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O.C. Register’s “Insider Q&A” with Brandywine Homes’ Mark Whitehead

Wine cellars, big garages popular in custom homes

For the past 17 years, Irvine-based Brandywine Homes has built nearly 800 homes in 25 small- and mid-sized infill communities. Though it’s a small company, Brandywine still operated like the big tract developers, mass-producing homes. But two years ago, the firm established  a “custom” homebuilding division, hiring out to build just one home at a time directly for the homeowner.

We asked Operations Vice President Mark Whitehead to explain why …

Us: What is a custom home and how is it different than a “tract” or “production” home?

Mark: Typically, a custom home is an organic process that begins with an owner and a dream. There are many different places to start, but usually it would be the future homeowner with a home site in mind, and an architect who begins to plan the home based on that particular buyer’s direction (size, bedroom count, etc.).

Somewhere along the line, a builder such as Brandywine would be contracted to come in and begin the process of permitting, specifying materials and eventually construction.

A production home, on the other hand, will be designed with a more mass market appeal and will have more typical materials and finishes. As far as cost goes, that depends greatly on spec level and what a particular buyer is trying to achieve.

Us: Why did Brandywine establish a custom home division? How is it different from before?

Mark: Creating a custom homes division was an idea we’ve discussed for several years, so when the decline of homebuilding industry hit — coupled with several custom home opportunities — the process of launching this division was accelerated. With land prices and labor costs at an all-time low, the price of a custom home in today’s market is a relative bargain.

Since our inception in 1994, Brandywine Homes has been strictly a production infill home builder and developer, producing between 25 and 100 homes per year.

Building a customized home for the homeowners’ exact standards and ideas is an art form. Therefore, we set up Brandywine Custom Homes with a completely separate staff handpicked specifically for their experience in the world of custom homebuilding.

Us: Do you see other homebuilders expanding into custom homes?

Mark: We don’t think custom home building will necessarily become a trend. Most production homebuilders tend to avoid subdivisions smaller than 20 homes, much less one-off custom homes. There is a level of care and detail that many builders just aren’t staffed for. We have always prided ourselves on our attention to detail and craftsmanship, even in our larger developments. Although it took the addition of dedicated staff, the jump into the custom homes arena wasn’t as big as one might think.

Us: Who are the clients?

Mark: Many people think that all custom homebuyers are wealthy individuals looking to build their dream house in an exclusive neighborhood filled with other custom homes. While this may be true some of the time, there can be many other reasons for a homeowner to build a custom home. Just recently, we completed a 4,000-square-foot custom home in Yorba Linda for a family who lost their home in the Freeway Complex Fire in November of 2008. This OC family didn’t want to leave their neighborhood and had insurance adequate to complete a beautiful new home to their specifications.

Us: Are these usually new homes replacing tear downs?

Mark: There are a few areas in Orange County that offer new communities with lots for sale that are intended specifically for custom homes. Crystal Cove in Newport Beach and Covenant Hills in Ladera Ranch are two good examples. There are also many older communities that have seen a new wave of construction over the last several years such as the Harbor View Homes area of Newport Beach. It isn’t uncommon to drive down a street at Harbor View where half of the homes are the original 1970s, 2,500-square-foot average homes, and the remainder are sprawling Tuscan or Cape Cod estate homes built in the 2000s.

Us: What features and amenities are most popular with customers these days?

Mark: Some of the more popular amenities that clients are designing into their homes include an extra guest room, a gym, temperature-controlled wine cellars, media entertainment rooms and oversized garages, often subterranean. One of the biggest trends we are seeing is a push for outdoor living spaces. Whether attached to the main house or set apart as a free standing structure, more homeowners are taking advantage of the great weather that Southern California has to offer almost year round. Creating usable outdoor living spaces that meld with the indoor space gives the effect of more square footage. These homeowners want living areas to flow in and out.

Us: When should customers consider hiring a custom homebuilder?

Mark: This is a very personal decision. Many homeowners purchase their parcel of land or house to be torn down and go through the whole architectural planning process before hiring a custom homebuilder. Others may have hired a custom homebuilder at the very beginning of the process – most likely a homebuilder they already feel comfortable with or have a previous relationship with.

Our goal is to get involved in the process as early as possible. We certainly don’t pretend to be architects or land planners, but we do have decades or real world experience that can give valuable insight into the planning process.

Us: What should customers look for in a custom builder?

Mark: Obviously, experience should be at the top of the list. And not necessarily just experience building custom homes, but experience in high-end materials, finishes and the ability to purchase those materials at competitive prices.

The stability of the builder is also key. It has been a rough few years for everyone in this business and the last thing that a homeowner needs is to have the contractor close up shop in the middle of construction due to financial difficulties.

Finally, customers should look for a builder they can be personally compatible with. Ask to meet the person who will be in charge of the home on a daily basis. Most clients don’t realize how much of building a new custom home is a collaborative effort. If you don’t get along with the project manager, it will be a long process for everyone involved.

Us: Is there an advantage to hiring a homebuilding firm like Brandywine vs. hiring a building contractor who does nothing but build custom homes?

Mark: Since our custom home division is staffed by experienced builders, we don’t see any disadvantages. Where clients might see an advantage is in the cost of materials. Because of our relationships we have cultivated with suppliers and vendors and the volume that is associated with our production home operation, we tend to receive the best possible pricing out there in the marketplace.