- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Do you have to start from scratch to get a home that really fits your needs or a design that is uniquely your own? Production builders, companies that build a number of homes from the same set of floor plans, offer consumers a range of options to customize their homes. Buyers can make changes to their floor plans by adding a sunroom or a finished attic, choosing different kitchen-counter materials or adding stone detailing to the facade.

For new-home buyers who want the control of building custom homes but lack the knowledge or time to work with an architect to design their own, some local builders are offering a hybrid business plan that allows for greater customization than a standard home but is still based on an existing blueprint designed by the builder and their architects.

Although the lines might seem to blur between pure production builders, production builders that allow significant customization and true custom builders, there are some clear-cut differences.

Consumers who choose to work with a custom home builder can design their own homes from start to finish, constrained only by budget and, perhaps, land-planning issues.

“A custom home is a one-of-a-kind home designed and built to meet the total needs of a customer,” says Peter Tamburello, a principal with Keystone LLC, a custom home builder. “A production home is more of a tailored home, one which has been built 20 times before, but with a few features changed. People have to make compromises when they choose a production home. Out of a list of 10 things the buyers want in their home, a production builder might satisfy seven or eight of those items, but a custom builder would give you all of it.”

According to Jim Pohlhaus, design manager with Winchester Homes’ “Your Home Your Way” program, “There are a couple of key differences between working with a custom home builder and participating in our program.

“First, a custom builder will work on your own lot if you already own one, and if you need to find a lot, they can help you find a piece of property on which to build,” he says. “Some custom builders have stock plans for customers to look at, but you can also go in with something completely unique. Although Winchester Homes allows you to make significant changes during the planning stages of purchasing a home with them, they force a couple of things on buyers: First, you need to build on one of their lots, and second, you need to start with one of their plans. It would be a disadvantage to Winchester to go through the permitting process for a single lot. They will only do this for their own communities.”

Custom-home builders are prepared to work with their clients throughout the search for land, obtaining permits and financing a new-home project.

“True custom builders offer their clients complete freedom to put in any option they want on their homes and provide a level of client involvement which is different from a production builder,” says Tom Donaldson, vice president of Sugar Oak Corp., a custom builder. “Custom builders are always available for their clients at each step of the process until the home is built.”

Artery Homes offers all three types of building.

“We’re a production builder, and we like to identify ourselves as ‘the custom production builder’ because we offer the economies of scale of a large production builder but with the personal attention to detail of a custom builder,” says Bennett Goldberg, president of Artery Homes.

“We also have a full custom-homes division, and now we have a semi-custom program known as ‘Our Plan, Your Land,’ which allows buyers to use one of our plans, choose options and make changes to the plan, and we’ll build it on their lot,” Mr. Goldberg says. “If the buyer wants to make more significant changes or there’s some concern about being able to build that plan on that lot, we can also refer them to the Artery custom-homes division.”

Certain types of adjustments to floor plans can be easily accommodated by a production builder with a customizing program. Consumers with specific desires for their home may be able to realize the level of customization they want without needing to build a custom home; others may discover they want too many changes made and will need to design their own home.

“Winchester Homes can redesign the facade of a house, move the kitchen from one side of the house to the other, put on a porch, change the window configuration, add stone or brick, add more bedrooms or an addition, as long as it fits on the lot,” Mr. Pohlhaus says. “We can make the face on your house different from every other one in the neighborhood and custom design a solarium from scratch, plus put another room on top of the solarium.

“We really try to provide customization, not just a list of options. We encourage our customers to come in and add a custom-designed niche to a room which will accommodate a piece of furniture they own,” Mr. Pohlhaus says. “Recently, we had a client take out the entire kitchen as it had been designed and move all the windows, placing each cabinet and appliance the way she wanted, for a truly custom kitchen.”

There are some changes, however, that Winchester Homes cannot make.

“The biggest thing which makes us different from a custom home builder is that we cannot make changes later to a home,” says Mr. Pohlhaus. “Once we’ve started production, the house needs to be built as stated in the contract.

“Custom builders can make changes even after the rooms have been built, doing things like tearing out all the kitchen cabinets and replacing them if the clients have changed their minds,” he says. “Also, we cannot put heating elements in the floor, but we can put heat lamps on the bathroom ceilings, which offer similar comfort. We cannot change the windows from one company to another because we are limited to product lines chosen by the builder.

“Because of liability and warranty issues, we cannot let our customers bring in their own lighting fixtures or a friend come in and do some work on the house. We don’t do sand- or stain-in-place flooring, either,” Mr. Pohlhaus says, “but we do our best to work things into the plans as best as we can and allow our clients as much choice as possible in fittings and finishes.”

Mr. Goldberg adds: “Different builders are different as to how much change they can accommodate and when. Most can change a wall color and upgrade a refrigerator to another product within the same company at almost any time. But moving a wall after building started probably can’t be done by most builders.

“At Artery,” he says, “we try to accommodate pretty much everything that we can, even if it slows down the building process. Of course, in the custom division, anything can be done.”

Although upgrading finishes and adding solariums clearly add to the cost of a home, custom homes are not necessarily more expensive than production homes.

“It’s a fallacy that custom homes are always more costly,” says Mr. Goldberg. “People tend to think of custom homes as mansions like they see on ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ but the truth is that everything is scalable.

“It just depends on what the customer chooses to do. Generally, a lot of the expense is in the upfront architectural work and the time it takes to get inside a customer’s head, but we did a custom home last year that only cost $137,000 without the land.”

“Keeping the cost as low as possible is a shared responsibility of the builder and the client,” Sugar Oaks’ Mr. Donaldson says. “The builder needs to educate the client, and the client needs to make decisions within the budget.”

Mr. Tamburello agrees: “A custom home doesn’t necessarily have to cost more. It depends on the total package at the end,” he says. “To build the shell of the house won’t cost more at all, so it depends on the finish work. The cost is totally within the control of the customer.

“Obviously, a standard inexpensive dishwasher will cost less than something unique, but the builder can work with the client to make decisions about what is affordable,” Mr. Tamburello says. “The custom builders in our area who are part of the Custom Builders Council work with a cooperative so that they can order certain things at a high volume to keep the prices lower, such as lumber.”

Washington-area land prices have skyrocketed in recent years, so a significant percentage of the cost of building involves the lot purchase.

“If a customer has found a lot which works for them in terms of general location, schools and traffic patterns, a custom builder can go in and build a home on that lot,” Mr. Tamburello says. “But I recommend that customers talk to a builder first if they are looking for land, because a builder can take a look at the site and see if the lot is configured appropriately for the home they want to build, or if it’s on a flood plain, has bad soil or rocks, all of which could increase the cost of production.

“Another major issue is whether the lot has a sewer or a well in place. Bringing utilities to a site can be a mega-cost which people don’t realize exists,” he says.

In addition to concern about cost, many consumers also worry that building a custom home will take considerably longer than purchasing a new home from a production builder.

“It doesn’t necessarily take longer to build a custom home,” Mr. Donaldson says. “It’s a question of what the client wants and the level of commitment to the project.

“Custom builders are better suited to make changes during the building process, and they do make changes on an almost daily basis,” Mr. Donaldson says. “Building a custom home is an evolving, fluid process, so that can add to the time it takes. The builder and the client need to evaluate the changes being made in terms of wants versus needs and look at how each change will impact the budget and the length of time it will take to complete the project.”

According to Mr. Pohlhaus: “Normally, the time commitment is easier to predict with a production builder, and it could take twice as long with a custom builder to build a house. The reason is that with a production builder, you aren’t selecting things as you go, and you cannot make changes midstream.

“Change orders are a big deal with custom builders, but they are a rarity in the production world. The time frame with a production home is tighter because the customers need to live with the decisions and selections they made at the beginning of the process,” Mr. Pohlhaus says.

Mr. Tamburello says he thinks the time it takes to build a custom home seems longer because consumers are involved in the process earlier.

“From the customer standpoint, it may appear to take longer to build a custom home, because in their minds, the clock starts ticking as soon as they get the idea to do this,” he says. “Truly, if you compare the length of time from when the ground is actually broken, it could take the same amount of time. The finishing process sometimes takes longer in a custom home, and making changes definitely extends the process.

“Constant communication between the customer and the builder smoothes the process a lot,” he says, “but if a client makes all the decisions up front, the cost of the home will be less and the timing shorter. Most buyers are pretty astute, and custom builders will draw elevations to help them visualize each room ahead of time. The time spent with the builder to focus on details is crucial.”

Consumers interested in building a custom home should start with visits to the Web sites www.customhomeinformationcenter.com and www.custombuilderscouncil.com.

“The custom-home information site offers things for consumers to think about, and on the Custom Builders Council site, consumers can look at profiles of the … members to see what they’re doing and if they will build in their area,” Mr. Donaldson says.

Mr. Tamburello suggests that consumers begin as they would begin any new-home purchase process: by determining their budget.

“Buyers need to first go to a lender and look at their income level and figure out what they can afford to spend,” Mr. Tamburello says. “Lenders can arrange a construction-to-permanent loan, which allows the customer to do two loans with just one settlement, and there can be tax advantages to this process, too.

“Then they can begin with a general idea of what size home they want, how many bedrooms, etc. Next, if they already have the lot, then they can start talking to builders, but if not, they can work with a Realtor or a builder to find one,” he says.

Mr. Tamburello also recommends interviewing several builders and checking out their reputations through recommendations before settling on one.

“It’s important to have a personal rapport between the client and the builder because they will be spending a lot of time together and need to communicate easily.”

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