Build a Custom Home in Seattle – A Real Estate Agent's Guide

So, you've decided to build a custom home or heavily renovate a house into the dwelling of your dreams. Congratulations! This is an incredible opportunity to create a special space specifically made to meet your needs.

While exciting, there are several things to consider before you begin designing your brand-new abode.

First Steps


My role as your real estate agent is to understand all the possible restrictions and know exactly how to surmount them so your dream home becomes a reality.

First, you'll need to decide on the size of your future house and how many rooms you require. Make a list of what you think you'd like; including approximate square footage or relative placement to other rooms is a huge plus! Outlining exactly what you want in your future home will streamline the entire building process, eliminating possible mistakes and misunderstandings. Your architect and real estate agent won't have to guess what you want, ensuring all your requests are satisfied in a complete and timely fashion.

Next, you'll need to figure out all the possible land-use restrictions for the lot (or lots) you're considering. Understanding these restrictions allows your agent to map how they affect your dream home and filter out parcels that won't allow the kind of customization you're seeking. Looking for a three-story home with a view? Then your custom domicile can only be built in a few areas. Many neighborhoods have CC&Rs, covenants, conditions, and restrictions that impact how architects and builders are able to design and construct new houses. While potentially confining, these regulations are easy to work within if your agent knows, right off the bat, what they're up against.

Finally—no matter your needs, budget, and timeline—you'll have to be flexible. Change is necessary, compromise is inevitable: so be open and make adjustments as they come. Who knows, you may just discover a wonderful new opportunity to enhance your house in a way you never knew you wanted!

Working with an Architect

When building a custom home from the ground up, I always suggest working with an architect. An experienced architect will turn your creative vision into reality, designing a house you'll love to inhabit.

An architect's design will always be restricted by several factors, including—but not limited to—zoning, environment, and local law. Good architects understand those limitations and know how to work within them. An adept local architect understands, in minute detail, what homeowners can and cannot do, by law, in their area. They understand what is realistic and what is possible for your land. Their keen, creative eye is a wellspring of innovative solutions that meet your needs while simultaneously conforming to local laws and restrictions.

Never forget: good design sells. Someone who can take the client's desires and design it in a timeless, aesthetically pleasing way will ultimately increase the long-term value of the overall property. A gorgeous-looking house will help your lot stand out should you ever need to sell it. It's easy to overlook the incredible value of an architect: though more costly, the long-term value pays for itself twenty times over.

The Role of the Real Estate Agent


The rare agent who understands the complex constraints and requirements of collaborating with an architect and/or builder guarantees a smooth process that blends seamlessly into wonderful results.

Many times, clients fall in love with an idea but aren't properly supported by a knowledgeable team. In this situation, a real estate agent can guide you towards decisions that make sense. They can help you navigate the process, introduce you to top professionals willing to work within your parameters, and talk you through the intricacies of building a custom home from the ground up.

Though an agent may have worked the market for decades, he or she may not have the necessary background that building a custom home demands. Most agents who deal almost exclusively in pre-built homes have never worked alongside an architect or builder, two necessary teammates when constructing any dream dwelling. If a broker isn't thoroughly familiar with all the additional considerations that go part-and-parcel with building a custom home, then a buyer opens themselves to significant liability and financial risk. The rare agent who understands the complex constraints and requirements of collaborating with an architect and/or builder guarantees a smooth process that blends seamlessly into wonderful results. An experienced real estate agent will work with you to define your desires and decide which path best brings your dream home into reality.

A Special Skill Set

Let's take a look at what an expert agent considers when helping their client build a custom home:


  • Utilization changes will dictate the size of the house you can fit on your chosen lot. It's important your agent know the differences between each city's codes. A knowledgeable broker will be intimately familiar with all local codes and work to ensure your custom home complies with the law.


  • Environmental priorities and urbanization of the Greater Seattle landscape have made the process of buying and building on both urban and suburban sites challenging. Land use constraints, zoning regulations, and environmental protections can significantly increase the cost and time involved in purchasing land; reduce the available building opportunities; and increase the overall construction cost.


  • Choosing the right site is one of the most important decisions you will make. The right lot will literally lay the foundation for your design and guide the entire building process. All potential sites require research, as each harbors their own unique set of pros and cons; oftentimes, the right property requires compromise. As your advocate, an experienced real estate agent will look at both sides, often consulting an architect and/or builder for in-depth guidance. These extensive conversations ultimately help narrow down the site selections and help us settle on the lot that is best for you.

  • No matter the location, you will be competing against residential builders, commercial developers, and existing residents who don't want to tear an existing house down.


  • Slope can greatly affect the type of house you can build, while moving or adding soil can be expensive! However, the perfect slope can create an unprecedented design opportunity a competent architect can transform into a visual work of art. Both the pros and cons must be carefully considered as you review potential properties.

  • Keep in mind retaining walls may also be required, which can add to the total cost and time of the project. An experienced real estate agent can identify this need early-on.


  • Existing utilities and those needing to be hooked up are both important factors when looking at lots and comparing their impact against your total budget.

  • Septic systems close to the city are rare. On virgin land, they can be expensive to design and difficult to get ok'd by both the city and the county.


  • Unstable hillsides, sink holes, and other soil problems can turn your dream home into a nightmare. Bedrock hidden just under the topsoil can drive up construction costs. Retaining walls and low soil permeability can further break your budget.

  • Storm water systems and drainage can be costly; always investigate the possibility during the early feasibility period.


  • Lot location will always dictate price. While a rather obvious statement, it's important to consider any and all upcoming changes in public transportation spanning the next 10-15 years. Those changes may affect your potential property and access to it, or alter the long-term viability of your intended locale.


  • CC&R's are the rules that govern a specific neighborhood, area, or development. They are often setup by a developer or the homeowners themselves. CC&R's can regulate views, tree height, and sometimes even design conformity.

  • Easements run with the land and affect the way you can enjoy your area. They can also impact the design and scope of your future home-building project.


  • Taxes and special assessments are issued by the county and can affect the long-term price of your property.

  • Are there Sewer Capacity Charges and have they gone into effect?

  • Does your potential property have a senior tax exemption?


  • Unfortunately, real life is not an HGTV show and building something for $200-a-square-foot is an impossibility anywhere in or around Seattle. Be ready to budget accordingly.

  • While exciting, building a custom home represents a very large financial commitment you shouldn't shortchange.


  • Due to natural erosion and updates to local, county, and state environmental protection measures, property lines may have moved.

  • If your dream property includes a dock, be mindful that partially submerged structures require special care of their own.

  • Frontage and determining surveys are often required so that your custom home is stationed the appropriate distance from water and on stable ground.


  • A house's location heavily influences the time it takes to acquire permits. If you're dealing with the county, you'll need add extra time to the expected completion date of your project simply to account for permit waiting periods.

  • Certain cities move permits through quicker than others, though this is further dependent on the set of design drawings and the relationships your architect and/or builder has with the city you're trying to build in.


How I Work

My role as your real estate agent is to understand all the above restrictions and considerations and know exactly how to surmount them so your dream home becomes a reality. A real estate agent with the above-outlined skill set is very different from your run of the mill broker who's only dealt in pre-built homes. Agents with these skills are much better able to serve clients looking to build a custom home or renovate a piece of property.

Agents like myself can:

  • Identify tear-downs, buildable lots, and preview property to ensure I'm not wasting your time.

  • Knock on doors or write a letters if you're in love with a potential property but it's not yet on the market.

  • Help provide necessary resources and contacts pending feasibility.

  • Utilize up-to-date land knowledge to negotiate the best price.

  • Supply a list of area comps to ensure your house supports a fair sale price should there ever be a need to sell in the future.

  • Give concierge-level service so the home-building process is seamless, fun, and doesn't feel like an extra burden.

  • Be present at all inspections, tests, and meetings plus prepare organized, easy-to-read follow-up notes.

  • Personally visit city halls should there be questions that necessitate face-to-face conversations.

  • Collaborate in a friendly, personable manner with architects and/or builders.

  • Communicate with a sense of urgency when necessary.

  • Provide referrals for industry professionals such as specialized surveyors, real estate attorneys, and environmental experts.

  • Structure contracts appropriately; give enough time for feasibility; and educate all other parties on what will help us accomplish the sale as well as what we need from them to fully realize the feasibility study.

If you're on the fence, I can help. I am happy to help you navigate the process or introduce you to builders, architects, and designers willing to work alongside you from start to finish. We can compare a resale home to the value of a custom house, long-term, and discuss the differences between the two.

Let's figure out what's best for you and develop a plan to build the home of your dreams.

Ricardo Ibarra