Clients deserve a straight answer, but getting it requires an honest conversation
Some builders and realtors often market homes in terms of square-foot costs, but that approach can be misleading for a custom home. Sam Rashkin, founder of the Energy Star for Homes program, expressed this idea forcefully at a recent industry conference. "If you put 100 of the smartest people from the building industry in a room for a week and asked them to come up with a worse metric than cost per square foot," he said, "they wouldn't be able to do it."
Rashkin was talking specifically about energy-efficient, healthy, and durable high-performance homes—the kind built by today's best professional builders.
It's no mystery why so many homeowners latch on to this metric, however. It's an understandable shortcut people use to try to understand what they will be getting for their money. As builders, it's up to us to provide that understanding.
Some builders simply reply that square foot costs depend on what you want. That's factually correct—custom homes are by definition unique, so the final cost will vary with the details. But the answer is incomplete in that it doesn't address an important underlying concern.
Yes, people want to know if they can afford a given builder, but they also want assurance that the builder will be a good steward of their budget and their vision. That's why a professional builder will view this question as a conversation starter. This conversation is an opportunity to demonstrate our respect for their cost concerns, perhaps by showing photos of completed homes and sharing the final prices of those homes. But we also need to go deeper.
Part of the custom builder's job is exploring the client's vision and budget to help build the best house they can afford. Having a collaborative team involving an architect alongside the builder allows everyone to be working to the same design, quality and budget goals for the benefit of everyone. It lays a foundation for each aspect of the team to be working toward a common goal. We often see that working together allows for some "out of the box" thinking on materials and finishes, landing in a place where all parties are excited about the final outcome. The variables are nearly infinite, but a talented team can maneuver through them while keeping the client in mind.
Besides fleshing out their needs and wants, we also must understand the clients' budget. If they have a particular cost target in mind—say, a 3000-square-foot home for a specific price per square foot—we seek to understand what design and products realistically reflect their goals as well as tradeoffs they may want to make.
The conversation is also a chance to clarify the clients' notions of square footage. Do they assume it includes only heated space or does that number include porches, a garage, hardscape or landscaping? How about site preparation costs that are needed prior to building? Structural, permitting or design fees? There's no standard way of calculating the cost of a home that easily with so many variables, so a reputable builder will work to discuss each aspect to give a more complete and accurate price as the assumptions are created and reviewed with each client to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Ultimately, what most people want is assurance that they can trust the builder. One way a good builder earns that trust is by investing the time and effort needed to understand all the variables involved, then using that information to calculate an accurate price. Clients deserve nothing less.