Big Sky, Montana is a growing destination for adventure-seeking vacationers, as well as full time residents looking to enjoy the outdoors and all that a resort town can offer. As fast as it’s growing, locating a property that can both meet your budget and satisfy your needs can sometimes be a challenge. The prospect of building a house from the ground up is exciting to some, yet daunting to others. Some want to be very involved, influencing every architectural angle, interior color and light fixture. Others would prefer to have options presented to them from which they can choose, putting more responsibility on the architect, builder and interior designer. Those who haven’t been through the process before often don’t know where to begin. In order to educate Buyers about the building process and dispel some of the myths, I sat down with John Seelye, owner of Big Sky Build, to learn about what it takes to build a dream home with his company.
Callie (CP): John, thanks for taking the time to share with our Buyers that the home building process can be fun and exciting, and doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it may seem. Let’s start with some details about you. Tell me a little about your company, Big Sky Build.
John (JS): I am originally an East Coaster, and I always loved to ski. After college, I moved to Colorado, but in the mid 90s, as soon as I heard they were building the tram at Big Sky, I knew I had to make the move. I moved here for the skiing, and nothing else. In 1997, a year after moving here, I started my company, Big Sky Build.
CP: Your offices are located in Big Sky Town Center. Do you do all of your building in the Big Sky Area?
JS: Almost all of the building we do is in Big Sky. And we do not only new home construction, but also any size remodel – from a bathroom update or addition to a complete overhaul of an existing home.
CP: For the Buyer that is looking for a home and hasn’t been able to find what they want, what can you tell them about where to start their custom building process?
JS: In order to make sure they end up being totally satisfied with their finished product, I recommend doing some research first with regards to the size of the home they want, the location, size of the lot, etc. When the client is working with a real estate broker, like you, they will help the Buyer narrow down where they might want to be based on their preferences. With different architectural guidelines and requirements in various subdivisions, that is a good place to start.
CP: Do you recommend they work with their broker to find a piece of land first, then find a builder, or do you think it’s better when they involve you in the process from the beginning?
JS: Once they have narrowed it down to a few lots they like, I do think it’s in their best interest to have the builder involved from the beginning. There are a lot of factors with the lot itself that can affect their overall budget, not just the price of the land. They need to take into consideration the site work, the slope of the land, whether or not public utilities are provided, landscaping needs, etc. When I’m involved early in the process, I can help with any due diligence – soil and geotech studies, lot line determinations, design guidelines, and make recommendations based on my experience in various locations around the area. There are many pieces of the final puzzle.
CP: Presumably, before you get too far along in the planning and budgeting process, these are all things that would need to be determined anyway before you can quote a price.
JS: Yes, those are all factors in pricing. And going through the pre-planning process with the client also lets us build a relationship and get to know each other. I can then give recommendations about things like an architect or an interior designer based on their “likes”. And having the architect involved early in the process, even before the lot is purchased, can also help with meeting a budget, no matter the size.
CP: Are all of the homes you build designed by an architect?
JS: Yes. At a minimum, I require a full set of builder plans, designed by a Montana-licensed architect. I’ve had people purchase plans online and want them to be modified or customized to their liking, but because of differences in structural requirements for this area, often times the end result is nothing like what they started with because so many adjustments have to be made, so the plans can even end up costing more. Some clients will fill in the “blanks” with the interior details, but most will use an interior designer on some level or another.
CP: Do you offer building packages, like a pre-designed “to be built” home, or are all of your projects custom?
JS: All of our projects are custom.
CP: You brought up a good point about structural differences. Many Big Sky clients come from other parts of the country, and even the world. Obviously, different regions have varying architectural styles, but you say that this region also requires different structural requirements in a home. Can you tell me some of the components you suggest every client should consider when building in Big Sky?
JS: Most of what we need differently in a well-designed home is related to seismic events, high winds and high snow load. We aren’t known for having large earthquakes, but even with small tremors, when building on the sides of a mountain like many homes are, we don’t want to take any chances. Another component is soil quality. We need to make sure the platform the home will sit upon is stable under any circumstance. Porous or clay-like soil can need reinforcing, which we sometimes need to do when we dig the foundation, and that adds to the cost. We always have a structural engineer inspect and certify the building site. Montana is a cold weather climate, so when a roof is designed, we want to make sure to minimize the risk of areas where an ice dam can occur. They need to be well designed and highly insulated. Lastly, how the house and home site interact with forest fire danger is a big consideration. We live in the west where fires can be prevalent, so many homes have Class A fire-rated roof systems (and some developments require it) to minimize a fire loss.
CP: What type and size homes do you build? Do you have a specialty?
JS: We have no specialties; it’s all based on what the client wants. We have done timber frames, log homes, contemporary and modern, large and small - you name it. We have a fully staffed office, employee-based job site supervisors and carpenters, plus highly skilled sub-contractors, all with a great depth of experience. My feeling is that a good general contractor will have a quiver of talent from which to choose, therefore being able to please any client.
CP: Let’s talk about timing. How long does it take you to give a client an estimate on building the home?
JS: Once a lot is identified and the plans are provided, it takes about 4-6 weeks to price out a house. The more info I have about the interior details, the more accurate the budget will be. If there are unknowns, I will include an allowance that the client can work within when making decisions.
CP: Once you have a signed building contract with a client, how long does the entire construction process take?
JS: The length of time will depend on the size of the home, but it varies from six to twenty months from the time we break ground.
CP: As we said earlier, many clients do not live in Big Sky. How easy or difficult is it for a client who doesn’t live here to keep tabs on their home construction as its progressing?
JS: It’s very easy with today’s technology. We regularly use e-mail, video conferencing and take regular photos of the home’s progress. Every Monday we send a builder report to the client. It includes a weather report, what work was completed the previous week, what contractors were on site, projected business for the upcoming week, and it includes progress photos. It helps them keep tabs on the progression, but it’s also fun and can be shared with parents, kids and friends. I will tailor the communication needs to the client. Some want to talk every week; some don’t want to be involved at all for months.
CP: What are some common myths about building a custom home that might make someone shy away from the process if they don’t know the truth?
JS: I’d say the most common myth is that the construction industry is shady and crooked. I’m sure in some areas it can be, but we have a highly sophisticated and experienced industry here in Big Sky. The client is the one who will ultimately be picking their team, so after talking with the real estate broker, and any friends or locals you know, go with your gut. The team is important, you have to trust them, and word of mouth and local reputation is going to tell you everything you need to know. Another myth is that building is stressful. If you let it, it can be stressful, but it should be fun and rewarding. If you take the time to pick the right team of people, including architect and designer, combine that with the right communication, it can be a great process and you’ll end up with the product you want. The last myth is that building is prohibitively expensive. It definitely doesn’t have to be. In fact, there are many places in the country where it is more expensive to build than here - Jackson Hole; Newport Beach; Greenwich, CT. We do have factors that affect the cost, like logistics, Mother Nature, and where many of our workers come from. However, we have been building here for 20 years so we know what to expect and it’s calculated into our costs.
CP: When a Buyer buys an existing home, there are protections in place to prevent uncovering latent physical defects within the home. What kind of warranty do your clients get when you build them a home?
JS: Montana Law requires a one year Builder’s warranty on any new home. However, we stand behind our work in all of our houses. We take care of our clients long after the house is complete because we treasure our long-term relationships. We recognize that having happy clients is a win-win for everyone. All homes require maintenance, so we want them to come to us to line up a painter, a roofer, etc. to take care of client. And most of the time they want do because they know they can trust our recommendations.
CP: After almost 20 years building in Big Sky, do you have favorite house that you have built?
JS: That is always a tough question, and I always determine that I don’t really have a favorite. Each new house I build I am always filled with excitement, I love seeing new designs. I truly appreciate all the houses we’ve built because each one is unique and is perfect for the owner. What is most important to us is that our clients are thrilled with the end product.