How did you choose your builder?

I’m back tracking a bit today, by about 2 and a half years. To that compulsive moment when we decided to buy a block of land and build a house on it. I admit that it was a fairly emotional decision, with very little comparison of alternatives, in terms of land or building versus buying a house. In our favour, we knew the area very well, having already lived nearby and we knew the location was not one we would regret. To our demise was our complete naivety about the cost of building.

I’m thinking of these things again now, because one of my sisters, let’s call her The Sensible One, is considering buying land with the plan to build her family home.

Choosing land:

Aside from the obvious fact that land should be somewhere you want or need to live, here are my thoughts based of the luxury of hindsight and from reading many a saga on the HomeOne Forum.

  • Siteworks, site works, site works!!! $$$$. Site works costs are not included in the sticker price of an “off-the-shelf” (volume builder’s) house. Site works vary greatly depending on the contour of the land and the geology. A “site survey” before you purchase can help builders to estimate some of the costs to prepare the land for building, but there is still the possibility of hitting unexpected problems (rock!) once site works start.
  • Location can limit your choice of builders.
  • Location can dictate some of your building choices, especially in a developer’s estate.  You’ll need to comply with their guidelines in addition to council regulations.
  • Orientation.  If you are aiming for a solar passive house, this factor might be critical, but let’s face it, not everyone in suburbia can choose the perfect North-facing block.  Volume builders will easily “flip” a house plan to improve a home’s thermal performance, while trees, screens and blinds (interior and exterior) are all simple solutions to reducing the impact of that pesky sun as it sets.

    Our land

    Don’t be fooled by a relatively innocent looking piece of land. The “provisional sum” for earth works on our 747 sqm block is $20 000, not including retaining walls.

Choosing a builder:

We chose our builders, Webb and Brown-Neaves, from a fairly limited pack.  The field was narrowed by our key requirements of the house, namely:

  • A footprint small enough to leave us with lots of outdoor space.
  • A house plan with rear living areas to make the most of a rear view.
  • Four bedrooms.

My shortlist of “off-the-shelf” (pre-designed) houses that fitted these requirements was very small. In the end, we were wooed by a floor plan with a void space above the living area.  It seemed to us to take a house from ordinary to amazing.  Although we didn’t know any one who had built with Webb and Brown-Neaves, they had a good reputation, having built houses on the Mandurah canals for a long time.  Of course, I looked for online reviews for WBN and found a mixed bag.   With only 22 reviews over 7 years, I didn’t really trust this source.  It seemed to me that the minority of customers that couldn’t resolve problems with their build had headed there to seek revenge.  And a few blissfully happy customers had been encouraged to submit a review to balance the ratings.  Every one had either rated Excellent or Bad/Terrible.  There was no in-between.

I’ve noticed that many of the mega building companies, particularly in the East of Australia, have many more reviews.  Take Metricon, for example.  They have 400+ reviews.  Perhaps you can give it some credence but I wouldn’t use these reviews alone.  In fact, one of Metricon’s competitors was accused of offering rewards for customers positive reviews.

My big-sisterly suggestions for selecting a “volume builder” are:

  • Stalk the area you plan to build in for new homes recently built by the companies that interest you.  (Or you could try asking the companies for references.)  Talk to the home owners and ask how they found the process and how satisfied they are with their home.
  • Stalk the area you plan to build in to see home building in progress.  If you go on weekends, you might get to chat with some customers.
  • Get acquainted with the HomeOne Forum.   Lots of Australians thinking about building, going through the process, recently built and even repeat-building customers hang out there.  There are some building professionals there too, adding their two-bobs worth from time to time.  Follow some threads from your area.  You’ll soon discover that very few builds are stress free and problems arise.  Most customers quickly forget the problems when they move into a new house that they are happy with, others stay unhappy.  For the larger building companies, in the low to medium price spectrum, there are enough people on the Forum to form a balanced idea about how the companies generally perform.   You can get an idea of pre-construction issues, build times, the range of costs that are added on to sticker prices, customer service and how companies deal with problems.
  • Last, but definitely not least, read some independent blogs written by builder’s customers.   (Duh!!!)  There are plenty out there.  Some are tricky to find, but once you find one addressing a particular company, it will often lead you to many more.  Ask the blogger questions.  Bloggers are friendly people!

So, readers, since I’m no expert here;

What advice would you give my sister for selecting land and a builder?

The Sensible One, all the answers are just for you.  Feel free to pipe in with questions. xxx

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19 thoughts on “How did you choose your builder?

  1. Mrs. T says:

    Some good advice there. My sister is in the early stages of building a house (slab pour this week) with one of the big building companies so I’m interested to see what other advice everyone else has.

  2. Jules says:

    I’m curious to know what other builders you had on your shortlist? We’re working on a custom floor plan (odd shaped canal block) with a local MH builder and I’m pretty confident we can work something out with them, but you never know.

    • Hi Jules. I just managed to find my actual handwritten list. It includes Lifestyle Homes, Wilson and Hart, Great Living. I’ll send PM you the actual home names.

  3. You should be happy with ‘The Sensible One’. I’m not sure I’d like what Johanne would label me! I can’t offer any advice….I’ve never built but I’d just be looking at how you actually live and making sure the house floor plan and block will accommodate that. Do you need an office? Is your TV in the right location (away from sleeping areas)? Does your kitchen need to be a social space or purely functional? Do you like eating outdoors, is there a deck and bbq area? How close do you want your kids rooms to be to you at night? So keen to see which houses you are considering! xxx

    • I’m thinking of renaming “The Sensible One” since she bought a block before I could publish this post. Maybe Jill, from Jack and Jill, on the hill! Ha ha! As for you, Aunty Kate is a most affectionate term. xxx

  4. Some elementary advice I picked up at a trade show to control costs (think it may have been ‘Grand Designs Live’) – use straight lines and remember that each ‘corner’ increases cost – the age old adage ‘location, location, location’ (as Johanne knows) – pay more for the land and less for the build – build smaller if you have to. The best thing we did was to visit as many homes as possible built – try and speak to the owners about their experiences with their builder – and never pay for work not complete (it’s your money)! Best of luck – its very worthwhile (in the end)!!

  5. trixee says:

    We couldn’t find any off the shelf plans that suited our block, so we had to do a custom build. The hardest part was choosing the architect, once that was done choosing the builder was easier because the architect only worked with certain ones he had “trained” to do things his way!

    • Trixee, I think your build is somewhat unique in that you have used an architect for a modest house. Their skills being put to use for the solar-passive goals of the house rather than “architectural features”, so to speak. Correct me if I’m wrong! How about a blog post sometime on how this panned out financially for you? It’s still a bit of a mystery to me whether architect-designed homes are within the realms of possibility for the average first-time home builder. I’d love your opinion on this.

      • trixee says:

        I think you need to choose your architect carefully. There were a few that we spoke to who didn’t want to do a build anything less than half a million. The one we chose mentioned in passing that many of his colleagues are amazed that he can deliver his service at the rate he charges – he claims it’s due to the process he’s refined over time. He also has a philosophy on affordable housing, which helps. He will design to budget and doesn’t mind doing low-cost builds, he’s probably unique in that regard. We did meet one other green builder/designer who was a strong contender in the affordability stakes, but it’s probably true that most architects are unaffordable for a lot of people. While it’s true that our emphasis was on solar passive, we could have added more architectural features but didn’t want to because it would have added to the cost and we didn’t have any solid ideas in mind, aside from a grand entry. Our base build cost came within budget, but we blew it with expensive finishes and upgrades!

      • Thanks Trixee. Yes building is a bit like a giant vacuum, with potential to suck up your money at every opportunity. Drawing a line is difficult, but I guess if you are stronger willed than you and I (possibly my sister!) you can stick to your budget, then add in the extras later when your pockets have recovered.

  6. Simbug says:

    Hi, We are near the end…PCI next week. Our block is 10 by 50 and slopes in the front to back by over 2m. My advice is make sure you get a builder that is transparent and itemises everything. Don’t hand over a cent until you are happy with all the costings and interview heaps of builders. We met lots, mainly those who specialise in narrow homes that are double storey. Good luck!!

  7. We chose our builder (Mandurah Homes) out of about 4 others due to our custom build and the fact that they didn’t mass produce homes. They also gave us the flexibility to have our own trades come in to do parts of the build. Also no additional charges to changes along the way – only for the cost either way.
    We are about to pour top floor slab and have had a great experience so-far.
    We didn’t just look for cheapest but someone with local knowledge.

  8. Sarah P says:

    Choosing a builder- just like choosing a spouse. Someone who smiles, says “yes” more often than “no”, understanding of budget enough that you don’t need a newspaper blanket at night however still balks when you go for those integrated handles, will pour you wine when things aren’t going to plan……. Wait! wait! I have channel 9’s new blockbuster…..builder at first sight?! I’m happy to load the above as my profile- apply within!!

  9. Why doesn’t your sister use WBN the same as you? you don’t recommend them?
    My friend built with beaumonde and had some good feedback. My parents built with national and liked them too??
    I have never built so cannot give first hand experience. Sorry!

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