The Parade of Homes that I mentioned in my previous post, was invaluable in our selection of a custom home builder. We were able to in one weekend sample the entire spectrum of choices available to us in Bryan-College Station in addition to driving around in potential neighborhoods that we might want to live in. Do not dismiss people when they tell you that choosing the neighborhood is half the decision in buying a home. After vacillating between various builders on basis of quality, we realized that the it was in fact the neighborhoods and subdivisions that determined the home price. In fact, the price differentials between lots in different neighborhoods also determined which custom home builders offered you an option. It doesn’t help if you’ve selected a builder who doesn’t build or own lots in a particular subdivision. Although you could buy a lot directly from the developer and then choose a builder, this alternative could prove to be expensive.
Based on our driving around during Parade of Homes, general feel of the neighborhood, potential development of the subdivision in terms of on-site facilities and surrounding amenities like shopping, etc., and of course proximity to work via access to the freeway, we narrowed down to a mid-level subdivision. It was slightly more expensive (in terms of lot price alone) than the generic neighborhoods we had first started out contemplating but also much lower than the upper-levels of subdivisions in town. We discussed the economic feasibility of our personal commitments and potential for near-future price appreciation and decided to narrow our search in this subdivision. It is conveniently located near Hwy.6 and the other arterial road, Wellborn is accessible via median-separated double-laned State Hwy 40 thereby reducing chances of traffic congestion. This subdivision incidentally had several homes we had liked during the Parade of Homes and quite a few builders whose quality we had approved of, owned lots and built homes here. Weird as it may sound, the inclusion and amount of a home owner’s association fee also gave us an idea of the quality of the neighborhood.
Next up, we narrowed down our choices to three builders in the subdivision and asked for lot availability in the subdivision. We met up again with the builders after the initial Parade of Homes meeting and carefully inspected the basic features they included with all their plans (granite kitchen counters, crown moldings, etc.) These extras often made the difference between a quality home builder and an also-ran whose price may initially attract you. We were upfront about our budget which we strictly adhered too and asked for their typical home plans that would fit in our budget. Remaining steadfast in your budget commitments can be difficult as you can be easily swayed by little additions. The beauty of custom home builders is that, they can hack away at their typical plans to fit in your budget and if they know, you are shopping around with other builders in close proximity, they’ll bend over backwards to help seal a deal. It is recommended that you walk through not only their furnished model homes but also in-construction homes at various stages of progress (if available). Although it may be useful to see a completed home to help you decide, you must be willing to visualize space and identify the potential in semi-built homes. My architecture training helped in this regard but with careful thought, it can be done. In fact, we made our final choice in terms of layout based on a home that was in-construction.
We must have made several trips to model homes and other homes by the three builders before narrowing down our choice. The in-construction home mentioned before that we had liked was in fact, 100 square feet more than what would fit in our budget but thankfully it was easily customized for our benefit (shaving off a foot from the center of the house). Meeting personally with the builder instead of an agent helped us make an informed and better decision regarding our final home choice. The builder who would be directly involved with the process is in a better position to know what changes can and cannot be incorporated and at what price. An agent may often promise the sky to close the deal but lead to disappointment and consternation later. In our case, Glenn Thomas at Benchmark Homes was an affable man who was upfront about his homes’ qualities and commitment to honest negotiation. He didn’t promise us the sky and was realistic in his assessments regarding what we could and couldn’t expect in our budget. At the same time, he seemed flexible enough to help customize the home to suit our preferences and tastes.
After selecting the plan and the lot in the subdivision, we started the negotiations with the help of our realtor regarding the price and the included amenities. Having lived in a rental home, we were better aware of our needs and hence were able to distinguish between needs and wants. Given that nearly everything except the size of the home was customizable, the price point was extremely fluid and we had to guard against running it up. After two-three rounds of offers and counter-offers, we finally settled on the price, layout, and included specifications right down to recessed lighting and window trims. Having the luxury and ability of re-imagining space, I changed the layout slightly to expand the bedroom walk-in closet, move the laundry room, reorient the study, and eliminate a redundant half-bath. These changes were included in our final price and the builder promised to draw up architectural plans incorporating those changes before finalizing the contract.
After these negotiations were complete, our realtor put everything down on paper and we signed the initial contract and paid the initial (earnest money) deposit. This contract included not only the layout but also detailed specifications of the home. All changes we had discussed and incorporated were included in this contract under the assumption any further changes would cost us more. We received the final plans last week and after careful inspection, we signed off on it signaling the end of home selection process and beginning of the home construction phase. Although the specifications are final, we still get to choose the color of the tiles, granite, wall color, etc. when time comes. We’ve already visited our chosen lot couple of times and taken photographs and I plan to take photos at every stage of the project to document the process (and create a cool time-lapse video).
Before all these processes are put in place, obtaining a home mortgage loan is perhaps the pivotal process that in fact determines your budget in the first place. The builder in fact needs a loan pre-approval before you can sign the contract. I’ll cover our experiences regarding the loan process in my next post in this series.