Photos by Hillary Ehlen
Sketches provided by Benjamin Custom Homes
We’ve watched HGTV, we’ve created mood boards on Pinterest and we’ve, of course, carefully perused the pages of this very magazine to gather dream home inspiration. With such access to options and styles, many homeowners are attracted to the idea of going the custom home route, starting from scratch and having a hand in every step of the home-building process.
But where do you even start? Sure the idea of a custom home sounds great, but that certainly sounds like a big undertaking for a novice homeowner. If you’ve ever considered building a custom home, or are just curious about the process, this series is for you. Join Evan and Becky Muller as we follow them from beginning to end of all that goes into creating a custom-built home.
This month, get to know the couple, learn about the pre-approval process, see how they selected their lot and dive into how they chose what builder to go with.
Meet the Mullers
Evan and Becky Muller are high school sweethearts from the small town of Wessington Springs, S.D. The couple moved to Fargo in the summer of 2015 for an internship of Becky’s and when that led to a full-time job after her graduation, Fargo became home.
Currently, Becky is a Commercial Interior Designer at ICON Architectural Group and Evan is a Financial Planning Analyst at Aldevron. They initially intended on Fargo being a brief interlude, but as they now both have jobs they love and are happy with the community here, they’ve decided that their “five-year-plan” of living here is now a forever plan. And with this plan to plant roots in the area, they’ve decided to embark on building a custom home.
When they first moved to Fargo, they settled in an apartment. However, when they were told that their rent was going to go up a significant amount, they decided that a better use of their money would be putting it towards an equity-building mortgage, instead of rent. With that decision, they purchased a twin home that they have been living in ever since. However, as they have made the decision that this region will be their long-term home, they are now ready to move into a property that’ll allow for the eventual growth of their family and a more personalized feel.
Since Becky is an interior designer and works in the industry daily, the couple had a head start in what to expect and what they wanted out of this process. With this background, a custom home just made sense for the Mullers.
One of the first steps once they decided they wanted to build a custom home, was getting pre-approved by their bank. During this process, they learned just how much they could afford, an important step before even looking at property options. Before the Mullers made any big decisions, they went to get pre-approved by their bank First Community Credit Union.
Those who have never been through the pre-approval process and are not familiar with the concept might be intimidated at the idea. To be pre-approved for a mortgage means that the bank or lender has looked into your financial history and has determined how much of a mortgage you can take on, or if you are even suitable for a mortgage. Debt to income ratio, credit history, outstanding debt, bankruptcy history and current income all get factored in. In this process, the bank or lender can also offer advice on how you can get to where you want, based on your ratios.
“It seems like a very scary topic, but it’s not. I think the main reason it seems so scary is that when it comes to finances, a lot of people don’t necessarily understand them. It’s a difficult subject to talk about and it’s not necessarily a fun subject to talk about,” said Evan.
Since Evan and Becky are not first-time homeowners, they knew a bit about this process already. The couple shared that during their first home buying process, they knew the amount they were pre-approved for their first home, so they came in knowing they’d be pre-approved for the much smaller price point of a lot purchase. The Mullers opted to go with the bank they already had an existing relationship with for this process. However, it is not uncommon for people to shop around for a bank they feel most comfortable with before making this big decision.
“All it is is a conversation. Going to the bank and saying you’re interested. It helped me to understand what it is we can afford or cannot afford and what we can do to afford it,” Evan said. The couple agreed that step one is to establish a relationship with a bank and step two is to just ask questions. No one goes into the process knowing everything and the bank doesn’t expect you to either.
The Mullers agreed that the most important part of this step of the process is just starting the conversation with your bank. Just because you start the conversation does not mean you’re already locked into anything. The bank is here to help you and if you ever feel that they are not, it is a good time to step back and reassess your relationship with them and whether or not you want to consider a new bank.
After they knew they what they could afford, it was time to decide on where they wanted to build. The family began looking at properties in Horace and Kindred, attracted to the price of the lots and the smaller-town feel. After looking casually, they came across a new development in Kindred that was perfect for them. “We fell in love with Kindred right when we saw it. It just felt like home,” said Becky. With a population of just under 800 people, Kindred is much smaller and quieter than Fargo, but the drive into the city is less than 30 minutes.
Evan added, “To have that space to be able to disconnect from the hustle and bustle. […] It reminds us of home, the values we were raised on.”
The lots they were interested in were affordable and selling quick. Evan and Becky weren’t initially in a hurry to start building, thinking they might find the land, pay it off and build on it when they were ready. But with the lots they loved moving fast, they knew now was a good to begin the process.
With their Realtor Mari Santoyo Perry of SoliMar Real Estate – BHHS Premier Properties, they purchased the lot they had been eyeing. The earnest money for the lot was put down in June and they closed on the property at the end of this July.
Choosing the Builder
Once they were pre-approved and had a lot ready to go, it was time to select a builder. Fargo-Moorhead has a plethora of custom home builders, making this decision a bit overwhelming. The Mullers gathered some suggestions from their Realtor and shopped around, meeting with a number of builders. However, nothing felt right until they were recommended Benjamin Custom Homes.
What made the home builder decision process unique for the Mullers was Becky’s industry connections. As a commercial interior designer, she has access to discounts and special offers with suppliers of flooring, countertops, tile and more. With such unique relationships, it would be foolish for the couple to not take advantage of these money-saving connections. However, some of the custom builders they met with had contracts that did not allow them to honor these offers.
But when it came to meeting with Benjamin Custom Homes, they were more than happy to work with Becky and her contacts to give the couple their vision, and at the right price. “They were really excited. When we met with them I already had a floorplan ready and I showed it to them and was like, ‘can we do this?’ And they were so excited about it!” said Becky. As she designs spaces as a career, Becky had a good idea of what she wanted her home to look like and how she envisioned the layout. “It was a really good first impression and connection and it felt right,” she said.
“I think the biggest thing with Ben [Anderson] and his team is they are just really friendly and welcoming and warm. They wanted to showcase as much as they could to give us an idea of their quality and what they can do and what you can look forward to when working with them,” said Evan. At one point early in the process, they were even invited to company founder Benjamin Anderson’s own newly built home to explore some details and see what all was possible. The ability to be shown options and reasonings behind options in such a personal way really appealed to the Mullers.
“We also were looking for someone who was a little more personable, in the way that they don’t build 80 homes a year. But they know who I am, everyone in the company knows who we are and they know our house. It’s closer-knit,” said Becky. When going to build a custom home, they wanted the process to be tailored and hands-on, not just another project the company had to get finished. They are happy with their decision to have Benjamin Custom Homes build their home and are confident that they will provide this level of service they desired.
Beyond their industry expertise and personability, the Mullers enjoyed that the Benjamin Custom Homes process was not going to be too overwhelming. Becky has her home inspiration Pinterest board shared with the team at Benjamin Custom Homes, sharing with them aesthetics and details that she is drawn to so that they know what types of options to present to the couple. Starting on this basis, they are not beginning at square one, but rather the Benjamin Custom Homes team knows their tastes and style and won’t overwhelm them with hundreds of options.
As they’ve checked off the big essentials in the process, the couple is now beginning to narrow it in some. Right now in the process, they are finalizing the floorplan and ensuring it will work structurally and within their price point. As they work side-by-side with Benjamin Custom Homes in this process, they put down a design deposit, so that the company can ensure their time is covered. A design deposit is standard in the industry and this design fee goes into the total cost of the project.
As they work together, Benjamin Custom Homes offers up suggestions on how to cut costs in certain areas and how to achieve efficiency. Becky noted that some of the suggestions they offered up will end up saving them thousands of dollars and are things that the couple never even considered. “They really keep the budget in mind. They tell you if they think you’re getting too carried away. They don’t try and skyrocket your house price so that it will be better for them, it’s all about you,” said Becky.
Right now, they are working together to estimate the cost of goods, entering new territory as they estimate the discounts that Becky will receive through her job. As this is uncommon ground, they are taking their time and being aware of the fluctuations and adding that into the budget.
This month we met the homeowners, covered bank pre-approval, selected the land and chose a builder. For our second phase, the Mullers will discuss exterior renderings, product selections and the bidding process. Stay tuned and get excited to follow along with the process of what it takes to build a custom home, from ideation all the way to moving in.