If you think we’re proud of our new house, you should talk to our builders, Whittle and Johnson Custom Homes (W&J). They just put us on their website.
The first Whittle we got to know was Rob Whittle of Whittle Development. He found us wandering around a parcel of land in his Buffalo Creek development. Sure, he wanted to sell us some land, but he was also a very nice guy. He’s so in love with Rockwall County that he wants to share it with everyone. He showed us several lots before we happened on to the one we bought and the one we picked was one for which he’d already had plans drawn. Still , he was almost as excited about our plans for the lot as we were.
Now that we’re in the house, he’s just as excited about us as he was the first day he found us. We had some tough days during the build, but Rob was a straight-shooter every step of the way and took the hit a few times when others might have stuck it to us. Not everybody in town is as fond of Rob as I am, but I appreciate the vision he had and still has for the area and the determination and perseverance he’s applied to making his vision a reality.
Once we were the proud owners of our pond-side lot, Rob handed us over to a couple more Whittles, Mike and Aaron. Mike is Rob’s brother and Aaron is married to Rob’s daughter. If you go over to their office you’ll find more of the Whittle clan.
There are very few lots left to build on here in Buffalo Creek, so Rob’s primary concern these days is a huge development called The Heath Golf and Yacht Club. What was nothing but some empty land this time last year now has roads, sewage, utilities and more. Were you to attend a meeting of the Heath Planning Department, I’ve heard you’d have to listen to a lot of chatter about the new development. The Whittles also have projects in Royce City and other places.
We absolutely adore our house, but you guys know I am very honest here in this space. I tell you what I love, but I also tell you what I don’t love and why. I love Rob Whittle’s vision. I also appreciate that when the results of a routine inspection came in after we’d purchased the lot said our lot might benefit from water injections for the foundation, he didn’t sweep it under the rug (which he could have done), but revealed the findings to us and split the cost of it with us. I love his enthusiasm for our area and the way he keeps plugging away at developing it, even in the face of a lot of conflict. If you Google him or Whittle Development, you’re going to read a lot of ugly things, most of which are based on mis-information. You have to have a tough skin to be a developer, that and the heart of a salesman.
I’m also fond of Mike and Aaron. How could you not like Aaron? No matter what we threw at him, and we threw a lot, he always had a smile for us – and still does. If his name were on our deed, he couldn’t be prouder of the finished product. Mike, too, is a nice guy. He works hard and his heart is definitely in the right place.
Even though I happen to be a personal fan of Rob, Mike and Aaron, I haven’t come away from our building experience with complete satisfaction. It’s not that they don’t know how to build a house. It’s that they are first and foremost a builder of spec homes and “custom” isn’t their usual gig. I’d have no problem going out and buying a house built by Whittle and Johnson, but I’d never have them custom build for me again. We know that we couldn’t have built this house so economically with any other builder, but the headaches and heartaches sure made up the difference in sweat equity.
Basics to the custom home building process like, “tell-us-before-you-spend-our-money”, seemed impossible for them grasp. We’d ask what the standard was for a Whittle home, go out and research other options, and then we’d ask, “What would it cost to do it this way?” Either they’d go ahead with it before telling us any price or they’d start the upgrade while we were still negotiating a price.
This would happen, in part, because they use the same subs for their custom builds as they do for their specs. The subs are used to doing things the “Whittle Way” and that didn’t always line up with our way. For instance, the brick layers showed up one Saturday in December and started putting down brick. Our build was the next project on their schedule, but we were still discussing ornamental treatments with Aaron. A neighbor called us and alerted us to the fact that the walls weren’t going up as we’d told him we’d planned. What a nightmare!
Another challenge was making changes. This wasn’t our first build, so we knew the difficulty of change orders, but this project took the frustrations to a whole new level. Because W&J have been using their subs for so long, the subs, like the brick layer, make assumptions about the way things are going to happen. Compound this with a lag time between when we’d tell Aaron what we wanted and when Aaron would tell the subs. Pure frustration.
Far too many times we walked into the house and what we saw going up was not what we wanted. We’d stop the sub and try to contact the Whittles. Everything would then come to a screeching halt and the sub would move on to their next project. It could take months to get a sub back to finish something. Sometimes the other subs would just have to work around a project on hold, but sometimes everything would have to stop. During one of our many complaint sessions, I was told one of the reasons we were having so much trouble was because we were interfering with the sub-contractors’ rhythms. That explained a lot, but it does not recommend W&J as “custom” builders.
Another issue was that their spec sub-contractors aren’t familiar with custom features. The builder’s tile guy is one of the sweetest, hardest working subs we had working on our house. We have a lot of tile in the house so we really got to know him and like him a lot, but Carrera marble on the shower wall with black grout and a glass tile feature, slate laid in a Versailles pattern on the patio and other custom features were either just at the edge of his capabilities or in the case of the Versaille pattern, beyond them.
Bill actually had to sit down and figure out a pattern which would properly utilize the tiles which had already been purchased and then supervise the installation. Bill is not in the tile business, but even after we googled Versaille pattern and gave it to the tile guy, the tile guy couldn’t figure it out. Our wooden stairwell with slate trim and rod iron balustrades? I don’t even want to go into the challenges we had trying to get three subs and various suppliers to cooperate with our design.
There was more – like locking up at night. It’s one thing for a builder to decide they can live with the risk of leaving a spec house open overnight. They do have insurance after all. But when clients have installed one-of-a-kind or hard-to-find features, the risk of theft and vandalism escalates. We were lucky to have befriended a guy that on most afternoons plays a late game of golf. After seeing the house wide open late in the day as he played the hole next to the house, he gave us a call and offered to lock up for us. Then, the situation repeated itself so often that he just got in the habit of locking our house up each night.
I think you get the idea. All this and more is why, even though I love the finished product, I hated the nightmare of the build. We’ve been here for three months and W&J are still working their way through our first punch list. It’s been tough; a real love-hate relationship. Building a house is always a challenge. We can tell you nightmares about the house we built in California too, but those have more to do with tree-huggers, slow-growth proponents and restrictive CC&R’s. Don’t build a house unless you are really ready for a lot of headaches. Were the headaches we had with W&J out of the norm? You’ll have to be the judge of that. I’m never, ever going to build a house again. Next time Bill suggests it, I’m going to show him this blog post and this napkin.
Come back next week and I’ll tell you about that nice guy that kept locking up our house each night and some other wonderful people we’ve met here in Buffalo Creek.