Prudent Custom Home Building

Custom homebuilders might want to think twice about neglecting basic features in homes should that property ever be sold in the future

By Andy Stauffer

Custom home building involves a delicate balance at times. The whole point of having a “custom home” is that everything is built to fit you, your family, and your lifestyle. But what if you end up selling your custom home someday, whether by choice or by necessity? This is where a little foresight and planning now can go a long way later.

When I’m building a home, my job is to help facilitate this balance, carefully taking into account the homeowner’s needs today, but also making sure the home has wide enough appeal that other folks could conceivably buy it in the future.

This might sound like a sophisticated process, but I’ll confess: I usually imagine that I’m being helped by little a cartoon angel and devil on my shoulders. The angel tells us “Make prudent choices, what if the home goes up for sale someday?” while the devil prods us with abandon: “C’mon, add an indoor water fountain and a bowling alley! You only live once!”

I often tell people that having a home built is like wading out into the ocean… you dip your toes into the water and walk in, then you’re knee deep, and if you choose, you can keep going further. It’s the same with spending money on your home: you can add more features, and keep wading deeper and deeper, but at some point—whoop!—your feet can’t touch the bottom anymore. Then you must ask yourself: “Am I okay with this? Should I keep going, or return to the shallows?”

In this regard, I’ve met and worked with clients that have two distinctly different ideas in mind for their homes. Some folks don’t want to spend a dollar more than what they could reasonably get back out of the home if they sold it a few years later. Other folks don’t care about resale at all, and won’t even bat an eye at dropping an extra hundreds of thousands more on features that they want, knowing they’re “overbuilding for the neighborhood.” Both of these are perfectly fine; you just need to know who you are and which approach you prefer.

The very first client I ever built a home for back in the 1990s was a real estate agent. He shared with me a valuable lesson I’ve never forgotten. He said, “Andy, when I bring buyers into a home for a showing, I stand quietly in the background and let them walk around, exploring the house while I listen carefully to their reaction. If we’re in a home that has some unique features, I’ll hear one of two things: an excited ‘Oh honey, look!’, or a confused ‘Hmmm… well, that’s interesting…’ as they try to ponder why a homeowner or builder added something strange or unusual.” His point was clear: if you’re trying to sell a home, you want to hear the first response and not the second.

I caution people about making elective choices that the market won’t appreciate. Sometimes I do get requests from clients for small things that there’s little or no demand for, and that’s okay. One of my clients who was a bachelor asked me to put a urinal in his bathroom near the toilet. That’s easy. But sometimes the stakes are higher: for example, in-floor radiant heating is fantastic; it’s very efficient and very cozy. But will you recoup the $20,000 premium you paid for it when you go to sell your house? Probably not, especially if comparable homes in your area don’t have it.

Years ago, when my brother first moved to Colorado where I live, I went to visit him in the rental home his family was staying in. It was a 4,000 square foot house built in 1975 that fit them perfectly except for one very unusual feature: at the bottom of the stairs, in the basement, there was—no joke—a koi pond. An indoor concrete koi pond, which, in addition to being a major eyesore, was built into the house as a structural element. There was no way to remove it without jackhammering concrete, ripping out drywall, and laying a new floor, an expensive and messy process. I’m sure the original owners paid extra for this feature, which would have been “hip” in 1975, but today it’s not only valueless but a detriment to the home’s resale value. What did my brother use it for? Nothing. It was a total waste of space. There’s not much you can do with a koi pond other than put koi in it.

There are two rules I try to stick to for unique feature requests in homes:

Rule #1: If we’re omitting something that most people would normally ask for, I’ll make it easy to add later. For example, I occasionally get requests where a homeowner says “I never take baths… can we leave the bathtub out of the master bathroom?” I’m happy to oblige in that case, but I’ll still stub out some plumbing for it so adding a bathtub down the road is easy.
Rule #2: If we’re adding something that nobody except you wants, that’s fine too, but I’ll do it in such a way that we don’t need major demolition to the home’s structure in order to remove it later.

Even if you’re planning on growing old and gray in your home that’s built just for you, I recommend you at least have the conversation about resale. Take the time to think about what it would look like if your life changes to where you need to sell. That way, if you don’t ever have to sell your house, there’s no harm done, and if you do, you’ll be glad you did.

Andy Stauffer is the President and owner of Stauffer and Sons Construction. He may be reached at
www.staufferandsons.com