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The Custom Home Process - Architect or Builder First?

How many of you have had a prospective home buyer bring you a completed set of plans, that when priced out was well out of their new home budget?

Throughout my 42 year home building career, and an award winning Austin custom home builder, the process of designing and building a new custom home has been the subject of many articles, discussions and round tables. Simply put, families considering a new custom home are often at a loss on how, or where to start. Opinions on this subject vary depending upon perspective. Architects and plan designers share a common belief that it is best to get what a client wants on paper, then solicit "bids" from home builders to determine costs. Builders believe that since they are knowledgeable of costs, that potential buyers are best served by starting with them.

nahb logo colorI served over 20 years on the faculty of the University of Housing, the educational arm of the National Association of Home Builders. In this role I traveled the country teaching the required classes for builders to achieve the "Graduate Builder" and "Master Builder" designations. Graduate Builders were taught mostly building science, and Master Builders were taught how to build and run successful home building companies. This gave me an interesting perspective, as several times a year from Las Vegas to Orlando, Houston to Cleveland and more I stood in front of professional builders who were eager to share their stories. Through the years these classes became my personal focus groups for many subjects relating to the home building process.

One question that I came to ask every class was "How many of you have had a prospective home buyer bring you a completed set of plans, that when priced out was well out of their new home budget?" Without exception over 90% of the builder audience raised their hands. The discussion then progressed to why they thought this happened. The majority agreed that a builder with knowledge of current costs was not involved in the design process. As associate members of the National Association of Home Builders, Architects and Plan Designers often attended these classes as well. To them the question was "How many of you designed and were paid for new home plans that were never built?" Again, the majority acknowledged this unfortunate conclusion.

Selecting a builder with a reputation for being fair priced creates a better chance for project success and client satisfaction.

Putting all of this together made it clear to me that each of us have an important role in the successful outcome of a potential custom home project. In the first paragraph I said that custom home clients don't know where to start, this statement is only partially true. They all have already started, with a budget in mind. There are exceptions when high net worth individuals ask for their homes to be drawn, with everything they want, and pay for what it costs. I have found that most families have a budget. Even when I ask a client what their budget is and they reply " We really don't have one." I follow up with "OK, are we below 2 million dollars?" This gets a quick response and we then both know that they have a number in mind. Starting with a project budget, and designing to that budget makes as much sense as shooting at a target on a tree versus a forest. In my experience the successful outcome of almost every custom home project depends upon designing to a final targeted cost.

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Collaboration is the obvious answer.

Architects and plan Designers can be researched and interviewed to find a good match for the type of home a family wants, and the timing required for finished drawings. Builders can be researched in advance as well. As an award winning Austin custom home builder we receive many inquires from new clients trying to determine if we are a match for their project. While "bidding" a project seems to make sense to some, no two companies "bid" the same and make the same assumptions on a project. Among professional builders there is a saying that "The lowest bidder is the guy who is willing to lose the most money." Selecting a builder with a reputation for being fair priced creates a better chance for project success and client satisfaction. With a professional builder involved during the planning process, costs can be observed and evaluated as they present themselves. In this case clients can see when their requests push budget boundaries and make decisions along the way. Something as simple as including standard sized windows versus special order windows can save thousands of dollars without compromising a plan.

Based on almost 40 years in the building industry, and my much appreciated focus groups across the country, I suggest that the first step in the custom home process is to assemble the team. This often includes a Realtor, Architect or plan Designer, a professional builder, and in some cases a financial partner to bring the home to life. Starting with a target budget in mind drives the process. It should be noted that often the final project still exceeds the initial "target budget." However, if handled collaboratively the client will see this occurring during the design process and make new decisions accordingly. Successful custom home projects begin and end this way. The "how much does this house cost" method is almost never as smooth, or fun.

Have more questions regarding the custom home process or building your team, contact Steve Zbranek, National Master Builder & Instructor

Steve Zbranek, Award Winning Austin Custom Home Builder
Austin Hall of Fame Builder
2 Time National Master Builder of the Year
3 Time Austin Business Journal Custom Builder of the Year