Building Home: Choosing a Contractor

Choosing a contract when building your home can be very hard. This is our experience and tips we have learned already along the way. More on The Fresh Exchange.

I am going to start off and say, it probably feels like it has been a while since we talked about our house, huh? I have to agree, but all with good reason. To catch you up we have been busy to say the least. Mike is working full time these days on a creative consulting job while I have been working to establish this new direction for TFE. Of course we are still doing all our shoots together as you can tell and he has been apart of planning as well, but during this time, we made the decision for him to pursue a dream of his while I do the same. More on this whole thing next month as we get back to Working Together. On top of all of that, we also are wrangling Hayes while trying to narrow down the final details of our home so we can make sure to actually start in May. That said, this series hit a stand still till I felt we had enough to talk about in order to write a great post for you. Beginning this May though the stories will be a lot more often as we finish designing spaces and we get rolling on construction. Plan on regular updates of the house progress and more. Today, we are talking about what it means to choose a contractor.

This has been one of the harder parts of this process. In fact, I found it exciting, heartbreaking (I hate saying no), and challenging. If you have gone down the route of designing and building a home you know the struggle. Unless you live in an area where building is slower than you most likely experienced something similar. Traverse City is a BUSY area for building right now. It seems everywhere we look there is construction happening, which is awesome for the local economy but difficult if you want to join in the fun. Since choosing the right contractor is a  HUGE piece to building a home, a busy market can make it hard to find the right fit. It was such a struggle at one point that we considered contracting the job ourselves, but I will say…after a lot of research we crossed that idea off VERY quickly (would be interested to know if any of you consider this or not). After about 3 months of searching for the right people, doing interviews, walking land, seeing other job sites, and asking friends we finally found our team and we are really excited.

Choosing a contract when building your home can be very hard. This is our experience and tips we have learned already along the way. More on The Fresh Exchange.

First, let me tell you our story and then I will give you some tips that we learned along the way to help you as you go down the path of finding your builder.

We started looking months ago at potential builders but held off getting in touch till our plans were more final, which I regret somewhat in all honesty. When we first started looking I was looking at aesthetics of past projects from builders forgetting that they are ultimately at the mercy of their clients in many respects. Also, Northern Michigan is known for classic craftsmen homes, second homes, and lakefront cottages that tend to lean on the classic cabin look so aesthetics were a relative thing up here in a big way. It made me cross off people I ultimately ended up deciding might be great options after some searching.

Once we felt our plans were at a good place, we contacted four builders. Two wrote back and said they were already booked and two said they had openings. I wanted three, but I thought we would see how things went first with the first two. Since my dad had been a contractor and owned his own contracting company, I took him along for a few meetings to get his feeling of each of the builders. Each time he walked away impressed with both builders. That just made it harder that Mike and I also liked both and felt good so we sent off drawings and ideas to see how they would price out. I wanted to figure out as quickly as possible who didn’t work for us. After another meeting with both, we realized our designs were far out of our price point for us. We also started realizing one of the building companies, which we loved, was building homes we dream about but could not afford at this point in our life. It was heartbreaking because we loved their attention to detail and their quality, but knew as business owners ourselves it is important to recognize when you aren’t the right client for someone. It was sad to say goodbye since they were really our dream builder right off the bat, but we knew they should take the right projects for them. Then around this same time we heard from our other builder that he had booked his last project for the spring. Sadly, we were standing there with no options once again. It was then I started doing more research and discovered one other builder that for whatever reason I had missed in my search. I read about him and his wife and how they had 4 kids and I felt that he sounded like a great choice we should consider.

I inquired and 24 hours later received a response about setting up a call. So that week we gave him a call and had sent him our plans. Right away he broke our hearts and told us there was no way we could build our house in our budget, but he didn’t just stop there, he told us what we COULD build in our budget and he helped us figure out what COULD work. It wasn’t a stand still moment in the relationship, he started telling us why the house wouldn’t work for us and our budget. This was something neither builder had explained and it made us feel like this was still all possible. It was the moment that we knew this was who we wanted to work with.

After that, we redesigned and a few days later sent him what we were thinking and set up a face-to-face meeting. We all felt we could do it and talked through all the details so he could send things out for a preliminary estimate. We walked away from the meeting feeling like we had found our guy and it was so exciting. So today, actually, we are meeting with Nick from Shugart Builders about the nitty gritty of our budget to finalize things in preparation for our loan and signing on with him to start the house this May or maybe even the end of April. The price between the builders wasn’t significant, really what it came down to was finding someone we felt could speak our language well and that we fit them well. I always know things happen for a reason and our guts know best and this was one of those situations, which in some way I knew it would be.

Choosing a contract when building your home can be very hard. This is our experience and tips we have learned already along the way. More on The Fresh Exchange.

So, though we are just beginning this process and there are still a TON of things to decide we are in a direction, feel confident about our choice, and are somehow still going to be in the house by the end of the year. All of it feels crazy, but thanks to finding Nick, it all is feeling possible.

Now, let me give you some great tips for finding a contractor that is right for you and some things to be wary of:

  • Get referrals:
    The reason you are hiring a contractor is to manage the building of your home. That means a lot of things is on the line. First of all, you will be handing over A LOT of money to this person and asking them to manage it responsibly. They will also be overseeing the structure of your home so you want someone who will make sure it is done right and wants to do it the best. They will also be someone you are in contact with for a while. You won’t just be hanging for the 6-12 months of your home building, but afterward, as little things come up you might have to give them a call to either get you in touch with the right person to help fix it and so on. The best way to get a good start on who you should hire should come from those you trust most. You may want to consider asking friends who work in the building industry who they would have build their home. We also asked our loan office who they enjoyed working with as well. All of these people can give you insight into someone’s working style to quality of work to handling of money. If you don’t know anyone, ask the builder for references and people you can ask about their service.
  • Don’t just go off aesthetics:
    I am THE WORST about this because most of my life is about eyeing the look of something and curating, so this was hard for me to fight during our selection process. Don’t look for someone that has built a home similar to what you want, if they have…AWESOME. If they haven’t, don’t cross them off the list. What you are really looking for is quality. A lot of builders are willing to work with varying styles. If you are doing something really unique you may want to make sure they can do something similar and have experience in that field or have the right team around them to do the work. For the most part though don’t look at the tile selections, look at how the tile was done. This may be easier done by visiting a finished project of the builder.
  • Inquire sooner rather than later:
    The one thing we didn’t do is get in touch sooner. We should have started hunting for someone the moment we bought the land and knew we would be building. The reason I suggest this is that many builders will get you going in a direction with a design that correlates and accommodates your budget sooner. Many builders are capable to help you through both the design and build process, which can save you some headache. They can talk to you about managing budget and design together. We would have saved a lot of time if we had been in touch sooner.
  • Don’t drag them around:
    I hated this when we did large design projects regularly. We would get an inquiry, we would do meetings, we would do another round of meetings, we would propose their project, and days before signing the contract and the 30+ hours we had already put into the project the client would disappear or let us know they were going with someone else. Instead, I wish they would have said as soon as possible that we weren’t right for them so we could each move on and start something different. Have the same courtesy during your contractor hunt. Ask them up front when you should make a decision with them and be clear you are talking with one or two others so they know you aren’t just talking to them. That said, Don’t price out more than three contractors mostly because it is a lot to manage and it is just courtesy to not run your project around to everyone. This is also another reason to start sooner in the process so you can quickly eliminate and narrow in on the right contractor.
  • Cheapest isn’t what you are looking for:
    We have a budget, which is tight for where we are building, so though price was a determining factor in our decision, what we really were looking for was someone we felt was the right fit for our project and us. Most of the time a good builder will be in touch with the standard cost of local home building prices and will want to stay around that pricing out of respect for other builders. A healthy building market will have a pretty standard sq ft cost give or take $5-10 a sq ft. If you see differences in pricing, ask why. Many times it is a matter of in house teams and material decisions they like to work with. Cheap typically in a healthy market means they are undercutting someone or something in the process to get you hooked on the line. Building cost these days is pretty standard and a good builder will want to remain competitive with other builders in your area. Ultimately you are looking for someone you feel is the right fit and then work on narrowing in on price from there. The right builder will help you figure out the house you can build within your budget.
  • That said, $ per sq.ft. isn’t always the end-all as a guide for pricing:
    We found that though price per sq. ft. helps you gauge where you can expand and tighten on your house, it also isn’t the end all be all to how things are estimated. These numbers go up and down depending on labor cost, materials chosen, and more instead we looked at the overall price for the home and what builder helped us find the right balance of design and budget for us.

So far the hardest part of this process has been to find the right person to work with on our home, but when you do it feels great! Now, the next stage will begin. We now will be choosing all the fixtures and items and closing on our financing. That said, we will be talking next about choosing fixtures and I plan to share the sheet I am using to organize all of the items for our builder. I figure this will help many of you through the process. Since we won’t start this process till the next week or so, I won’t post it till we are near the end of the process just to make sure we have covered all the big things. This way I can be sure I am giving you the best download possible.

Lastly, tell us what other questions you have or if you have your own experience with finding a builder? How did it go? What did you learn? I want to hear experiences!!

Tomorrow, I will be sharing my favorite spring shoes and how I style them this time of year. You can always make sure you don’t miss a post by signing up for our email newsletter. See you guys tomorrow!

Leave a comment

  1. I feel you on the building process! My parents built a 9,000 sq ft home on Long Lake in TC (7 kids!) and it was crazy finding the right contractor…my parents actually fired our 1st one about four years into the building process! I think my parents have a lot of regret by hiring so quickly so it looks like your going the right way about it 🙂 15 years later and my parents have their dream home now on Long Lake that’s been featured on the Discovery Channel and Traverse Magazine! I can’t wait to see you finally house!!!

  2. My husband and I are looking to build our dream home. We want to make sure we are able to find a contractor that will provide quality service at a reasonable price. As you said, it can be hard to not judge purely based on the aesthetic appeal of a builder’s past work, but it’s important to look at the quality too.