- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

“Custom-built” implies exclusivity and often elicits oohs and ahs from home buyers looking for something different. However, experts say that through the years, it has become a loosely used term that can confuse buyers.

When can a house truly be called “custom-built”?

While certain rooms in the home may have been customized slightly for the homeowner’s taste and an addition may have been added to the original home, industry professionals say that those do not qualify it to be called a custom-built residence.

A new home that is built on the owner’s lot by a contractor or builder, or even by the owner himself, is the official definition of a custom home that is used by the National Association of Home Builders, according to Steve Melman, director of economic services at the trade association.

While the lines are sometimes blurred between custom and noncustom homes, Tom Byrne of Chadsworth Homes Inc. in Rockville said that a custom home is a house that has not been built before and requires that the homeowners have a clear vision of their dreams.

“The architects are able to provide drawings of the home and present details that show interior views of the kitchen or the living room fireplace, and the builder and their selection coordinator are able to provide samples of the materials selected,” said Mr. Byrne. “However, the owner cannot see what their dream is going to look like until it is built. Hence the need for the vision.”

Willie Lee had that vision when he custom-built his 5,700-square-foot rambler surrounded by a wrought-iron gate on a sprawling 5 acres in Upper Marlboro. After living in a production home in a relatively new neighborhood, Mr. Lee said that he took all of the things that he and his family didn’t like about that house and corrected them when building his custom home in 2003.

“It’s different from the two-story Colonials,” said Mr. Lee, who is happy not having to deal with restrictive homeowners’ associations and said that he often gets compliments from visitors on the uniqueness of his home.

In addition to three fireplaces, an outdoor kitchen, category 5 cable and a bonus room above the three-car garage, by custom building it himself, Mr. Lee chose many top-of-the-line products and convenient features for his home.

Low-E, high-performance Andersen windows and a custom HVAC system with an air-return vent in every room make the house more energy efficient.

While most people looking for new homes buy from the national builder, according to Mr. Byrne, he said that business for the local custom builder grows yearly. The national companies have nothing to worry about in terms of market share, but they recognize this growing segment of the market by offering to “customize” their homes.

However, he is quick to say that this is not to be confused with the true custom-home builders who work with the homeowner to build a custom or semicustom home, but rather that it is a recognition by larger companies that customers want choices.

Thus, more subdivision builders entice home buyers by offering them more options to their basic floor plans. To put it simply, a house that is constructed according to the owner’s own specifications instead of standards usually set by the builder, as in the case of most subdivisions, can be called a custom home.

Custom builders say that buyers convey their ideas in a variety of ways, including showing them building plans that they drew on their own computers, renderings scribbled on scraps of paper, and in conversations recalling mental notes.

Wayne Foley of W.M. Foley Construction Corp. in Great Falls said he has been transforming homeowners’ cocktail-napkin sketches into dreams for many years.

His customers are in the Virginia area where, he said, there are so few subdivisions because all of the land has been used. “We often get customers who want to knock down older homes that were built in the ‘50s or ‘60s.”

He said those buyers, especially, decide to go the custom route since “they can’t take a generic house plan and plop it down on a lot because the home may not be configured to fit the lot.”

According to Mr. Foley, there are a number of permit issues keeping factory-production builders from starting subdivisions in Northern Virginia, which has led to a large infill of custom-built homes.

Mr. Foley said the national builders tell customers what lot to pick and the buyer doesn’t have much say when it comes to altering the floor plan. “Try telling them that you want to move the staircase two feet; there are certain design issues that are just so difficult for them to change. You may be able to change the color of the shutters or move a closet, but you can’t do anything to the structure.”

“The only limitation we have is the imagination and the pocket book,” said Mr. Byrne of Chadsworth Homes. During the past year, his company has built two prayer rooms for customers practicing the Hindu religion. He said that offering the unusual is the standard for custom builders.

He also said it is typical for a customer to want an outlet in a special location to recharge phones or to have a cable outlet in the owners’ walk-in closet so they can watch TV while getting dressed. “Unlike the nationals, we don’t just put in outlets to meet code; we put in outlets to suit how the homeowners live,” said Mr. Byrne.

Mr. Lee, of Upper Marlboro, is a car enthusiast and made sure to make plenty of room for his automobiles when building his custom home. Besides the attached three-car garage, he has a detached three-car garage with a workshop and auto lift.

Chadsworth Homes builds both custom and semicustom homes. “A house is truly a custom home when the owner meets with the builder and designs a home from scratch,” said Mr. Byrne, adding, “This does not mean that you can’t get the home of your dreams unless you design from scratch.”

His company has design plans that they’ve built before and often will use those as a basis to start the design process. “The key concept to designing a ‘semicustom’ home is that we keep the core of the house intact while we modify parts of the house,” said Mr. Byrne.

Mr. Byrne cautioned that trying to save a little money on architectural fees may be counterproductive. “Saving some architectural fees versus having the home of your dream is never a wise investment,” he said. “From the builder’s perspective, it is no more work to build the home of your dreams versus building a home that almost meets your dream.”

While the cost will vary, industry professionals say a custom builder will be able to make changes according to the buyers’ specific needs and budget. Mr. Byrne said that if people can afford to build a new home, they can afford to build a custom home.

“A major change in the environment between 10 years ago and today, regarding more homeowners selecting custom builders, is that in the past, a national company had the advantage in terms of buying power,” Mr. Byrne said. This has changed dramatically, he said, since the advent of cooperative groups such as Custom Builders USA, in which builders band together and use their combined buying power to negotiate pricing that competes with the larger companies.

Mr. Lee said that he saved money by custom-building the home himself. He said he showed his home plans to a national builder who gave him a price to build the home that was three times more than what he actually spent.

Dianne Bailey of Long and Foster in Washington has sold custom and noncustom homes. She has a custom home on the market that comes with unique architectural details throughout, along with features like a footbath in the mudroom.

“With custom homes they put more into the details and have higher-quality upgrades,” said Ms. Bailey. She said that because of the details and upgrades, custom homes will usually have a higher resale value than similar sized homes that are not custom-built.

“The advantage to having a custom home may hurt as much as it helps,” said Kevin Holmes, an agent with Keller Williams Realty in Upper Marlboro. “Not everyone may have your taste,” he said, explaining that if someone goes to the extreme when customizing a home, potential buyers can’t visualize themselves in it and will go to the next house.

Mr. Foley advises buyers interested in having a custom home built to do their homework. He said that the downturn in the real estate market will help weed out a lot of people who shouldn’t be in the custom-home-building industry.

“I’ve had cases where individuals have come to me because their builder just did the drywall then disappeared,” said Mr. Foley. “If they researched the builder, they would have found out that he had only built decks.” He suggests getting a lot of referrals and touring previous clients’ homes.

Mr. Byrne, of Chadsworth, said that building custom homes involves interpreting plans and that homeowners’ wishes that are not always as clear as people intend. He said, “Making sure you can work well with the builder is one of he most important parts of the process.”

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