Renovation & Design

MIKE HOLMES: Custom homes usually worth the extra cost

Postmedia/"Don't expect custom quality in a production-built home," like this one, says Mike Holmes.

NOT all new homebuilders are the same. They all build new houses from plans, but there's a big difference between custom homebuilders who may do a couple of houses per year and a production homebuilder who will build hundreds.

It's an entirely different reality.

Custom homebuilders will build unique houses from a set of plans made just for your home. They build one house at a time and work with a small crew and regular set of subtrades -- sometimes the same team for years.

A custom home is going to cost more money, period. Even a small one will, since it's unique, designed and built to your specifications and finished the way you want.

A production home is one built in high volume, as you see in a typical subdivision. They cost less, generally, which makes them more affordable, and are great for people to get into a first house. There may be three or four different designs you can choose from, but there are hundreds of that style of home built. They are built from stock plans, with minor variations in floor plans offered, as well as some upgrades and options in finishes.

Production builders are able to save money, due to the huge quantity of materials purchased, and in labour costs. They give you a limited selection of house designs to choose from, and that reduced choice helps keeps the process cost- and time-efficient.

With so many houses being built at the same time, there are cost savings to be had. Prices of the homes drop below what custom costs, in the same way a car built on an assembly line is cheaper than one that's handmade by a team. Construction is standardized and it's faster and more efficient.

But sometimes building this way loses sight of quality construction; fast and cheap doesn't usually add up to good. When volume builders start to spend more money on customer service to satisfy deficiencies, then you have to ask if those cost savings are so wise.

Production builders' houses are priced lower than custom homes of the same size, which makes their profit margins narrower. And they have to work really hard to be cost-efficient and protect those narrow margins. Materials that are used are standard -- minimum code and legal -- but not necessarily the best choice to make your house stand up over a longer time.

Their trades are paid based on volume: on the number of homes they work on. It's mass production, as on an assembly line.

In my opinion, this is not the best way for trades to work. Often, they're racing to get as many houses done as they can and they will often end up working against one another. A framer isn't going to be looking out for the HVAC people, plumbing guy or drywaller who's working behind him.

They are just trying to make money, so they need to get it done as fast as they can before they move on to the next house. What I'm seeing is that they don't care about the other guy or how it affects the project overall. It's a twist on the old expression "mind over matter," but, in this case, the guys act as though they're thinking, 'It's not mine, it doesn't matter.'

And, in the end, let's not forget it's your house. You and your family are going to be living in it for years. It should matter. It should be built with care and attention.

It's not as if they're working together on a small crew; they might not even meet during the development's build. The quality of the home suffers. It's piece work and, to be honest, I don't think the trades are treated with respect when their work is seen that way.

Building a house is something we take completely for granted, because so many houses get built every day. A Boeing 747 costs around $200 million. It has six-million different parts and fasteners and takes a highly-trained team weeks to make. That's not much different from what we do when we build a house. There are literally millions of parts and dozens of skilled workers who come together to construct the average home.

Minimum code is the standard for all new-home construction. That's the law and the standard that production houses are built to, in structure, envelope, mechanicals, etc.

For the most part, when homebuyers get the chance to upgrade any features on their new production home, they can upgrade, maybe on windows, on quality of exterior brick veneer/cladding, and on the interior finishes, such as tile and counters -- the lipstick and mascara. Some production builders include sustainable elements as a selling feature -- usually something like bamboo flooring or low-VOC paint -- to keep up with the latest green building trend.

But you can't upgrade on the bones of your house: the structure, the insulation, the building material. You can't choose to use fire-resistant and mould-resistant framing material or mould-resistant drywall.

Shouldn't we have more choice in products that are used behind the walls in production homes? This is where a homeowner's real cost savings are.

Catch Mike in his series, Holmes Inspection, airing Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HGTV. For more information, visit For more information on home renovations, visit


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