Is building a custom home right for you?

By Amy Newman

Whether it’s a gourmet kitchen, a grand entrance with a sweeping staircase or a hillside view home, most people have designed their dream home, if only in their minds. But when does building a home from the ground up, versus buying an existing home, become the right choice? We talked to the experts to find out what you should consider before turning your dream home into a reality.

Money matters

Like most things in life, building your dream home hinges largely on one important factor – money.

“It’s the dream killer,” says William Merriman, principal/owner of William Merriman Architects LLC in Anchorage, of the money required to build a custom home. So be honest with yourself, the architect and the builder about what you can realistically afford. “If you can’t settle that, then it’s probably not a good idea to embark on what is the most expensive endeavor of your entire life.”

High-end custom homes generally cost more to build than traditional tract homes, says Josh Sundstrom, owner of WillowRidge Construction in Anchorage. In addition to the cost of hiring an architect or design specialist to draft plans for the home, the finishes and materials usually fall on the higher end of the scale when compared to the builder-grade materials standard in most tract homes, he says.

Those financing their home with a bank loan should be prepared to possibly dip into their savings, he cautions.

“A lot of times the homes that we build can’t appraise for the cost that it takes to construct them,” Sundstrom explains. “Appraisals are made on comparable sales in the neighborhood, not on what goes into the house.”

Since financing is based on the home’s appraised value, the client must make up the difference between the loan amount and the actual building cost – or forfeit the dream.

While custom builds are often associated with large, expensive homes, designers can create anything from a traditional ranch to multi-level homes designed to complement the property and incorporate unique features, such as a wine cellar or man cave. So the size of the home and the specific features you’re looking for – in addition to being clear about your budget – can keep the dream within reach.

And not everybody building a custom home is going large. Catherine Call, owner of Blue Sky Studio in Anchorage, says she’s seen a growing number of people, especially older people, “looking for less space, but nicer space.”

The luxury of time

Alaska’s remoteness is one of its biggest draws. It’s also a huge drawback when building a home.

“Alaska is unique,” Merriman says. “It’s not an easy place to build.” Frigid winter temperatures mean a short building season. Many materials must be shipped from Outside, and there’s long lead times for items, particularly specialty items, he adds.

Translation: Building a home from the ground-up isn’t something to embark upon if time is of the essence.

“It can take between two to four years to design and build a home, depending on the complexity,” says Call. “If you don’t have that luxury of time to wait for it to be done, you shouldn’t do it.”

Equally important is to consider how long you plan to live in the home and whether the design will suit your needs long-term.

“It’s such a big investment,” Call says. “Are you going to be living in this house for 20 years, or will it be a short-term investment? Are your needs going to change so much in a few years that it’s not really appropriate to make those investments?”

Merriman agrees. “It’s not for somebody that wants to build a house and then flip it and get all the value back out,” he says. “If you’re going to do a custom house, you should plan on living in it for a long time.”

Assess your needs

“The right home – a home that’s well-designed and really fits the needs of the family – can be incredibly enriching to a lifestyle,” Sundstrom says. “It can really change the way you live, and almost change the way you look at life.”

For people with specific needs that an existing home cannot fulfill, building a custom home may be the right choice, Call says.

“You might need a five-bedroom house, or you might need accessibility, or you might need to be able to walk to work,” she says.

Intangible needs can also drive a decision to custom build. People with a unique piece of property, like a lot with views of Turnagain Arm or the mountains, may want a home that capitalizes on those views, Call says. Others want to make an architectural statement with their home and have it be a stand-out in the neighborhood, she adds.

The ability to control the design of the home and create a space that’s uniquely you – everything from the size and layout of each room to the materials used for flooring and cabinetry, from the color scheme to finishes on the drawer pulls – also has its appeal and, if you have a creative side, can be downright fun.

“Everyone can live in a very average home that they make their own through art on the wall and furniture,” Sundstrom says. “But I think one good reason to build a house is essentially to enrich your life through a variety of features that this house can give you – spaces that really fit your lifestyle, and textures and materials and finishes that embrace you in a unique way.”

Building a custom home isn’t right for everyone, Merriman says. But if you have the time, budget and strong desire for a one-of-a-kind house with all your wants and needs built into the floor plans, then it just may be the right choice for you.

“It’s not an easy process,” he says. “But the ultimate goal is that when we (finish), it’s everything they wanted and more, and they’re blown away by it.”