W. Epstein Builders on How to Choose a Building Lot

Baby boomers are finding that Coastal southeastern North Carolina is a wonderful place to move once the family is grown and there is more time for leisure. The area has a lot to offer—beaches, waterways, golf courses, an easy life style and agreeable temperatures most of the year. With Wilmington and Myrtle Beach close by, there are plenty of restaurants, cultural events, shopping and entertainment within an easy hour drive. And it is because of this that many planned communities have been developed in the area. Each community is unique, which provides a wide array of choices for those looking to buy and live in southeastern NC. There are communities that are gated and others that are not; there are communities that are rich with amenities and others that offer a modest level of community features. There are golf course communities, waterway communities, and nature preserve communities.

However, what all of these communities have in common is a choice between buying an already existing home or buying a building lot. If your choice is to purchase a building lot, keep in mind that someday you will want to build on that piece of dirt, and all building lots are not created equal. Most people have some “criteria” when choosing a lot. For instance, it may be someone will only consider a golf course lot, or a pond lot, or a wooded lot or a marsh lot or a corner lot or a cul-de-sac lot. While these are personally important criteria, keep in mind there are other considerations that make a lot a desirable or undesirable building lot.

Bill Epstein, a builder in St. James Plantation and experienced developer/builder, suggests you get a builder’s opinion before you buy. But short of that, here are a few things to keep in mind as you select a lot:

First, it is best to shop for a lot just after a rain.
wet building lot
Take a look at the picture to above. This is a building lot 2 days after it rained. This is not the most desirable building lot in its present state, and in fact, would be disastrous to the homeowner if a builder did not “re-construct” the lot before building on it. Obviously, it has low areas where water collects and does not easily drain. A reputable builder that understands the importance of setting a house so water drains away from the house and driveway will need to bring in fill dirt to “re-construct” the lot so the house is not in a hole or lower than the road. Builders often factor in enough loads of dirt to fill an area after removal of trees, bushes & roots. But with a lot like the one pictured, the amount of dirt necessary to make this a good building lot can, and most probably will, run into the a fair amount of money. Dirt is expensive and the needed fill is actually part of the cost of the lot although many lot owners will “blame” the builder for the high cost of fixing a poorly developed building lot. Knowing that a lot does not drain well or needs many loads of dirt to raise the house for ample drainage, can be used to negotiate a reasonable price for a lot that is not “ready to build” upon.

Second, walk all around the lot and “feel” it with your feet. If it feels spongy, you may want to pass on the lot or at the very least get a soil test before you purchase. You want to know that the dirt is good and is stable enough to support the house. It is good to keep in mind that some lots near the coast were created from swampy land, and the dirt on these lots may not be suitable for building. Correcting for unstable dirt can be costly, but if you absolutely love and want the lot, this will give you a bargaining chip with the developer or lot owner. But before negotiating, it is a good idea to check with a builder first to get his take on cost to ameliorate the problem.

Third, this may seem obvious, but can be overlooked—consider the size and shape of the lot you want to purchase. Many lots in these communities are relatively small, and all lots have setbacks on all sides of the property. The area on which a house can be built, called the building envelope, equals the area inside the property lines minus the required setbacks for the lot. A typical example of set backs are 8 feet on either side and 30 ft off the front and back property lines. Often greater setbacks are required from golf courses, ponds or environmentally protected areas. A rectangular property often allows for more house options than a pie-shaped or irregular lot. Too many times, a lot is selected and purchased, only to discover during the design phase of building that the lot has limited the owners’ choices as to garage style and size of house. This is where a builder can advise a prospective lot owner on the limitations a lot will place on the design of the house.

And lastly, consider your lot budget. It is so-o-o very easy to purchase a piece of dirt. Relatively speaking, it is a lot less money than the cost to build the house. So try to bring some balance to the overall cost of your project. First, know what your budget is for the whole project—land and house. Then when you decide to purchase a lot, make sure there is an adequate budget left to build the house that you want. Pouring too much money into the vacant lot can leave you with too little money to build a house with the features you want and that reflects the cost of the lot. It is critical to remember that when you go to re-sell, especially in these planned communities, that most buyers, first and foremost, consider the house and its features. The location of the lot—be it on a golf course, pond, nature preserve or neighborhood—has value and is important, but most buyers will negotiate based on the house and its features. The lot the house sits on is but one feature. If the house size and quality do not reflect the price of the lot, reselling will most often be a great disappointment.

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W. Epstein Builders: The Two Most Important Documents When Getting Builder Quotes

So you own your own lot and you have your building plans in hand. You have interviewed numerous builders over the last couple of years, and have narrowed the field to three or maybe five. You are ready to hand your plans over to your selected builders and request quote proposals. Then all you need to do is look over the quotes, choose the builder and you are well on your way to building your dream custom home.

But wait! What are you looking for when you get those proposals back in your hands? Are you looking for the lowest price? And what does the lowest price mean? Are you looking for quality? And how is that quality “demonstrated” in the proposal?  Are you looking for a fixed price? And what does that “fixed” price really include? Are you comparing proposals? And how do you know if the proposals you are comparing are equivalent? The bottom line is that a proposal is only as good as what it represents. And not all proposals are equal.

First let me underscore: There are no right or wrong or good or bad proposals. But as a consumer, who wants to build a custom home, it is imperative that you be an informed consumer.

The two most important documents in any custom-build proposal are:

1. The detailed specifications and 2. The allowances

These two elements actually determine the quality (construction and finish) of the house and have the greatest influence on the cost of the home.

Detailed specifications are critical to knowing exactly what you will be getting in the house. And to really evaluate and compare proposals, you need to compare each and every item in the proposal from one builder to another.  If you want a certain quality, you may submit your own specifications that are to be included in the proposal. If not, then look at each line of the proposal’s specifications and compare what will be included. For instance, roof sheathing, one proposal may be based on using standard OSB sheathing, another may be using OSB with a radiant barrier, another may stipulate ZIP system roof sheathing. Each of these options has cost consequences, as well as, different advantages. So be diligent and compare each line item and if you are not sure about something, call and ask the builder. Good builders are always happy to clarify and help you understand the details of their proposals. And be  wary of any builder who does not provide you with a detailed specifications document as part of his proposal.

Allowances are important, too! And they can have a serious effect on the bottom line. Generally, with true custom building, the builder provides a list of allowances for various finish selections for the home.  Allowances are common for such items as appliances, lighting and plumbing fixtures, flooring, cabinets, counter tops, exterior doors and hardware.  It is smart to find out from each builder what allowances he usually includes in his contracts and how he determines what each allowance will be.

W. Epstein Builders advises to compare the specifications of your quotes closely; and make sure the allowances are tied to specific products either as designated by the builder or specifically selected by you.

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Our Evergreen Model in St James Plantation

This is our Evergreen Model as it was being built in St James Plantation.

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St. James Builder Compares Production and Custom Builders

So you own a lot in a beautiful southeast NC coastal plantation community. Maybe your lot is in Winding River, or St. James Plantation, or Seawatch, or River Sea or Ocean Ridge or one of the other dozen or so nearby plantations. Maybe you are thinking about building in the next year or two, and you are starting to look at house plans as you shape your dream. You may have made a scheduled trip during one of the Parade of Homes tours to get a feel for the plantation southern style homes and pick up some additional ideas. But a question you might want to consider is, “Do you want to build with a custom builder or a production builder?” A custom builder offers virtually unlimited choices; whereas, a production builder makes the process easier because your choices are more limited.

First, it is important to note that because you own a lot, almost all builders will claim that they are custom builders simply because the house will be built on your land and not theirs. In other words, they are building the house you want on your property. The reason that this is viewed as custom is because the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) lists as one criteria of a custom builder is “Build on land you own.” Or in other words, the house is not built on land the builder owns. However, NAHB does concede that “Some custom builders build on land they own.” I would also note that it is fair in today’s market to say that some production builders will build one of their production houses on the lot of the person for whom they are building. That does not necessarily make them a custom builder. Who owns the land seems to be one of the least important criteria of whether the builder you choose is a custom or production builder. What truly defines a custom builder from a production builder is the degree to which the homeowner has say about what the design of the house will be and what construction and finish selections will be included in the house.

And like most things in life there is a spectrum. At the one end is the production builder who offers the buyer very few options in return for a specific house at a known fixed cost. And at the other end is the custom builder who builds for buyers who want complete freedom to make changes and to make their own choices and selections about what goes into the house. This custom builder will provide advice based on his construction knowledge and experience and ensure the house meets all required codes, but the buyers will actively participate in the decision making of each phase of the project. The benefit to the buyer is that he/she gets the house with the exact features that they dreamed of owning. The drawback can be nailing down the exact cost prior to the start of construction. Most builders who build in Southport, NC plantation communities fall somewhere in between the two ends of this spectrum.

So the question is how to decide on which type of builder to choose. So let’s look at each in respect to cost, process and time.

The Production Builder

Cost: The first consideration is cost to build. Although there are some production builders that build fairly expensive houses; in general, a production builder will be less expensive than a custom builder as long as you limit yourself to his house design and the choices he offers. If you want any changes to the  design of the house, you can expect an up charge for the cost of the added design and materials as well as a “change order” charge. The reason for a change order charge is because any changes to the production design adds time to the construction and also adds a greater chance for a mistake (which will need correcting). A production builder usually has built the houses in his collection dozens of times. Even his “new designs” are frequently simply an updated design from his portfolio. And he has usually worked to make his designs efficient to build. It is because of this that he knows how much material is needed for the house; it is because of this that he knows the exact cost of the house; it is because of this that his crew is familiar with the construction timelines and how to build the house. Therefore, any modifications (if allowed) will be expensive.


Process: You will find that making finish selections is easier with a production builder. The production builder often has a design studio where you will meet with his design consultant who shows you your choices of cabinets, counter tops, flooring, lighting, plumbing fixtures, etc. This actually simplifies the process by limiting the choices and allowing you to “shop” for myriad products in one location and within a few hours. The production builder will often offer different grades or levels from which to choose. For instance, he may have the level 1, 2, and 3 cabinets. Level 1 is included in the initial cost, whereas, level 2 and 3 have up charges associated with them. The more production-minded the builder  is, the fewer selections the buyer will have to make. It simplifies the process for the buyer and reduces the possibility of errors for the builder. The drawback is if the buyer had her heart set on some feature such as a particular tile or hardwood or kitchen cabinet or counter top, and if the builder does not offer that in his selections and will not allow substitutions, then the buyer may be disappointed.

Time: Because the production builder has standardized his procedures (similar to the idea of an assembly line) to build a specific house and because his designs  are often efficient to build, he can usually build the house in a shorter time frame than a custom builder. Also, for the buyer or lot owner, the time that they need to spend being engaged in the project is very limited once the contract is signed and the selections are made in the design center.

The Custom Builder

A custom builder works more closely with his buyers, and the buyers more actively participate in the decision making.

Cost: As mentioned above, in general, but not always, a custom house will cost more than the same size production house. Whether the custom buyer selects from the custom builder’s plan portfolio or selects a pre-designed plan from an architect or has a plan designed from scratch, the custom buyer can make changes and have the plan redrawn until it meets their needs. This adds cost. The custom buyer will also have the option of adding special features to the house such as added insulation, solar panels, reflective heat barriers, specially designed windows, etc. The custom buyer will only be limited by her budget. Because a custom house often is not necessarily the most efficient design and often includes more upper end architectural features, the construction costs of the house are usually more. The caveat is that a custom buyer may very well choose a very efficient design (and may in fact work with the builder to achieve that);and the custom buyer may be very satisfied with the builder’s standards of construction and not specify any costly additions. In which case, the custom home will not necessarily cost much more than a production home. The difference is the buyer is actively working with the custom builder, who is building exclusively to the buyer’s tastes, dreams and wishes.

Process: When building a custom home, the custom buyer will have myriad choices of what to put in the house. One example: The custom builder will usually send the buyer to a kitchen designer who will help with a custom lay-out for the way the buyer wants to use the kitchen. Cabinets are then selected from a range of styles, finishes and manufacturers or custom built. Again, the only limit will be the buyers budget. The custom buyer may very well choose modestly priced cabinetry or very high end custom cabinetry. Again the choice belongs to the buyer. The custom buyer’s kitchen design and cabinet selections are sent onto the builder who will use the information to make sure plumbing and electrical are placed according to the design. The custom process requires that the buyer meet with a variety of vendors and designers to select tile, hardwood, lighting, bath and kitchen fixtures, appliances, granite, etc. When working with a custom builder it is not usually a one-stop-design center that takes about 3-5 hours to make most selections. The benefit is that the buyer gets the house she wants with features she specifies.

Time: The entire custom building process generally takes more time from start to finish. One reason is that the design phase of building a custom home can take a few months. When building a production house there is essentially no design phase because it is simply selecting from the builder’s plans. Additional time is also needed because the house is custom. It is not one that the builder has built dozens of times. It very well may be more complex than the “efficient” design of the production builder.  And because it is custom, it often requires more attention be paid to detail so mistakes are avoided. Obviously, building a custom home with a custom builder will require more time from the custom buyer—from providing input on the design, to making selections, to being on site at certain times during the construction so any further modifications can be made in a timely way which will save expensive changes later on.

Bill Epstein of W. Epstein Builders is a custom home builder in the Southport, NC area. He works personally with his customers to make sure they get the house they want and that it comes in on their budget. However, Bill notes, “There are advantages and disadvantages to building either a production home or a custom home. It is important to understand the differences and then make a decision based on what you want for your house, what you have designated as your budget, and how much time you want to invest in the project. Building a home should be fun, and the end result should make you feel good. After all, this is your home and it is a big investment. ”


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W. Epstein Builders, Southport, NC “Building Quality Into Your Home”

Have you ever walked into a new home and said, “Wow, this is a quality home!”  You most probably have. But the questions is what is it that you see that gives you that sense of a quality built house?

Quality is such an elusive idea because it is defined differently by each individual. When it comes to homes, quality can be divided into two types: quality of construction and the quality of the finish.

The quality of construction, in general, is determined by the builder; whereas, the quality of the finish, at least in a custom home, is largely determined by the homeowner.

Construction quality is what most custom home builders refer to when they talk about the quality of their homes. Construction quality is what is behind the walls; it is what often cannot be seen; and it directly effects the integrity of the structure, the comfort of the home and how truly problem-free the home will be for years to come. Construction quality is generally determined by the builder. A builder may incorporate extra energy efficiency into his houses by using insulation with R values greater than what is minimally required by code, or by using higher efficiency HVAC systems than state code, or by including radiant heat barrier sheathing or by caulking and sealing all possible air penetration spaces behind the walls. A builder may use better lumber or stronger concrete or added structural support to his houses. A builder may focus on minimizing water issues by elevating a house to provide for better drainage, and by building a healthy, vent-less crawl space. Quality construction is the builder’s standard of construction.

W. Epstein Builders of Southport, NC suggests when interviewing a builder that you ask about his construction quality standards.  Also ask why he uses certain products and techniques. You want to select a builder who will build the house that you want and that meets your quality standards within your budget.

Builders understand the value and importance of the finish quality of a house. They realize it is the “Wow factor” of the house. And they know their work is primarily judged on the finish quality. They know the finish quality is very important to the consumer. Most builders include some higher end finishes in their homes to provide that feeling of quality. Finishes that are often deemed to be quality are features such as some brick or stone on the exterior, higher pitched roofs, granite or high-end counter tops, hardwood floors, custom trim work, wood or upscale cabinetry, beautiful tile work, high grade paint and precision paint work, large windows, and custom ceiling treatments. The finish quality captures the eye, touches the senses and, in turn, registers that feeling of quality. When building a custom home, the finishes will be the choice of the homeowner. The only limit to the finish quality will be the homeowner’s budget.

When getting ready to build a home, be aware that there are two types of quality—construction quality and finish quality. Custom builder Bill Epstein of W. Epstein Builders says, “Before you interview builders, have some idea of the quality features you would like to have in your new home. Then ask the builders about the quality standards (both construction and finish) they build into their homes. This will help to ensure you get the builder who will build your house to the quality you want and expect.”

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