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Seattle Homebuilding: 10 Things to Consider for Custom Construction

Luxury builder, JayMarc Homes, shares the secrets of delivering results in a competitive housing market.
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Sponsored by Realogics, Inc.

Throughout the Puget Sound region, buyers are navigating an incredibly competitive market, facing issues such as multiple offers, mismatched life schedules, and the right product but the wrong location. Many emotions come into play when taking the big step towards building a custom home, including excitement, fear, nervousness and joy, and a competitive market can compound these emotions. The job of the home builder is to make the customer's dream home a reality.

The right custom builder will provide buyers with control in a market that feels unpredictable and intimidating, and help buyers overcome challenges such as:

  •   Not finding the home you want.
  •   Finding the right home in the wrong place.
  •   Finding the perfect home at the wrong time.

It's a process that involves a lot of decision-making, communication and collaboration. The aforementioned range of emotions may still be experienced, but these tips and considerations will provide some guidance as you search for a successful partnership with a custom home builder. 

1. Cost Per Square Foot Syndrome

When evaluating builder fees, it’s tempting to focus primarily on the dollar cost per square foot, but beware of using that metric alone. The cost per square foot is impacted by the quality and finishes in a home. One builder may use higher end, more expensive products. So, evaluate costs with the value of the home. Consider location (differences in land values) and standard features in their standard construction. How does the craftsmanship come through? Are there existing vendor relationships in place which allow for better pricing on higher quality finishes? These, and so many other factors, contribute to the final cost of a home.

JayMarc Homes recently began delivering our custom home projects with fixed cost construction fees, which helps avoid budget surprises along the way. Cost overruns commonly occur when subcontractor prices change from the time of estimation to work. We are able to hold to a fixed fee by locking in vendor estimates based on detailed construction plans.

“This is an effective way to manage and maintain expectations so that home buyers can focus more on the creative process of building a custom home,” said Brenda Gage, Custom Home Specialist for JayMarc Homes.

2. Your Money’s Worth

Let’s be real: for many of us, working with the numbers is the least sexy part of the process. However, it is one of the most important. Without nailing down the numbers, the dream home construction budget can easily turn into a nightmare. Also, most banks are accustomed to working with builders; make sure your bank is familiar with the ins and outs of construction loans, and has a good checks and balances system in place with your chosen builder.

JayMarc Homes is partial to the third party software that allows custom clients and their bank to view and approve construction draws. When we complete a phase of work and submit a draw request, the service sends an inspector to the job site to verify work before releasing payment. The experts at JayMarc like this tool so much, they use it even when our customers use cash (no bank financing) to fund their projects.

3. The Right Piece of Dirt: Secure and Begin Permitting

While it's not required, it's helpful to already own the land where you'll build your new home. Often, people who can get a jump-start on the city permitting process, can shorten the timeline. If you own your land, but have not done this review process, no worries – work with your builder.

With land, builders are immediately concerned with these issues:

  • Utility Setup: Assess current setup and the work required to upgrade to a new home.
  • Zoning: Dictates the allowable footprint, maximum square footage and building height of the new home.
  • Title Report: Identifies any limitations, potential easements, covenants, codes and regulations that could impact construction.
  • Topography Survey: Land conditions affect the cost getting your house out of the ground. Steep slope or poor earth quality can greatly increase the cost of earth work and foundation -- sometimes to the point that the lot is not worth buying.

Permitting can feel endless at times. Hiring a builder who understands these nuances will avoid construction delays. The process requires meticulous detail, and to confuse matters, each city has different requirements. Permits are reviewed by many departments within a city. For example, in the City of Bellevue, each of these departments gets involved in a review: Land Use, Utility and Drainage, Building, Clear and Grade, and Fire.

“Each department will review using their own lens,” says Gary Upper, JayMarc’s Development and Permitting Coordinator. “If a department sees a red flag, they respond back to the builder with comments. It’s our job to respond by clarifying the application or making changes.” 

4. Architect and Builder Collaboration

Architects have a very specialized skill set. The exceptional architect will engage the builder in the process of drawing up a clients’ custom home plans. An architect’s unique design skills, combined with a builder’s expertise and the client’s input result in a home that exceeds the customer’s expectations. When everyone works together, the process works beautifully, says Ron Spahman, JayMarc’s VP of Operations.

“We’ve had people show up with their architectural plans and a $900,000 budget without builder input,” Spahman said. “But once we reviewed the drawings, the reality was more in the $1.5 million range. There were some obvious design features that we could have steered them away from to help them stay within budget, and more importantly realize their dream of building a home.”

5. Designing the Dream

If you love the style that a builder often features, look to their in-house interior design team for guidance. A custom builder should also have flexibility to work with an outside interior designer. Either way, design guidance is important, as it can steer the process away from being daunting or overwhelming. To navigate the design process, the JayMarc teams likes to establish a framework early on: What’s your style? Are you seeking modern or traditional? Do you like bling or muted? Elegant or funky? What color palette are you drawn to?

Scheme boards are a great way to determine whether your selections vibe well. One bonus of sample sizes is being able to use them as a tool for furniture shopping and paint selection.

Next, collect samples. Group together your swatches for flooring, cabinetry, countertop and paint colors. Review them independently, but more importantly, spend time looking at the samples as an ensemble. How do the colors, textures and styles play off of each other? How do the morning, afternoon and evening light affect the look?  And of course, do these selections align with your design plan? Houzz is a great online visual tool that you can use to collaborate with your builder. Use your design plan as a guide to staying on your chosen aesthetic path, even if tempted by “shiny objects". It will help ensure that your home’s design is fluid from one room to the next.

Houzz provides the Ideabook tool, which allows you to bookmark photos and share them with your builder. It helps you not only communicate your style, but it can also help you discover your favored aesthetic.

6. Customer Care Team

From foundation to the final coat of paint, there are thousands of steps that builders follow to build a custom home. The onus is on the builder to maintain communication with the customer. Any reputable builder should be able to assign your key project contacts before signing a construction agreement.  

During construction, the project and field managers are also doing their share of the heavy lifting. They are the team members who have both a global and detailed view of the construction status, and maintain communication with the homeowners.

7. Behind the Scenes

So many hands touch and build a home. Teams of trade workers focus on their specialized fields from foundation, electrical, floors and HVAC systems to doors, plumbing and sound dampening. Find out who’s doing the work. And more importantly, how long they’ve been working with the builder. Consistency and work history are key. In this hot market, subcontractors who receive a steady flow of work from a builder are also the ones to work on custom home projects without the need for a waiting list (which translates to unwanted construction delays). 

Framing is one of the most important steps when building your home. It's an opportunity to see how your home works from the inside. If you ever have questions about any of the plumbing, electrical or insulation, don’t be afraid to ask. Photo credit: Richard Cranor

8. Drive By and Walk Through

The best indicator of any builder’s work is their portfolio. Walk through every available home that you can, and drive by even more! You’ll quickly be able to discern quality, and pick up on details of how they build.

Paint and millwork are good examples. Look for a uniform sheen in the paint with no visible brush strokes. It should be smooth to the touch (no nails heads or physical defects). Review the millwork – what are you getting for the money? Is it uniformly installed and plumb, level and square on the wall? Miter joints should be cleanly cut; a good finish carpenter makes the two pieces fit together seamlessly without the need for a painter to cover it with caulking and paint.  These are a few of the fine details that serve as value indicators – and they contribute to the feeling of “loving where you live!”

It’s all in the details. When touring a builder’s homes, take note of the details you love. The box beams we put in our great rooms have become a favorite JayMarc design feature.

9. Do You Like Them?

By the time you’ve reached the end of your vetting process, you've likely had several meetings with different builders. Ask yourself: Do like them? As in, do you feel trust? Do you have a sense of what it will be like to work with the customer care team? Do they have a customer care team? Is the communication effective and responsive? What do their past customers say about them?

Remember, you’ll be working very closely together for many months. Synergy matters.

10. Warranty and After Care

After you get the keys to your dream home, what comes next? Here’s what JayMarc Homes thinks ought to happen: Every custom home should have a strong warranty program, which includes both structural and builder warranties (workmanship/materials and systems warranty). The builder should provide the warranty along with documentation outlining coverage before you take ownership of the home. A homeowner manual detailing information such as city services, home care and builder contacts will be helpful as well.

Inquire about after the post-construction customer care program, the builder’s participation after the delivery of the home. There should be two or three walkthroughs during the first year you are living in your home.

About JayMarc Homes:

JayMarc Homes just celebrated its seventh year and a recent milestone of delivering 100 homes. They use their record of success and access to vendors, design professionals, mortgage lenders and other service providers to work for you. They have a proven system in place, providing buyers with control in a market that seems unpredictable and intimidating. 

For buyers who already have architectural plans in hand, they offer a fast, seven-day budget that includes a unique visual specification tool, so you can have peace of mind about what you're getting for the price. If practice makes perfect, then this luxury home builder is setting the bar specializing in custom, move-in-ready homes in Bellevue and Mercer Island. 

The FutureCast Forum is a collaborative of independent opinion leaders who explore current and projected market fundamentals that are materially influencing the Seattle/Bellevue metro area. Founding members and guest columnist provide timely insights on the state of the economy; commercial, residential, and retail development; evolving demographics; wealth management considerations; government policies; lifestyle trends and international interests that are reshaping our skyline into a global city on the rise. For more information, visit Seattlein2020.com.

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