Of all the decisions you will make on your journey to your dream home, choosing your builder is probably the most important.
If you make the right choice, you will have a genuine partner who will take your dream from concept to reality. By contrast, choosing the wrong builder can be a disaster.
As we are currently going through the process ourselves, we are documenting the steps and details involved in building a custom home, and sharing objective information so that other aspiring home owners can make informed decisions.
The information in this article is intended to make the process straightforward for you, so come along as we share our checklist for choosing an experienced and affordable custom home builder in Dallas (or anywhere in the world).
Why you need a custom home builder
If you’re still undecided about the importance of hiring a custom home builder, you should read this section.
Hiring a custom home builder is a smart choice for the following reasons:
1. Years of Experience & Knowledge in Home Construction
When you hire an experienced custom home builder, you are leveraging their expertise and experience to build your home. And, you’re saving yourself the stress of handling things and the risk of making a mess of things.
Building a custom home is difficult and complicated. It requires a great deal of knowledge, talent for construction and a wide network of solid industry contacts and relationships.
When you engage the right custom home builder, you get a team of professionals who fully understand every aspect of building a home.
Your custom home builder will be responsible for sourcing the materials, managing the process, and ensuring that construction is completed on schedule, accurately, and professionally.
2. Custom home builders have greater negotiating power
If you want the best products, labor and materials at the best prices available, consider hiring a well-established custom home builder.
These expert home developers build several homes each year and have made strong connections with manufacturers and building material suppliers over the years.
They are able to buy many components and materials in bulk, which allows them to negotiate lower prices, which benefit you.
3. Custom home builders work with dependable subcontractors
With a good custom home builder in charge of your home building project, you can be confident that they collaborate with top subcontractors in your region who can build your home to standard and on schedule.
4. It takes time and a lot of effort to build a house
Custom home construction requires time, dedication and construction expertise.
Construction isn’t something you can do in your spare time. It requires active involvement, hands-on management, and your physical presence on the job site.
Choosing a custom home builder relieves you of the burden of managing all parts of your home’s construction, allowing you to focus on other priorities in your life.
5. Established and Proven Timeline Management
A custom home builder will manage your home construction project based on the specified delivery schedule.
Professional home builders have perfected their skills through many years of trial and error. Consequently, builders have the necessary expertise to manage the development of your dream home.
They will schedule the subcontractors, check up on their work, and adhere to your deadline to guarantee that everything is completed accurately.
Also, a good builder is capable of managing any delays that may have an impact on your construction financing.
When to hire your custom home builder
The best time to select your builder is before you begin the design process. Bringing a builder on-board early in the design phase ensures that your house plan and budget remain consistent.
During the house plan design process, a professional custom builder will ensure that:
- The house plan can be built with your budget
- When choosing a house plan, you may be tempted to build a castle for a home. Your builder will tell you what you can and cannot afford.
- The design is structurally achievable
- The house design is allowed by local building ordinances and property owners associations (usually Home Owners Associations, referred to as HOAs for short)
How to Find and Hire a Reliable Custom Home Builder in Dallas, Texas
Before we start, you should be aware that anyone can work as a builder in the state of Texas. State regulators in Texas don’t require residents to earn a license or certificate to work as custom home builders, as in some states.
The downside to this fact is that people without experience can parade as top home builders, when in reality they are usually general contractors looking to make extra commissions on a deal. So, you shouldn’t accept any builder’s claims until you have verified them, and you have investigated their prior projects and resume.
Find a custom home builder in Texas through referral
If it is possible for you, this is hands-down the best way to hire a custom builder in Texas, or anywhere for that matter.
If you don’t know anyone who has a referral to a builder in your desired area, you might spend some time knocking on doors. Find attractive homes in the area and ask the owners who they would recommend.
Find a custom home builder in Texas using the internet
You can find great builders on the internet as long as you know what to look for, and how to filter candidates. There are rules to follow when using the internet to find your builder:
Rule no. 1: Make your search as detailed as possible
Instead of searching for “Dallas custom home builders,” try searching for “award-winning custom home builders in DFW” or “Best custom home builders in North Dallas” (or any area you are interested in). Be specific about the location and caliber of expertise you want to build your home.
Be prepared to review dozens, if not hundreds, of companies who will show up in your search results for Dallas and Fort Worth, and other surrounding areas.
Rule no. 2: Filter by reviews and ratings
Reviews and ratings are good indicators of expertise and experience. Start by ranking candidates based on their online reviews. Try to narrow your list of potential builders to the top 10 companies through this process, then be prepared to dig deep to verify the reviews and ratings as well as other details about the prospective builder.
Rule no. 3: Investigate thoroughly
Trim the list of prospective builders to your top two or three by conducting extensive internet research and contacting them directly via their website or phone. Look for responsiveness, organization, and a physical address.
If a builder responds within 24 hours of sending an inquiry, they are likely available to work, or provide great customer service, or both.
Also, pay attention to custom builders with a physical office. Although not absolutely necessary, having a formal office lends a degree of legitimacy and implied stability to a prospective company.
Online research tip:
Do as much research as possible to assess each builder’s experience, portfolio, team strength, communication style, values, industry reputation, and reach. If the builder checks all the boxes impressively, you should consider hiring them.
Helpful hint for reaching out:
Call the builder’s office or fill out the “Contact Us” form on their website. The communication that follows will give you a sense of their team’s responsiveness, professionalism, and eagerness to assist you.
Making the Final Decision
This will be the most time-consuming but vital element of the hiring process. You should organize a face-to-face appointment with each builder and ask to see a completed home or visit a current job site with them.
A face-to-face meeting will allow you to evaluate:
- If their procedures and processes are organized, effective, and transparent
- Their team’s strength and relevant experience
- The builder’s communication style and personality
Visiting a worksite will help you evaluate:
- If their construction and finishes are of high quality
- Professionalism, cleanliness and safety precautions on the jobsite
- How informed and hands-on the builder is with their clients and projects
Other indicators of the caliber of builder you are interviewing:
- Are they on time for meetings, fast to reply, well-organized, and have sound business judgment?
- Do you have the impression that you are their valued customer and a top priority?
- Are they willing to provide detailed answers and clarifications to all of your questions?
- Do they disclose any concerns openly and transparently while also suggesting workarounds?
- Pre-construction services – An expert custom home builder will provide you with a full cost estimate (several pages that cover everything – even the brands used) for a fee. Pre-construction services such as this take time, so it is reasonable that a professional, established builder would want to be paid for their time. Not charging for such services may be a red flag. The builder may be either inexperienced and don’t know their worth, or they may be trying to make it too easy for you to commit to them because they don’t have clients.
- Check to see whether they have insurance to cover workplace hazards and accidents. This cannot be overemphasized as construction comes with a high degree of accident risk. If the builder does not have liability protection in the form of insurance covering their workforce, then you may be held accountable for damages, medical costs, missed payments and even lost wages.
- Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if any allegations or complaints have been filed against the builder. Keep in mind that companies can change their names easily and often, so ask if they’ve previously done business under other names, as well.
Digging Deeper – Top 10 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Custom Home Builder
- Do you have experience building the style and quality of home that I want?
While this may seem to be an obvious question, be sure to ask it and ask for specific examples of their work.
This question is vital because each house style has unique challenges, so it is better to hire a custom builder with in-depth experience building the house style you want. You want to be confident that your builder knows how to deliver a finished home without cutting corners or trying something new.
And if possible, ask for a walk-through of a completed project or ongoing construction of your style of house.
- Do you have an estimating process?
Most experienced builders will provide a preliminary estimate for the cost of your finished home, based on historical hard costs and current market trends. One such example is the price contrast between the pre-Covid years (historical data) and the Covid years (current trend).
Later, they will provide you with a detailed budget estimate which is prepared after the house plan and specs are completed. As this estimate will be based on bids from suppliers, you should ensure that your builder obtains multiple bids from reputable vendors for each cost component at this stage of the estimation process.
- How long will it take to get an estimate for my home?
When shopping for a custom builder, you will contact different builders and ask for the same information for comparison. This is an opportunity to measure availability based on response time.
You should ask the builders on your interview list for a timeframe to provide an estimate for your home.
Builders that are swamped with work may give a long turnaround time, which could be an indication that the builder may not have time to get involved in the details with you or pay specific attention to your project. However, it can also indicate that the builder is in demand due to the high quality of their work.
If you believe this to be the case, and you’re interested in hiring the builder, you can ask for their work calendar to manage a timeframe that works for both of you.
- Do you charge a fee for your pre-construction services?
This question is important to understand if you will be charged up-front for certain services, or if there will be an add-on cost during the construction phase.
Pre-construction services are quite tasking and time-consuming, because a builder has to pore over the details of your house plan to identify cost-saving opportunities, review quotes from suppliers, and more.
Every part of this process requires time and focus, so you should expect a fee for this service.
Tip: Request pre-construction services when you’re satisfied with the builder’s portfolio, reviews, and response to interview questions.
- What is your project management-communication process; how will my requests, concerns, and questions be handled during construction?
During construction, you may observe house features that don’t fit your style or wish to add a specific feature to improve aesthetics.
If your request takes the project outside the scope of work agreed upon, the builder’s project management process will help you understand if in-project changes are allowed and how such changes will be handled.
A good home builder should have a process to accommodate requested changes, although they may add extra cost.
- Will my project be under direct supervision or assigned to another builder during construction?
Most custom home builders work as an organization, with multiple team members on-staff. As such, several people within the organization may handle the actual construction of their homes in process. So, your project may be managed by another builder on the team, different from the person you are interviewing.
There shouldn’t be issues if both builders are on the same team, but it is better for the builder in charge of costing and pre-construction preparation to manage the construction process. This way, you can be confident that the builder understands your vision from the beginning, and can deliver the vision you both agreed upon.
- How long do you expect the construction of this home to last?
After you are satisfied with the builder’s projected cost of building your custom home, you should ask about the timeframe. You want to know when you can move into your home and plan your transition accordingly.
The response will vary based on the size and detail of your home, and it can take anywhere between 6 – 24 months to complete a custom home.
Also, ask about the builder’s process for managing challenges during a project. Challenges could include a change to your home’s features, a shortage of materials, an on-site accident, etc.
A good builder should have a process for handling such challenges with the agreed project completion date in mind.
- Do you offer cost-plus or fixed-price contracts?
To put things in perspective, let’s define these contract types:
A fixed-price contract means that a price for products and services has been determined and your pricing will remain constant, independent of actual production costs.
Cost-plus pricing refers to a contract in which the price is based on the actual cost of production, plus an agreed-upon profit or fee.
Each model comes with its own set of risks and rewards for both buyers and sellers. Some builders offer fixed pricing contracts when they can make cost predictions with accuracy and the outcome is defined, while other builders use cost-plus pricing because it mitigates their risk, and it is simple to understand and calculate.
- Do you have a work portfolio and customer references?
You should expect the builder to put their best foot forward by providing references. If they are not offered you should definitely request them, and specifically ask for clients who built a house similar to your design.
The builder may have to reach out to their past customers to get permission to share their information. However, if there is a hesitation to share references, consider it a red flag.
- Finally, contact the references!
Make sure you contact the references provided by the builder. Expectedly, the references will be clientele who had a good experience with the builder. Still, these chats can be useful in determining the builder’s strengths and flaws.
Questions to ask your references include:
- Did you have a good time working with this builder?
- What do you think their strengths are?
- Were they able to complete your project on time? If not, what were the causes of the delays?
- Was the builder’s schedule communicated clearly?
- Did the builder implement requests promptly?
- Were you satisfied with your initial budget estimate?
- How accurate were the builder’s budget estimates?
- Was the project completed on time and within budget? What were the causes of the overages?
- Did the builder make the costs clear and transparent?
- How did the builder handle tense situations?
- What role did the builder play after the project got underway?
- Who worked on your project specifically?
- Who would you hire if you had the opportunity to build another custom home?
- Was the project tidy and well-organized?
- Were there any subcontractors on your project that you would strongly advise against or strongly recommend?
- Since you moved in, how has the builder handled warranty issues?
- Would you choose this builder again if you were building a new home?
General Contractors vs. Custom Home Builders
The roles of a general contractor and a custom home builder are similar, but fundamentally different.
As the title implies, a general contractor is responsible for the general management of the many sub-contractors or vendors working on a building project.
Simply put, a general contractor is the traditional team lead. They put together the team needed for a project, supervise the building process and ensure it meets your specification.
By contrast, a custom home builder is usually a construction business with an organization that specializes in developing and building custom homes from start to finish.
Custom home builders have the experience and capabilities to take on the entire project, from drafting to final finishing (consequently, custom home builders are also referred to as “design-to-build” firms).
Advantages of working with a custom home builder vs. a general contractor
No subcontractor delays: When you hire a custom home builder, you get the full team for the project. You won’t have to wait for the custom builder to gather a team of subcontractors for the project, and that is a primary advantage of a custom home builder over a general contractor.
No bidding war: Possibly the most mind-numbing and frustrating part of working with a general contractor, rather than a custom home builder, occurs before the project is actually started.
After the house plan has been approved, a general contractor has to show the plan to different sub-contractors to get bids. This opens the floor for a bidding war, as you and your contractor have to review every bid to ensure it is comprehensive and authentic.
There is so much paperwork, price cross-checking, background checks, and interviewing involved that it can easily become an overwhelming experience.
And while this may seem like a good way to control costs, keep in mind that low prices don’t equate to high quality.
By contrast, you won’t have to deal with this process or evaluate bids with a custom home builder. The entire project cost will be made available as soon as the house plan is ready, because the custom home builder will work only with his trusted sub-contractors and knows their prices.
Direct and streamlined communication: Another advantage of working with a custom home builder is simplified communication. As the property owner, you will interface with only the home builder.
When you want something done or need changes, you simply send an email or put a call in to the builder, who will take action.
With a general contractor, communication isn’t always streamlined. You may have to juggle communication between your general contractor and subcontractors. However, a general contractor can offer streamlined communication if they have excellent relationships with their subcontractors, so you must look closely at their customer reviews and contact their referrals to verify they communicate well.
Better Quality: With a custom home builder, the construction process works smoothly and more efficiently. A team of custom home builders will likely work seamlessly compared to a team put together for a project by a general contractor.
If you’ve led a group or party at any level or industry, you will understand the initial challenges an ad-hoc team faces in the beginning. So it follows that a team of custom builders will work better and produce excellent results faster because of their close work experience.
Red Flags to Check For When Choosing a Custom Home Builder
We have discussed the positive qualities to look for in a builder at length. Now, let’s specifically take a look at the red flags to check for when choosing a custom home builder:
1. They are unwilling or unable to answer your inquiries: If a builder is unable to answer your questions or unwilling to share information about cost, delivery timeframe or process, these are indicators that they don’t have the knowledge needed, or they are not sufficiently organized (or worse – might be a shady operation).
Whatever the cause, don’t use an unresponsive builder that avoids vital questions. You should be able to ask questions about anything concerning the service delivery.
2. They are late for meetings and take a long time to answer you: This is an indication that their priorities are elsewhere. You may be better off working with another builder if your preferred builder does not give you the attention you need.
3. They always recommend cheaper materials: This could be a red flag depending on your perspective. Sometimes, a custom builder will recommend more affordable alternatives for a project because the client is overly cost-conscious.
If that is not the case for you, then such behavior is a red flag. Your builder should provide the best materials that will make your home stand the test of time, and only look at cheaper materials if they offer better or different benefits.
4. They provide you with free quotations and hazy, one-page estimations: Nothing beats a comprehensive breakdown to show what is being purchased and the price. Anything short of a detailed quotation is suspicious.
A good builder will take the time to explain costs because they understand that finance is a sensitive part of the business. You want to be confident that your builder has your interest at heart.
5. Their prices are out of line with other builders: Most builders source their materials from the same manufacturers or tap into the same labor community when hiring subcontractors or workers.
So, the price differences between quotes shouldn’t be outrageous. If you find a really low quote (low-ball offer) compared to others, it is possible that the builder will cut corners to meet the cost, or perhaps they are using the quote as bait to get you to the discussion table.
The latter is understandable, but you shouldn’t agree to work with a builder who will cut corners to meet a quote.
6. They request a deposit or retainer above 10%: This is a sign that they may not have many clients or aren’t doing well. A deposit is only a security measure and, unless special circumstances merit, should rarely exceed 10%.
7. They are pushing for a commitment without showing sufficient proof of work or building trust: If you feel pressured by the builder to make a financial commitment, this is a red flag.
A well-established and highly regarded custom home builder will have plenty of business in their market, thus will not need to use pressure tactics to make sales.
8. Your “gut feeling” disagrees: “Gut feeling” is an important factor in human relationships, business, and decision-making in general.
A gut feeling can be described as your 6th sense. If something doesn’t feel right, it may not be right.
If a builder checks all the boxes on your hiring checklist, but you still feel a level of uneasiness hiring them, you should step away from the deal for a while to reassess the situation.
This guide is based on our experiences through the process of choosing a builder, so feel free to add your own criteria or requirements to your personal list to help you make the best choice possible. Building a custom home is possibly a lifetime commitment, so you want everything done right. And, if you decide to sell in the future, you want your home to be built well so that it holds value and sells as quickly as possible.
Start your journey to a great home by choosing an experienced builder who meets or exceeds all of your requirements.
There you have it—a comprehensive checklist for choosing an experienced and affordable Dallas custom home builder. Of course, you can use this information anywhere in the country and around the world.