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Building at the Beach: Five Valuable Custom Home Building Lessons

By Karen Tyrrell

It took 762 days from land purchase to move-in. 762 days. That sounds like a long time – and it IS a long time! In those 762 days…..

  • We sold our home of 15+ years (which we loved) saying goodbye to the best neighbors ever
  • Moved into a less-than-optimal rental situation
  • I went back to work
  • We experienced a global pandemic
  • And, most devastating of all, we lost a family member far too young to cancer….

To say these past two years have been stressful would be a gross understatement, but we made it. There were times I felt like my whole family hated me since taking on this project was all really my grand idea; the kids were miserable in the rental, we seemed to hemorrhage cash with every decision. I was busier than ever and not as available to my family due to the totally unforeseen hot real estate market triggered by COVID, which was both a blessing and a curse. So, my pants fit a little tighter (okay – a lot tighter) and I have more gray hairs…who cares? (I totally do but that’s not encouraging to you readers.) I’m still here, and we are all so very happy, and I’m working out regularly so I’m sure things will get under control again here shortly.

If you read my previous posts, you would know there are a few changes I would have made in the process. Now, looking back, I can safely say there are, like, a few hundred changes I would have made. That said, I thought it would be helpful for other novice home builders to summarize a few of them. Let’s be clear – I could make this a very long and painful read, but I believe these to be the most helpful points to drive home.

1. Bring in Your Designer at the VERY Beginning

First and foremost, get a designer involved from the very beginning – one who is well-versed in home building, understands your style, and clearly communicates how they work. This designer’s relationship with the builder will prove critical. I cannot stress this enough (hence the bold print). The two will need to work hand-in-hand to make your vision come to life.

Some folks don’t need a designer involved in the home design and want them to simply stick to interior design. Some folks only want designers involved in the overall floor plan and not the interior decorating. We had ours do both since I wanted the flow of the house plans to jive with the overall feel of the home.

I regret that I did not involve the designer at the same time we got the architect involved. Had I done so, we would have avoided several issues with the floor plan that we are not currently totally in love with. My advice? The sooner you have your interior and exterior materials picked out with (or without) the designer, the more accurately the builders can bid the job, so:

  1. Way in advance of the plan finalization, meet with the designer to nail down what aesthetic you’re going for.
  2. Take designer with you to pick stone for bathrooms and kitchen, set trim design expectations.
  3. Look at cost of faucets and other fixtures.
  4. Look at sliders and French doors to get ideas of quality at different price points.
  5. Check carpet and wood floor pricing, tongue and groove pricing for patio ceilings, and paver pricing for outdoor spaces.

2. Bid the Project AFTER You’ve Made Selections

This brings us to bidding the project. Seek bids from 2 or 3 builders whose completed projects you have seen in person. Our builder built homes for five of our friends and we were impressed with their results. But did we have materials and appliances picked out for a superbly accurate bid? Mmmmmm…no. We were new at this whole game, and we had a vague idea of what we wanted (which we discovered wasn’t crazy helpful). Did we know it would take builders one month to get their bids to us? Not at all. Did we realize that some folks go into this with literally all finishes chosen ahead of time? No way. That concept was totally foreign to me. I imagined many of the rooms and materials taking shape as we moved through the design process, and I was totally uninformed about the pricing of appliances, lighting, stone, tile, and trim work. This threw some of our budget numbers off and I found I was having to make cuts in one place to get exactly what I wanted in others.

When people tell you that you’ll go at least 25% over budget, believe them. It hurts. And to add a special twist, we had some fun COVID surprises like the skyrocketing price of lumber and other materials as well as exorbitant labor costs to keep us on our toes. In the end, we had to make some concessions. It’s fine. I’m cool with it – not bitter at all. And that’s how I’ll segue into money!

3. Understand Your Budget Prior to Takeoff, and Review It Often

Everyone has a budget. EVERYONE. So don’t let anyone make you feel bad for wanting to stick to a number. The savviest investors and businesspeople have budgets; it’s irresponsible not to have one, so stick to your guns here. When meeting with your builder, ask them these super important questions, don’t be bashful:

  1. Do you have a monthly budget meeting?
  2. Do you keep meticulous records? Can I see them?
  3. Are they willing to get bids from and work with contactors outside of whom you usually work with?
  4. Is there a site manager? What’s his fee?
  5. Do you operate on a Cost Plus model or Flat Fee? Is that negotiable?
  6. If I have a relationship with a flooring guy, painter or roofer I like, can you use them instead of your go-to contact?

Have all this spelled out clearly in the contract. Decide the intervals between money discussions so you know where your money is going. When I asked other friends who have built custom homes what their main beef was with the build, every one of them mentioned “change order costs.” A change order is any modification or change to works agreed in the contract. There can often be a fee associated with time and effort to make the change or modification, in addition to the actual cost of the material or labor associated with that change.

These change orders are often the biggest drivers in budget busting in the form of those “surprise bills” you get at the end of the project from the builder or contractors. As often as you can, get the exact price of the change in writing, materials and labor, to avoid those surprises.

4. Investigate Planned for Subcontractors

One other detail mentioned as a point of contention by several folks I spoke with – establish who the builder works with and look at what those contractors have done. We did encounter this in our project in the form of the landscape design.

We really felt we had no choice in who we used for landscaping and that turned out to be a huge issue down the road. We really wanted one company to do the work and the builder had a long-time relationship with another company and that was that. The company was certainly capable of doing good work, they just didn’t provide a plan or rendering in advance, so our landscaping is being completely redone as a result. Lesson learned!

5. Plan Your Interior Design Budget Into the Overall Budget

Lastly on the topic of budgets is interior design. It is typically estimated that interior décor runs around 10-12% of the build cost. So, if you’re building a home for $500,000, the interior design costs could be $50,000 to $60,000 – think window treatments, furniture, rugs, decorative lighting. However, if your design aesthetic and square footage remain about the same from one home to the next, this may not apply to your project; it’s most definitely something to keep in the back of your mind.


All in all, are we happy? Absolutely. We searched for a long time for a large lot with a southern exposure, a water view, and close proximity to the beach, our friends, and work. We are thrilled to be in our home, to have our family come visit with plenty of room, and the ability to walk to the beach. I have made friends through the process, gained a wealth of knowledge in an area where I had very little, and overall am thankful for the experience.

As much as I complained to my friends, family, and co-workers throughout this project, it was well worth the stress and struggles. It’s kind of like labor – you forget about the pain in the end when you see that beautiful final product of all your hard work – though not as instantly.

“It’s kind of like labor – you forget about the pain in the end when you see that beautiful final product of all your hard work – though not as instantly.”

– Karen Tyrrell

Building at the Beach Series:
Building at the Beach: Introduction
Building at the Beach: Bidding out the Job
Building at the Beach: Choosing a Designer
Building at the Beach: Let’s Talk Landscape
Building at the Beach: Interior Hardware

About the Author: Karen Tyrrell is a REALTOR with The Volen Group, Keller Williams Luxury International in Ponte Vedra Beach.  As a 14+ year beaches resident, Karen is dialed in to all the area neighborhoods, schools, beach clubs, and community activities and is also a Nocatee Certified Agent.

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