Designing a home from scratch is the dream. So much possibility and opportunity. With spec homes and existing homes, you're fitting your life into someone else's concept. But with a custom home you're tailoring a space specifically to you and your preferences.
But lest we drift too far into fairytales, custom builds aren't all rainbows and unicorns. Even if you’re seasoned in the process, it can be a daunting uphill battle.
If you're thinking about breaking ground and building form scratch, here's the Mayker insider scoop on finding great people and getting ahead of some common and costly landmines.
1. Date around.
Who you hire is the most important decision. Quality of work is key but, perhaps even more so, quality of character. Most of the bumps in the road on the building journey come from a lack of trust and understanding between builder and client. Take time to make sure you feel really comfortable with the process and the person. Discuss the goals — schedule, budget, outcome. But just as important, discuss how you'll resolve issues if things go south. Things like budget overages, extreme delays, and quality of performed work. Getting on the same page about worst case scenarios is the smartest way to avoid frustration and fall out.
If you get pushback in the vetting process, remind yourself: If they don't have the energy for your due diligence now, they certainly won't later.
2. Hire the trio: architect, builder, and designer.
Different professionals play different roles in the home creation process. From a high-level perspective:
Architects engineer the layout and exterior vision of the home; they’re functional creatives who provide logistical solutions to design problems.
Builders are more matter of fact; they take the architect’s plans and, like a recipe, put the ingredients together to make the vision a reality. Their goal is to build your home as efficiently and well as possible, so they're focused heavily on streamlining execution.
Designers are all about getting the little things right. They oversee the interior of the home, prioritizing finishes and details so you can create a space that is beautiful and functional. This isn’t just furniture placement and lighting selections. It’s everything down to hardwood stain, tile grout thickness, and lighting placement.
All of these roles are vital. A lot of people operate under the misconception that an architect and a builder are the only ones you need to hire, but the finer details often fall through the cracks when you don’t hire a designer from the start.
(To note: there are some design-build firms who can tackle the architect and builder role together. Some of these are great solutions — you just want to make sure all 3 of these roles are being thoughtfully addressed.)
3. Have an attorney review your contracts.
Always, always, always. You’re excited to get started and this might be a step you try to fly right through because, you know, you’ve hired someone good. And your experience is going to be different. But most builder contracts are written in favor of — no surprise — the builder. That's called smart business. An experienced attorney will know where to add in protective clauses that will balance the ground, and ensure you’re taken care of in case things go askew.
Even if you’ve heard great things about the builder and you feel like you can trust them, it’s completely reasonable and smart to set a foundation that protects you.
4. Understand your own limitations.
This might come as a surprise, but just because you have Google and Pinterest does not mean you have all the tools and knowledge you need to build a home.
One of the most beneficial things a professional builder or designer comes with is experience. They’re learned the hard way before. They’ve built a substantial library of information, considerations, and sources that make homes more beautiful and livable.
Challenge your contractors, sure. Ask hard questions, bring ideas to the table, and make them back up their decisions. But choose experts and lean into their knowledge. You hired them for a reason.
5. Take time to view your floor plan from a functionality perspective.
If you haven’t built a home before, it’s really easy for your floor plan process to feel like the honeymoon phase — it's all excitement and possibility and the infancy of dreams. And while it is exciting, it's also so important to be diligent and thoughtful in this process. You want the space to be beautiful, yes, but you also want it to be highly functional for everyday living. Consider how you want to exist in the home. Where do you walk in the door? Where do you set your keys? Do you have a coat closet or a coat rack? Where do you store the ironing board and the laundry baskets? Go through your everyday activities and picture how and where they'll be taking place. Have you planned for them?
In addition to functionality, think a lot about scale. How big is each room and closet? While it might look proportional and a good size on the printed page, it could feel very different in reality.
Thinking through these details and making changes in the drafting phase will save you so much headache (not to mention money) in the long run.
6. Plan for storage.
Storage isn’t really that sexy; we get it. It’s so much more fun to design a bigger living room and more spacious kitchen. But do you know what’s really not sexy? Having nowhere to store your winter clothes, cleaning supplies, and linens.
As you're reviewing your floor plans, look for any dead areas that could be converted into storage. If you have a sharp architect, they can help you maximize your square footage for better everyday living.
7. Design for your future.
Don’t be short-sighted. There is what you want now, and there is what you’ll need later. If you’re building a home you want to stay in, consider what might be valuable down the road: additional bedrooms, a home office, a more functional laundry room. As your family expands, your needs expand with it.
8. Make selections before you start.
So much about ensuring your home build timeline stays on track is about being ready to pull the trigger on a thousand decisions. If you haven’t built before, it’s hard to know what those decisions will be or, just as important, what order you’ll need to make them in. From exterior material selects to tile transitions, you will need to — and should — get in the nitty gritty.
Ask your builder or designers for a list of selections they will need throughout the process and when they’ll need to be made. There are so many decisions in the build process that can seem out of step and knowing how decisions impact timeline is really beneficial.
For example: one of the earliest decisions you’ll make is plumbing selections. Even though your kitchen faucet might seem like a decision you can make later, the plumber will need to rough in the internal valves post framing. You won’t be able to proceed to insulation and drywall until these selections are made, ordered, received, and installed.
For peace of mind, we'd recommend making all selections at the start. This helps you budget better, while also ensuring you're doing your part to keep the project on time.
9. Discover unexpected moments to delight.
What makes a home feel less cookie cutter and more custom are the unexpected decisions. Everyday moments — stair rails, doorway arches, windows — provide opportunities to do something subtle and unexpected.
10. Invest in what’s difficult to change later.
If budget is a top priority, invest now in the items you can’t change later — features like heated flooring, pre-wiring, sound proofing, and good insulation. While these items might not feel like where you want to spend your money now, they are far more costly to add or change down the road.
Think of it this way: You can always update your lights, but you certainly don't want to go through the hassle of ripping open the wall to add soundproofing.
11. Don’t be scared to ask for additional estimates or options.
Builders often have sub-contractors they like to use on every project. In many cases, this is smart. They have the experience of knowing who does quality work in a timely manner, and they’re aligning you with the best choices. In other cases, using the same subcontractors on each project is a means of efficiency. They don’t have to spend time quoting out the best provider or most cost-effective solution, so their profit margins are better.
You've hired your builder (hopefully!) because you trust them and you've vetted their work. If their estimates are on par with their bid, opt for trusting them rather than questioning every decision—it will make your working relationship far better.
If bids are coming in high or if you've been disappointed by some of the work you've seen, don't hesitate to speak up and ask for additional estimates. It might not be what your builder wants to do, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it.
12. Understand it will (likely) cost more than you expect.
The cardinal rule of custom building is it will cost more than you expect. But going over budget isn’t necessarily because your builder is trying to pull one over on you or take advantage of you. So why is it so common—and seemingly unpredictable? We’ve found there are typically 3 culprits to biting off more than you can financially chew.
First: Unexpected site problems. There are some things that you can’t discover until you start. Like foundation issues. You might find something in the excavation process that requires some costly extra work. Unfortunately, while no one really wants to spend more money on something like ground work, these types of issues can’t be predicted or ignored. You simply have to stomach the additional spend and try to make up for it elsewhere.
Second: Selections are personal, and they impact everything. A lot of builders create initial estimates based on builder-grade selections. These aren’t always the highest quality or most aesthetically pleasing choices, so you’ll often choose to make upgrades.
For example: your builder might have budgeted for a standard hardwood floor, but you want a wide plank. This might put you 10% over on your flooring budget line item. This selection, isolated on its own, is tolerable and minimal. But decisions add up. If there are a thousand choices you make throughout the build process, a thousand small upticks can add up to a fairly substantial overage.
When you’re reviewing your builder’s initial bid, be sure to understand the quality level they’ve budgeted for and make adjustments to be more realistic if possible. While it might be hard to go line item by line item this way, pay close attention to big ticket aesthetic items like roofing, flooring, countertops, cabinetry, and exterior materials (such as brick). Understanding what your builder has based their estimate on will help you know if your project has been bid realistically.
Third: Change orders. As you dive into the build process, you’ll discover modifications you want to make. A closet feels too small. You’d like to expand the windows. You want to add sconces in the hallway. Changes are fairly common, but each adjustment changes the project scope — potentially impacting timeline and cost. Before you OK a deviation, understand how it will affect these key items so you aren’t surprised when you get a bill for something like additional framing costs.
13. Understand it will (likely) take longer than you expect.
Building is one thing you never do on a razor’s edge. Even the best laid plans—and most prepared builders— are subject to setbacks. From permits to contractor availability to inspections, there are a host of moving parts that can push back completion date. In most situations in life, you can increase efficiency by reducing the number of “cooks in the kitchen,” but that’s not really possible in a custom build where so many different people provide necessary functions.
So, what to do?
In addition to the online updates your builder likely provides, ensure you have regular meetings to touch base on progress, any pending deadlines, or potential hang-ups. This will keep you both on the same page as the project progresses.
Then, build in some padding. Assume the build will take 20% longer than forecasted. If your project comes in on deadline, perfect. If delays occur (and most assuredly they will), you can take a deep breath and know you planned for this.
14. Consider post build expenses.
Last but certainly not least: consider post-build expenses. The build is just part of the budget. Once you have your home, there’s the matter of filling it. For example: Window treatments — an essential piece for privacy, warmth, and aesthetics—are fairly costly, especially if you choose anything custom.
When you’re working out your full project budget, keep in mind what you will spend on the other big ticket items that will "finish" your space so you feel comfortable with the true full budget. Furniture, art, and window treatments can be more substantial line items you don't want to forget about in the fine print.