your job) on time and per his contracts with those partners. He then collects lien releases once the contracts are satisfied (based on mutual satisfaction with the work performed) to protect you from having any liens placed against your property for unpaid services or products.
Passing the baton. If you haven’t yet noticed, organized builders work to make sure their clients know what to expect throughout the building process … including what happens after move-in and beyond the expiration of the builder’s service warranty.
Professional builders know how and when to pass the baton for the care and maintenance of the house to homeowners. This is an incremental process that logically shifts responsibility over time rather than abandoning clients at the doorstep of their new home.
Health concerns have turned homeowners’ attention to this question
Health and wellness have seized center stage in the homebuilding world. This year’s coronavirus scare and lockdown made indoor air quality a top priority even among those who hadn’t thought much about it before, and most industry pros expect it will still be a priority after the crisis. Not surprisingly, homebuyers are paying more attention to their heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
For health and wellness, the first things most people think about are ventilation and air filtration. While these are of course crucial, they’re not the entire story.
The often-ignored element is humidity control. In the past, few homeowners asked for it because they considered humidity a comfort issue. But the truth is that indoor humidity has a major impact on human health.
We all understand how it affects comfort—most of us prefer a hot/dry day to a hot/humid one. In fact, there’s a concept known as the comfort window, a humidity range of 30% to 60% where people feel comfortable regardless of temperature (according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers). That range is also the ideal one for your home and your health.
When it comes to the home, high indoor humidity for an extended period will encourage surface mold. On the other hand, if the air is too dry, hardwood floors can start to check and crack.
The same principle applies to health and wellness. Elevated humidity raises the chance of airborne mold, bacteria and viruses. Too little moisture in the air can cause dry and cracked skin, making it easier for bacteria and viruses to get absorbed into the body. Dry air also constricts breathing passages, making people with asthma more prone to an attack.
You can ensure optimal indoor in humidity in the our local climate zone by integrating a whole-house humidifier into the HVAC system. It’s a financial investment, but some homeowners the returns make it worth considering.
A humidifier can earn its keep for a new home in any dry climate, whether in Bakersfield’s desert climate or the Upper Midwest. Northern states can get really parched—on a cold January day, a Midwestern home can have an indoor relative humidity of 14% to 16%, which is drier than Death Valley’s annual average of 22%. A whole-house humidifier will keep that home’s air in the health and comfort window by vaporizing up to 40 gallons of water per day. (A portable humidifier only does a gallon or two, which hardly makes a dent in the problem.)
Those homeowners will also be able to lower the thermostat a few degrees in the windter without noticing. One major HVAC manufacturer estimates that reduced heating costs can pay for the equipment in as little as five years.
While the comfort benefits are important, remember that regardless of climate this equipment will keep everyone in the home healthier. That’s something we all want.
One more thing. Ventilation, filtration and humidity control will be most effective in a home with low natural air leakage—a home that has been carefully sealed to prevent infiltration from the outside as well as from attics and garages. That’s a good argument for choosing a quality professional builder for your new custom home.
The ability to ‘value engineer’ the project is one hallmark of an experienced pro.
Stretching to get the most value for the dollar is a sport we all love to play. This certainly applies to building a home. It’s not unusual for the homeowners’ vision to be out of sync with the budget. Although this can be discouraging, a professional builder can suggest creative solutions that reduce costs while still delivering that vision.
The method for finding these solutions is called ‘value engineering.’ This is really just a fancy term for doing everything in a way that optimizes the return on every dollar—but pulling it off is easier said than done.
One of the differences between a merely competent builder and a real pro is the understanding that value engineering is not a random cost-cutting exercise; instead, it’s a systematic and thoughtful approach to satisfying the homeowners’ most important needs while honoring the budget.
Items that can be value-engineered include the design of the home as well as the materials and products that go into it. The builder will scrutinize the plans and specifications (or the homeowners’ concept, if plans haven’t been drawn yet), visit the building site, and then suggest alternatives that lower costs while maintaining quality. The goal is to support the homeowners to make informed choices.
Most people only understand these types of tradeoffs in broad terms. They know that a home with a complex roof, lots of wall corners, and granite surfaces in the kitchen and bath will cost more to build than an equally sized home that’s a simple box with a straight gable roof and laminate counters. But obvious contrasts like that aren’t what we’re talking about.
Real value engineering is more subtle. It’s not unusual to be able to shave tens of thousands of dollars off the budget for a custom home by making a lot of small adjustments that only minimally impact the home’s look and feel—if you know how to do it right.
How does the builder know where to make those adjustments?
By asking the right questions in the right way, identifying patterns in the answers, and reading between the lines. A builder who is good at this can often uncover priorities that the homeowners weren’t able to articulate. Solutions can then be tailored to those priorities.
For instance, the builder may tease out which spaces can and can’t be altered. If the conversation reveals that the homeowners aren’t likely to use the front porch very often, they may be receptive to making it smaller. If they have more enthusiasm about the master suite than about the kitchen, they might be amenable to less-expensive fixtures in the kitchen but not in the bath. Where substitutions must be made, the trick is in knowing which lower-cost materials and design features will deliver the needed performance, aesthetic, or warranty features, while not increasing maintenance costs or reducing the home’s longevity.
Value engineering can also include reducing exterior wall space by simplifying the facade. Exterior walls cost a lot more to build than interior walls, so a facade with fewer corners, nooks, and crannies will require less materials and labor. Changes could be as simple as moving windows or doors a few inches to eliminate framing members, or as complex as adjusting the home’s footprint to minimize waste in roofing and siding without sacrificing interior space.
It can even mean working with subcontractors to redesign pipe, wire, and duct runs. In fact, good value engineering is a team effort, and a good team of subcontractors will be accustomed to helping make it work.
Builders who do this well are able to draw on deep design and construction experience, solid business processes, and very good people. Those attributes are, of course, the hallmarks of a professional builder.
Companies built for production work aren’t built for excellent work.
On the surface, the difference between a production builder and a custom builder is simple. One builds the same basic house over and over, and the other builds a unique home for each customer.
But the real differences go deeper. These two builder types are, in fact, fundamentally different businesses.
This difference shows up in the quality results. A 2017 article in Professional Builder magazine cited a DuPont study on how much construction defects were costing US production builders. They found that the average big builder spends a surprising $4,919 per house on warranty claims.
This isn’t a dig at production builders. These companies play an important role in our society.
By adapting management systems developed in the auto industry, production builders supply affordable homes to millions of Americans. They build about 84% of the country’s housing stock each year. That percentage will likely grow. Thanks to a shortage of skilled trade workers, big builders are investing millions of dollars into automation technologies to let them build more homes in less time with fewer hands.
Many production builders also do pretty good work, with fewer defects than the industry average. But while manufacturing systems make it possible to roll defect-free cars out of a climate-controlled factory, getting similar results with homes built in the outdoor sun, rain and snow is a lot harder.
The desire for high quality is a big reason why many people opt for a new custom home. Custom builders also have to adjust to weather conditions and changes requested during construction by their home buyers, but they generally don’t have thousands of dollars in warranty claims. How do they do it? The answer is that, while many have quite sophisticated management systems, they are craft businesses at heart. They attract skilled workers and trade contractors who are also devoted to craft, and they pay these folks well for quality work. They strive for excellence and base their reputation on delivering it.
Professional custom builders don’t look at homes as units of output. Instead, each project is a carefully engineered work of art.
The custom builder’s business systems are also designed to ensure a great customer experience. You aren’t buying a mere product—you’re entering into a relationship with someone devoted to making your personal vision a reality. If you work with one of these companies, you may even have the chance to meet everyone who touches your home.
Although a handcrafted home will cost more than a production model of similar size, there will always be people who consider that extra cost a worthwhile investment. For these people, just having a roof over their head isn’t enough.
We see a similar dynamic at play in other industries. You can get a decent plate of pasta at Olive Garden but the experience won’t approach that of the one-of-a-kind, upscale Italian restaurant such as Uricchio’s. The same goes for dress clothes. “Most people are happy with a good-quality, $400 or $500 production suite from Joseph A. Bank,” quipped a well-known homebuilder consultant. “However, there will always be people who want a custom-tailored suit.”
Nowadays we seem to live in an age of bland, franchised sameness, but a quality-built custom home is a way to create a lasting, functional work of art that suits your lifestyle.
As a builder of high-quality homes, we strive to deliver something special to every customer. The days of “cookie cutter” housing are over! To insure that each home is unique, we rely on several resources to help our buyers fashion a house that reflects their individual tastes.
One resource is the showroom. Many of our vendors and trade partners include showrooms as part of their businesses, usually for retail (or walk-up) traffic but also for professionals like us and our customers. The best showrooms provide a wide variety of choices in real-world scenes or applications (called vignettes) that reveal how the products will look in a finished home.
The earliest showrooms showcased kitchen and bath products, such as cabinets, appliances, and plumbing fixtures. Recently, vendors of windows, doors, decorative hardware, countertops, lighting, fireplaces, and other products have begun to use showrooms. That diversity has allowed us and our homebuyers to create truly personal and distinct home features.
When we use a vendor’s showroom to make those choices, we usually have a standard allowance—or specific dollar amount—that we have allotted for those products in our house base price. We generally schedule an appointment to go to the showroom with our homebuyers and let the showroom know what the allowance is.
Our homebuyers are also welcome to visit the showrooms on their own. In order to help insure an enjoyable and stress-free showroom experience, it is important for everyone involved to follow a bit of etiquette.
The first point of showroom etiquette is to make an appointment and stick to it. With an appointment, our clients are certain to have the expert assistance of the showroom’s consultant. Keeping a timely appointment means that our clients are more likely to make their choices on schedule. Like many of the decisions made in the process of building a home, selecting the many finish products within the agreed schedule is the buyer’s responsibility and part of the partnership we strive to create between us.
The next item of protocol is to stay within the budget allowance. We make every effort to prepare (and remind) our homebuyers with regard to the budget choices they have already made. But showrooms are filled with variety and are designed to make the products look appealing. Some selections may be out of the range of the agreed budget amount. Whether a client decides to exceed an allowance is always their prerogative. It is important to remember that getting off-budget can have a ripple effect on other costs. We rely on our vendors, too, to stay within the identified budget and avoid “up-selling” to a higher-priced product line.
The last rule of thumb at a showroom is to make full use of the vendor’s expertise. Increasingly, these are design professionals who can help make product selection easier and more satisfying. Design professionals have a trained eye for cohesiveness and comfort, such as selecting complementary colors or finishes. They are skilled, too, in assisting buyers to identify and satisfy their personal tastes. We encourage our buyers to ask questions and share their dreams with these professionals. We select vendors who have the expertise to support our customers.
Equipped with these three simple rules, our owners can relax, enjoy their showroom experience, and make appropriate and satisfying choices.
Want to make sure your new home doesn’t feel dated in a few years? Then you need a good interior designer.
One great thing about a new custom home is that you get to create a space perfectly tailored to your needs. Once that’s done, however, your satisfaction with the space will depend largely on what you’ve put into it. Ensuring this satisfaction is the value provided by your interior designer.
Think of the interior designer as an artist and your home as the canvas. This professional will collaborate closely with you to create the perfect composition based on your style, taste, and vision.
An experienced designer will also help you make good decisions, thanks to wisdom born of a perspective that extends over time. Having seen the ebb and flow of trends and fads, the designer will help guide you toward choices you will still like a decade from now.
An essential part of the designer’s wisdom is the ability to predict which current trends will stand the test of time, and which will prove fleeting. Let’s look at a few examples.
It has been trendy in some markets to make the kitchen island a different color than the main cabinets. But color tastes change every few years, and properly refinishing an island is difficult. A good designer can help you think through other ways to get the look you want.
Or take surface materials. Floor tile with bright, flowered patterns may be all the rage but chances are you will tire of it over time. Your interior designer can help you choose a more lasting tile pattern. If you still want that splash of color, the designer can satisfy that desire with accents (such as upholstery, window coverings or wall stencils) that can be easily changed later. This strategy gets you the colors and patterns you want, but without the long-term commitment.
Other trends take established styles and add embellishments that can become quickly outdated. A good example of this is farmhouse style (popularized by Joanna Gaines), which is characterized by vintage accessories, neutral colors and shiplap walls. Although the style continues to be popular in rural areas, in other regions it’s waning in favor of more color and modern touches such as mid-century-inspired light fixtures and bold wallpapers.
A good designer will be aware of these and other trends and will help you choose finishes and decor that are current but not faddish. Unless your goal is to be faddish! In that case, the designer can help support your vision and fully embrace it.
Like all artists, each designer will have a signature style that may or may not work for you. If you don’t already have someone in mind, how do you choose the right person for your home? While you want someone whose style you like, personality is also important. A super-casual client might not hit it off with a very formal designer, and vice versa.
Professional builders understand this, which is why many have more than one designer they work with on a regular basis.
Homebuilding is a highly specialized and complex process. And like builders themselves, no two clients are exactly the same. Some homeowners are very interested in the home building process, while others are more content to follow the lead of the builder and be available only when needed. Most clients fall somewhere in between. Regardless of their approach or comfort level with new home construction, clients play a vital role in its success.
The ideal homeowner is a partner, making appropriate and timely decisions to help ensure the home is completed on schedule. In addition, pro-active homeowners become educated about the home building process so that they understand and respect its nuances.
A critical part of that education is knowing what is and is not in a builder’s control and having realistic expectations for how issues will be managed, questions answered, and problems solved.
One of the most obvious issues is the weather. Rain, freezing temperatures, and other severe climate conditions are out of any earthly being’s control. When the weather results in delays in the delivery of materials or their installation, however, it can have a ripple effect on the entire construction schedule. While professional builders cannot control the weather, they can prepare for it by communicating regularly with subcontractors and materials suppliers to gauge their availability once the weather clears and keeping homeowners informed about changes to the schedule.
Dealing with a global marketplace
Likewise, outside circumstances — such as a natural disaster in another part of the country, or even global trade trends — may cause the cost and availability of construction materials and labor to become volatile or unreliable. With proper controls in place, however, a professional builder should be able to mitigate or adjust for delays and cost overruns by providing adequate lead time for materials delivery and making sure each trade partner finishes his phase of the work before the next one begins.
To avoid other common delays, smart and successful builders are aware of how long it takes to get approval from the local building department to begin construction and the amount of time an inspector needs to schedule a job site visit to check over the progress to date.
Developing a reliable team
But even under the best of circumstances, barring any problems caused by weather or other outside forces, there’s always a risk in relying on other people to help complete any job, whether it’s the construction of a house, providing input on a financial report, or creating an advertising campaign. Increasingly, the housing industry exemplifies this shared responsibility among a complex network of players, as builders rely on subcontractors and materials suppliers to deliver pieces of the puzzle on time, within budget, and according to specifications and standards.
In fact, a builder’s role is often akin to a manager as much as it is a craftsman. Builders must manage complex scheduling and supervision of various trade partners. It’s a job that requires no less skill than building a wall or installing a heating system.
As a homeowner, consider what you can reasonably expect your builder to control. Communicate with your builder to be sure he knows and agrees with those expectations. This will help ensure a coordinated effort toward achieving overall success and satisfaction with the finished home.
A few key devices and some basic wiring will make your home ready for just about anything
Homebuilders are sometimes accused of resistance to digital home technologies. That’s not quite the case, but we have seen many high-tech devices hit the market with great hype, only to quietly disappear two years later. The best service we can offer is to only recommend technologies our customers will be happy in the long term.
Industry data is a good place to look for what has proven its value. For example, in 2018 Zillow analyzed 4.5 million home sales to determine what features reduced the time-on-market. The top of the 20-item list was dominated by luxury appliances, plumbing conveniences (think steam showers and pot fillers), and outdoor kitchens. The only digital devices listed were smart lighting and smart thermostats, and they were near the bottom.
It isn’t surprising they made the list, though, as heating, cooling, and lighting have an everyday impact on how people experience their homes. And today’s thermostats and lighting controls are sophisticated and user-friendly.
For instance, some apps make it easy to create lighting scenes. Pressing “awake” on your phone in the morning could switch on specific lights while selecting “goodnight” could turn off everything except the front porch light. Some home automation systems even let you use the phone to program these scenes into buttons on a wall-mounted touchpad.
Some of you are probably thinking—what happened to Alexa? Or to that video doorbell we’ve all heard about.
It seems people feel ambivalent about them. For a November 2019 story, NPR interviewed people in a “smart neighborhood.” The reporter found that about half the residents loved their devices, but the other half found them “creepy” and felt like they were being watched. Fortunately, these gadgets are wireless and can be installed later if the homeowners want them.
Speaking of wireless, the most common technical question we get from homeowners isn’t about devices at all—it’s about wiring. Given that so many things communicate via WiFi, do you still need data wiring inside your walls? For crucial applications, the answer is yes because wired devices are still more reliable. But wiring has evolved.
Ten years ago, “structured wiring” consisted of coaxial cable (for satellite or cable TV) and ethernet data wiring wrapped in a single jacket. It was brought to wherever the homeowners wanted televisions or networked computers. Today’s luxury home will have more wire runs, but the type will vary by need. Most computers now access the internet via WiFi, but the growth of smart TVs means that TV locations get more wires: Coax, HDMI cable, and as many as three data wires. A thermostat, on the other hand, will probably just need a single data wire (which can also supply the device with low-voltage power).
In a big house, we also recommend wireless access points (WAPs). These are connected back to the router by data wiring and boost the WiFi signal in all areas of the house or patio.
Most homeowners need help choosing what devices and wiring to spend their money on. That’s why the home automation integrator is an important member of the professional builder’s project team. This pro will advise the homeowners on what needs to be wired and can help them create a blueprint that balances their technology needs with their budget.
And whether the homeowners opt for a full home automation system or just a few smart devices, the integrator will make sure everything works seamlessly. That’s important—digital technology is software-driven, so it’s rarely plug-and-play. Even a basic lighting control package has to be configured.
The bottom line is that professional builders understand that up-to-date wiring and a few proven devices will satisfy most homeowner needs. And it will put them in a great position to add the devices they want when they want them.
Failure to make timely decisions is the number one culprit behind schedule and cost overruns. Homeowners play a key role in preventing these problems.
Some homeowners find it a challenge to make their final selection of products and materials. It’s easy to see why—with practically limitless choices in countertops, fixtures, tiles, windows, and other products, it can be difficult to settle on one model, style, or color. The decision process is further complicated by the vast amount of information available on the internet and popular home improvement television shows.
But decisions must be made at some point and making those decisions in a timely manner is crucial to keeping the project on schedule and on budget. Indecision and delay can cause costs to rise dramatically.
Professional builders provide enough time in the pre-construction phase for their homeowners to sort through these choices. The best builders not only set firm deadlines for when each choice must be made., but also require them to be finalized before construction commencement. These deadlines provide sufficient time for the materials to be ordered as well as to allow the builder to provide actual, current pricing for the items.
Take the example of windows and doors, where frame openings have to be sized to fit each particular model. If the homeowner chooses the windows after the framing is underway, that could mean going back and reframing openings as well as delay or stop the construction.. The same goes for decisions about plumbing fixture locations that would require the moving of pipes.
What about items that don’t affect infrastructure like framing or plumbing? The answer is that late selections anywhere can cause problems. Custom-made products like cabinets, specialty tile and countertops can have long lead times, so late selections can easily push the job past its original finish date. The same goes for decisions on flooring, paint colors, and landscaping.
The problem with extending the finish date is that time is money—every day the builder’s crew is on the job, expenses are adding up for labor and overhead (for example, items like the Potta Potty, security fence, temporary power, and so on).
During those extra weeks and months, homeowners run the risk of paying the costs for two separate homes: the expense for the home that’s being built, as well as the mortgage payment for their current residence.
Savvy homeowners reduce this risk by working closely with the builder’s design team, made up of the architect, interior designer/selection coordinator, and landscape designer. Selection problems are minimized when the homeowners and designers work closely together. The design team helps the homeowners to narrow the choices in models, styles, and color, and guides them to selections they will be happy with and will be enduring for many years.
The most effective thing homeowners can do to ensure a smooth project is to work with the builder and design team to make as many decisions as possible before work starts. Early selections eliminate a lot of stress and expense. The process of building a home requires a lot of decisions, and savvy homeowners help keep the project on track by meeting decision deadlines.
This article is more technical than most, but it addresses an important issue for today’s homebuyers: how healthy their new home will be. That concern is no surprise, given that we’re getting outside less often than ever. A 2018 YouGov survey of 16,000 people in North America and Europe found that most now spend about 90 percent of their time indoors.
If you want to know what all that indoor time is doing to your family’s health, you’re not alone. Every industry survey of homeowners shows a solid majority worried about indoor air quality. A YouTube video called “The Indoor Generation” garnered 8.4 million views between May 2018 and December 2019 and, among other things, asserts that kids’ rooms are among the most polluted spaces in the average home. Air purification has become one of the world’s fastes-growing industries, with billions of dollars in annual sales.
Although those sales include lots of portable air cleaners (the kind you can order online), they’re far less effective than a good, whole-house filtration system. That means a new custom home is a real opportunity to create a genuinely healthy indoor environment.
The filtration technology available for today’s homes goes way beyond the old paper furnace filter. A lot of homeowners ask their builder about HEPA (high-efficiency particulate) filtration because they’ve heard that HEPA filters do a great job cleaning the air. They do, but they are rare in-home systems because their thickness and density reduce airflow.
Fortunately, other high-efficiency filters work just as well, with MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) ratings of 7–13. While that’s less than the MERV 13–16 filters used in hospital and general surgery settings, it’s still impressive: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that these filters are “likely to be nearly as effective as true HEPA filters.” And they don’t restrict system airflow.
Good airflow is crucial when it comes to health, but getting it right requires an optimal system size. In a high-performance new home, oversized mechanical equipment will heat or cool the space too quickly to deliver the needed fresh air. To avoid that, a knowledgeable mechanical engineer will size the equipment precisely to match the home’s heating and cooling loads and will place duct grilles where they can best distribute the air.
If it’s hot and humid outside, a too-big system will also do a poor job regulating the humidity, which has implications for comfort and health.
Most people understand the health part. Lowering relative humidity (RH) in summer makes it easier for the body to lose heat, which means you don’t need as much cooling. The same principle holds in winter. If the house is cold and the air is dry, raising RH by 15% can let you reduce the thermostat by 3 degrees without noticing.
Relative humidity also plays a big role in health. Too high, and it will encourage mold growth; too low, and it can cause ailments that include asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, nosebleeds, and dehydration. In any climate, an RH around 45% will provide optimum health and comfort. But of course, the equipment has to be engineered to consistently ensure this outcome.
Professional homebuilders understand these issues and know that safeguarding their customers’ health requires both a great mechanical engineer and contractor. That’s why the best builders look for the best they can find and make that company an integral part of the design and construction team.
Builders are always talking about “quality,” but few can explain what that means to their new-home clients. This should not be a mystery; construction quality is easy to see when you know what to look for.
As a professional builder, we not only take pride in creating high-quality homes, but also in making sure that our homebuyers experience quality and understand the difference it makes.
The building process is relatively foreign to those outside of the industry. The best way to help a homebuyer understand the construction process and appreciate the value of the high-quality materials and methods we employ is to schedule visits to the job site at key milestones. Walking through a newly framed home, for instance, allows us to poiint out the quality workmanship required from our framing crews. On-site, we can show examples and explain why these standards help to ensure reliable performance and comfort in the finished home.
After framing, homeowners can watch the ways that we install the home’s wiring, plumbing, and mechanical systems. Our exacting and specifications make sure that those systems perform as designed and promised. As construction continues, we encourage new homeowners to schedule similar walk-throughs so we can showcase the high-level materials and methods we use to build homes. What is difficult to articulate in the office becomes clearly demonstrated as the house takes shape.
We also consider the conditions of our job sites as an indicator of quality. We expect, for instance, that our crews and trade partners maintain a clean site. Disposing of trash and scrap materials not only makes for a professional work environment, but also a safe one. We believe that our insistence on a professional-looking job site translates to professional, superior-quality workmanship.
As a new home nears completion, quality is even easier to see and understand from a homebuyer’s point of view. Again, adhering to tight tolerances, we work hard to make sure that walls are smooth, that cabinets, trim, and other fixtures fit snugly into place. We make certain that windows and doors operate smoothly, and that flooring and other finishes are installed to meet the expectations of our discerning clientele.
But the true test of quality construction is occupancy. New homeowners will understand what we mean by quality after living in their home for a while. How our homes stand the test of time and the rigor of everyday living is a testament to the quality we strive to achieve from the foundation to the rooftop. This also results in our homes being recognized and coveted when they are listed for sale in the future by our homeowners.
Stricter code requirements and modern materials have raised the stakes for today’s builders
Today’s homes are engineered for comfort and health. Their walls are sealed to eliminate drafts, and they include thick thermal insulation as well as high-performance heating, cooling and fresh-air ventilation systems. They’re a far cry from older homes.
They’re about to become even more so. Pending requirements set by the 2021 version of the International Energy Conservation Code will push the average new home close to Net Zero Ready, which means it will use so little power that a smaller than normal solar array will satisfy its annual needs. Subsequent code updates promise to be even stricter.
Not surprisingly, many homeowners worry about the unintended consequences of this trend, especially the code’s air sealing requirements. Common questions we hear include “Don’t walls need to breathe?” and “Won’t a tight wall trap stale air in the home and make us sick?”
These are legitimate concerns. Air sealing and insulation do create risks. Fortunately, those risks can be fully mitigated by someone with knowledge and skill—the most knowledgeable of today’s builders and designers will approach the house as an interdependent system in which walls, roofs, windows, insulation, air sealing and mechanical equipment all play key roles.
Success at this approach requires a firm grasp of building science—a discipline that describes how heat, moisture, and airflow through a structure and how they interact with one another and with the home’s mechanical equipment. Building science also includes best practices for keeping rain and groundwater out of the structure (no small matter considering that 80% of building failures are water-related).
Training in building science also helps builders understand the limitations imposed by today’s materials. Take the example of framing lumber. Thirty years ago, framing lumber came from mature trees and was able to absorb lots of moisture without problems. That lumber was placed in drafty walls where it could easily dry out. The drying happened automatically and didn’t require special consideration.
But old-growth lumber is no longer available. In today’s homes, engineered and new-growth lumber—neither of which stores much moisture—are put into nearly airtight walls. The builder has to be very deliberate about making sure the wall will be able to dry.
The bottom line is that ever-more-strict code requirements implemented by a well-intentioned but uneducated builder can lead to moisture problems and stale indoor air. On the other hand, the new code requirements give the educated pro a helpful roadmap for creating a home that’s comfortable, quiet and healthy.
Which brings us back to the “walls need to breathe” question. The answer is that walls don’t need to breathe but people do, which is why fresh-air ventilation takes on more importance in today’s homes. What walls do need is the ability to dry out when they get wet, even when tightly sealed and framed with new-growth lumber. It’s like your clothing: you want it to retain body heat, but to release sweat and other vapors that you don’t want.
The construction details needed to ensure that results differ by whether you live in a hot, cold or mixed climate and whether it’s dry or humid outside most of the year. That’s why you need an educated local builder who knows what does and doesn’t work in your particular climate.
The word “foundation” evokes thoughts of strength, permanence, and solidity—the basis for everything that follows. A home’s foundation is simply the most important part of its construction and overall performance, if not top of mind among homebuyers and owners.
The reason there are different types of residential foundations has to do with the soil and other conditions of the lot, regional building materials, the skills of the local labor force, and, where possible, needs and personal preference.
Almost all single-family home foundations in the U.S. are built with concrete or masonry blocks or some close variation, such as precast concrete panels or insulated concrete forms; a few are built with steel or treated wood, but those are rare occurrences and for special conditions.
Regardless, a new home has one of the following three types of foundations:
Slab. A slab foundation is what is most commonly used in California and is a lot like it sounds: a monolithic, horizontal block of poured concrete. The slab is usually supported by a relatively shallow perimeter footing that runs along its entire boundary just below the ground. The center of the slab rests on or is embedded with a steel mesh over well-compacted and level ground.
The beauty of a slab foundation is its low cost and fast construction, especially for a simple house footprint or layout. Once the footings are excavated and the formwork and reinforcing steel mesh is placed, it takes only a few men and a few hours to pour the concrete, tamp and level (or “screed”) it smooth, cut control joints to accommodate surface cracks, and embed any connectors for the next phase of construction. Within a day or so, the slab is ready for the structural frame.
Crawlspace. Also called a pier-and-beam or raised-floor foundation, this type of foundation was commonly used several decades ago but has been replaced with the slab foundation due to better handle seismic movement caused by earthquarkes.
A crawlspace creates a shallow area between the structural frame and the ground using a short perimeter wall of poured concrete (called a “stem” wall) and strategically located short support posts (or piers) in the middle. Combined, the wall and piers hold up the structural beams and joists of the wood-framed first-floor platform upon which the rest of the home is built.
This creates a 3- to 4-foot space allowing easier access to plumbing and electrical conduits and central air ductwork serving the house. A moisture barrier on the raw ground and vents embedded in the stem wall help keep the crawlspace dry and free of water-related damage.
Full Basement. A basement foundation is basically a combination of the two other types. Excavated to about 8 feet below the ground, typically in geographic areas that require a deep footing below the ground’s freeze line. The basement foundation features a concrete floor (essentially a slab) and concrete or masonry block perimeter walls with as-needed support posts. The first-floor frame is built slightly above finished grade, creating a platform for the rest of the house.
Accessible from the rest of the house above, so-called “full” basements create at least an 8-foot clearance between the slab and the floor frame above. This full-height area can therefore be finished as living or storage space, utility area (such as the heating and cooling equipment and laundry), as well as mechanical and duct runs.
Most are “daylight” basements, with deep window wells along the perimeter that allow natural light and emergency egress. “Walk-out” types, meanwhile, take advantage of a slope on one side of the basement to create more conventional outside access to the basement … and perhaps even an outdoor living area, such as a patio or garden.
Regardless of the type, a foundation is literally the basis of a home’s strength and performance, from energy efficiency to withstanding high winds. A well-engineered and well-built foundation allows the rest of the home’s construction to go as smoothly and quickly as possible and maintains its structural integrity. It may not be visible or sexy, but a strong foundation is arguably the best way to maintain housing value.
How homeowners benefit from the established builder’s systems and relationships.
Since the rebound of home building from the great recession, lots of new contractors have emerged as homebuilders. This has given home buyer more choices, tempting some to choose a contractor based strictly on price.
Bad idea. It’s nearly impossible to compare apples to apples when collecting competitive bids, especially for a complex custom home. That’s why home buyers who have previously built prefer to compare builders rather than prices.
By some estimates, the U.S. economy boasts more residential contracting companies (general contractors as well as trade contractors like plumbers and electricians) than any other type of business. This reflects a low barrier to entry: all that’s needed to get started are a contractor’s license and the right insurance. Or course, licensing and insurance are crucial—no smart homeowner hires a contractor without them—but they are simply the ante to get in the game. They say nothing about the company’s work quality, budgeting skill, financial stability, or customer service. These factors and a multitude of others are the difference between a great building experience and an expensive disappointment.
The big advantage to hiring an established professional builder is that the pro has the systems needed to manage a custom home project. It’s a real company with a physical location and proven management systems. These include systems for customer service, design, estimating, construction, and warranty work, among others. Advantages for customers include:
Timeliness and accuracy. Professional builders have a team of specialists that handle design, estimating, purchasing, and construction. More gets done, in less time, and with fewer mistakes. One important specialist is a dedicated manager for each jobsite—this person takes ownership of the project to make sure work gets done on time and as planned.
No surprises. Detailed specifications that clearly define the scope of work, eliminate hidden costs and help prevent disappointing outcomes. Specifications take time and knowledge to create. The professional builder has the systems and staffing to develop and adhere to this ‘master game plan’. One of the pitfalls of ambiguous specifications is a low-bid proposal that is ultimately unrealistic and the source of surprise and disappointment.
Buying clout. Successful custom builders are highly skilled purchasers. They know the best places to get each of the hundreds of products that go into a home. Their relationships with suppliers help ensure the best available prices and timely delivery.
Value engineering. Years of experience have taught the professional builder the most efficient approaches to new home construction. The builder’s staff will work with the designer, architect and engineer to make sure the plan minimizes waste and is cost-effective to build.
High-quality trade contractors. Professional builders only work with professionally managed trade contractors. Because the builder is their steady customer, these contractors work hard to protect that relationship—for example, by charging fair prices and showing up on the job when needed.
Warranty confidence. Most new contractors fail after just a few years, often because they lack the financial resources to stay in business. Home buyers can’t be confident that the builder will be around to fulfill warranty requests. By contrast, the established professional builder has the resources to back up a written warranty of its work. Its longstanding relationships with trade contractors and suppliers help ensure a quick response to warranty claims.
This article isn’t meant to disparage the small or new builder. The company that lacks business acumen and capital may be led by a skilled trades person who does top-notch work. In fact, talented tradesp eople who are unable to grow their businesses often end up putting their skills to work for the professionally managed company.
Successful builders are choosy about the people they work with. Here’s why.
The best business relationships are those where everyone has high standards, both for themselves and for the other parties. This is certainly the case when building a new custom home—a complex, expensive and emotion-laden effort in which the homeowner and builder must collaborate closely for months. Successful outcomes demand mutual trust and confidence.
A smart homeowner will be picky when shopping for a builder and will take the time needed to make the right choice. But it also works the other way. If the builder is a real pro, they will scrutinize you just as closely, and that’s ultimately to your benefit.
Why might a builder choose not to do business with someone? The most tangible reasons are money (the price range the builder works in doesn’t match the homeowner’s budget) and geography (the home is outside the builder’s market area). But intangibles also play a role.
The notion that good relationships need a mutual “fit” has become a cliché, but that’s because it’s so true.
A common mindset that works against this fit is an obsession with cost per square foot. That may be a legitimate metric when comparing similar tract homes from competing builders in the same market, but it’s irrelevant for custom projects.
If you already have a design, it’s fair to ask the builder for a rough ballpark—you want to know, for instance, whether construction will be closer to $500,000 or $600,000. Final costs always depend on details, however. A fixation on making the project meet a square-foot cost you found on Google will be a red flag, and a sign that no one will be happy with the outcome.
Another potential problem is a reluctance to make firm choices. That includes making all necessary design decisions and product selections by the builder’s deadlines. Foot dragging will create delays, cost overruns and bad feelings.
Then there are standards. Professional builders are successful in large part because they do high quality work, and they prefer to work for clients who have high expectations. At the same time, builders usually follow defined quality standards.
Take the example of interior paint. The quality benchmark of the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America states that you shouldn’t be able to see a blemish on the wall under normal light conditions from a certain distance, and most good painters try to exceed that. A builder will try to get a sense of whether a prospective client is likely to scrutinize the paint job with a magnifying glass and be hard to satisfy.
Successful builders seek out clients whose approach is collaborative rather than adversarial. In fact, both parties should look for reasons they can trust one another.
The tone of this business relationship affects more than the home buyer and builder: it also rolls down to employees and trade contractors. That’s one of the biggest reasons pros are choosy about who they work with. The supply of skilled labor isn’t enough to meet demand, so it’s easy for a worker to leave for another company. And since most trade contractors pay market-based wages, the choice usually comes down to job satisfaction. The best employees flock to employers who are fair-minded and loyal, and who provide a positive work environment.
In other words, good builder/client relationships make it easier to retain high-quality workers. And that’s very good for the home buyer.
Communication is important in all relationships, and your relationship with your builder is no exception. Effective communication between client and builder will reduce concerns and stress before, during, and after the building process. Here are some tips for keeping the lines of communication open at key points.
When selecting a builder—The best time to explore your level of comfort with a builder’s communication style is while you are deciding on a builder. These early communications often reflect how your builder will communicate during construction and after closing. Builders who are effective communicators will encourage your questions and provide satisfactory and prompt answers.
As you reach a purchasing decision—Make sure you understand how you and your builder will discuss the project and its progress. Many builders encourage guided walk-throughs of the house at critical stages of construction, such as during structural framing, after electrical and plumbing rough-in, or after drywall. In addition, find out how the builder feels about informal meetings, phone calls, and emails, and ask how quickly you can expect a response when you have a concern. Most professinal builders use web-based construction management programs such as BuilderTrend to communicate with their home buyers and trade contractors.
On seeing the schedule—The builder should review and proviide access to a detailed scope of work that outlines the construction process and schedule. Use the scope of work as a guide to gain a better understanding of the building process and ask clarifying questions. The construction schedule most times will show deadlines for key decisions that need to be made as well as job site review meetings.
When working with change orders—An essential part of owner-builder communication is the change order, which is the builder’s procedure for making changes after construction begins. Few projects are completed without some changes along the way. Find out about this process before construction begins. Also, learn the details of your builder’s warranty and service program.
Successful builders have systems in place for communicating effectively with their home-building clients before, during, and after construction. These systems have been developed over years with many clients, and deserve our respect. At the same time, your needs, preferences, and comfort level matter. Once you’ve settled on a communication plan with your builder, stick with it! Good communication is a key to a predictable and sane building process that provides you and your family the home you desire and deserve.
The ability to weather storms is another advantage of hiring an experienced builder with up-to-date knowledge about building science
One often overlooked benefit of a high-quality new custom home is that it will better handle severe weather events and power outages. These are a fact of life in all parts of the country. Atlantic hurricanes routinely leave millions without electricity. Just this past July, thunderstorms put thousands of Midwesterners in the dark and a summer monsoon killed power for thousands of Phoenix residents. Outages even happen without bad weather, like the 2003 blackout that affected 11 million people in an area stretching from Ontario to New Jersey, thanks to a software bug.
Outages affect all homes, no matter how well built, but a new custom home can be crafted to stay comfortable longer without heating or cooling. “It’s called Passive Survivability,” says Alex Wilson, president of the Resilient Design Institute in Brattleboro, Vt. “It’s about building homes that remain habitable if they lose power.”
Wilson usually writes about green building, but the design and construction principles he advocates are routinely used by the best professional builders.. This is essential building science and includes making walls, roofs and ceilings more efficient with high R-value insulation, careful air sealing, and high-performance windows that offer passive solar gain. These improvements can keep a home habitable without power for days. Homeowners who want to keep the lights on during a blackout may add solar panels, a backup generator or a home battery such as a Tesla PowerWall. In fact, a battery can run a refrigerator, furnace, tankless water heater and critical basic circuits for up to 12 hours.
A resilient home also has good structural and moisture details. Elements like hardware tie-downs and plywood shear panels will make roofs and walls more resistant to damage from earthquakes and high winds. Careful waterproofing will keep wall and roof assemblies dry even in the fiercest rain or snow storms..
One of the best things about resilient construction is that it pays off even if the home never loses power. Careful waterproofing means lower long-term maintenance bills and less chance of mold and mildew growth. Insulation and air sealing reduce monthly energy costs while ensuring a quieter, more comfortable living experience.
The complication is that someone with just a nodding acquaintance of building science can actually create problems. For instance, the builder’s crew needs to understand the flashing details needed for today’s windows and doors—details that can vary by manufacturer. Insulation and air sealing need to be implemented so that walls and roofs shed moisture rather than trapping it, and the approaches vary depending on the local climate.
Building science has come a long way in recent years, and you want to hire someone who has invested time and effort in keeping current. In other words, you need an educated and experienced professional builder.
Even small changes made after work begins can have surprising effects on the budget. Here’s why.
Minimizing change orders is one of the most effective things homeowners can do to control costs. The reason is that seemingly small changes can have cost impacts beyond the builder’s control—costs that ultimately are borne by the customer.
We’re not talking about unscrupulous contractors who write vague specifications to create low bids and then nickel-and-dime clients with change orders to increase profits. We mean honest builders who write detailed specs and manage their jobs in a professional manner. It’s not unusual for customers of these builders to decide, after the project kickoff, that they want something different in part of the house.
The kickoff usually happens at the preconstruction meeting, where the builder and clients review the final product and design choices, and the clients sign off on those choices. After this meeting, purchase orders are generated and sent to all subcontractors and suppliers, setting firm prices for every part of the job. Any change that happens after that point will likely add cost.
How much cost? That depends not only on what is being changed, but also when. A common example is the clients who, after seeing the opening over the kitchen sink, decide they really want a bigger window. That decision will cost a lot less if they make it early, during the framing walkthrough. Once the window is in the opening and the insulation, drywall, and sink cabinet are installed, the change is more costly.
Less obvious are seemingly minor changes that have a ripple effect. These can multiply the cost of an item to several times what it would have been as part of the original specs.
For example, suppose the homeowners decide they want a pedestal sink in the powder room, rather than the small vanity they had chosen. The builder’s staff has to cancel the order for the vanity and possibly for a granite top. If those items have already shipped, the supplier will likely charge a restocking fee. The pedestal must be ordered from the plumbing supplier, taking additional time. If the hot and cold water pipes are already in place, the plumber has to move them, and the plumbing inspector has to inspect the change. If the wall has already been finished, the drywaller must be called back. This minor change may throw everyone’s schedule off by a week or more.
Every change also requires time from the builder’s staff—time to complete and track orders, to reschedule workers and subcontractors, and to update the budget. That’s why change orders include an administrative fee.
This explanation is not given to discourage important changes. Clients are entitled to make their home their own, and most clients decide to make at least some changes during construction. But they should do it with a clear understanding of the costs those decisions will bring when they are made after the specs have been written and the contract signed. It’s a reminder that making as many firm selections as possible up front is in the customer’s best interest.
Why choosing the right air conditioning equipment is more important than ever
The health and comfort of a new home has a lot to do with its heating, cooling and ventilation equipment. High-quality equipment will do a better job, but only if the builder works with the mechanical engineer and contractor to choose the right equipment type. With today’s high-performance homes, that choice is no longer so simple.
It’s especially complicated with air conditioning. Each new version of the International Energy Conservation Code further lowers cooling loads—how much heat and humidity has to be removed to keep a home comfortable. (The code has also lowered heating loads, but that’s a topic for another day.) That’s good news, in that the new code lowers cooling bills, but it can also be bad news if the system hasn’t been engineered for this new reality.
The problem is that the air conditioner usually has to cool and dehumidify. The mix of those loads has changed.
In older homes, air conditioners usually had to remove three times as much heat as humidity, and most were engineered with that in mind. But energy-efficient construction reduces cooling loads while leaving humidity about the same, so the net cooling and humidity loads are about equal. An older system installed in a new home could cool it but leave everyone feeling sweaty and uncomfortable.
This challenge doesn’t just affect hot/humid parts of the country. Even in the dry climates, homeowners can generate lots of moisture from activities like cooking and showering. And in temperate climates, there are plenty of days that are humid but not hot.
Proper system sizing is crucial. Old-school HVAC contractors relied on rules of thumb. Such rules worked fine for drafty, poorly insulated homes. With today’s high-performance construction, however, the result tends to be too much cooling capacity—a system that cools the home so quickly it doesn’t have time to remove humidity. That’s why the best mechanical engineers and contractors now use sophisticated software to calculate the exact system size for the particular home.
Manufacturers have adapted their equipment to this new reality. Older systems used one-speed compressor motors, which also tend to cool a new home too quickly. Two-stage compressor motors are available today which, if conditions warrant, will run at a low speed and do a better job of cooling and dehumidifying.
Today you can also get true variable-speed systems, which vary the compressor speed the same way the gas pedal controls a car’s motor. A good example is the ductless mini split, in which wall-mounted indoor units are placed in different areas of the house.
But while ductless mini splits are popular worldwide, Americans as a whole don’t like the look of them. If the budget permits, you can get a ducted mini split instead. Here, specially designed indoor units are placed in attics or utility spaces with short ducts running to different areas (a bedroom, bath and sitting area, for example). A ducted indoor unit can be placed in each zone of the house, so you get the precise cooling and dehumidification needed for that zone. These systems are also super quiet.
The bottom line is that with today’s homes, equipment choice is complicated. That’s why a professional builder will work with a professional mechanical engineer and contractor—who will recommend the best equipment for the home and precisely size it to keep the occupants cool and dry.
Understanding the construction process will help owners manage their expectations and emotions.
Here’s a quick quiz…
It’s four or five months into a new custom build. The home is weather tight, plumbing and electrical wiring have been roughed in, the insulation is in place, and sheetrock has been screwed to the walls and ceilings. The drywallers are completing the detaling of the walls and ceiling texture. How do most homeowners feel?
The question illustrates a crucial issue. There are two things going on at each stage of a project: the actual construction and the homeowners’ perception and evolving feelings about it. Fortunately, most people react in predictable ways at predictable times, so an experienced builder will understand how to help their clients through the inevitable ups and downs. If the homeowners know what to expect, the emotional ride becomes easier and more enjoyable.
As construction begins, homeowners are typically very excited—and why shouldn’t they be? Preconstruction ups and downs involving plans, product choices and costs are behind them. Their dream home is about to take shape!
Emotions tend to remain high as workers and trenchers dig the foundation footings, form and pour the foundation, build the walls and roof structure. How long this takes depends on the home but with some exceptions, such as weather delays, things move fast with obvious progress nearly every day. Excitement and anticipation build as the home they have been imagining for years is finally rising from the ground!
That visible progress slows dramatically during the next phase of construction.
Once the shell is complete, the electricians, plumbers, and heating trade contractors descend on the house to rough in their systems. This is when a homeowner’s emotions can be tested. This phase of the project is inherently time-consuming. Plus, it can be drawn out by complex scheduling requirements of different trade contractors. Progress seems to come to a crawl and excitement can quickly morph into anxiety. Will the home be done on time? What’s taking so long?
At this point, it helps to remember the importance of good lighting, plumbing, and heating to a home’s livability. Investing the time to do them right will pay off big later on.
We understand how challenging this phase of the project is for homeowners. This is the time when, as professional builders, we continue and at times increase our communication about the progress that is being made behind the scenes. We find that educated homeowners can better manage their emotions through the whole process, but especially as we get ready to move into the home stretch.
The next phase includes installation of trim, cabinets, countertops, shower surrounds, flooring and finish fixtures. Here, excitement begins to rise again as the finish line pulls into sight. By the time the keys are handed over, emotions will be at a point nearly equal to where they were at groundbreaking.
How best to navigate this emotional journey? How does one enjoy the highs and take the dips in stride? Awareness about the process goes a long way. Study the schedule and know what is going to happen and when. Think of the project as a story, and the schedule as the plot outline. A good builder will work with the homeowners to fill that outline with details that will help make the project a great experience and ensure a happy ending.
Creating Functionality and Beauty in Your Outdoor Space
A lot of homeowners are looking beyond the basic patio to a complete outdoor experience. They’re designing and building homes with multi-level patios connected to pools, spas, fire features and outdoor kitchens.
According to a May 2019 article on Zillow.com, a growing number of homeowners also want their interior design theme to continue outdoors. In other words, they want big spaces that serve multiple functions while also looking great.
Great spaces result from careful thought and planning. Before talking with your architect and builder, spend some time thinking about how you will use the space as well as aesthetics, views, maintenance and the weather.
Here are some issues to ponder:
What Will You Do?
In good design, form follows function. Do you just want a place to hang out and read? Something simple may be sufficient. Do you like to host sit-down dinners? You might want room for a grill, a dining table, chairs and a bar.
Do you prefer informal gatherings? Consider including discreet spots for intimate or small-group socializing, such as a step-down from a main patio to a few chairs around a low table. Will your toddlers use the patio for play? You’ll want doors and windows that offer a clear view from inside the house.
These are just a few examples. Your questions will depend on your lifestyle and priorities.
How About The Weather?
Outdoor living means planning for rain, sun, views, privacy and weather.
Think about how much of the year you want to use the space. An outdoor fireplace or fire ring can extend your enjoyment through fall and winter. The patio can have electric sun shade screens to repel bugs and the sun in summer,
A simple grill may be enough, but if you want to have a real outdoor kitchen, a good design is as an extension of the indoor living space and close to the kitchen. Placing the two spaces as close together as possible will allow easy movement between them.
Concrete block or steel studs with cement siding and stucco are good choices for outdoor cabinets, as is granite and glazed tile for the countertops.
Get the best grill you can. Quality, powder-coated steel will last if maintained properly but a better choice is grade 304 stainless, which has a reputation for long-term durability without rust. Also consider placing some shelter over the grill, such as a pergola for partial shade or a roof to repel rain.
If you want a sink, make it big enough to hold party platters. For the refrigerator, note that an expensive one may not perform better than a cheap one on a very hot day. You can also include a steel beverage trough in a counter and fill it with ice or integrate an ice chest in the cabinetry.
Thinking through these and other design issues takes time and effort, but in the end, you’ll have an outdoor space that enhances your lifestyle and that you’re proud to share with family and friends.