Choosing the wrong custom home builder is a costly mistake that we want to help you avoid.
Because the truth is, it’s better for everyone if you end up with the right design/build team—even if it isn’t us. Your luxury beach house is one of the biggest investments you’ll ever make, which means this decision is high-stakes.
You need a team that understands your needs and will deliver a home you’re excited to live in for years to come. Plus, it’s critical that you know the red flags to look out for, in order to avoid unethical custom home builders.
We often say that custom building is a journey. It can be an enchanting footpath that winds around grassy dunes or tiptoes along the edge of rocky cliffs, offering a gorgeous ocean view. But a single misstep could be destructive, damaging a fragile ecosystem, or even worse, sending you into an unexpected free-fall. So follow these tips to ensure that you end up with a custom home builder you’ll rave about and recommend to friends.
Think About The Process of Building, Not Just The End Result
Sure, you want to be happy with the final product. And sometimes, you’re so pleased with your new home that it overwrites any negatives of the experience—the fact that your project came in way over-budget, or construction took six months longer than expected, that your build team was impossible to get in touch with and your project manager often spoke to you in a dismissive tone.
But we promise, you can have the best of both worlds—a stunning, highly-efficient luxury home, built to your specifications, and a rewarding, low-stress experience getting there. So when you begin asking for recommendations and interviewing custom home builders, ask the right questions.
Questions For Other Homeowners:
- What was communication like?
- Was your team quick to get back in touch?
- Were your concerns addressed?
- Was everybody patient with you?
- Did you feel heard?
- Did you run into any issues? If so, how were they addressed?
- Did you go over time/budget?
- Overall, how stressful was this process?
Questions For Custom Home Builders:
- What’s your building process?
- How and how often do you communicate with clients?
- How long do you expect this build to take?
- What features are standard in the homes that you build? (For example, White Sands homes usually include basements, elevators, and rooftops that are strong enough to support hot tubs, among other features.)
- What kind of energy-efficiency measures are standard in your builds?
- What kind of warranty do you offer?
- Do you have references?
Know Your Values—And Those Of The Custom Home Builder
Some custom home builders are all about volume—building as many houses as they can, as quickly as possible. Maybe that’s okay with you, if you really needed your new home yesterday. But if you want to check in along the build process and make design tweaks as you go, working with a “speedy does it” builder is going to be highly frustrating.
Some custom home builders are unwilling to make design or material concessions, even if this rigidness drives up the final price. Or maybe they are only willing to work with only a few subs—which could add months to the move-in date, if their subs happen to be unavailable.
We are a design-prioritizing firm, which means we choose to work with clients who value exceptional design and unique touches. We build luxury homes, so if you’re coming to us, you want a home designed by an architect. You’re not working with a cookie-cutter floor plan, chosen off a list.
But we’re flexible. If costs are getting out of hand, we’re more than willing to make substitutions. We’ll switch out materials or wait a week or so for a more affordable sub. We offer a highly personal service, which means matching our values to yours.
We always ask our clients what’s most important to them—design, budget, or time. Then we make a build-plan privileging your biggest value, even if it means occasionally compromising in the other two arenas.
Chose From Custom Home Builders Who Specifically Work In Your Area
We don’t just mean your general area, such as Los Angeles County. Sometimes beach communities have complicated zoning and construction ordinances. If you are building in Manhattan Beach, you want someone who’s worked in the South Bay and understands the rules of the game—and how to push those rules if necessary.
Narrow Your List To 3-5 Custom Home Builders
These are the builders you’ll actually contact for interviews. Make this list after internet and social media research, as well as after asking other custom homeowners for referrals.
Most custom home builders have active Instagram feeds, full of project photos. Before wasting time interviewing an unlikely candidate, check out their social media and online portfolios. Do the types of homes they build seem like the type of home you want to invest in? Are the homes in their portfolio similar in scope to your dream home?
Do these custom home builders have reviews on Houzz and other crowdsourcing boards? The more digital breadcrumbs, the better. Don’t take a chance on a builder that only seems to exist on their own website.
Is there a particular house that you love? Try to figure out which contractor built it, using some internet sleuthing, shoe-leather reporting (such as, ahem, just knocking on the door and asking!), and public records searching.
Ask for recommendations on apps such as Nextdoor or Neighbors, in addition to asking local friends and family who have custom built. You can even ask your realtor for recommendations. They should have a good idea of which design/build teams homeowners have enjoyed working with.
Interview Custom Home Builders
Pay attention to what the building professionals say during the interview, but also, pay attention to how you feel. Does your design/build team seem genuinely knowledgeable or just arrogant? Do they make you feel confident and comfortable, because they’re approachable?
You’re going to spend a lot of time with this team. You need to be able to communicate easily, to trust them, to feel seen and heard. If someone seems impatient or intimidating in this initial interview or if they’re trying to give you a “hard sell,” it’s best to move on.
Note how long the custom home builders took to respond to your request for an interview. If they were too busy to respond quickly, they’ll likely be difficult to get in touch with once they’re actually involved in your build.
Ask them for the names of past clients who wouldn’t mind being contacted. If they can’t provide this list, move on immediately.
If there’s something specialized you want, such as an in-home theater or a walk-in wine cellar, ask them if they’ve ever built this feature before.
Don’t Choose A Custom Home Builder Solely On Price
We all love a good deal. It’s tempting to believe that you can actually get luxury quality at bargain basement prices. There are whole, thriving chains of retail shops fueled by this particular dopamine rush.
But all of the custom home builders you interview should offer bids in the same ballpark. If a contractor significantly undercuts the others, they likely don’t know what they’re doing. This means there’s a huge chance the person quoting you the lowest price will actually turn out the most expensive product—without offering any superior quality.
When you talk to custom home builders about budgets, ask them how they bill. Does their system seem transparent to you?
We don’t ask for a down payment, and we bill at the middle and end of each month. You’re only billed for the work done during that time period. It’s easy to follow.
You can choose your own outside architect, but we also regularly work with certain architects, so we’re on the same page even through the design process. When the plans are complete, we simultaneously sign them with the architect. This ensures that the build goes smoothly, and we avoid huge financial surprises.
We want the process to be simple enough that you, as the client, have a good idea of what you’re spending along the way, as well as what your final sum will be.
Custom Building Is A Business Like No Other
As builders, we’re asking clients to make significant investments before knowing the final costs. It’s scary. We get that. But by choosing a contractor who offers you as much transparency and information as possible up front, you can experience this process with curiosity and a sense of discovery. You can leave the process feeling like you’ve dealt with a technical expert, rather than a used car salesperson.
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.