Architect custom -> Builder Custom -> Semi Custom -> Tract

3 years ago

Seems to be a lot of confusion as to what is a "custom" home. The first home we built we thought was "custom" - as we worked with a designer and he drew the plans from scratch and we made whatever revisions we wanted. In our neighborhood, there were 8 or so "approved builders" and they owned the lots. So you picked your lot, your builder, and then either a builder supplied plan, or you made your own (usually with a designer, but there's at least one FULL ON architect designed house here - more on that later) Fast forward to the build process. Our (current) house is rather Craftsman with some modern touches. We picked siding, stone, trim, flooring, tubs, toilets, HVAC systems, insulation, roofing, all electrical, all fixtures, cabinets, faucets, tile, windows without any real limitations. And then it comes to the railings and the builder is about ready to install an traditional railing with pickets. OMG NO! So - we draw out and designed a rail shape and profile, and had steel cables made and installed them ourselves. And then we get a change order / fee. And I wasn't happy - how can we "change" something we never spec'd? And this - is why I am now calling this "builder custom"

Thoughts on Definitions:

Architect Designed - Full design service / plan designed by architect with client in mind. No limitations (other than code / or any covenants that may apply). Almost always contracted and paid for separately from any part of the build process. Work output is a full design / plans ready to build / submit to permitting, as well as a full specification for the hundreds of decisions - appliances, fixtures, materials, with part numbers and potentially sources / ability to buy through architect's discounts. Services in standard AIA contract extend into consultation during the build / site visits / additional design.

Builder Custom - Process usually STARTS with a builder. they may be the only ones approved to build in a subdivision. Sky may be the limit - either bring them a plan, use their designer or a designer / architect they recommend, or they may have some plans they have built before (perhaps even on spec). All part of the overall "home building cost" (so semi-separate). Rarely the level of detail as above. Builder makes certain assumptions on finishes and may include an allowance to allow the customer to pick as they go instead of having it all done before you break ground. Can easily lead to overages and change orders is these allowances are not in line with the client vision. Changes can be made - think change order and fees. Builder, however, is usually the "one throat to choke". Financing usually done by homeowner, but builder can facilitate. Sometimes buyer buys lot, sometimes builder owns it on spec.

Semi-Custom - often an entire neighborhood built by a single builder (similar to tract in this respect). Usually have a certain number of available plans, but may offer some flexibility on changes to layout, or using outside plan. Have different levels of finishes. May offer in house interior design services or a showroom to pick all finishes. may or may not need to happen prior to contract. May or may not allow change orders during construction or work with changes that are "outside" the standards. Usually a lot of homogeneity in the neighborhood. Usually very formal processes around change orders and fees, as well as larger administrative staff. Building company often owns everything and title to everything transfers at closing.

Tract - entire neighborhood is one builder. Limited number of plans. Very limited changes allowed in structural / floor plan. Perhaps no changes - just pick a plan and some predefined versions. usually have a design center and all finishes are selected as part of the early process to provide firm build quote. No ability to bring in "outside" materials / finishes. Usually done in a former timeline. usually built with builder's own subs / trades. Fewer opportunities for change orders - meaning that usually come in at contracted pricing. Companies tend to be large, and have a very detailed system / large support staff. Building company always owns everything until closing.

Thoughts? In my personal experience, I thought I was doing one definition, but really was doing a different one, and that difference in expectation caused challenges. Honestly - I didn't know any better at the time.

Comments (58)