How to Decide if Building a Custom Home is Right for You

Wondering if building a custom home is right for you? Meet our client Rebecca! She is sharing her family’s custom home-building journey. You can follow the progress of their home on social media at @rlang165 and #healdsburghouse.

My husband and I are half-way through construction on a home in Healdsburg. We estimate the entire project, from the day we closed on the land to the day we get the keys will take 2 years and 3 months. Over this time, I’ve lost count of the number of big and small decisions we’ve made. Building a custom home is different than buying into a planned development, where a lot of the work has been done for you. Planned communities offer you pre-selected house models, add-ons, and finishes from which to choose.
With a custom build, we started with raw land and needed to employ at least five different consultants for a year to develop and permit our plans before construction actually began. It’s a time-consuming process, but it can also be so rewarding and fun.
Since we’ve gone through a renovation before, we felt ready to tackle a bigger project, and we’ve learned a lot in the process. Here’s how we got our project underway.

Figure out your budget and financing

There were many times during this process where I wished I had a crystal ball. It felt like we had to make decisions and invest money before having clarity on final costs. For example, you’ve got to pull the trigger and buy the land before you can dig into the construction planning process, where the true cost to build gets hammered out.
To the best of your ability, establish a total budget and understand how much you can afford to pay out of pocket and how much you will need to borrow. Your budget will have several components and some elements will not be as easily financed as others.

Budget

The Land

If you don’t already own a plot of land, you’ll obviously need to buy one. Our realtor, Leslie Hanson, walked us through the various considerations in making a land deal, and working with a knowledgeable realtor is a crucial first step to a successful project.

Besides the goal of finding your ideal lot and locking in the best purchase price, your plot of land will affect the cost of construction. Are there zoning limitations on what you can build? Are utilities already onsite? If not, can you connect to city utilities or will you need to drill a well, add a septic tank, propane tank, and/or bring in power lines. Is the land flat or sloped?

In general, the more raw the land is and the more sloped it is, the more expensive it will be to develop. Before signing on the dotted line, ask a local contractor to visit the site and give you a rough idea of construction costs to make sure you can actually afford the house you’d like to build.

Soft Costs (Consultants & Permitting)

Your soft costs will equal about 10-20% of the cost of construction. This means, if you intend to spend $1,000,000 to build your house, you should plan to spend at least an additional $100,000 to $200,000 to pay your architect, civil engineer, structural engineer, other consultants, and permitting fees. You’ll begin incurring these costs before construction actually begins.

Hard Costs (Construction & Landscaping)

To get you started from a budgeting standpoint, call up some contractors in the area and ask them for the average cost to build per square foot and keep in mind that the cost they give you may not include all the required land prep (retaining walls, septic, well, utilities) or landscaping. For landscaping estimates, you’ll need to go through the same exercise with a landscape architect or design firm. Even if you want to save landscaping for a later project, some elements, like irrigation, may need to be established upfront, while the builders are digging a utility trench to your house.

Furniture & Decor

How much you budget for furniture, window treatments, and decor will depend on your personal preferences. A general rule of thumb that I came across during a late night Google search suggested budgeting $1,000 per square foot. This means it would cost about $20,000 to furnish a 2,000 square foot house from scratch.

Financing

How you pay for all of this will depend on your personal situation. If you need to take out a loan, research lending options early in the process — as in before you start looking at land — to understand what you are eligible to borrow, what kind of loan options you have, and how the money can be applied. For example, we took out a construction loan through First Republic that covers the hard costs of construction. We could not have applied this particular loan to the cost of the land or to pay for soft costs. Start by asking your bank what loan options they offer. Your real estate agent and local contractors will also have suggestions.

Assemble your team

Ask everyone you know for referrals to architects and contractors. Spend time interviewing these recommendations and calling their references. You can even ask to visit their active projects to see their work in progress.

Your first priority will be to find an architect. He or she is responsible for translating your vision into an actual design and will serve as the overall project manager, pulling in the other consultants and bidding out the project to contractors. We found our talented architect, Mia Zinni, through a friend’s referral. Take your time finding the right partner. Mia listened to our goals and wish list for the house and created several design options for us to consider. From there, we narrowed down and refined the floor plan and exterior elevations.

Look for an architect who can offer creative solutions and be respectful of your budget. Pretty much anything can be built… for the right price. Most of us, however, will have a budget, so it’s important that your architect designs a realistic structure, or at least sets your expectations on the cost implications of your design choices. It will save re-work once cost estimates for the build start coming in.

We chose to engage our contractor, Wright Residential, early in the design process to provide construction cost estimates. Based on their initial feedback, we tweaked our design to reduce building costs before submitting it for permits. Look for experienced professionals, like Wright, who are transparent on the numbers and are good communicators. There are a lot of moving parts during construction and the devil is in the details.

We did not engage an interior designer, but I did consult one, Michael Merrill, while we were finalizing our design. During our 2-hour session, he provided a fresh pair of eyes on the floor plan, which resulted in us making a few small, but important, tweaks. We also worked with designers at Restoration Hardware to provide a high-level furniture layout for the living room. This helped us adjust the positioning of a fireplace and sliding door to give us a workable seating area with an as-big-as-possible sliding door.

Other consultants that you might consider: Landscape architect and/or a lighting consultant. We used Elder Creek Landscapes to develop initial plans for our house. Outdoor living space can expand your functional living area, and if you’re building in a fire zone like we are, it’s critical — and, to a certain extent, required by code — to keep well maintained, defensible space around the house.

We did not employ a lighting consultant, but I can see the value. It took several iterations to get our lighting plan right. Lighting is taken for granted when it’s done well, but it’s obvious when it’s done poorly. It will also be harder to correct once the house is finished.

Think about the end at the start

Once construction is underway, changes to your design can be costly and time consuming. This is why those interior design consultations ended up being so valuable. Walk the floor plan in your mind’s eye while you play out different scenarios of how you’ll live in the space. This is one of the biggest differences for a custom home than a remodel or a planned development. In a remodel, you probably have a very good idea of what you want to change about your house. In a planned development, the floorplan is already set. In a custom home, you start with a blank page. That’s the luxury of a custom home — you get to make it fit your unique needs and preferences.

Consider selling

Building a custom home is as much an emotional investment as it is a financial one. But even if you plan to live in your new home forever, it’s wise to consider its resale value. Unless money is no object, custom probably shouldn’t mean kooky or impractical. Before banks will fund a construction loan, they will appraise your home’s design compared to other homes in the area. The amount they are willing to loan will be partly based on this appraisal. You also can’t predict the future, so installing certain desirable features in your home, like a double sink in the master bath, even if you’re single, will help ensure that no matter what happens in the future, your home’s value will stand the test of time and give you joy and peace of mind for years to come.

About the Author

Rebecca is the former Managing Editor for both Mid-Peninsula Moms Blog and San Francisco Moms Blog. She and her husband moved to San Francisco from the East Coast in 2008 and love raising their two children in the city. Rebecca worked for two Fortune 500 companies in a variety of HR roles before surprising everyone, including herself, and leaving her job to stay home with her kids. She’s written for a variety of online parenting publications including Scary Mommy, Motherly, and YourTango, but promises that she can talk about non-parenting stuff in real life. Follow her on social media at @rlang165 and on BeckyRebecca.com.

Top 5 Lessons Learned from Our Clients

We LOVE what we do.

We truly understand quality residential construction has the ability to improve upon and reshape your day-to-day life. Throughout the process of building or remodeling your home, you will undeniably notice our principles of care, excellence, and partnership shining through in all that we do.

It’s our mission to share our knowledge and passion with everyone embarking on their home construction or renovation journey. Before we get into the most common questions we get about building or renovating a home, we asked our clients to share the top 5 most important things they learned during their residential construction journey. Here’s what they had to say…

1. Hire the right people!

Your overall building experience is largely determined by your relationship with your architect and builder. Beyond doing your research and conducting interviews, it is essential that you “click ” with each other. You are trusting your builder to help with one of the most significant financial commitments of your life. Make sure they understand your vision and will work hard to make it happen.

The team at Wright Residential aims to become part of your family. What does that mean? You’ll laugh together. The crew will tell stories and will ponder life’s mysteries with you. They love to teach the art of their craft to your children and help them plan out their tree fort. How can the Wright Residential team tell a build was a success? By the texts and emails they receive from clients long after the keys are handed over sharing life’s moments and milestones in a clients home.

2. They can’t start digging without a permit and try not to move in before it’s completed.

Those first few piles of dirt might make you cry happy tears. And lots of meetings will take place on that dirt. You will spend a lot of time at your job site. Invest in some boots, keep a tape measure and binder full of plans and inspiration in your car.

Whether you are caught in years of unsettledness due to wildfires and/or the pandemic, try not to rush to move in. It’s hard for the trades to access your home when you are already living in it! A couple of extra weeks waiting to finalize things could save you months of trying to schedule things.

3. You will most likely go a little over budget!

And there are some things you can’t do yourself. Painting a wall or landscaping your front yard, ok! But leave the plumbing and electrical to the professionals. Invest in things that are long-lasting for your comfort and your pocketbook.

4. Your house will appear smaller than expected and you’ll pick finishes from ridiculously small samples!

You will have conversations about whether the family room or your bedrooms are big enough during the framing stages. This is normal. Once the drywall goes up, you will feel much better about your room dimensions!

Listen to the professionals but trust your gut. Remember that at the end of the day it is YOU who will be waking up in this house each day. YOU who will actually live with all of the decisions made. Choose finishes and selections that are true to YOU.

5. Communication + Patience = Success!

Humans build homes and humans make mistakes. Somethings are absolutely unacceptable; others come down to miscommunication. Wright Residential believes a project’s success is determined before the ground is even broken. From design to estimation to construction, they focus on listening intently to bring your vision to life. Parallel to their dedication to quality is their focus on transparent and timely communication.

While there will be mistakes made and stressful days, there will also be days of complete joy and excitement while you are building or renovating your home. It is an amazing thing to see your vision come to life right in front of your eyes. Patience is one of the key lessons you will learn during your build process. Some matters are outside everyone’s hands—things like bad weather and lumber prices. Overall, remember how fortunate you are to have the opportunity to create this future home for you and your family.

Whether you have elaborate plans waiting for hammers to start swinging or a Pinterest board filled with ideas, we are ready to transform your aspirations into reality.

 

An Unexpected Start

For those of you who may not know the Wright Residential story, we had something of an unexpected start. Building a successful residential construction company serving wine country and beyond wasn’t in the plans; at all. While the Wright family has been building in the area for 80 years, Wright Residential started after devastation impacted the communities in which our team members live and work. Read more about our deep roots in wine country and our bright future in residential construction.

Deep Roots

Principals Stephen and Nicholas Wright are fourth-generation leaders in the construction industry in Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties. The days following Pearl Harbor’s attack, their 19-year old grandfather Paul V. Wright marched down to sign up for the United States civilian construction group. Post-war, Paul joined his father, J.K. Wright, in Guerneville to build summer homes before teaming up with Ben Oretsky to build educational and medical facilities across the North Bay. Their father, Michael Wright, took the reigns of Wright Contracting at the same time the Napa and Sonoma county wine boom created a new opportunity to bring their building expertise into a new industry. With Michael’s retirement, in 2016 Stephen Wright joined Wright Contracting as Chief Operating Officer. Entering its third generation as a family-owned and operated business, Wright Contracting continues the rich legacy of quality commercial building in the North Bay.

The Foundation of Wright Residential

In October 2017, the Sonoma and Napa county communities were devastated by the Tubbs and Nuns fires. More than 5,000 homes were destroyed in one evening. Following the tradition started by their grandfather, brothers Stephen and Nicolas Wright founded Wright Residential to help our neighbors, friends, and communities through the rebuild and recovery process.

Matt Van Heusen was tapped to build Wright Residential from the ground up as the Director of Construction. With a contractor’s license in hand and a team of empathetic construction industry leaders, the business started taking shape. Word began to spread of the new residential construction company in town that separated itself from competition through care, attention to detail, and the streamlined build process Wright Residential employs. To ensure its success, Matt surrounded the company with talented architects, designers, consultants, and trade partners. This philosophy continues today at Wright Residential, where many of the individuals that help build the company still work with us on our projects today. Our masterful team of more than 50 project professionals and craftspersons has uncompromising attention to detail and focus on quality, aspiring to enrich and enliven the communities in which they live and work. You will see us in meetings, hear our voices on calls, and walk with us on job sites. Our team members take personal pride in our work so that clients take pride in their homes for generations to come. You’ll find that optimism is always on our punch list!

Bright Future

Since we founded Wright Residential, our company has evolved beyond rebuilding homes lost in the 2017 wildfires to specializing in custom homes, renovations and additions, and multi-family developments. To support evolving client needs and expectations and connect with new partners and inspire existing ones, we have given ourselves a bit of a refresh. We’ve defined the values that we see emulated in every team member and uncovered what makes Wright Residential unique, a building experience centered on care, excellence, and partnership.

CARE

We take care of each other. We invest in, value, and appreciate our people. Shared responsibility and accountability drive our success. We work as a team and we enjoy the camaraderie. It is this sense of togetherness that transforms a house into a home. The company’s legacy of builders inspires strong personal and professional bonds across generations. Our team members, our trade partners, and our clients are our family.

EXCELLENCE

Principals with 25+ years in real estate acquisition and construction, superintendents with decades of field experience, and project professionals that anticipate the challenges underlying each build are just a few attributes that allow Wright Residential to bridge the gap between idea and execution. We understand the process is as important as the outcome. We are committed to pursuing a better way to build by leveraging our collective experiences and exploring innovative techniques and materials. We continuously challenge ourselves to enhance our knowledge and improve service.

PARTNERSHIP

We believe that the partnerships we develop are as meaningful as what we build. Honesty, integrity, and respect are the principles that guide us in all our interactions. We are always accountable to our clients. We listen to them, respond to them, and collaborate with our team members and partners to deliver. We are committed to service – to our clients, to our industry, and the communities where we work and live.

Building a home is the start of a long relationship, and it has to start with the right approach. We place the human experience as the center of our process. We LOVE what we do. We have so much gratitude for this work and building spaces for families to celebrate moments and milestones. In that spirit, we’ve launched this Blog to share our knowledge and project updates, highlight trends and new starts, welcome team members and trade partners, and much more!

We are incredibly grateful for each and every client who has entrusted us to bring their dream home to life over the past three years and for everyone we have worked with along the way.

Here’s to 80 more years of building beautiful homes!

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