How to Select the Right Builder

Frequently asked questions and answers to help steer you through the selection process


In partnership with clients, custom builders can create
beautiful and unique interior spaces such as this great
room in a custom home built by University Homes.
Choosing the right builder is the first and most important step on the journey that ends when you are holding the keys to your custom dream home. The obvious question is ‘What makes a builder the right builder?”

Many factors can help you decide if a particular builder suits your needs, including the following:

Do you like the homes this builder has built in the past?

While photographs may show a builder’s abilities, it’s a good idea to make actual visits to homes. Ask your prospective builders to arrange tours of a few homes they have built, or are currently building. When visiting the homes, note the designs the builder is comfortable with, as well as the attention to detail and level of craftsmanship. In a high-end luxury custom home, you can expect the little details to be as perfect as the big obvious ‘wow” factors. Sure, the river stone fireplace is a terrific focal point in the great room, but what about the paint finish in the powder room? Don’t be afraid to get up close to inspect woodwork, trim and molding. Look for places where the design calls for different materials to meet, and inspect those joints. And bring a notebook to record your perceptions. (This is also a great time to take note of any design elements, features or materials you might want to include in your own custom home).

Ask for client references and call them. Building a custom home is a detail-oriented process. Many unpredictable situations may arise during the months it takes to design and build your home. Buyers who have already been through the process will provide insight into how the builder responded to construction bidding, custom change orders, budget constraints, communication and warranty issues. The builder’s ability to handle various situations indicates the approach you can expect in your own home. Ask if the project ran smoothly, whether the cost estimates were accurate and whether the builder has been quick to answer any questions or fix any problems that may have arisen since the owners moved in.

Ask for lender and trade contractor references and call them, too. It’s important to find a builder who has strong industry relationships with trade contractors and construction lenders. Satisfied trade contractors ensure the buyer that contractors are committed to the builder and to providing a quality product. If you choose a builder with a long history, then you should contact both long-standing and recent references. This will help to give you a more complete picture of your builder’s reputation.

How long has the builder been in business?

It is a plus to work with a builder who has been around long enough to have made it through some ups and downs in the local housing market; it’s a sign of good financial management. Find out how long the builder has been in the custom-home-building business, and choose one with longevity. A builder who has weathered different economic climates is committed to his business and is likely to remain so. You want a builder who will do a good job today, and be around tomorrow should you need the company to satisfy a warranty claim or make a repair.

Look for a builder who is active in industry associations. Builders actively involved in industry associations such as the Custom Builders Council of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association or the Washington Metropolitan Area Custom Builders Council (part of the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association) are committed to maintaining high standards. Membership in such associations usually requires builders to adhere to a code of ethics and to pursue ongoing education in order to keep abreast of changes in the building codes to ensure homeowner safety. New materials and techniques are constantly being introduced, and membership in an industry organization is a good way for a custom builder to keep up with the latest and greatest while ensuring the homes he builds will adhere to ever-evolving standards of durability and safety. In addition, the educated builder will be able to provide interesting ideas and options you can consider for your own home.

Don’t rush the builder interview process. Most high-end custom builders are small- volume specialists. They may build from two to 25 homes a year. Each client should be important to their business. If you feel a builder doesn’t have time to adequately answer your questions during the interview process, then you can expect the same shortcoming when it comes time to handle questions that arise during the building process. Set up a time to speak with each of your prospective builders face to face. It may be time-consuming, but there’s no sense taking shortcuts when making such an important decision that is fraught with major financial implications.

When interviewing builders, ask for a review of the kinds of custom features you can expect in your home.

Ask about timing. Ask about flexibility when it comes to making changes to design or materials as the home is being built. Talk about your budget and what kind of value you can expect to receive for the money. Remember, just because one home is less expensive than another doesn’t mean it’s a better value. At the same time, spending more doesn’t always mean getting a higher-quality home. Talk in specifics with your candidates about materials, square-footage, design elements, craftsmanship, and quality. And talk about process; review a sample timeline and get a sense of what this builder will be expecting from you at various points along the way.

 Review each builder’s warranty to see what kind of service you can expect after you move into your home.

You should feel confident that the builder you choose will stand behind the home he builds for you in every way, even after you move in. There should be some kind of schedule for your final pre-close walkthrough, as well as follow-up visits to take care of routine follow-up. Customer service shouldn’t end when the last contractor pulls out of the driveway.