In progress home build

10 Questions to Ask Your Potential Home Builder

When we at Miller Marriott meet with potential clients, we tell them, “We are going to be in a relationship.” And while we laugh a little when we say it, the reality is that designing and building a home is a lengthy process that requires communication, mutual respect, and trust. Homes are very personal to each client, and the process of making a vision come to life is as important as the actual end result. We encourage anyone thinking of designing and building a home to start by meeting with a prospective designer and builder, in an effort to determine if working together is truly the right combination for such an important experience.

Here are some questions we would encourage our friends and family members to ask when evaluating candidate companies to build their home.

  1. What differentiates you from other home builders?
    Find out what the firm highlights as its ‘difference-maker.’ Is it the way the company is organized, or maybe the way it prices? The quality of its subcontractors? Perhaps it’s the company’s designs or experience? Knowing how a firm separates itself from other home builders allows you to compare your priorities for the process with the aspects on which the company focuses.What differentiates us at Miller Marriott is our people, our process, and our product. We are a true design|build company: we manage both the design phase and the construction phase of a project. Our in-house architects and interior designers share over 45 years of home design experience, and they work diligently to understand how our clients live, their lifestyles, what inspires them, and their needs. Our construction team shares over 50 years of experience, and our subcontractors and suppliers are vetted and carefully chosen. Additionally, every quality and build standard is meticulously selected to be in keeping with our timeless designs.
  2. What does the process of designing and customizing my home look like?
    Share with the firm your general vision for your home and ask the company what their process is for making it a reality. Because there are many ways to design and customize a home, it is important to discuss your specific goals. For example, do you want to build an exact floor plan you have seen but choose a new elevation and unique finishes? Or, do you have a unique piece of land and want to create something from scratch?The value that a home builder brings is in providing a path that allows you to achieve your unique goals. At Miller Marriott, we have established four distinctive approaches for creating and constructing a home. Just like the homes themselves, our methods were formed by working with clients who all had unique building needs.
  3. How and when do you determine the cost of my home?
    There are two parts to determining cost. One part is understanding what the builder—based on its minimum standards—builds for on a price-per-square-foot basis. A home builder will be able to provide rough estimates of its current average building costs based on square footage and on its build and quality standards. This can give you some general figures to start working with prior to designing.Part two is understanding how your specific home costs are determined after a design and finishes are selected. Consider asking the builder how site work gets estimated, and how vendor price increases are handled. Find out how costs may be affected by choosing to upgrade a finish, or by changing something during construction. Transparency and communication are key in keeping everyone involved on the same page; with this mindset, Miller Marriott believes in clarity on pricing and eliminating surprise costs.Most importantly: discussing your budget frankly from the start will avoid confusion—and potential heartbreak—further down the road. Sharing your budget with a potential home builder, whether your “all-in” budget (which includes the land, site work, the home, and landscaping/driveway) or your budget for the home only, is essential to determining if you and the firm are a good fit.
  4. How do you determine price per square foot when estimating costs? What are your build and quality standards?When given an estimate on the average price-per-square-foot of a home you are considering building, it is based on certain materials, finishes, mechanicals, and other details. You will want to inquire as to what the selections are for this upfront average pricing. Such details normally come in the form of build and quality standards. By reviewing these, you should know what would go into your home if you did not upgrade anything. For instance, are wood floors and appliances included, and if so, what type? Is the basement roughed in for a bathroom? What is the quality of the windows, cabinets, and furnace? Knowing information like this is also helpful in determining how much upgrading you may have to do to make your home meet your vision.
  5. How long does it take to build? To design?
    The start-to-finish timeline will depend on design time, permitting and approvals, and the construction timeline itself.When designing with a firm, the design timeline is based on the complexity and originality of the design. Understanding the time commitment needed for this process is important for determining what options may or may not be realistic for you. Also note that after the design is complete, lenders need a certain number of days to approve the project before construction can commence.Permitting begins after the design is completed. The time needed for this can be impacted by the home’s municipality, and by any other approvals needed (such as from the county or an HOA). Be certain to determine if the builder manages the permitting and approval process for you, or if you will be responsible.For the construction phase, a builder should be able to provide an estimated timeline based on the project. Seek understanding on how your “dig date” is set; on what the builder’s construction capacity is; and on how delays can impact your start date. It is normal for timelines to incorporate some flexibility to accommodate factors such as weather or unforeseen circumstances.
  6. Where can I see examples of your work?
    Portfolios, pictures, and videos are excellent tools, but seeing a home in-person can truly give you a feel for the builder’s quality and attention to detail. Model homes are great to walk through, but it is easy to get lost in the aesthetics. Instead, ask to see a home that is under construction. Viewing a home that is still in the building phase allows you to observe how your home would be treated during this process, and also lets you gauge the builder’s attention to detail during construction. Even better, some builders have former clients who are willing to show their homes to prospective clients. Such offers are true testaments to the builder’s reputation and the home’s design and construction quality.
  7. What do your successful client-builder relationships look like?
    Understanding how a builder interfaces with its clients will tell you if the firm is one with which you can work. Knowing what is required from you in terms of your time and availability, as well as how these commitments are planned, is critical to the success of the project. Communication is essential—but you must determine how communications are managed, and by whom, throughout each step of the process. From frequent check-ins to occasional updates at big checkpoints, aligning your communication expectations with your builder’s at the project’s outset will help ensure a smooth relationship from day one.
  8. How does the payment process work during construction?
    Rather than issuing a lump sum check, construction projects are paid for over the course of the project in installments. The payment process is managed through a title company and/or lender. The installments are called draws, and a draw request signed by you at a specific point in construction is necessary to ensure disbursement of the funds.
  9. What type of warranty do you offer?
    Because things do happen to a home post construction, it is important to understand how a builder will respond to them. For example, a new refrigerator can break, drywall may crack, or your dog might scratch your front door! Warranties generally fall into two categories: a builder’s warranty and a specific product/service warranty. A failing refrigerator would fall under this latter manufacturer’s warranty. Problems like drywall cracks and normal first-year settling issues are covered per builder guidelines, such as those from the Metropolitan Builders Association (MBA). And items that would be just general wear and tear on a home are not normally covered by a warranty. To prepare for post-construction home care, Miller Marriott conducts a thorough “how to care for your home in the first year” hand-off with each of its clients.
  10. Are you fully licensed and insured?
    Depending on your project and the demonstrated work of the firm, you can ask about professional licenses and certifications. A builder must hold a Contractor License through the state of Wisconsin. A licensed architect is either registered with the state and/or accredited by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). For other design professionals, such as Interior Architects, Designers, and Decorators, you will find various college degrees, accreditations, and certifications. For insurance, both the builder and the owner of the land must carry insurance. This arrangement should be clearly spelled out in the construction contract.

Ultimately, you should be able to enjoy the home building process just as much as the completed home. We hope you find these questions helpful as you take the time to have these types of conversations with a potential home builder. If you have specific questions for us or would like to go over any of the questions listed above, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Miller Marriott Design Timeline

Price and Timeline Clarity

When at a nationwide builder’s conference, it became painfully clear that across the country, the industry’s top client complaints were due to feeling a lack of clarity on costs and timing while building their homes. This lack of clarity is the impetus for the all-too-common statement, “I love the home we built, but the process was a nightmare.” And frankly, if it is a nightmare process for a client, it likely isn’t fun for the builder either.

We left the conference with the goal of clients who love the building process as much as the home itself, which meant they would need clarity on timing and cost.  In an industry that has long project timelines, and is subject to labor shortages, changes in material prices, client revisions and mother nature, we knew it would require a consistent approach and lots of transparency.

To enjoy the home building process, you need to be on a design|build path that is right for you. You should be provided with guidance and the details needed to choose the best approach, since different approaches to building will necessitate distinct timing and cost expectations. At Miller Marriott, we help guide our clients by offering upfront insights and options based on their timeline and budget, but also based on design objectives and project scope, so they can choose the design|build path that best meets their needs. Here are some examples of these unique paths:

  • A full-custom home, with each detail meticulously selected from vendors and specialty suppliers, is one of the more costly approaches and takes more time to design and potentially build.
  • A semi-custom home, based on a builder’s various plans and the client’s inspiration, with a hybrid approach to making finish design decisions, is usually less costly than a full-custom home and has a slightly faster timeline.
  • A home modeled after a base plan with curated finishes—choices that are presented to you based on your style—is not only a more timely process, it also makes it easier for clients to stick to their budget.

Note: Decision making and changes after construction starts can always slow down the process. This also applies to delayed municipality and HOA approvals.

Here are some areas to consider when planning for transparent costs:

  1.  Project budget
    The team at Miller Marriott works to understand our clients’ budgets upfront.  This might mean breaking down an “all in” budget to better understand home and site costs, or trying to estimate site conditions on a unique piece of land.   Once the budget is clear, and we and the clients are both on the same page, we work with respect to that budget while planning and designing the home portion. We also use cost allowances that are dictated by agreed-upon standards. Choices in architecture and finishes can be easily tied to the overall price and are visible to the client at all times.We help to prioritize, select, and customize decisions regarding your home, and we offer a variety of options to accommodate clients’ differing budgets. With our knowledge of current industry costs for materials and labor, and with our intel on site fees like permitting and municipality costs, we can give you all the details and guidance you need to feel confident in your established budget.
  2. Home pricing
    Before a project starts, a home’s price is an estimate based on a price per square foot. We utilize our build and quality standards in this factoring, and share those with clients so they know what the number represents. During the design process, the architect will work to the budget. Then based on the chosen level of customization, the client will get actual pricing prior to finish selection, and again for a final cost review before construction. Miller Marriott uses as much visualization—through technology, existing homes, and vendors—as possible to avoid making changes during the build process. (While modifications can be made, they can be expensive and cause delays.)
  3. Site work/conditions
    Site work is usually not well understood. It is expensive and is the only price that builders cannot fully guarantee because it involves the land and what is below the surface. We attempt to get conservatively close with our estimates, but, for example, you may not know exactly how deep a well goes, or if there are unexpected qualities of the soil. In our upfront estimate, we include all aspects of the physical land preparation, as well as permitting and approval costs and municipality fees.

 In addition to budget, we also want to learn from our clients when they want to be living in their new home. Using the provided date, we then work backwards by considering the selected design approach, the approval/lending cycle, and construction estimates, based on the size and location of the project. From there, we can give our clients a rough timeline for design decisions. And because we don’t want a client to feel pressured during design, we keep the tentative dig date visible, and if we need to adjust it based on the design timeline, we make that decision together with the client.

Once a client’s design is complete and approved, we lock in the dig date. After we begin construction, we follow a well-planned step-by-step schedule to meet the projected move-in date. The schedule builds in time for some degree of natural delays, such as weather or a sick subcontractor. If there was ever an unforeseen significant delay, we would immediately communicate that to our client, including the reason why and the new target date. Such a situation might arise with a natural disaster or pandemic. Or, as mentioned, client changes during the build process can also delay a job, and the revised timeline would be discussed upfront when the client is making their decision on the proposed adjustment.

At Miller Marriott, we provide our clients a unified flow and a team approach from initial concept through completion of construction. We believe that setting upfront timeframes and budgets, while keeping costs and deliverables transparent and visible throughout the process, is respectful management of our clients’ individual needs. By thoughtfully collaborating with you and offering solution-based support, we can make certain your costs and timeline stay consistent, without unwelcome surprises. If this sounds like a process that you’d enjoy, reach out to us today.