How to Choose Your Custom Builder

Building a custom home can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of your life or it can be very stressful. The builder you choose can make all the difference in the world. Below, are some suggestions on how to go about selecting the right builder for your custom home.
  • Many residential experts suggest using an interview process when talking to prospective builders. First, discuss your new home’s priorities amongst yourselves. Then, develop a list of questions for the builders you will interview.
  • You will want to request copies of each builder’s license and his insurance. The California Licensing Board, CSLB, has records on all contractors and can verify if they are licensed, bonded, and the status of their license. You can also see if any complaints have been filed against them.
  • During the interview, determine how detailed the various builder’s budgets are. You want to see notes and specifications that accompany his numbers, not just the numbers. This helps explain how he got to his numbers i.e. what kitchen sink did he specify?
  • You will want to choose a professional custom home builder with extensive experience in building your particular type of architecture, usually a minimum of 15 years. His knowledge of certain types of architecture can translate into huge savings on the project as opposed to costly errors due to lack of experience. You don’t want a contractor who does commercial work or one who is a “jack of all trades”.
  • Communication is essential to a rewarding building experience. Try to assess early on if the contractor possesses good communication skills. This will be paramount to achieving a successful building undertaking. Building a custom home is both a personal and emotional experience. Generally most custom home project will take anywhere between 10 and 18 months to complete. Since you will be spending a lot of time with this individual, make sure your personalities are compatible with each other. If you are having trouble getting your ideas across to the builder, he may not be the right one for your custom home.
  • Most building associations suggest that the owner interview and have at least three builders bid on their project. Otherwise, you have no way of knowing if you are being charged a fair price for what the builder intends to provide you. Some people like to use an excel spreadsheet to list all the items going into their home along with each contractor’s price for each budget item.
  • When evaluating the bids make sure all the contractors are bidding “apples to apples”. That is, each bidder should provide you with extensive set of specifications to go along with your architects specs. Here you can determine what each builder is providing and which bidder(s) have left out items which can later turn your budget on its side. You will also want to look for detail in the bid, accuracy, and ask yourself does the bid appear to be comprehensive. If the bid is vague and lacks detail, someone may be just lazy or worse, trying to conceal something.
  • When evaluating the various contractors, you will want to ask them for 2-4 references. Then, contact their references and ask them some specific questions. For example, “were you satisfied with the quality of work and the products he provided? Were the contractor and his subcontractors professional and honest in their dealing with you? Did the builder bring your project in on budget and on time? Were you happy with the service ‘after the sale’?”
  • What type of contract does the prospective builder like to use? Basically, there are two types of contracts that are used in the residential industry-“cost plus a builder’s fee” and “fixed price or lump sum”. Is the prospective builder willing to use either one or does he insist on one or the other. If the latter is the case, ask him to explain why.
  • When evaluating the various builder’s contracts, be sure it is very detailed with all items clearly spelled out. Before any work begins, make sure there is a clear and concise “scope of work” agreed to between you and your contractor. DO NOT ASSUME ANYTHING. Make sure your contractor is willing to put everything he says in writing and sign his name to it. All aspects of the construction process should be detailed in the contract before you sign it. Also, a good and reputable builder should be willing to take the time to answer all your questions.
  • The contractor should have a clause in his contract that calls for a progress payment based on the percent of the work completed, now an invoice can be submitted, and then a progress payment can be made. Never pay the full contract price until completion of your home. This includes passing all city or county final inspections and receiving a certificate of occupancy.
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