Greg: Welcome to this edition of the Houston Custom Home Builder podcast series brought to you by Houston’s leading luxury construction team, Morning Star Home Builders. I’m Greg, your host, and for today’s episode we are joined by two of Houston’s best-known and most-accomplished custom and luxury home builders, Ted and Yvonne Cummins. Nice to speak with you both today, how are you?
Ted: Good morning, Greg.
Yvonne: We’re doing great here in Houston.
Greg: That is wonderful to hear. Last time we talked, you promised me you were going to take me through the process from beginning to end, over the course of weeks and months, of building a new home with you guys. I think that you might have indicated that the very first step you like to take is picking out a lot, picking out a location for the property. Is that correct?
Ted: Yes. I’m kind of a chronological thinker, and in over 16 years of doing this I think it makes a lot of sense for people, as we often get a phone call about “Okay, I want to build a custom home. Should I work on a plan first or should I pick a lot to build in?” We always say, “You want to focus on the lot first.”
Greg: That brings up a couple of questions for me because I have two children and I would be concerned as a potential client with both the kind of house I wanted but also the lifestyle that I wanted. I’d want the right lot to fit in with the way I want to live, but I also want the right kind of house. How do you all work that, that sort of combination of desires that a client brings to you?
Yvonne: Good question, Greg. A lot of our clients do come to us with that consideration, as far as their children, and obviously that’s a huge concern. You want to look at lots or neighborhoods that are within a school district that you’re after or if you’re planning to do private school, that is a consideration as well. I think other things to look at as far as specific locations are amenities.
If you are a person that likes to walk and there’s walking trails in the neighborhood, I think that would be something that might draw you to that neighborhood. If you’re a golfer and you want to live on a golf course, then that’s obviously a consideration as well. Community pools, playgrounds, those sorts of things are things that I think that especially families really consider.
We also maybe suggest that if you’re still struggling trying to figure out what neighborhoods to begin to work a matrix, and what I’m meaning by that is you may list all the various things that are important to you in your selection. Maybe it’s the school district, the amenities, maybe ease of access, maybe you’re someone that flies out of the airport three times a week, then you need to be able to get to the airport quickly, property taxes, cost of the homeowners association fees. All these things go into a matrix, and then I think that can help our clients make their own decisions.
Greg: Do you find that a lot of clients come to you already having a pretty good idea of this matrix or where they might want to live or do you guys end up doing a little bit of education on the front end? Not only what kind of lot would be best for the house but which kind of neighborhood that they might actually want to live in, whether it’d be Willow Creek Ranch or I think you all mentioned Blue Jack is coming online here soon, maybe that’d be a good fit. How much help are you all on that end? Are you more concerned with getting the right lot for the right house?
Yvonne: We do both, and it depends upon where the people are in the process. Lot of empty-nesters come to us and they’re like “The kids have moved, they’re done with college, we want to do something different, we just don’t know where we want to do what we want to do.” We have a lot of conversations with them and working through this matrix and asking them questions about how they will continue to live, eventually is this going to be the grandma and grandpa house and they want the grandkids to come visit them or do they plan to travel extensively and so their needs are different, what are their hobbies, will those hobbies impact where they want to live, will that also impact the design of their home?
We have a client we just spoke with that has a home business, and so that was part of the conversation about even where to be because of considerations about what neighborhoods would allow there to be a home business in their home.
Greg: Is this a discussion that typically happens before…? It sounds like it. It sounds like you’re telling me that you pick the lifestyle or sort of put that together and then go out either mentally or physically and pick the right neighborhood and the right lot and then the house comes to fit the lot.
Ted: Yes. Again, like Yvonne has commented on before that she’s a great person, I’m learning to do better, of asking questions. We really want to understand a need and then help meet that need. If we do get somebody coming to us, and it happens frequently, we have been in the area for a long time, okay, what areas are that we could even build a custom house in. A lot of the production communities or master planned communities, very few of them have a custom section, so you’re really looking at custom communities only, and so we sit down with them and actually look at it on a map and saying, to Yvonne’s point, where do you have to commute to, what school district they’re in, are there private schools in that area, and help them, provide information, so they can narrow down where they want to go.
Generally, I suggest to, on their own go out and look at lots, and then once they’ve narrowed down the community and a few lots, then I actually will go out and walk the lot with them to give them input of what might be a more expensive lot to build on versus another one. For example, if the lot has much slope on it, obviously that’s more expensive because we’ve got to bring that up to level. We did one recently, and just because of the amount of slope that was on the lot we spent $20,000 just in dirt work, and then we spent another $30,000 in retaining walls just to give us a level area to build the home on.
Greg: Oh my gosh. Okay, wow. I’m not as familiar with Houston as obviously you guys are. What kind of topography are you dealing with? Are you working in a big enough area that you get a lot of flat lots and a lot of lots with hills, it just depends on which community you’re in? Is there one kind of topography that is more prevalent in your marketplace than maybe another?
Ted: Traditionally, Houston’s relatively flat, but the neat thing about the Northwest area, Cypress, North Harris County, Southern Montgomery County areas, they’ve got a mixture of both. Willow Creek Ranch is a community that we’re building frequently in. Most of those lots are pretty flat. Some of the lots that might be closer to the lake might have some water, flooding issues in heavy, heavy rain, so that’s another consideration we haven’t even talked about.
Ted: We would make sure that we would build a pad up to make sure that the house would not be flooded. We just had recent rains this spring, and so we made sure that the pad was up high enough and the house had no issues with that. We’re in another community I’m at a ranch where there was slope, and that’s where the house was at that I was referring to that we spent quite a bit of money on the pad and on the retaining wall.
Greg: Okay. Let’s say that, again, I’m the client and we’ve worked through some of my lifestyle issues and you helped me pick a lot, what would be the next step? How do we make sure that the lifestyle issues I’ve talked about actually translate into a house that fits the lot? It needs to all fit together like a big puzzle. How do we get there?
Ted: Again, it’s about asking good questions, so what size of home are they thinking that they want to build, are they looking for a one story, they looking for a story and half or two story. Obviously, a one story in it’s nature, and most of the houses we build start around 3,000, 3,500 square feet, they’re going to be obviously a certain size, width.
We can turn around, and that’s the beauty about design build, and we’re going to talk about that a little bit later, is making sure we design something to fit on that lot. As long as the lot is pretty average as it relates to certain widths and depths, we can design about anything. We’ve actually put a 10,000 foot house on a more residential lot, it was a custom neighborhood, and it was on an acre of ground. It was 10,000 living and 15,000 under roof.
Greg: Oh, wow. Okay. Do you have a general lot size that you all find works best for your clients and your creativity in the neighborhoods you work in?
Ted: I’d say most of the communities that we’re in as it relates to acreage, they’re going to be a minimum of a half acre and up. There is a neighborhood that we’re also building in called Leland Shores, which is a more in-town community, a little bit closer to the freeway, and they have widened their lots, they have golf course lots, and they have taken those lots and added width to them, so that makes them a little bit easier to build a custom home. Back to deed restrictions, a lot of these communities require side-entry garages. Because of the nature of a design with a house with a side-entry garage, you need a little bit more width to be able to do that swing-in garage, so a half acre and up, generally a little bit easier to design something that people are going to want to live in.
Greg: What do you do if someone comes to you and they haven’t quite taken your chronological approach and maybe they come to you what you would consider out of order? I’m sure that happens sometimes, people are partway through the process…
Ted: That’s never happened…
Greg: Right. I almost believed that. How do you pick the lot out going backwards? That’s got to be a tough job.
Ted: It can be a little challenging. A story that comes to mind is actually our personal home. We picked a community that we wanted to live in, yet we worked through that matrix of where we want to live, ease to the freeway, restaurants, amenities, this is actually a golf course community, and all that.
As we were looking for lots, we found a lot, but as more I researched it it was a leftover lot in the community and the reason it was a leftover lot because it was just a very odd shape. Luckily, because we’re design build, we designed what we referred to as a side-courtyard living home and it fits perfectly on the lot. Most other people had passed on the lot because they could not figure out how to put a house on it. The great thing about design build, again we’ll talk about it later, is that we really can design about anything to go on any lot if we have some flexibility with the homeowner.
Greg: Wow, okay. You’ve talked about design build a couple times. Why don’t we come back on the next episode and actually talk about what that means, design build. What it means, what it means to the client and the best way to go about that. As we’re wrapping up talking about lot selection, if someone’s interested, and either they already have a building lot or they don’t have a lot, but either way they’re interested in talking to you guys, what’s the best way to reach you?
Yvonne: They can go to our website, homesbymorningstar.com, or they can give me a call at 832-304-2310. I’d be happy to have an initial conversation with them and find out what their needs are and how we could best meet them.
Greg: That sounds great. Ted and Yvonne, thanks so much again for this episode, and we’ll be back with the next one and sounds like we’ll be talking about the design build model.
Ted: That’d be great. Thanks, Greg, for your time.
Yvonne: Thank you.
Thank you for joining us on this episode of the Houston Custom Home Builder podcast series. If you have any questions or would like to contact us at Morning Star Builders, you can find us on Facebook and you can always visit our website at homesbymorningstar.com, we appreciate your time with us today and look forward to bringing you another episode soon.
*This podcast series is recorded and produced by Greg Fleischaker, Realtor, technology and MLS expert in Louisville, Ky – all content and rights belong to Morning Star Builders.