If you’re considering building a new custom home, you undoubtedly have lots of questions. But there are two questions we hear more than any other:
- “How much is it going to cost?”
- “How long will it take?”
Both of these questions make a lot of sense. Price is a huge determining factor in deciding which home builder you will hire, but the project timeline isn’t far behind in relative importance.
Besides these two, though, there are plenty of other questions you need to ask before building your new home. It can be the difference between owning the home of your dreams and one that’s second-rate (or worse).
As custom home builders ourselves, we get asked all kinds of questions — from pricing, architecture and room size down to sinks, light fixtures and doorknobs. We believe you should never shy away from asking any question you desire, but you should always ask several key questions to ensure you’ve got a good builder before signing on the dotted line.
1. How much can I customize my home?
“Custom” lies on a spectrum, ranging from cosmetic touch-ups to full-on, 100% customization where the customer picks every single detail in the home. Most homebuyers want something in the middle.
However, the biggest customization gap among home builders is whether they let you make changes to the home’s architecture, such as expanding a room, adding an extra bedroom, changing the roofline, adding a deck, and more. In fact, some home builders say they are custom but only allow cosmetic changes such as countertops, cabinet finishes, and other small design details. They don’t allow you to adapt their preset blueprints in any shape, form or fashion.
True custom home builders allow you to expand upon the design — even after construction has started. You can add that fifth bedroom, add more square feet to the kitchen, enlarge the patio area, and more. Thus, we don’t want to tell you which home builder type is right for your needs, but getting a clear answer to a question about customization will clarify if a builder can actually create the home you want.
2. How do I select the decorative surfaces, colors and fixtures?
When you purchase a production home, most of the finishes are already chosen for you. If you want to build a semi-custom or custom home, you can choose tons of more details such as countertops, cabinets, flooring, tiles and more. But before that, you need to determine how the interior design process works with each builder, as they’re all different.
There are typically three main options:
- The builder has either an in-house showroom or an on-staff interior designer or decorator.
- You’ll hire an independent interior designer or decorator to help find and coordinate the finishes. The builder can often refer you to ones they’ve worked with before.
- You’ll find suppliers and finishes on your own.
The first option is the easiest since there’s no extraneous coordination necessary. Option two is also good, but we do not recommend option three. Whichever format works best for you, we urge you to visit sites such as Pinterest and Houzz to determine what sorts of finishes you like, but you should leave purchasing and coordination to the pros.
3. What features are included in the price?
Features typically are available in two formats:
- Included in the base price of the home, or
- Via packages you can add.
Most builders utilize both forms. As in, the base price will have certain high-end features already included, but you also have the option to add even more with a luxury package.
You should take any base price with a grain of salt when asking what features are included in that price. One builder may have a super-low cost, but the features you want may not be available without a hefty upgrade. Pay attention to whether the following finishes are included in the price:
- Plumbing for appliances
- Hardwood floors
4. Do I need to find land myself, or do you help acquire land?
The land you buy determines the parameters and limitations of your home both structurally and aesthetically. For example, certain neighborhoods have design guidelines you must follow (typically set by a homeowner’s association), or the land simply can’t support the type of building you want.
If a builder helps you find land, they’ll typically ensure it’s capable of building what you want on it. If your builder doesn’t offer that service (or you want to do it yourself), you’ll have to find your own property. This approach means you must work with an architect, land surveyor, or builder to determine if that piece of land you like is viable for what you’re envisioning.
5. If I find a property I like, what can you do to add value?
If you already found a property, ask your builder if they can inspect the land or if you need to hire an independent expert to assess the property’s capabilities. Other questions you and the builder can discuss include:
- What is the lot’s size?
- Are the utilities installed? If yes, does the plumbing need replacing?
- Will the builder need to demolish an existing home?
- Are there zoning issues?
- What’s the soil quality like?
- Is the property at an incline?
- Does the neighborhood have a certain home style? If yes, do I have to build in that style?
6. If I don’t already have a lot, can you help me find one?
Some builders can help you find, inspect and buy land on your behalf that perfectly fits your home. While this isn’t a “make or break” service for many people, it can definitely ease headaches and reduce the hours of research and coordination that could be spent on a more valuable task. So, it’s a huge plus.
7. Will the home-building process change if I don’t already have the property?
Yes. To determine what can be built, the builder must know what property you have. For example, not having utilities or running into deed or city restrictions can all cause a delay in construction. Regardless, you need to discuss this with your builder to determine which setbacks (if any) you might run into later down the road.
8. What’s the first step in your process?
Before you even begin designing your home, your builder must know four things:
- Your lot size (questions 4-6)
- Any neighborhood restrictions (question 5)
- Your budget
- Your lifestyle
Based on this information, your builder will match you to a home that fits within those four parameters. This is when the customization aspect enters the picture. The first draft is most likely never “the one” — thus, it’s important to know how much you can customize this plan. If the home design they present you doesn’t meet your needs, then you know to find another builder who can build within your budget.
9. Can you provide testimonials from previous home buyers?
A lot of websites recommend that you ask your builder for references from recent customers. However, the reality is that calling former customers can sometimes seem intrusive, even with the best intentions. We recommend skipping this conversation entirely by asking your builder for testimonials. They still give you the insider information you want, but without all the hassle.
10. Can I tour one of your homes currently under construction?
Again, some home websites will tell you to request a tour of one of the builder’s finished homes. This, too, can be a bit invasive to the homeowners, so we recommend that you ask to tour a current job site so you can see what a builder’s house looks like under construction. Not only will this give you insight into the home itself, but it will also give you a good opportunity to ask the builder about their communication style with the client during the construction phase.
11. Can you show me some finished photos that fit my home style?
In addition to touring a construction site, you should ask for finished photos of homes that fit the architecture style you want for your home. This is probably the only way you’ll get to see a finished home unless the builder has a model home, since, again, touring someone’s actual residence can be a bit invasive. Just remember that a model home is built to impress, so it will be decked out with the best features, ones that will likely cost you a pretty penny. However, this can easily be solved with question #3.
12. If I have a problem with my home, how do I handle it?
This will be an inquiry into a home builder’s warranty policy, as each home builder sets up theirs differently. In addition, you should ask how long the warranties are. Often, warranties for workmanship and building materials have different cutoff points than the plumbing and electrical work.
You can use our warranty policy for reference.
13. Have you ever been sued by a customer?
Asking about former disputes and how a home builder handled them is very important. We’re not suggesting that disputes are normal, as in our case we’ve never been sued. However, just in case something does arise, it’s important to know how your home builder will proceed.
14. Do you pay your team, or do you need money from me?
We recommend asking this question, as some builders will stall the project until the funds have been allocated, which can delay the timeline. Other builders, like us, don’t require funds from a buyer or lender to proceed, even at risk to us.
15. What agreements do you have between you and subcontractors?
This is another factor that can delay the timeline. You need skilled subcontractors who actually show up and build your home! Any good builder should have a protection plan for you to ensure that the right workers show up at the right times to get your home built.
16. What are you looking for in a client relationship?
You’re poking at the builder’s communication style here. You want a builder who has open communication channels that you can contact frequently and get a response in a timely manner. You can also rephrase the question like this:
- Explain specifically how you communicate with me before, during and after construction.
Today, modern builders should have some type of platform that will keep you updated, complete with password-protected access to your information. The true difference lies in how frequently the builder communicates. So, another great question would be: How often do you update your clients? Every day will be the most ideal answer, but it ultimately depends on how you prefer to communicate.
We, for example, give clients 24-hour access to what’s happening with their home. That way, they can get updates on their own time – not ours. Additionally, we continue our client relationship after the build – many of our clients love to keep in touch, which helps if they have questions about their home down the road.
So, we know what you’re thinking: This is a lot of questions! Absolutely. Don’t get us wrong — we love a good surprise! But there’s not really a place for them when it comes to building a home. The more questions you can ask your builder before a contract is signed (well before actual construction begins!), the better.
As builders, we want you to ask us these questions. We want to get to know you. Our goal is to ensure we’re building your dream home exactly the way you want with no surprises — except for that final reveal when you get to see the home you’ve always wanted come to life.