BUILDER recently spoke to Thom Cunningham, vice president of Crescent Communities, about incorporating custom-built homes into a master planned community. It’s a practice that Crescent executes in its Oakland Park community outside Orlando.

The community currently has approximately 250 completed homes, about 100 of which were built in the last year. Its current makeup is about 20% custom and 80% pre-designed. When fully built out, the community will have about 775 homes.

This custom home built by J&J Building is one of many in Crescent Communities' Oakland Park.
This custom home built by J&J Building is one of many in Crescent Communities' Oakland Park.

BUILDER: Tell us a bit about your Oakland Park community and which builders are involved.
Cunningham: Oakland Park is a 258-acre master-planned community in Winter Garden, Fla., about 15 miles west of Orlando.

The community is a neotraditional plan and all the homes fall within five architectural styles that were popular in Florida during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The land plan encourages a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere with abundant sidewalks and green space, and every home is required to incorporate a large front porch allowing residents to enjoy the Florida weather and interact with neighbors.

We currently have six builders - custom builders RCB Homes, J&J Building, and Vintage Estate Homes, as well as conventional builders Ashton Woods, David Weekley Homes, and Dream Finders Homes.

B: Why does Crescent invite a variety of custom builders into certain master-planned communities?
C: The original vision of the project was to mimic the communities that have grown over time and feature a variety of home designs. Incorporating custom homes into a master-planned community is a key component of achieving greater product diversity. Many people associate large-scale new-home communities with cookie-cutter homes and limited choices, but working with custom builders allows us to stand out and cater to a wide range of buyers.

We have found that many home buyers who have specific needs want certain features and specifications that pre-designed builders do not offer, and a buyer that desires a greater amount of design freedom is better suited for a custom product.

B: How does Crescent select the custom builders it allows to build in a particular community?
C: All of our builders must go through an extensive interview process, which includes a thorough financial check and review of customer references. Integrity of product and service is the most important quality we consider, so we must be highly familiar with a builder’s work before engaging them.

When it comes to building a product that aligns with the Oakland Park brand and aesthetic, we typically find that a high-quality custom builder can easily adhere to our architectural guidelines.

B: How does Crescent manage each builder’s timeline as part of the overall community schedule? I can imagine there are a lot of moving parts.

Thom Cunningham
Thom Cunningham

C: For our communities with both custom and conventional builders, such as Oakland Park, home sites are segmented by builder type. We typically reserve the largest home sites and premium lots – such as those on a corner or with lakefront views – for custom builders. This allows for variation in the makeup of the community, rather than a specific area designated for one type of builder.

Most of our conventional builders complete homes in three to six months, while custom builders complete homes in nine to 12 months, which includes a few months for preliminary designing and planning.

As a developer, we sell finished lots. Therefore we are able to exercise some control by price and pace with which we sell and deliver lots. Also, our contracts with builders incorporate minimum timeframes for construction commencement and completion to control the number of vacant lots in the community at any given time. Bottom line, we enjoy great relationships with our builder clients and our motivations are mutually aligned to execute on a great community for the end-user.

B: Are there certain buyer types Crescent hopes to attract with these communities?
C: In our master-planned communities that offer both custom and pre-designed homes, we typically find that custom homes are a better fit for buyers who know exactly what they want. Their must-haves are non-negotiable and go beyond common amenities like an eat-in kitchen, open layout or a spa tub in the master suite, which are features a traditional builder can offer.

Custom homes are also an ideal option for aging or disabled buyers who have mobility and access needs, so they can tailor the home for their needs.

And most of the time, buyers of custom homes have a larger budget. In Oakland Park, our custom homes start at a higher price per square foot than pre-designed homes. Most custom homes have prices that start in the low $500s, while conventional builders start in the high $300s.

B: How much leeway does a custom builder have on a home’s floorplan and appearance?
C: Inside the homes, custom builders have complete control. They are able to work with home buyers to customize every aspect of the floorplan, from the layout of the kitchen and living area to the size, number, and placement of bedrooms, linen closets, and guest bathrooms. Custom builders also have the freedom to incorporate whichever special features the buyer desires, whether that means a state-of-the art media room or a spa-style meditation room.

In Oakland Park, custom builders, like J&J Building, have complete control inside the home.
In Oakland Park, custom builders, like J&J Building, have complete control inside the home.

On the outside, builders must follow specific architectural guidelines that help maintain a cohesive aesthetic throughout the community. In Oakland Park, our builders can work with any of the community’s five architectural styles, as long as they meet certain design requirements for features like window placement, front porch dimensions and fencing.

We also require our builders to meet environmental and energy-efficiency standards set by the Florida Green Building Coalition.

B: What are the challenges in incorporating custom builders into a master-planned community?
C: Certain home buyer requests can sometimes be challenging for the builder to meet while also adhering to the community’s architectural guidelines. However, we’re often able to come up with a creative solution.

As an example, one Oakland Park home buyer requested a fully-equipped chef’s kitchen with a double range in the exact spot of where a window needed to be. The custom builder was able to use a faux window to maintain symmetry on the home’s exterior, without compromising the buyer’s request.

Additionally, from a business standpoint, a custom builder typically takes longer to secure customers, and due to the involved design process, the time from lot sale to home closing is significantly longer. Careful management of lot offerings to custom builders is a must to integrate them successfully. If you don’t have a commitment to custom builders and the diversity in product and price that they bring to the community, it can be a very challenging proposition.