Buying a new house means making lots of choices. But long before you choose between Roman and roller shades, you make the biggest decision: Should you buy a custom, spec or tract house? The choice depends on your schedule, budget and personality.
Typically, you buy a lot, then hire an architect to design the house and a builder to build it. But there's nothing wrong with doing this in a different order if you hire a builder you trust, for example, then ask him to help you find a lot and/or architect.
If your lot has an older house you plan to demolish, you must abide by your town's teardown laws, which dictate everything from construction noise level to the height of the new house. Many towns also have design-review committees to ensure your design fits into the older neighborhood and tree ordinances that require you to save or replace mature trees.
Custom houses come in all varieties, from prairie to post-modern, but you should have at least some cash in the bank to buy the lot first. Getting a "lot loan" or "land loan" is a high hurdle today and has strings attached such as proof of utility access.
"We could have bought a cheaper house, but we got exactly what we wanted and were able to use a lot of new green technologies," reports Jeff Fishburn of Camas, Wash. He and his wife, Lori Williams, completed the custom house they call the "Will-Fish project" in June.
"We had done our homework, so we knew custom building would be stressful and require us to be decisive," says Fishburn. "What we learned, though, is the speed at which you have to make the decisions." His advice to others considering this route: "Choose as many products as you can before construction starts. Make your specs very, very detailed so you don't leave the builder guessing. Be at the site as often as possible." The 45-minute commute from their old house during the year-long project got tiresome, says Fishburn.
But not every buyer has the fortitude to make the zillions of product, style and color decisions that custom building requires. Nor does he have the time, which takes from nine months to several years. And many cannot visualize a house from a set of blueprints.
If the custom house is a tailored suit, then spec and tract houses are clothes you buy off the rack.
The spec house is a speculative venture for the builder, meaning it was built with the intention of selling it for a profit, as-is or with minimal changes.
Spec houses are plentiful when the economy is healthy because builders can sell them quickly and use the profits to build more. But a sour economy means few builders are willing to take the spec-house gamble.
When specs are abundant, you can find one that's half-finished, so you can make the rest of the product selections yourself. But when specs are few, many builders use their specs as models so they are already dressed.
Specs come in all sizes and shapes. They befit transferees who want "new" but have little time to house-shop. And they appeal to people like Carol Smalley, who wanted to find a house quickly after a Florida vacation spawned her decision to move there from Virginia.
"I didn't want to custom build because it would take too long," says Smalley, who bought a spec house in Lakeland, Fla., from William Ryan Homes in June. "It would drive me nuts to have to pick out every little thing. I liked the choices the builder had made — even the colors." After the builder agreed to screen the patio, she signed on the dotted line.
Smalley says the builder had included many features that its competitors tagged as upgrades, such as a tiled foyer, tray ceiling and solid-surface countertop. The best part, she says, was the house already had window coverings — an expense and chore she didn't want.
Tract homes have the reputation of being off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter housing. The builder constructs these in quantity and offers Model A, B or C.
The upside of a tract house is price. The builder buys materials in bulk and passes on the savings to you. Compared to the custom-home builder, he uses more components such as staircases that are factory-made, not built on-site.
The tract-house builder offers standard amenities that are built into the price and upgrades that add to the price.
Thanks to the proliferation of home products, though, today's tract houses differ much more than did their 1950s counterparts. Also, some municipalities' "monotony codes" force builders to differentiate by prohibiting, for example, adjacent houses to be the same color. Add landscaping and a decade of growing seasons, and your tract-home neighborhood can lose its "cornfield subdivision" look while appreciating in value.
To confuse matters, new-construction home terms vary. In some areas, the custom house is an "on-your-lot" house. The spec house is a "pre-built" or "inventory" house.
To avoid the stigma associated with the term "tract," many builders prefer "production."
"Semi-custom" is a controversial term. Custom builders argue that a house is either "custom" or it isn't, but some tract builders use it to tout their floor plan and product options.
Bottom line, your decision depends on your ability and willingness to get involved in the building of your house. If your employer just gives you one weekend to choose a house or if the product-selection process makes you dizzy, then Pacific Prolific may be the homebuilder for you.
On the other hand, if you have the stamina to review 358 faucet styles, then Coastal Custom Contractor is your man.
More important, all of the above are new houses. Another option is to buy an existing (or "previously owned" or "for sale") house, which means someone else already sorted out 357 faucet styles for you.