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Expert Advice: Managing Expectations While Building a Custom Home

Building a dream home in the real world may feel at odds at times, but a healthy attitude and practical approach will help you help your builder succeed.

Written by Dan Mitchell
 Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash 
Ready to take the plunge into log or timber home ownership? You’re not the only one. Recent events have sent even the most ardent city dweller packing for a more pastoral life — and it’s an excellent decision.
The only thing is, as a builder, there are more of you than there are of us. Residential construction is a different world than we’ve ever seen before. With the combination of a surge in log and timber home interest along with challenges in securing materials and skilled trade labor, now more than ever, we in the building industry need to partner with our clients to manage expectations while still making your homeownership dreams come true.
Here’s how builders and buyers can collaborate to ensure your road to log or timber homeownership is a happy and fulfilling journey.

Understand Your New Market

Start by asking yourself this question: What is the construction culture like in the area you’re leaving, and what is the construction environment where you’re going?
Many people moving into the log and timber home market are coming from major metropolitan areas or outlying subdivisions where construction never seems to stop. But log and timber homes tend to be built in rural regions, and though that’s a big part of the appeal, it’s often difficult for urbanites used to having everything at their fingertips to understand the slower pace and longer lag times of the country. Though there are some very sophisticated contractors in rural areas, the farther from a city you go, the smaller the pool of labor, specialized tradespeople and available resources gets. Couple these facts with increased demand, and it could impact how soon a builder can start on your job.
If you do find a builder who says he or she is free to begin immediately, well there’s probably a reason why — and it should be a red flag. Any builder worth having has a pretty full schedule right now.
My advice? Be patient and wait for quality builders to be available. When it’s your turn, you’ll want them to give you the same level of attention that they are giving to the clients ahead of you.

Be Involved

In custom home building, there should be a high level of involvement from the client. Make yourself available to your contractor to answer questions, and be proactive. Do your research and know what you want in your home, especially when it’s time to install fit-and-finish materials.
In fact, you should get out in front of your contractor with these selections; don’t wait for a builder to ask questions like, “What are we doing for countertops?” to make a decision. This is what I call, “What are we going to do now?” construction — waiting for one phase of the build to finish before the next steps are discussed. Not only will it create delays, it will cause both builder and buyer a whole lot of unnecessary frustration. Constantly look ahead to the next steps, have your plan in place and stay in close contact with your builder to keep the schedule running smoothly.

Have Realistic Site Expectations

Job sites are dirty, hectic places. Expect them to be rough, wet — even muddy. And don’t expect someone to be on the job site every day; construction has ebbs and flows and though it may look like “nothing is happening,” it very likely is.
It’s also vital that you respect the people who are working on the site. They are specialized tradesmen who know what they are doing. Though there may be cultural or educational differences between you and the crew, they are the experts in their fields. Let them do their jobs and they will do their best for you.

Come to Terms With Speed of Construction

I recently had a prospective client who wanted to be into her home by the end of summer. I told her, “I’m sorry but if that’s the case, custom construction isn’t an option for you,” to which she, of course, asked: “Why not?”
The reason is simple. Custom home building is a craft — it takes time. It’s doesn’t move at the same pace as the cookie-cutter subdivision homes that many people confuse with custom construction. In subdivisions, the utilities are already installed, the roads are established and the crew is used to building the same models (even those with floor plan modifications) over and over again. Everything is predetermined, and simply allowing the buyer to select finishing materials like flooring and countertops doesn’t make it a true custom build.
A custom log or timber frame home will take six to 12 months to complete, depending on size and complexity. That’s the reality.
One way you can help ensure the time frame stays on track is to stick to your plans. Make sure your floor plan is exactly the way you want it and once you sign off on it, don’t deviate. Once you select the type of roofing, flooring, cabinetry and other finishes, don’t change your mind down the road. Site change orders cause ripple-effect delays and can derail a build faster than you can imagine. Also, keep in mind that nothing can set back construction progress like weather can.

Address Material Availability Head On

When it comes to building materials, you might find that the selections that were commonplace where you’re coming from might not be readily available where you’re headed. Regionally as well as culturally, there are styles that dominate in certain markets, and in smaller towns, the selection may be more limited than what you’re used to.
If you have a style in mind that may not be the norm for the area, you may find that the product isn’t available. If having that item is important to the vision of your home, you may have to special order it or obtain it from outside the area — but don’t wait! Again, the increased interest in building a custom home is the highest it’s been in 15 years, and many materials are on backorder.
For instance, right now custom vinyl windows take no less than 12 to 16 weeks to be made. So if you wait until the logs are stacked or the timber frame is raised to order them, the house could sit (not weather-tight) for three to four months. Even appliance manufacturers are experiencing significant lag times – six to 12 months in the case of high-end units like Viking and Electrolux. Shop early and often to get the best deals. Don’t wait until you actually need them.
Highly specialized features, like smart-home technologies, specialty lighting and so forth, aren’t in high demand in low-population-density areas. As such, finding local tradespeople to install them can be a challenge. If high-tech items are on your wish list, you may have bring in outside specialists – very likely from urban areas — which may add to your cost, but won’t come as a surprise if you are prepared.

About the Author

Dan Mitchell is a builder and a Log & Timber Home University professor. He owns Eagle CDI, a construction firm based near Knoxville, Tennessee.

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