Property in California beach towns is highly desirable, and custom building in the South Bay is a huge investment.
Protect yourself by choosing the right California builder. It’s difficult to build a South Bay beach house for under $2 million. However, unethical contractors in the South Bay and beyond will promise the moon simply to get a new client to sign on the dotted line.
Protect your South Bay beach house—your biggest investment—by asking the right questions up front and heeding red flags, to ensure that you collaborate the absolute best California builder. You want a contractor who respects transparency and your vision, rather than pushing you towards their vision.
Don’t Commit to a South Bay Builder Before Seeing a Bid
Sometimes a contractor is such a good salesperson that they come in with their team in mind and sell you “the dream,” before doing the math—or at least doing the math realistically. They’ll give you a ballpark figure rather than a bid. Then, when things go over budget, they’ll put it back on the client: “But we’re just building the design choices that YOU made.”
This may be true. But how informed were you when you made those design choices? An ethical contractor will be transparent throughout the process.
Even when a California builder gives you a bid, it may not be very accurate. The contractor’s bid is based on subs’ bids. Your contractor may be getting a bid from a tradesperson, such as a millwork carpenter, today, but that work may not be done for several months. The price of materials or labor could rise in that time. Most subcontractors’ bids are only guaranteed for 30 days.
We keep things transparent by adding a contingency line item in our budget that’s 5-8 percent of the total project. This makes it easy for our clients to see exactly where things are going over, and it keeps them from sticker-price shock at the end.
The moral here: Don’t buy a vision without knowing the nuts and bolts.
Thinking of Designing A South Bay Beach House? Questions to Ask California Builders Before Hiring
1. May I check your references?
This is probably the most important question you can ask your builder, whether you’re building in Manhattan Beach or another town. If the contractor doesn’t have former clients willing to vouch for them, that should be a huge warning. Ideally a builder can offer at least three references. References are custom homeowners who have worked with this particular builder and are willing to answer your questions about the process and quality of their completed custom beach house.
What To Ask References, Before Choosing A California Builder For Your LA County Beach House
- Did the builder listen to you? Did you feel heard throughout the project?
- Was the contractor able to stay on budget? If things veered off-budget, how did the builder get back on track?
- Was the final project over or under budget? By how much?
- How was communication? Was the builder still as responsive as before, after you signed the contract?
- How did the contractor handle mistakes or challenges?
- Did the contractor build your vision or theirs?
- Was the contractor easy to get along with?
- Did the builder seem respected by your architect, the subs, and other building professionals?
2. May I talk to your subcontractors?
Subcontractors and tradespeople have amazing insight into the local building industry and can tell you which builders they prefer to work with and why. You can ask a sub about multiple California builders that you are considering. Chances are, they’ve worked with everyone.
We give a list of past client references, as well as a list of trade references that include South Bay brokers, subcontractors, and architects.
3. What is the budget-range for your typical project? What’s the most affordable project you’ve ever done? What’s the most expensive?
This information is important. If a contractor’s average project costs much more than you’re able to spend, they may not be able to bring your project in on-budget. If you’ve got a hard budget of $1.5 million and your builder has never built anything for under $2 million, consider another contractor.
4. When a project goes over budget, how do you reel it in?
Unexpected challenges and expenses will arise, and any contractor who says otherwise is untruthful. Therefore, it’s important for a builder to always have a plan to get things back into the agreed-upon budget range.
At White Sands, we primarily tackle rising costs through value engineering. We are willing to work with a variety of vetted tradespeople, who encompass a range of price points. Sometimes we adjust various elements to make things work.
Sometimes materials need to change to accommodate a budget issue. In that case, we make changes in areas that don’t matter as much, such as secondary bedrooms and baths. We prioritize rooms which drive up the long-term value of your South Bay beach house, such as kitchens and master baths.
We always start with our top subs, but if budget becomes a concern, we have a list of alternative subs. These tradespeople may do work of the same quality, but it may cost $20,000 less—and take longer to complete.
Chances are, a builder who only works with one team of subs or just “their” tradespeople will not be flexible enough to adjust to changing variables. When costs rise on these builder’s projects, they simply stay high.
5. What’s an example of something you’ve done in the past to get a project back in-budget?
Can your contractor give an example? We can.
One of our clients didn’t want to spend as much on the custom kitchen cabinets as we budgeted, and as our usual cabinet-maker charges. Our cabinet-maker is top-notch and consistent, which is why he’s our go-to. But this client had worked with another cabinetmaker in the past, and she liked his work. We agreed to work with him, even though we never had before, because she was comfortable with him.
He turned out to be an excellent choice, and now, when we need a more competitive bid to bring a project in at-budget, we use this cabinet-maker.
6. How do you handle mistakes or problems when they arise?
We have an all-hands meeting on-site. We get the client, any relevant subs, and our contractor, project manager, and designer in the same place and collectively develop a path forward.
But some contractors simply make decisions on their own, when things don’t go according to plan. They don’t get the input of other team members or even the client. We call this “bulldozing,” and it’s definitely not the way we think things should be handled.
Miscommunication is more likely to happen when your design/build team isn’t integrated, which is why it’s a good idea to go with an integrated firm like White Sands. If miscommunication does happen, you want a builder who is willing to take the time and go through the right channels.
On a recent job, where we did the design but not the build, contractors ignored plans for an interior barn door. As a result, the contractors put a steel beam above the doorway, which made it virtually impossible to install this door—but the clients were adamant that they wanted it. Removing this beam added unnecessary expense and time, that could have been avoided if the builder had simply reached out to the designer, rather than making their own decision.
The best builders realize they’re not designers and don’t make decisions that belong to designers. The best designers design according to their client’s vision and advocate for that vision during the build phase.
Warning Signs That Your California Builder May Not Be Right For Your South Bay Beach House
1. Your contractor has bad online reviews or no reviews. Or they have reviews with “stars” but no text.
And we’re not just talking about client reviews.
What do subcontractors say about your Manhattan Beach builder? What do vendors and tradespeople say about them? Do architects find them easy to work with? Ask around.
For the record, White Sands has excellent reviews.
2. Your South Bay builder low-balls the bid.
Sometimes a builder will give a prospective client a super-low estimate just to get their business. Be wary. If a builder is under-selling a total budget by more than 10-percent, as compared to contractors of similar quality, they either have no idea what they’re doing, or they’re purposefully misleading you.
Either way, the final product could end up costing more than the highest bid. If they’re unethical enough to mislead you early in the process, a California contractor will have no qualms about going way over budget.
3. Architects, subcontractors, other building professionals, or former clients describe them as a “salesperson.”
Don’t be fooled by charisma and flashy promises. A salesperson will say anything to get you into contract. For example, they may offer a “deal” if they can use your house for marketing purposes. Maybe they’ll say they can bring something in under a certain price, even though no other luxury home builders seem to think this price is possible.
A salesperson makes promises they can’t keep. To guard against falling for a wheeler-and-dealer, ask architects about your builder.
- How often do their projects come in at budget?
- Do they tell people what they want to hear but not deliver?
- Do they make promises they can and do keep, come up with realistic budgets, and follow through?
If a pitch feels oversold or you feel pressured to sign too quickly, before you’ve had a chance to research and check references, walk away. Remember, you’re building a luxury custom beach house, and the process is important. In the end, you don’t want to feel like you’ve dealt with a junkyard auto dealer.
4. Your builder asks for a huge down payment.
Most contractors will ask for 10-20 percent up front. If your builder wants a huge down payment, such as 30 percent, something isn’t right. It could be a scam, or your builder isn’t able to secure a line of credit. Either way, your project will suffer.
White Sands doesn’t ask for any money up front for the contracting work. Rather, we bill at the middle and end of each month, and you’re only billed for the work done during that time period. It’s very easy to know what you’re paying for with each bill.
Our design work is billed a little differently, in terms of milestones.
5. Your California builder can’t show proof of insurance, has a confusing contract, says they don’t need permits, or asks you to handle the permits.
This demonstrates a lack of experience and professionalism at best and a lack of legal requirements at worse.
6. Your builder is inflexible and only willing to work with very specific tradespeople.
This is almost a sure sign that your project will go over budget and take longer than necessary.
7. Your builder is not available or communicative.
Your builder may be prompt about communication while bidding on your LA County beach house, but what happens once you’ve signed that contract? Do they suddenly communicate only by text? Have they stopped communicating altogether? Do they make decisions without consulting you or your designer, because they were “busy” or simply couldn’t be bothered?
Our policy is that we respond to your questions or attempts to contact us within 24-hours.
8. Your builder is building their vision, not yours.
If your builder is trying to build their showpiece of a Manhattan Beach house, or get through your project and on to the next, to make more profit, they don’t respect your vision. Also, they’re unlikely to respect the role of their colleagues.
A deviation from the contract or plans without a change order violates everyone’s trust. A builder who doesn’t stay in their lane is likely to build a South Bay beach house that looks very different from what appears in the plans the client approved.
9. Your California builder has celebrity clients.
We live in Los Angeles County, so this happens. In and of itself, it’s not a red flag. But if your builder is more concerned about their celebrity clients (actors, athletes, musicians, etc.) than their non-celebrity clients, this becomes a problem.
We’ve had clients hire us after firing another designer or builder, because their first hire neglected other projects to focus on the home of an actor. Your home should be a priority to your design/build team.
Must-Have Qualities in Your California Builder
1. Good references from clients and colleagues.
2. Dependability, accessibility, and communicativeness.
White Sands schedules weekly site visits with the contractor and other relevant parties, so that clients can walk through the under-construction home and identify any concerns
3. Lack of ego and teamwork.
You need your designers and builders to be a team, who respect each others’ talent and expertise and communicate well. At White Sands, teamwork is our organizing principle. Everyone plays to their strengths, which leads to a more efficient process and a more cohesive finished product.
Remember the earlier tale of two cabinet-makers? The process of building your South Bay beach house is about what you want and how we can make that happen. It’s about making your life easier, not ours.
5. Ability to deliver on early promises.
If your builder offers something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Project estimates that are significantly under other estimates for builders of a similar caliber are probably too good to be true.
If you’re ready to build your beach house in Manhattan Beach or surrounding communities, you need a team that works exclusively in the South Bay. White Sands understands zoning and doesn’t make promises we can’t keep. We’re not salespeople; we’re makers. Our bid may not be lowest, but it will be fairly spot-on. What’s more, our clients and subs are happy to vouch for us.
Want to know more? Get in touch today.
Thanks for reading,
Hawlie Ohe heads White Sands Interiors, and she and her husband are raising two boys along the South Bay coast. Hawlie brings the curiosity that fueled her first career, as a journalist, to her interior design approach: Who are you, who do want to be, and how can this space get you there? Great design makes you feel present and engaged, and Hawlie is here for it. Because she wants to help you be “here” (in this space, in this moment), too.