In this article, we are going to dissect, and define the terms Complete Build, Super-Shell, and Shell. In a nutshell, they are three different ways to build a home with a builder, each having different levels of homeowner involvement. Let’s start with the traditional “Complete Build”, and go from there.
A “Complete Build” is when a home buyer hires a general contractor or custom home builder to construct their home from start to finish. This may or may not include site work, utilities, drainage, septic or sewer installation or connection, permitting, etc.. This work can be done by the homeowner themselves, hired out to their own subcontractors, or hired out to subcontractors that the builder recommends in order to save money, or it can all be done by the custom home builder if the client decides they don’t want to deal with it. When hiring a general contractor, homebuilder, or custom home builder, for a “Complete Build”, homebuyers should be certain to ask very specifically, and thorough questions from the prospective home builders.
First, who is doing the aforementioned site-related tasks? Do you have the time and energy to take these on, or would you prefer to have them handled by the homebuilder? Keep in mind that many of your lot homebuilders do not even offer these services. Many on your lot homebuilders will tell you that they will assist you through permitting, and executing all the required site work, only to direct you to the county, or city permitting website, hand you a list of contractors to call, and simply wait for you to figure it all out. Custom home buyers should look for a home builder that understands land feasibility and permitting, and can either offer these items as included, or can prove to be helpful, knowledgeable, and willing to assist as much as needed with executing these tasks.
Once you have a decision on the pre-construction tasks, and who you want to handle them, you will need to dig deeper into the conversations with your prospective home builders to find out what their definition of a “Complete Build” is. For instance, just because a custom home plan or rendering has a nice big front porch, a back porch with a fireplace, shutters for the windows, stone columns, etc, does not mean that the base price advertised includes these items. In fact, in most cases, those items, and others are not included. Many productions on your lot homebuilders don’t even include the steps to get into the house from the garage, let alone painting, appliances, fireplaces, recessed lighting, and many other items that many homebuyers commonly assume to be included.
Once you have fully vetted your general contractor, custom home builder, or production on your lot builder, and you are comfortable that you fully understand what each home builder includes in their prices, and what they do not, then at this point, you can finally understand which builders can provide the quality and amenities that you are looking for along with a price that you can see, and fully understand. You will also weed out any potential home builders that may be looking to sneak one by you and get you to sign a contract without knowing how many of these things would be extras. If a homebuilder doesn’t say something upfront, you can bet there’s a catch. It’s up to you, the custom home buyer to ask the necessary questions to keep your custom home building dream intact, along with your budget.
Now that we’ve established what to look for in a “Complete Build”, let’s move on to the “Super-Shell Build”. Many homebuyers these days are looking for ways to save money in their home building projects. One of the ways to do this is to “self perform” parts of the home. Like site-work, self-performance can be done either by the homebuyer themselves or by directly hired subcontractors that the homebuyer then manages. This type of project saves money but certainly does take more effort on the part of the homebuyer. In a “Super-Shell Build”, the line between the tasks that the custom home builder is handling, and the tasks that the homebuyer is self-performing is drawn after drywall is installed, and before interior walls and ceilings are painted. The custom homebuyer would then take over, beginning with the painting, and proceed to finish the house themselves, or with directly hired subcontractors.
Now that we know what a “Super-Shell Build” is, how does a custom homebuyer go about interviewing the home builders that offer this type of build? One of the most important things to consider when shopping homebuilders for a Super-Shell Build is whether or not their price includes having their subcontractors come back to “trim out” the systems that they “roughed in”. For instance, a plumber that provides all the piping, valves, fittings, etc that run under your house, in your walls, and in your attic will not provide any warranty on any of those pipes, fittings, etc, if a homeowner or another subcontractor installs the fixtures. The liability is too great for them to warranty the job, as they cannot control the competency of the workmanship that follows. Same thing with electrical, HVAC, and fireplace installers. In fact, many electricians won’t even reduce the price from what they would charge to include the trim out labor, as the work was permitted under their electrical license, and they are responsible for that work, regardless of who finishes it. The only way around this is to call for an additional electrical inspection, and re-permit the home either under the homeowner’s name, or another licensed and bonded electrician. The problem with that is that you still won’t get a warranty out from the original electrician, and any electrician working after another electrician will also charge more, to cover their bases in case they find something they don’t like. All of that said, a quality home builder would price a “Super-Shell Build” to include the trim out phases of the 4 major systems in the house, plumbing, HVAC, electrical, and fireplaces. This way the homebuyer can finish out their project without worrying about these essential items.
Another major question to ask about a super shell build is how much assistance will the homebuilder provide after their scope of work is complete? Many production on your lot builders has been known to tell you that they will help you out while you finish the home, only to let assumptions creep in, and get contracts signed. Then, once their scope of work is done, the homebuyer finds out the hard way that their definition of helping you out is to give you directions to the nearest Home Depot. It is imperative that people searching for on your lot custom homes with a super shell build process find out exactly what type of help the builder will give them, once they take over finishing the home. Quality home builders will offer access to their vendor base, subcontractors, and possibly most importantly, schedule maintenance assistance. Schedule maintenance assistance is essentially the builder taking the information that the homeowner gives them, putting it into an online construction schedule, and sharing that schedule with the homeowner. This way, the homeowner can see what should be coming next, and who needs to be contacted, at what point. It is only as good as the information that the homeowner provides, meaning that if the homeowner provides unreasonable dates for completion of tasks, the schedule can’t fix that, however, it allows the homeowner the vision to see down the road, and give themselves the best shot at running a successful construction schedule on their own. The builder essentially provides a dynamic schedule template that the homeowner can use to understand how to go about ordering the work to be done, and what should be expected for normal timelines. Homebuyers should insist that their homebuilder provide this type of schedule maintenance assistance when looking for a super shell build, homebuilder.
Now that we know how to save a little money, and what to look for in a super-shell build, let’s talk about how to save a lot of money in a “Shell Build”. A “Shell Build” is one where the home builder constructs the outside of the home, including the foundation, framing, roofing, siding, exterior windows and doors, gutters, garage slab, and garage doors. Decks, steps, sidewalks, porches, and patios are typically not included in a “Shell Build”, but can easily be added. This type of build removes much more of the builder’s profit margin from the equation, allowing the customer to save the most money, however, does require much more coordination on the homebuyer’s part. The same types of services and assistance discussed previously with super shells should be the target of anyone looking to build a shell with a custom home builder. Although by far the most work for the prospective homebuyer, it is also the biggest bang for your buck, and if the homebuyer is working with a custom home builder that doesn’t turn their back on them as soon as their scope is done, it can be the most rewarding too.
Homebuyers should consider their personal time and responsibilities, along with their budgets when considering a shell, or a super shell as a custom home building option. For those with limited budgets and big dreams, it could be true that the road less traveled may be the right one for you.
Below is the typical life-cycle imagery of a Shell, from foundation to weatherproofing. (More images coming soon)