2. Definitely - interview at least three builders. There is plenty of diversity among builders. You can probably cross off the larger national brand names that were not doing customizing a few years ago. You're probably looking for a local builder with plenty of experience.
The builders will roll out a catalog or collection of photos and videos. Any builder worth his/her salt has a good dog and pony show. And, they like to show off their work. After getting wowed, you have some homework to do. Perform the due diligence, which means you want to see their license and references. If they have a web site, read the customer comments and complaints. If not, google the company name. As for solid proof of quality craftsmanship and solid construction, arrange a tour of one of their homes. Have the builder take you out to a site where one of their homes is under construction.
You can contract a buyer's agent who has experience in new home construction, though an agent is not essential. They can be helpful. For instance, finding a suitable lot, negotiating and helping you understand the building process are important. I would absolutely make sure the agent has worked for a builder and/or a design studio. Some builder representatives know home construction from the dirt up to the rooftop. Make sure you like that rep, because you will spend plenty of time with that person.
My husband and I have both worked for builders as community sales manager. The builder lived in one of the homes he built in the community. It was easy enough for the homeowners to walk down to his house and knock on the door. In my family, you'll find two builders. Both live in (beautiful) homes they built.
3. You can order anything through the contractor's suppliers. Many custom builders offer an allowance to go buy what you want in an appliance. Big builders will offer an array of options but are not likely to give you the option of providing your our own appliances. This is a good question for the builders you interview.
A good builder has a reliable list of suppliers and contractors they have worked with. They have deep knowledge of the products, too. Each builder works differently in this regard. In my many years of dealing with selecting products, I know there is an entire universe out there. If you shop on your own, do your research well and have your selection made well before the deadline to order and install. Please do not enter a contract thinking you will do some of the work. Let the pros do it. You might be the best non-pro out there, but you can delay other work. If you are good at communicating what you want, that is the best assurance the process will move smoothly - that is without creating expensive problems.
And, you have even more options these days. For instance, you likely will find a "green" builder in Jersey City. Tip: Check with your utility company to see what credits are available and note some have changed recently.
Some relevant links:
Many contractors work with subcontractors, specialists who perform particular work like installing home theaters or a hot tub. Be sure to ask.
4. The contractor can give you an idea on how long it takes from a dirt start to build a particular plan. This is critical for a smooth build: Know what you want before you start. If you make changes during the process - that costs time and money. The contractor absorbs the cost when he makes a mistake. If you decide you really didn't like Italian tile, that's your cost to rip out and reinstall something else. This is where I shout: Research please! Get your hands on a catalog, or web site before you head off to a design studio or Lowes.
If you don't trust your sense for design, please hire a professional. The builder likely knows a few interior designers.
And from the category "I've seen this horror show and barely lived to tell," do not even think about turning the construction of your home into a "family project." Experiences I've learned of are just crazy with bad results. Voided warranties and lawsuits are just the start. Delays? Plenty. If you want to make a cable show video (and pay for all of that), that's something different. My tip: Tell the brother-in-law he can help with the outdoor grill - after the house is built.
Sound complicated? Visit a few show homes. Ask questions. There is nothing more eye-opening than actually visiting a site.
Best of luck to you!
PML of Longmont, CO