World of Cambridge design center

A variety of faucets help homebuyers decide which combinations work well together at Cambridge Homes' World of Cambridge design center in Elgin. (Lake Christiansen/Chicago Tribune photo / April 1, 2010)

Like "linoleum," "escalator" and "zipper," the term "semicustom house" infiltrated our language as a marketing term then stuck like caulk to a contractor's boot.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary still does not acknowledge the term. ("Semiantique," "semi-ionic" and "semi-infinite," yes. But "semicustom house," no.) Meanwhile, it has become the norm in new-house building.

It was not that long ago that new homes came in three varieties: production (tract), semicustom and custom. The custom builder built a house on the buyer's lot and worked with the buyer's architect. The production builder offered an off-the-rack house on a lot he had purchased. It came in Exterior A, B or C and gave the buyer little wiggle room on interior selections. The trade-off was a lower cost, which the builder passed on after buying building products in quantity. The semicustom builder was the happy medium, offering a greater range of floor plans and a host of product choices.

Now, few builders call themselves production, said John Wozniak, homebuilder and president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago.

"Even large builders that would have been called production a few years ago call themselves semicustom now," he said. "Most of the builders in the (association) will at least change the floor plan, even if the foundation stays the same. Then they offer lots of finish and product choices. For our kitchen cabinetry, for example, we offer 20 stain colors, six wood types and 10 door styles."

Unlike the production builder, said Wozniak, the semicustom builder allows the buyer to incorporate products beyond the builders' samples.

"Buyers get on the Internet and find something they really want," he said. "Then we can incorporate that."

The semicustom builder already has worked with the architect to design houses that suit the municipality's building and monotony codes. They adhere to its setback, height and mass restrictions.

"So after you figure out what location and school district you want, the builder has already done that homework for you," said Wozniak.

If he is a veteran builder in town, he has befriended the gatekeepers at the building/zoning department and knows how to work with them to OK his buyers' blueprint changes. Thanks to the slowdown of homebuilding, said Wozniak, builders can usher changes through quicker because the city officials are not swamped like they were during the 1990s building boom.

"Now they're processing 100 instead of 1,000 permits, so they have time to meet with us," he said.

The semicustom builder also takes into consideration resale value of the house, added Wozniak.

"He's building a house you'll be able to sell in that market when you're ready to move," he said.

Although many consider the custom house the gold standard of the industry, it is not for everyone.

"We wanted new construction but didn't want to deal with things like permits, especially because we were transferring in from Kentucky," said Veronica Ortiz-Chadha.

She and her husband, Sameer Chadha, worked with Neil Fortunato, of Green Building Technologies Inc. in Highland Park, to complete a house Fortunato had begun in an existing neighborhood in Highland Park.

The first- and second-floor layouts were what they were looking for, said Ortiz-Chadha. They worked with Fortunato to design the deck and the floor plan for the finished basement. Ortiz-Chadha said they knew Fortunato was the right builder for their family because of his focus on energy-saving building methods and products, which has kept their utility bills "amazingly low."

"I made several trips up to the area to go to showrooms," said Ortiz-Chadha. "But I was overwhelmed by some of the choices. I got a headache looking at all the tiles at the tile store. So for some products, Neil helped us by narrowing down our choices. He chose samples that would work with the style of the house, and I chose from those. By the time we chose the cabinetry, appliances, flooring, tiles and finishes, though, it was like a custom house. We had everything the way we wanted it."

Although many homebuyers feel frazzled at the end of the home-building process, Ortiz-Chadha found it rewarding. "I'd do it all again," she said.