This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of 425 Business.

If no homes on the market suit your needs, build your own

The words “custom home” often invoke images of a Gatesian mansion, complete with interactive art, an artificial salmon stream, a 20-seat home theater, and a beach with imported Caribbean sand.

A made-to-order home doesn’t have to be grandiose, however. In fact, experts say building a custom home can sometimes be cheaper than buying a house in a typical subdivision.

“I’ve never turned down a project because of size or budget,” said Vassos Demetriou, founder of Kirkland-based Demetriou Architects. “We can design a custom home of any size.”

As the economy recovers, the number of custom homes being built nationwide is rising toward pre-recession levels. Custom homes accounted for 25 percent of single-home construction starts at the end of 2014, the highest since 32 percent in 2009, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Western states have been slow to follow this trend, the NAHB noted. While 43 percent of 2014 single-family starts in New England were custom built, only 18 percent in the Pacific region were custom builds. On the Eastside, that lower number can be attributed to an inventory squeeze and high construction costs. Our region had the highest median price per square foot ($159) for custom-built homes in 2014, the NAHB reported.

A custom home, as defined by the NAHB, is one built for owner occupancy, as opposed to being built for sale, on the owner’s land with either the owner or a builder acting as the general contractor. On the Eastside, vacant property is expensive and rare.

20151202_DemetriouArchitects_0121“Maybe in the Tri-Cities or somewhere, you can find a buildable lot for 50 to 80 thousand (dollars). In King County, you’re not going to find it,” said Tod Sakai, owner of Sockeye Homes, which has designed and built numerous custom houses on the Eastside.

A more financially viable option might be to demolish an existing house and rebuild. Sakai estimated about 80 percent of new homes his company builds involve demolition.

Buying with the intent to demolish has its drawbacks, though — an owner purchasing a home plot exclusively for the land must swallow the cost of the house. For example, if an owner pays $785,000 for a lot and home valued at $400,000 and $385,000, respectively, the price of the house is lost when the dwelling is demolished. “The $385,000 just dissipates,” Sakai said.

For many, that makes remodeling their current home the most prudent choice. All things considered, paying $500,000 for a custom remodel can be cheaper than buying property, demolishing the existing structure, and building from scratch.

If you know the type of house you want, it’s wise to check for zoning and building-code restrictions, as well as setback requirements and utility easements. The Puget Sound region has stiff environmental restrictions and poses tough engineering challenges. Major changes to your home might require separate city and county permits. “There are a lot of check boxes,” Sakai said.

Not sure what type of home you want? Firms such as, Edsel Breland, and HousePlan DesignWorks sell generic home plans sorted by square footage, number of floors, and other features. These generic plans range from $600 to more than $3,000, and some can be customized for an extra charge.

Or you could hire a firm such as Demetriou’s to help you design and build or remodel your dream home from scratch.

“We start from the beginning, with a blank piece of paper,” Demetriou said. “We meet with a client to really understand their personality, their lifestyle, and their taste.” Demetriou has designed a house for former Seattle SuperSonics forward Detlef Schrempf, for example, that had an underground basketball court. Another client’s house features a professional recording studio.

Demetriou thinks in terms of space and use. What is the purpose of a particular space? For instance, does a child’s bedroom need a study desk, or is homework typically done in another part of the house? The answer begins to shape the vision of the bedroom.

“It’s sort of a puzzle you put together,” Demetriou said. “There are two parts to successful design — the functional and the aesthetic — the two must mesh.”

Photo by Terry Rishel

Photo by Terry Rishel

If you do self-design and build or remodel, most experts advise consulting with an architect, builder, and/or a general contractor at some point in the process, preferably early given the thicket of building regulations.

Two of the most common mistakes with custom homes, according to experts, are acting as your own general contractor and trying to save money by paying for substandard home plans and materials. General contractors are like football coaches. Their knowledge of all facets of construction — structural challenges, building materials, electrical and plumbing, permits and local codes — combined with long-term relationships with vendors and subcontractors makes them an asset in coordinating a home build.

Demetriou said that besides the time for permitting and design, it takes an average of 18 months to design and build or remodel a custom home. His firm specs every aspect, down to the style of doorknobs and light switches. He advises clients not to worry too much about resale value. There’s usually someone who will like the house as it is, he said. And if they don’t, they can start their own custom remodel.

Ultimately, he said, a custom house should fit your taste, lifestyle, budget, and standard of quality, like the custom-sewn suits in his native Cyprus.

“Tailored to your personal size and taste,” said Demetriou. “That’s the definition of custom.”