The Big Question...
Project Builder or Custom Builder?
You've done your due diligence, your feasibility stacks up, you've gone ahead and bought a development site - and now you need to decide who's going to build your project once the Development Application goes through.

One of the first questions you need to answer in making this decision is whether you want to go with one of the big project builders, or a smaller custom builder. There's ‘pros and cons’ to both choices, so let's dive in and take a closer look.
Let's start by being clear about what the two options are. A Project Builder is large scale, often has plenty of designs and floorplans for you to choose from, and may have display homes you can walk through. Think Metricon.

Custom Builders are basically everyone else. You take your design to them and they build it for you. Think ‘John Doe’, whose team builds 10 houses a year.

The first thing to recognise is that both of them can probably build your project for you. In fact, over many projects, you will probably end up using both. The question, therefore, is which one best suits the project you have in hand. To decide that, you need to take a closer look at the pros and cons of each one.
Project Builder

With a Project Builder, you choose a standard plan that fits your block size and budget, select any upgrades in terms of finish standard, sign a contract, pay a deposit, and basically walk away. They have teams that handle everything from that point onwards. In fact some, if you involve them early enough, will also do all the work required to get your DA approved.

This can be a great option if you're time poor and don't want the hassle of coordinating various professionals. It's also fast, as it's essentially a cookie cutter approach. For basic level spec designs, it's almost impossible to beat them on price, given the economies of scale they can provide based on building lots of homes (not just yours) with the same fixtures and fittings.

As long as you use their cookie cutter, great. It's in the area of variations and higher end finishes, where you're deviating from the standard, then using a Project Builder can start to get expensive. Their system isn't designed to cater for changes, and costs can quickly escalate.

Custom Builder

While the Custom Builder sometimes has their own designs for you to build, most of the time their job is to build what you want, how you want it. It's also possible to have the Builder liaise with the Designer in order to achieve the best result for minimum spend. This is particularly useful if changes or cost savings are required along the way, allowing a lot more flexibility.

From a time perspective, you can have a Builder coordinate everything for you (similar to a Project Builder), right through to managing most of the project yourself. If you have a team of trusted experts you've used for multiple projects before, then your Builder can be another person on the team. It's up to you.

There are also a couple of more specific factors that can influence which option is better for your project.
Site Slope

Given that Project Builders use a ‘cookie cutter’ approach, one of the things they definitely want is a site which is mostly flat. Once there's slope, Project Builders are less likely to be the best choice for your project. If you're going to need extensive retaining walls, a basement, or anything other than a standard concrete slab, you're almost certainly better off talking to a Custom Builder. Sloping sites require design flexibility and that's their strength.
Build Timeframes

Everything else being equal, Project Builders can generally complete a build quicker than a Custom Builder. They have more trades on hand, they've most likely built the same house lots of times before so know how to do it efficiently, and they have a staff of people dedicated to making your project run as quickly and smoothly as possible. Having said that, Project Builders don't always include "other" works in their timelines, such as civil works or landscaping, and that can extend the timeframe substantially. Custom Builders often do include those things, so make sure the timeframes and costs you're comparing cover the same works and are as they say it, an ‘apples for apples’ comparison

Extra Stuff

These are all the things that you might need as part of your build, but aren't always included in the build price. So make sure you check your quote from any type of builder to make sure these are included. Project Builders in particular are well-known for not including many of these items in their base price. Here are some to look for:

  • retaining walls
  • fencing
  • landscaping
  • concrete works eg driveway
  • floor coverings
  • alfresco areas - concrete/tiling
  • letter box
  • clothesline

Connections

When it comes to connections, most Builders will leave these out of their quote, so check to see if they're included. If they're not, make sure you add them into your costings.

  • new sewer connections
  • stormwater civil works
  • gas connection
  • electricity supply
  • Telstra/NBN
  • other DA requirements eg footpaths, crossovers, screening etc

While every project is different, in conclusion here's a general rule of thumb for deciding which type of Builder to go with.

If you have a site that's flat, you're looking for a lower-medium spec finish and you're basically wanting a cookie that they have a cookie cutter for, a Project Builder is most likely to be cheaper and is a great option.

If you want to make a cake rather than a cookie, because the site's a bit tricky or you want higher end finishes amongst other things, then you're almost certainly going to need a Custom Builder.

Now you know whether you want to use a Project Builder or a Custom Builder, all you have to decide is which one!
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