10 Steps for Building a Custom Home in Michigan

Get inspired. 

For every professional that you will encounter in during your custom home process, the most difficult clients to manage are the ones who don’t know what they want. This is not to say that your team will not present original ideas and alternative inspirations (of course they will)! What we are saying is that we need a basis of design, a jumping off point to start the creative process. So, immerse yourself with ideas – subscribe to magazines, scour the internet, search on Pinterest. All of these sources will help you define your style and give your team some flavor to develop their ideas for your project. During this process, don’t hedge based on perceived cost! If you are inspired by a space from Architectural Digest, throw it out there! Especially when it comes to finishes, there are several ways to accomplish an aesthetic to accommodate budget and an excellent builder will offer you those options.

Hire your architect. 

This is the first tangible step in the construction process. Based on your design inspiration, you will be able to research different architects and determine if their portfolio of work matches your design style. Once you have a (short) list of architects whose work identifies with your aesthetic, interview them. Choose an architect that has a robust schematic design process where you can be afforded multiple options to consider and ample time to work out different concepts with early pricing takeoffs from your builder. Pop quiz: what does time equal? That’s right: money. Talented architects cost money. Talented architects are worth their weight in gold. They are leaders and their leadership will transform your project experience. They will spend the time to guide you through the design process and they will be your true advocate during the construction process. Your architect will be a constant presence on your project – from the very beginning through the very end. All architects are NOT made equal. Hire the good ones. Trust me: if you hire a low-bid architect, it won’t be long before you realize the value of the right architect was actually priceless. 

Choose your location. 

Custom homes are not cookie-cutter, developer built homes. They are not modular homes. They are not container houses. In fact, all of the home types just mentioned require most of the costs associated with designing and building a custom home, especially in Michigan where there are severe climate fluctuations and resulting building codes to accommodate. So, your location is important as is your architect’s opinion. Are you in the woods, are you on a bluff overlooking the Great Lakes, are you overlooking a small lake, are you in a wetland or area with protected species of plants, where are your neighbors? What are your municipal jurisdictions? These are all factors that affect the design and potential cost of a custom home. These are also factors that may influence the negotiations and purchase price of your lot.

Verify your utilities. 

Your utilities – heating, cooling, electrical, water, and septic – are one of the core components of your home. How your home uses and manages your utilities dictates many of the costs and design parameters of your custom home. Will you have gas-forced air or radiant heat? Will you tie into a community well or a bury a dedicated well specifically for your home? Where will your septic field be located? Natural gas or propane gas? Fresh water or well water? Are all of these utility lines readily available or do they have to be brought to your lot? These are important questions! This is another reason why you engage your architect early. Your architect will have the knowledge and resources to determine the viability of the lot you are choosing.

Hire your engineers. 

Typically, your architect will engage your engineers. Likely, the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers (commonly known as “MEP”) will be consulted to advise on any discrepancies with the utilities of your building lot. Then, they will be formally engaged during the second and third phases of design (known as Design Development & Construction Documents) to draw the specifics of heating/cooling, domestic and waste water systems, electrical & lighting plans, structural components, and grading of the lot.

Hire your landscape architect.

Have you heard the term “shovel ready” or “break ground”? – that’s a popular phrase used by architects and builders to describe a project that is ready to start. It’s a popular term because it a visual representation of what the first step of construction will be which is to start digging. Digging is messy. At the end of the project, you will have a beautiful home surrounded by dirt. Your final step in the construction process is not moving in, it’s landscaping. Ideally, your architect and landscape architect will both be working together during the design process so that all of the aesthetics of your home can be wholly envisioned and understood so there are no “ ’shoulda’, ‘coulda’, ‘woulda’s” later. Plus, let’s face it, landscape drawings are fun to look at!

Hire your builder.

What’s more dangerous than hiring the wrong architect? Hiring the wrong builder. Builders are NOT a commodity, they’re an experience. Hire the good ones. What makes a good builder? Collaboration, communication, transparency, and craftsmanship. Your builder should be friendly. They should have strong examples of and references for their project management. Their pricing should be clear, easy to understand, and broken down by trade. Their prior work should be beautiful and on display. Do you know how to find a good builder? Ask your architect! There is nothing wrong with interviewing multiple builders. Ask for early pricing during schematic design of your project. This offers you the opportunity to interview multiple builders and get an understanding of their style and approach. After reviewing the schematic design, your builder should be asking thoughtful and specific questions to clarify scope items. The level of pricing that they provide will also provide you insight into how they will run your project in the future. This is not to say that you should be expecting incredibly specific and detailed pricing when there is not incredible specific and detailed drawings yet – it is saying that a builder who gives a verbal ballpark should give you pause in comparison to a builder who puts together some rough parameters and written pricing. You want a partner, not a favor. Your architect should be involved in the bidding process to help you vet the builders’ qualifications and compare the scope of their bids.

If there was one piece of advice that we could offer you regarding your builder selection, it’s this: Custom home building is not a low-bid effort and the low-bidder is never the low-bidder – they’re simply the unqualified bidder and your construction budget will likely increase beyond the higher numbers…with a lesser product…by the end of your project. So, bid two or three builders if you must and qualify them early on so that they can partner with you and your architect to assist with the development of the construction drawings and provide progress pricing as the design is finalized to ensure that your final design is within your budget and that your team is working together well before shovels (and money!) are in the ground.  

Choose your finishes. 

If it takes a village to build a house, then it takes a small army to design the interior. Many architects will also design the interior of your home. Others may recommend an interior designer to specify the interior finishes. It’s worth noting that all interior designers are not equal and designing the specifics of an entire home is extremely different from designing one or two rooms. Your builder will need DETAILS…and A LOT of them! Your builder will need elevations for your cabinetry, for your tile installations, for anything requiring aesthetic detail. Your builder will need formal schedules for interior doors, door hardware, flooring, mouldings, and paint. There are literally dozens (if not hundreds) of line items that will need to be specified in order for your builder to execute your project. This is not a task for a homeowner, this is a task for a professional. So, make sure these fees are included in your budget. Otherwise, you’ll end up paying the builder change orders later when they don’t know what they’re installing. Having all finishes specified is also imperative to determining your final budget. That seemingly elusive “all-in” construction cost is not so difficult to achieve when you’ve hired the right team.

Get your permit. 

You’re ready to build! You’ve designed your dream home, you’ve specified your finishes, your team has been working together for months. Now, it’s time to issue your deposits and submit for permit. Hoo-rah! 

Manage your project. 

The permit has arrived! The weather is warm(ish), you’re ready to break ground, and everyone is excited! What is left to do? Plenty. During the course of taking 2-dimensional drawings and constructing them in a 3-dimensional world, there will always be details to address and issues to overcome – from weather to millwork. There will be weekly emails, shop drawings to approve, purchase orders for finishes, backordered items to work around, and municipal inspections. A realistic estimate of how much time you spend during construction of your home depends on the level of engagement with your architect. You may hire your architect for extensive construction administration and place that architect in an Owner’s Representative role where they will act as project manager and manage the bulk of builder deliverables, site visits, and requests for information. Or, you may prefer a more hands-on approach, intimately working with your builder and engaging the architect for significant construction milestones and issues. As such, your time investment could require anywhere from 1-10 hours of your time in any given week. So, make sure you have availability and energy to manage your project accordingly in order to maintain team morale, manage your budget, and keep your schedule moving forward.

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