Choosing a Builder for Your Home in California

When constructing a new residence in California, choosing a custom home builder is arguably the most important stage of the process. In their article “What You Need to Know Before Building a Custom Home” for The Washington Post, Steve and Hans Wydler note that “building a custom home requires lots of work.” This is because “there are hundreds if not thousands of steps and decisions to be made along the way,” from choosing the best subdivision to submitting permits. Unfortunately, California homeowners are not always equipped to make these hundreds of decisions. Because building in California is complex and multifaceted, you must understand how to choose a custom home builder who will meet your expectations. Without the right custom home builder to manage your project, budgets are often blown, timelines are extended and miscommunications are more common than not. This year, complications are even more common due tothe surge in home building. According to the US Census Bureau, housing starts in June 2021 are up 29.1% compared to June 2020. As we are seeing record home construction across the Golden State, finding a well-respected builder who can manage your custom home construction helps limit delays and curb expenses that most other homeowners must deal with. From asking the right questions to knowing what you want, follow below to learn how to choose the right builder for your custom home in California.

How to Start Your Custom Home Builder Research

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Not to be confused with a general contractor, a custom builder is a licensed professional who manages a team and has the skills and training to complete the build him/herself. In California, builders must belicensed under a Class B General Building Contractor license, which is granted by the CSLB. Officials at the Contractors State License Board recommend that all homeowners planning to work with a builder check the builder’s contractor license registration before proceeding. The only circumstance under which a builder does not have to be licensed and insured by the state of  California is when he or she is an “owner-builder.” According to the California Department of Consumer Affairs Contractors State License Board, “an owner-builder is exempt from licensure, but there are limitations.” Follow below for more tips when beginning your search for the right custom home builder.

Tips for Beginning Your Search

#1 Ask Friends and Family for Their Recommendations

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While the internet offers an excess of information, it can be difficult to hone in on respectable builders. In her article “5 Tips to Hire a Builder for Your Dream Home” for Angi.com, Michele Dawson suggests home buyers start by asking for recommendations. Dawson encourages home buyers to “inquire among friends, family and co-workers” first before turning to “your local home builders association.” You can also reach out to realtors in your area who have experience working with high-quality builders.

Before scheduling a consultation with any of these builders, be sure to check that each builder has “a permanent business address and actual business location.” Next, eliminate builders who have been in business for less than three years. This is because “you want to know the builder sticks around once he completes a project ” and that your warranties will be honored.

#2 Use Angi’s “Find a Custom Home Builder” Tool to Look Online

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In his article “Find a builder – who will do the job well and on time” for RealHomes.com, Michael Holmes echoes Michele Dawson. He writes that “recommendation is the best way to find a reliable builder [because] most small firms rely on their reputation and work hard to maintain it.” However , there are also a few safe and reliable ways to find custom home builders online. Holmes suggests using internet services companies like Angi or other “accreditation bodies for a specific trade type.” These resources allow you to enter your postcode, search through a list of local builders and read recent reviews.

Angi’s “Find a Custom Home Builder” tool is one of our favorites because it includes a series of questions to help hone down results. The tool will ask how many bedrooms your custom home will have, if you already own a plot of land, which styles of home you are interested in and what your approximate budget is. It will also ask about your timeline for the project and how you plan to finance your build -- e.g. with cash or through a construction loan.

#3 Identify Red Flags When Reaching Out to Builders

Business Location

As mentioned above, there are a few red flags to watch out for when hiring a custom home builder. These red flags will usually pop up either before you contact the builder or during your first meeting with the builder. First, homeowners should pore over the builder’s website in search of preliminary red flags. For example, homeowners should look for the builder’s CSLB license number. If that license number is not prominently displayed on the builder’s website, the homeowner should avoid said builder. Next, homeowners should look through recent testimonials and comments on the builder’s website and social media. Third, homeowners should make sure the builder has not changed the name of their business recently or multiple times in the last decade. Those who have are likely trying to distance themselves from poor reviews, lawsuits or other reputational ills.

When reaching out to a builder for a consultation, homeowners should avoid builders who say they can “start tomorrow” as these builders are likely not in demand. They should also avoid builders who provide a very low estimate, pressure you into signing a contract or refuse to sign a contract. Homeowners should also avoid builders who are unwilling to assemble a team of subcontractors or apply for all necessary permitting. Professional builders should be capable of and willing to manage every step of your custom home construction project.

#4 Ask the Right Questions

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During the consultation process, builders will likely ask the homeowner a series of questions and vice versa. Asking the right questions will help you -- the homeowner -- determine whether the builder’s ethics, communication style and project management approach are in line with your own. At the end of this article, we will provide a complete worksheet of questions to ask your builder. In the meantime, however, Erica Sweeney outlines five basic questions to ask each builder you interview in her article “How To Hire a Home Builder” for Realtor.com.

First, Sweeney recommends that homeowners ask the builder how he or she guarantees their work. Next, homeowners should ask how each homeowner manages the budget of each project to prevent clients from overpaying. Third, homeowners should ask what types of materials builders use and which subcontractors they work with. Fourth, homeowners should ask if the builder offers a warranty. Sweeney notes that homeowners must know how a builder will handle it if “something in the newly built home breaks soon after you move in.” Lastly, homeowners should ask builders how they will “acquire all the necessary permits” and how familiar they are with local building codes.

#5 Request a Portfolio of Prior Projects

Project

Before concluding your consultation with a builder or company, make sure to ask for a portfolio of prior projects. If possible, request images and details from previous projects that closely resemble what you have in mind for your own home.

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When to Hire a Custom Home Builder

Hire A Custom Builder After Deciding Which Style of Home You Want

Plan

Those hoping to build their custom home should only hire a builder after settling on basic elements of their construction project. For example, homeowners should already know how many bedrooms and bathrooms they want, how large the house will be, what kind of floor plan they prefer and what style they like most. Homeowners should also set their budget and timeline before consulting with builders. In his article “10 Tips for Choosing and Working With a Builder” for Houzz, Hugo Tugman explains why preparing a list of “must-haves” is important.

Tugman writes that “having a good idea of what you want before interviewing builders” streamlines the process. According to Tugman, “builders are generally good at pricing once they know exactly what’s wanted.” However, asking a builder “for a price before you have any drawings or detailed information about the project is as good as inviting them to tell you simply what they think you want to hear.” To avoid unnecessary confusion over timeline and cost, homeowners should “approach builders once you have a set of drawings and a list of what will (and will not) be included.”

Preparing a List of “Must-Haves” for Your Builder

Before homeowners meet with a builder, they should prepare a list of “must-haves” that address the following issues:

A maximum budget for the project
The timeline within which the house must be built
Financing options that are available to the homeowners
How many occupants the home must accommodate
Whether the occupants will be multigenerational
An estimate of bedrooms and bathrooms needed
Which type of floor plan the homeowners would prefer
Exterior and interior styles the homeowners like best
What size (in square footage) the home should be
Where the master bedroom should be located (i.e. on the first floor or in the back of the house)
Custom features the homeowners want(e.g. solar panels, passive house features and more)
How the exterior of the home should function (e.g. flat landscaping for socializing or tiered land for gardening)
Required storage within and outside of the home

Choose a Custom Builder After Ensuring They Will Honor Warranties and Provide Post-Service Care

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Homeowners should only choose a builder after ensuring that he or she will provide post-service care and provide reasonable warranties. While purchasing a model or tract home is certainly an investment, building a custom home is often costlier and more complex. As such, homeowners must be sure that their builder will stand by the work they have performed throughout the course of the project. In her article “What a Builder Warranty Covers on New Constructions (and What You’re on the Hook for Yourself)” for Realtor.com, Julie Ryan Evans explains how builder warranties work.

Evans writes that “the lifespan of a builder warranty depends on the specific features of the house [but] the typical builder warranty lasts six months to two years, with some lasting up to 10 years.” Warranties differ from builder to builder, but all should cover “a home’s materials and workmanship.” According to Evans, this includes the foundation, basement, roof, landscaping, carpentry, waterproofing, insulation, siding, plumbing, electrical, HVAC system and septic system. Builder warranties rarely cover changes made by the homeowner later on, house hold appliances, “weather-related issues” and “insect damage.” To avoid being taken advantage of, make sure you know what type of warranty each builder offers before hiring. Choose a builder who is happy to offer post-service care and who will provide a lengthy warranty that covers all his or her workmanship.

Pick a Custom Home Builder After Comparing Quotes

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Lastly, homeowners should compare quotes across their list of builders before choosing a custom home builder and beginning the building process for their dream home. When interviewing each builder, be sure to ask for overall time and cost to build estimates. Also ask for a detailed breakdown of how much the builder expects each material and product to cost throughout the custom home building process. Finally, ask each builder for a cost per square foot estimate. Most custom homes will cost between $300 and $1,000 per square foot to design and build.

Compare these costs to those of other builders and to market rate prices for materials and labor listed online. In her article “Should You Buy or Build a Home?” for Investopedia, Jean Folger writes that your design-build team “should work with you to help you reduce costs” on your new home. Because “substituting different materials and fixtures can save thousands of dollars" when building a home, homeowners should "ask a head of time if there's a cheaper alternative.”

What to Ask Your Builder: A Complete List of 13 Questions for Homeowners

Custom Home Blog

#1 How do you qualify the capability of the subcontractors that will work on my home?

#2 Can you give me examples of specific building materials you prefer to use and why?

#3 How do you service warranty issues after we move-in?

#4 Can you provide me with a few references, preferably one past client and one current client?

#5 Can you tell me a bit about your estimating and design process?

#6 How do you make sure your budgets are accurate?

#7 How closely will you work with my architect and interior designer?

#8 Will you assemble a team for my project or can I choose the subcontractors for my custom build?

#9 Do you have experience building the style and quality of the home that I want?

#10 Can I see homes or photos of homes that are similar to the style I am looking for?

#11 What features or products are included in the cost and which are additional?

#12 Who will be assigned to my project, and how often will my project be under direct supervision?

#13 How will I be updated during the custom home building process?

Working with California’s Premier Custom Home Builder

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In our article “Benefits of Working with a Design-Build Firm from Start to Finish,” we explained why working with a builder like Element Homes is the best option for homeowners. As California’s top builder, Element Homes provides homeowners with unparalleled service. Our team is fully licensed and insured in the state of California, is open and transparent about our process and is well-versed in all local building codes and challenges. Schedule a consultation with our architects, engineers or designers today by calling us or reaching out via our website. We are happy to answer any questions you may have about potential builders and our building process.

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