Who You Gonna Call?

How do you identify a great custom builder—and choose the best one for your needs?

There’s an oft-repeated quip that building a custom home is as much about the experience as the result. Yes and no. It’s true that you will invest more emotion into the design and construction process than with an off-the-shelf tract home, but the defining experience is the result. It’s a home in which everything—from the room layout to the furniture and finishes—reflects your personality and priorities.

How do you make that defining experience a great one? The answer is that you need to choose the right builder, and that choice will depend in part on chemistry. Ultimately, you want someone with whom you click, someone who gets you and who understands your needs and wants.

Finding this person may require that you meet with a few candidates. First, however, you have to narrow the field to only those who are highly qualified.

It goes without saying that a successful builder will have a rock-solid business. Custom builders earn their business chops in a variety of ways. Some have spent time in the corporate world, while others learn by doing. The backstory matters less than an ongoing commitment to creating a stable, financially sound company that does high-quality work on time and within the budget. These are the only people you want to be talking with.

But while tract builders and custom builders both need to run a tight ship, they are fundamentally different businesses. Tract builders view homes the same way Ford and Toyota view cars: as products to be manufactured. They may sell quality homes, but the management team’s job is to optimize time and money. With a large tract builder, the buying process also resembles that at an auto dealership in that your interactions will be short-term and transactional.

By contrast, with a custom home you will collaborate with the builder and the builder’s team for months—on design, product choice and construction. That process will be way more enjoyable if these are people with whom you can develop smooth and trusting relationships.

It’s helpful to remember here that a great custom builder will have a different mindset than a tract builder. Although staying within your budget will be a priority, the custom builder will look for a way to do that while also delivering the best possible results.

It’s the difference between a factory that cranks out identical coffee tables day after day, and a skilled woodworker with a strong local following who builds a table just for you. Doing business with the woodworker will be different than buying from the furniture store.

Another way of making the comparison is that successful tract builders are corporations focused on the numbers (and publicly traded tract builders are obsessed with their stock price). While all successful custom builders run great businesses, they are craftspeople at heart. They have built a reputation on quality work, and they won’t cut corners to save a buck. The best ones view homes not as products but as commissioned works of art, with each new job presenting a blank canvas.

Finally, a great custom builder will be a good listener. He or she will listen closely to your wants and needs, then work with you to meet them given budgetary and other limitations. If you already have a set of plans, the builder will be honest about whether you can build that home given those limitations and if not, will look for other ways to satisfy your priorities.

This last point is important. The building process can include a lot of difficult decision points, and you want someone who will look out for your interest at each one. Your builder should be someone in whom you feel confident to guide you through this process.