Custom Home Building

Also read the section on “New Construction” as many of the things there will apply to custom building as well. I have over 15 years of experience in new home sales and management. I have walked hundreds of lots to place homes at the best spot, worked to save trees, and offer advice on what plan will work best on your lot. Many times I can look at a set of plans and suggest ways to make the home better. I have designed custom homes & met with the architects to come up with a complete ready to build set of floorplans. There are very few real estate agents that have this experience.

Don’t buy a lot in Austin or an old home with the thought of knocking it down, with out first consulting someone. Austin has a McMansion ordinance that covers rebuilding and is very strict. Also Austin has “impervious cover” restrictions that must be followed for new building or remodeling. Impervious cover is the house, sidewalks, decks, etc…and they cannot cover more than about 45% of your total lot. The 45% is not exact, it can change due to many factors. But you will in most cases not get more than that. Please don’t think that because you built a home somewhere else, that you can build one here without any help. You can’t run down to the city and sign a few pieces of paper and start building tomorrow. If you don’t believe me, log on to the city’s site and review the various ordinances, impervious cover, and watershed requirements.

Now of course not every lot is even in the Austin ETJ (extraterritorial jurisdiction). Every city has their own building requirements.


Even if you have built a new home before, custom building will have some different challenges for you. We first come to the chicken or the egg question as I like to call it. What exactly is that? Well in custom building we usually start one of two places. You already own a lot, so we must design a plan to fit on your lot. Or you have an idea of how you want your floor plan to layout, so we must find a lot that can accommodate your design. If you don’t have a plan or a lot, we can sit down and you can tell me your vision and what you are trying to accomplish.

If you already have a lot, our next step is to find a builder and an architect. If you don’t have a lot, that may be our first step.

Just so you know upfront, the process of finding a lot & builder, designing a plan and building a home can easily take a over year. Many factors will come into play, how large and complex is the home, what kind of weather we encounter, how much time it takes you to design the home.

How do we pick a builder? We will want to do some research on that. Remember that it will take a year for this to come to completion. So you need to pick someone who you are going to get along with. If you are not a good fit personality & temperament wise, this will be a long process. So you will probably want to interview a couple of builders and see how you match up. This is like you are going to be “married” for a year. You need to be able to get along. Will this go perfectly? Of course not, so you need to be able to get over the rough spots and still come out on good speaking terms. Some builders have architects they like to work with. You have to decide if you are a good fit with their guys or you want to bring in your own people. You may not know about the architect until you sit down with them and maybe do some preliminary drawings.

If you don’t have an exact plan in mind, looking at new homes/builders model homes, is a great way to get ideas. Bring a camera, no not your phone camera, or one of the new inexpensive video cameras like a “FLIP”. You may find one room or a design element from multiple homes, & want to incorporate these into your home. We need the architect to pull the different rooms & design features from the different homes together into one floor plan. If you have a clear picture or video for the architect, it makes it much easier for him to see what you want.


Now on to the lot… Lots in Austin are expensive, because they are in short supply. So you want to take advantage of everything your lot has to offer. I know, you say you are going to stay here for 20 years. But part of what I get paid for is to prepare for when things don’t go as planned and you do have to move.

I have gone into countless custom homes where either the architect/builder didn’t help you maximize your value. Or the client ignored their advice. Either way the buyers did not get all they could have gotten in their home.

This is especially true of homes with a view. Austin is hilly and many times you have anything from a small view of a greenbelt to a panoramic view of the hill country. You are going to pay more for a lot with a view, so maximize the view. I recently showed two homes in the same neighborhood. They were not side by side, but one home separated the two from each other. So they had almost exact views. One person had a beautiful deck on the second floor with a view for miles. They had their architect design the home so that there was a view from almost every room in the home. It felt great when you walked in the door. The other home had done almost nothing to maximize their view. No deck on the second floor, and only a few rooms had the view.

Views are like gold on resale. They help your home sell for more money and sell faster. Some of the time the lot slopes and has trees, so you can’t tell what the view is until the home is built, right. WRONG, get with the builder and architect and tell them to get you a “cherry picker” out to see what the view looks like. Tell them to be there too. If you don’t know what a cherry picker is, google it. Yes it will cost a little money to do this but it will be some of the best money you will spend. If there are going to be homes built behind you, you need to take that into consideration. Don’t have your great view ruined by the next person building behind you. Assume the worst, that they will build a big two story behind you. What will your view look like then?

Trees are the next big item. Everyone loves our trees here in Austin. You may pay a large premium for a lot with trees. How many of those trees that you are paying for are going to be around when the home is placed on the lot. Well there is an easy way to see. Once you have your plan picked out, you will know the dimensions of the home, i.e. the width & depth. Get with your builder and put a stake in the ground at a spot corresponding with the four corners of the home, & sting the 4 stakes together. Any trees inside this space are going to be cut down. This also allows you to see if moving the home side to side or front and back can save some trees. Your builder & I will have done this many times and can help you. Remember not just the trees inside the marked off area, but those that overhang it may also have to go. If you are going to lose a lot of trees, you may want to think of revising your floor plan to save some of them. Maybe you go from an attached to a detached garage for example. Once your plan is finished, you can use this little exercise with the stakes and string on any lot you are thinking about buying to see how it will work for you.


If you are going to custom build a home, one or both of you will need to be able to have some substantial blocks of time available. Don’t think this will happen spending 30 minutes a week. Once the home gets started you can relax a bit, but at the start we will need a time commitment.

Think about the next sentence for a moment. You will pick almost everything going in the home. Want to research the best heating and air conditioning system, do it and the builder will put your choice in. Up on all the latest “green” technology, the builder will incorporate it in your home. You will also do the small things, like what color floor grout do you want in a guest bathroom. Just be aware many, many decisions will be made. Some will be exciting, others boring, some will be scary wondering if they will work out. But someone will have to put in the time to make those decisions. The builder and I can both help you, but many are going to be your call.

My new home budget… When you custom build, you get to pick everything, as we discussed above. For many categories of items you will work with an allowance. In the home price you negotiated with the builder, are allowances for things like flooring, lighting, landscaping etc…So when you pick lighting, you will have “x” number of dollars to work with to supply your whole home. What happens if you spend more than the allowance? You will be responsible for anything over the allowance. Nearly everyone goes over their budget. If money is not a concern, pay the overages and get what you want. If you have a budget, then you will have to sit down and decide how you want to spend it. If I give a child $10 dollars & say go into the toy store and buy a toy, this almost always happens. A short time later the child returns & has a toy costing more than the $10. He/she had a whole store to choose from and wanted the best toy. You are no different, when you are at the flooring store, you will see all the great selections. Who would not want the best wood floors or carpet? Same thing with the appliances, fixtures, wallpaper etc…you probably can’t have the best of everything. Are putting wood floors thru out the whole bottom floor, more important than the European brand kitchen appliances? Be prepared to figure these things out.


Your custom home can be a one of a kind masterpiece. And you are the artist, so let’s be creative. That’s right put in a “wall of windows” to take advantage of a view. Have a bad knee; think about installing an elevator, the price may surprise you. How about a “panic room” a hidden room in your home? We have all endured some power outages, consider an onsite generator that kicks in if power goes out. Consider raising the height of each garage bay. Reasonably priced stands/lifts allow you to store 2 cars per bay, one on top of the other. Or pull out the garage and create a boat storage space. Special garages are great on resale. We have just started to scratch the surface on all kinds of green building/product ideas. How about a special room/ feature for a child. Want your home to be the gathering spot for all the kids, put in some features they will want. Will a parent or parents need to move in with you? Designing for the future will be easy now, why remodel/move in 3 years when with a little planning now you won’t have to. And if you know you will be moving in 3-5 years we need to plan with resale in mind.