Custom Homes
Building Your Custom Dream Home

Now that you are relocating to the Bay Area, it might be time to consider building a custom home. One good reason is that you can build a larger house with many extras at an affordable cost, particularly compared to building costs on either coast. A regional advantage is that the temperate weather allows building to take place year round. Once you meet with a few builders and review ideas, plans and budgets, you’ll get a timeframe of how long the process will take and can better determine if a custom home suits your lifestyle. Keep in mind that master-planned communities in the area also offer custom homebuilding options, which also provide you with built-in community amenities and features.

First, you’ll need to do some research. If you already have a real estate agent, he or she can help you by recommending a custom builder. You also can visit the Building Industry Association (BIA) of the Bay Area (, click on Member Directory and select the business activity that meets your needs of finding a list of custom homebuilders. To get ideas on what style of home you’d like to build, look at magazines that include custom home designs. Also start thinking about materials you’d like to use for the exterior, which will be a determining factor on how the finished product will look.

Getting Started
When you hear the word “custom” associated with the homebuilding industry, you probably think of a one-of-a-kind home with everything you have ever dreamed, right down to the door knobs, at a price reserved for people with large, six-figure incomes. At one time that was probably correct, but things are changing.

Today, there are a myriad of custom home options and a variety of different levels of custom homebuilders in the San Francisco Bay Area. There’s still the full-time, custom homebuilder who builds a few homes each year. There are higher-volume builders who will customize a home by moving walls or adding square footage. There are even higher-volume builders who offer custom options in just a few areas of the home, such as kitchens with sunrooms or kitchens as part of the family room.

Keep in mind that a custom feature is not the same as an optional feature. Options usually are standard features that are perceived as adding value, such as built-in cabinetry, granite countertops, crown molding or finished basements. Custom features are very personal. What one homeowner likes, another may abhor. The added value literally is in the eye of the beholder. This is one reason why most builders will ask for you to pay for custom features upfront.

By expanding the definitions and boundaries of custom homebuilding, builders have given homebuyers more opportunities to build their dream homes without starting from scratch. To customize or not to customize hinges on two things: what you want and how much you are willing to spend.

How to Select the Right Custom Homebuilder
If you know what you want, have a budget in mind and do decide to build, consider the following important information to have at the beginning of the process. As part of your search to find a quality homebuilder, consider some basic requirements. Make sure the builder has an established track record and a good reputation in the community. Ask for names and numbers of other clients and call them to ask about their experience with the builder. Is the builder a member of the BIA of the Bay Area? Call the Better Business Bureau to determine if there are any complaints against a builder. Usually, a clean record is a very good sign.

Does the prospective builder offer a variety of floor plans, and do these match your expectations? That is important because choice is one of the main reasons why you’re building a custom home and not a tract house. The builder also should be able to adapt the floor plan to the topography of your lot.

Is the builder active with multiple projects? This is a good sign and indicates he has buying power, which can result in the best prices for high-quality goods. You could save money on the purchase price of appliances, light fixtures, flooring and more. Find out if the builder maintains a design center where you can coordinate your cabinetry and other options. He shouldn’t be too busy, however, that he’s spread so thin.

Look for a good warranty program. The structural integrity of your home is an extremely important aspect, and you will want certain elements of it to be covered under a suitable warranty. The builder you select should be able to service the completed home and offer a 10-year warranty program on certain elements of your home’s structure.

— Custom Builder Versus Production Builder
What are the differences between custom and production homebuilding companies? Here’s a quick rundown from the National Association of Home Builders on how to differentiate the two.

Custom homebuilders generally do the following:
  • They build on land you own. Some custom builders also build on land they own.
  • They build one-of-a-kind houses. A custom home is a site-specific home built from a unique set of plans for a specific client. Some custom builders may offer design and build services.
  • They build single-family homes.
  • They are generally small-volume builders (25 or fewer homes per year).
  • They tend to build high-end homes.

Production homebuilders generally do the following:
  • They build on land they own.
  • They tend to use stock plans, but usually offer a variety of plan choices and options.
  • They build all types of housing—single-family, condos, townhouses and rental properties.
  • They are large-volume builders (more than 25 homes per year).
  • They generally build for all price points—entry-level, move-up and luxury.

— Choose a Lot
By choosing your builder first, you get the benefit of his or her assistance as you make decisions about the lot, the architect and the financing. Have the builder evaluate the lot you’re considering and comment on its appropriateness for the home you have in mind. Working with your builder to select the right lot can help ensure that you don’t discover any unexpected problems or costly modifications that need to be made to it before you start building. Involving your builder upfront also can prevent you from overspending on the lot, building type or size of home you were planning.

— Design Plans
Most architects are happy to include builders in the planning process. The design and build team of owner, builder and architect allow all three to comment during the design phase and make innovative suggestions. Your builder can be extremely helpful to you as the plans are being drawn; commenting on construction details and costs to help keep the home within your budget parameters.

— Research Financing Options
Once you’ve selected a builder, the lot and the architectural plans, you’ll need a construction or permanent loan to finance the dream home. The banks will reserve the right to approve the builder you choose. Many banks offer loans that initially finance the lot and construction and then convert automatically to a mortgage loan. These construction or permanent loans have made it very easy to finance a custom home. Some custom builders may be willing to purchase the lot for you. When the home is completed, you can roll the amount of the home and lot into your mortgage. With some research, careful planning and a little know-how, building your dream home can become a reality.

What to Expect During the Building Process
If this is your first custom homebuilding experience, it’s important to know the steps involved in the process. Once your lot has been cleared, and it’s time to begin the construction of your new house, there is a sequence of events that will involve you. By embracing the project and being aware of the steps, you will be a participant and not an outsider. This information is from the custom homebuilding resource, Custom Home Key (

— Laying the Foundation
There are several different approaches to foundation, but a basement is the most common. Other techniques include slab and pole-and-pier foundations. Slab foundations are common in areas where soil conditions are not suitable for a basement. Pole-and-pier foundations are a necessity in areas, such as coastal states, where homes are sometimes built either partially over water or in floodplains.

If you chose any kind of basement foundation, you likely will see a foundation crew arrive on site first. They will begin by digging a hole that is larger than the foundation to accommodate workers doing their job around the foundation forms. Poured concrete is the most common basement foundation method, but treated wood, brick or concrete blocks also are used. It all depends on your location and soil type. With poured concrete, you’ll see the foundation forms go up and reinforcing bars go into the forms. You also will see openings being marked for windows and utilities.

After the concrete is poured into the forms, anchor bolts are placed into the still-soft mixture. These bolts are responsible for securing the exterior walls to the foundation. Once the concrete hardens sufficiently and the forms are removed, you probably will see waterproofing measures being taken. Such measures include an impermeable membrane or asphalt coating being applied to the foundation wall to prevent water from seeping in. After the waterproofing has been done, the surrounding soil is backfilled against the exterior of the foundation wall.

— Constructing the Framing
Framing is the next step of the building process. Floors are framed first and then the walls. If you have a basement foundation, you will notice a subfloor will be installed first. Subfloors consist of joists with 4x8 flooring material nailed or screwed to the joists. If you have a slab foundation, the exterior walls will be mounted directly onto the slab.

The framing stage provides a glimpse of the future shape of your home. In many ways, framing is the skeleton of your home. You will see holes for windows and doors appear in the building’s envelope, and the interior will begin to show its form as well. The interior walls and closets will be framed within.

Framing follows an upward progression. The walls of the first floor are framed, then the second floor and the second set of walls (if there is a second floor) and lastly the roof. Roof trusses are placed on top of the walls and then linked to the exterior walls by metal straps. Next they are tied in to each other by 2x4s. Roof sheathing, usually 4x8 sheets of plywood or oriented strand board, is nailed to the roof trusses. This provides a deck on which the roofing material can be fastened.

— Installing the Roofing
When it comes to roofing, an additional step is needed for those that live in colder regions. There, the first thing to go down on the roof deck is an adhesive impermeable membrane, which is placed along all the eaves. This membrane prevents any ice-dam-trapped water from backing up under the shingles during the winter. It costs more than asphalt paper or roofers felt, but it’s definitely worth it in the long run. Once it is put into place, asphalt paper is applied to the rest of the deck.

Roof covering is the next step. Asphalt shingles are most common. They are designed to last 25 or 30 years, although longer-lasting (thicker) shingles are available. Additional roof-covering choices include clay tiles, slate, cedar shakes and sheet metal. Prices will vary among them.

— Putting Exterior Trim in Place
Now that the skeleton of the home is in place, it’s time to give the home some skin: exterior trim. This step often is performed while the roofers still are working on the roof. The same sheathing material used on the roof is used to cover the bare exterior-framing studs. At this time, a vapor barrier is stapled to the sheathing to help prevent moisture and air from seeping in and rotting the studs. This is also when the windows and doors are installed as well as fascia and soffit boards.

Exterior cladding is the next step in the exterior trim process. This could be cedar siding, stucco, brick, stone, vinyl or cement fiber siding. Once the cladding is up, gutters can be installed. Keep in mind; it’s a good idea to wait until the roof is complete before you begin installing the gutters. You wouldn’t want a workers ladder to ruin your new gutter system.

— Installing Mechanical Systems
The mechanical systems include your heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, better known as HVAC systems. This procedure is completed in two steps. The first step requires the workers to install the internal components that will be hidden once your house is complete. These components include your house’s water pipes, ducts and wiring. The second step is when the subcontractors return at a later date and time to install the light and water fixtures and heat registers.

— Insulating the Home
Insulation is a huge step in the building process, and it plays an important role in the comfort of your home, not to mention energy savings. This step requires the exterior wall cavities between the studs to be filled with whatever type of insulation you specify. Popular choices include fiberglass batts and blown cellulose, but a growing number of homebuilders are using foam insulation as well.

For those of you interested in “Green Building,” there are environmentally friendly insulation choices. A popular choice is UltraTouch, a batt-type insulation made from reclaimed cotton. Other choices include insulation made from newspaper and low-density concrete.

— Putting up Drywall
It is now time for the drywall. Drywall is hung or nailed to your interior walls and ceilings, providing more structure to your home. After the drywall is hung, you will notice the builders spreading a thin, fibrous tape over the seams between the sheets. Joint compound then is spread over the tape. Typically, about three coats of the compound are applied, allowed to dry and sanded smooth before the walls are ready for the final step. It is now your turn to decide what kind of walls you want. Do you want to paint, wallpaper or apply a textured effect to your walls? If you aren’t going to paint or wallpaper, now is the time when you can have a texture applied to your walls as a nice finishing touch.

— Putting Interior Trim in Place
Interior trim begins with your doors. Lengths of trim wood are applied to the outside edges of the door openings and base molding pieces are applied to the walls where they meet the floor. Crown moldings cover the walls where they meet the ceiling. Once the door trims are finished, other trim pieces, such as stair rails and fireplace mantels are installed.

— Painting and Staining
It is now time for the painting and staining processes. Any trim pieces that were installed unfinished can be painted or stained, and any untextured walls can be painted or wallpapered. Make sure you prepare all of the areas that you plan to paint or stain. Sometimes the drywallers leave compound joint on the walls, and it should be filed down before you paint or stain.

— Adding Finish Work
The end is almost in sight! It is now time to bring in your beautiful kitchen and bath cabinets and maybe that granite countertop you’ve always wanted. The tiles, the carpet, the blinds and curtains, the appliances, the furniture and all the other aesthetic touches are now finding a place within your new walls. This is also the time when the subcontractors come back to install the heat registers and light and water fixtures.

— Doing Cleanup and Landscaping
The final steps include installing your driveway and/or sidewalk, creating the landscaping and beginning the cleanup process. Try saving a few bucks and tackling the cleanup on your own. This process can be made easy if you call your garbage company and have them drop off one of those oversized trash receptacles to throw away any remaining debris that you find.

Green Building Tips
The San Francisco Bay Area is at the forefront of “green” innovations in all aspects of life, and luckily people everywhere are beginning to understand the importance of recycling. Some are consistent about separating brown and green glassware, saving the cans, bagging the newspapers and rinsing out empty milk cartons before carelessly disposing of their collection. Many even choose appliances and products for their homes that are environmentally friendly.

However, most people don’t realize that the opportunity to live in an earth-friendly home begins before the day the builder even breaks ground. It’s becoming increasingly popular for builders to minimize and recycle jobsite waste during the building process. Furthermore, builders are trying to use building products made partially or completely from recycled materials. Whether you call it environmentally friendly, green or ecological, the interest is growing to build new homes with Mother Earth in mind. Choosing the right building materials can make your home more environmentally friendly and economical to maintain.

If you are in the market for having a new house built, you easily can limit the toll your building project takes on the environment with a few conscious thoughts. Start by carefully selecting your building materials. Products made partially or completely from recycled products are now available, and they can be used in the foundation, the framing, the rafters and more. Following are some examples of products that are now recycled and used in the home.
  • Ceramic tile is being made from old light bulbs.
  • Carpeting is being made from recycled soda bottles and sheep’s wool.
  • Interior wallboard is being made from newspaper and gypsum.
  • Recycled concrete is used for drywall.
  • Newspaper and reclaimed cotton are being used to make insulation.
  • Decking materials can include recycled milk cartons.
  • Low-density concrete can be recycled and used for insulation.
  • Paint is being made from old paint.
  • Shake shingles are being made from aluminum cans and nails from melted-down cars.
  • Fly ash from burned coal can be used to make concrete.
  • Bricks can be made of tightly compacted earth, clay and straw.
  • Linoleum is a natural flooring covering material made up of linseed oil, resins and wood flour.
  • Steel is 100-percent recyclable and an extremely durable building material.

It’s important to pay close attention to the price of some of these products. Sometimes the cost of these materials can be significantly higher than their nonenvironmentally friendly counterparts. Do your research beforehand and choose the right building materials without adding to the cost of construction.

In addition to “green” building products, another important consideration is waste disposal. Reducing waste at the jobsite benefits the environment. The materials used and wasted during construction and demolition account for an estimated 28 percent of municipal solid waste. Waste disposal also can account for a significant portion of building fees. By simply reducing and recycling jobsite waste you can save an outstanding amount of money.

Home Warranties
As with any product, your home should come with a warranty. A warranty will prevent any unpleasant surprises in the first years after you move in. When having your home built, in a development or on your own land, you will need to be familiar with builders’ warranties. Other warranties associated with a new home include contractors’ warranties, manufacturers’ warranties and third-party insurance coverage to back the builders’ warranties. The following information from Custom Home Key focuses on builders’ warranties.

— What’s Covered and for How Long?
As with any product, your home should come with a warranty. A warranty will prevent any unpleasant surprises in the first years after you move in. When having your home built, in a development or on your own land, you will need to be familiar with builders’ warranties. Other warranties associated with a new home include contractors’ warranties, manufacturers’ warranties and third-party insurance coverage to back the builders’ warranties. The following information from Custom Home Key focuses on builders’ warranties.

— What Is and Isn’t Covered?
Generally, builders’ warranties will cover things, such as workmanship, materials and structural defects. When having a home built, the warranty will take effect either when you close the sale or when you move into the home. The majority of builders’ warranties cover workmanship and materials for one year; however, some builders offer warranties for two years or longer. Structural defects, such as uneven floors and cracks in the foundation, usually are covered for up to 10 years.

Choosing a reputable builder will make your warranty period a much more pleasant experience. Even the most skillful builder will make some mistakes during the construction of your home, but a reputable builder will be sure to fix any problems that are covered by the warranty while your warranty is still in effect. If you are experiencing minor defects, your builder probably will address them at scheduled times.

In addition, most manufacturers provide a warranty for the products or appliances used in new homes. At the time of closing, you will receive these warranties and owners manuals.

— Warranty Claims
When problems arise, your builder may prefer that you call him or her so that specific needs can be addressed. However, in some cases, your builder will give you a list of contractors and their telephone numbers to call directly in case of an emergency.

Emergencies include plumbing leaks, gas leaks and the total loss of heat, air conditioning, water or electricity. Also, roof leaks are sometimes considered emergencies, but they only can be repaired in dry weather.

Keep in mind that severe storms may cause roof damage, but that should be reported directly to your homeowners insurance company because weather-related damage usually isn’t covered under builders’ warranties.

Be sure to report all defects that aren’t emergencies to the builder. The builder will schedule the necessary repairs and use the complaint to monitor product quality and customer satisfaction. On the other hand, if you notice major structural problems, such as uneven floors, cracks in the foundation or drywall or ill-fitting doors and windows, contact your builder immediately to arrange an inspection. These problems can be costly and time-consuming to fix.

Overall, you should know that all warranties have limits. Ask about the standards to which the builder will adhere when determining the validity of warranty repair requests. You should understand and make good use of your warranty coverage because it is a major part of your home care plan.

Building a custom home is a complicated process, but it doesn’t have to be out of your reach. The Bay Area hosts a number of quality custom homebuilders ready to make your dream property a reality.

Don’t Forget the Landscaping
It’s not uncommon that by the time a custom home is completed, the funds have run out for landscaping. That’s a shame because the landscaping on your property is important, specifically because of what it adds to resale value. Some surveys have put the increased value of excellent landscaping in the range of 10–15 percent. In addition to shade, trees can produce food, firewood or just beautiful scenery. They also can attract birds and other wildlife.

Work with an expert who can help you select tree species that are native to the region and will thrive under local conditions. By planting trees that grow naturally in your area, you can be sure they will be successful. Consult a local nursery for suggestions on trees that will thrive where you live.

Plant location on your property is another important consideration. Choose spots with adequate sunlight and water, and make sure the trees are protected from possible pests. A mesh fence can do much to prevent animals from injuring your saplings. Try to estimate how long the tree will take to become fully grown, what the tree will look like at full size and how far the root systems will reach.

Trees are most vulnerable in their first years of life and should be tended to with special care. Newly planted trees should be watered deeply on a regular basis. Allowing a hose to drip at the base of a tree for several hours will let the water soak deeply into the soil and encourage deep rooting. This will give the tree a better chance of surviving drought periods.

Many personal decisions go into tree planting. In areas with hot summers and cold winters it is best to plant deciduous trees. These trees will provide shade in the summer, but will allow desired sunlight to pass through in the colder months. Some trees are better than others for providing a buffer against noise and unwanted views. Also, personal expectations should be considered.
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