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Ten most important things to consider when building a house

If you love a project, build a house.  It is  the mother of all projects, and as with any big project there are lots of things to consider, review and coordinate. Believe me, it can feel endless and overwhelming.  To help you make sense of it all, I’ve put together the list below.

1. Design

If you are planning to build a house you will need a design. There are basically two routes to finding a good design. The first is to find an architect or designer that you like, the other is to shop for pre-drawn house plans online. Design is very personal and what works for your neighbor may not be right for you. Listen to your gut and find a designer or plan that feels like a fit. If it’s not a fit, you will likely always feel that something is out of whack.

As an architect I would like to say that everyone should hire an architect to design their home, but the truth is that hiring an architect may not be the right choice. If you are looking for something uniquely yours or have unusual site constraints, hire an architect. Otherwise, you might find that a pre-drawn plan will fit the bill or a plan drawn by a draftsperson will fit the bill.

Historically, pre-drawn plans have been what you might call “awful” from a design point of view.  That’s changing though and I like to think it’s because architects are starting to get into the game.  Historically, architects didn’t touch the pre-drawn plan/stock house plan market.  Not only because the market was flooded with ugly, but because a house without a site isn’t a full design, and it’s seen as a kind of a taboo amongst architects. Some of us are getting over that.

It’s possible to design a home and not be an architect.  Typically, someone like this might call themselves a home designer or a draftsperson.  There are indeed some good and accomplished designers, but as you would with an architect – do your homework and interview them to see if you get along.  It’s also a good idea to review past projects and talk to their clients.

In the southwest, we have a style that some of us who are more snarky refer to as ‘Taco Bell’.  It’s like you imagine, a faux style that people from other parts of the country think should be built here because it’s “southwestern”.  Unless you have money to burn, BEWARE of style! Just like fashion, it will go out of style.  Look for solid design meant to last generations.

2. The Ground You Build On

Whether your site is the middle of an urban neighborhood or in a rural area, make sure the location is right for you.  This might seem obvious, but sometimes our heart decides before our head.

If your new home will be a second home out in the boonies away from all kinds of services and you will only be visiting on the weekends, that’s one thing.  But, if your new home is far from everything, and it’s your year round home, it may be worth asking yourself if living an hour from groceries is for you.  I’ve heard of people building dream homes and then selling within a few years because the lifestyle was better in their minds than in reality.

Do this:  Hire a soils engineer, also called a geotechnical engineer.  Just do it!  It’s great insurance.  Not only will you find out about the ground under your new home, you might even avert disaster.  It’s also possible that you could save a little on foundation costs if your soils turn out to be exceptionally strong.  Soils engineers can tell you not only about the strength of your soil but if your soil is freakishly weird and what kind of mitigation would be required to deal with that weirdness.  Better to know upfront on this one, and yes, I speak from experience. No one ever said finding a river running under the site during excavation is a fun thing.  Note: Soils can be unpredictable and a soils report = peace of mind.

Think of additional structures you may need and how they might fit on your site. A garage, shed, carport, playhouse, garden or pool will take space. Best to know what additional structures might be in your future so that you are sure you have enough room and can reserve a spot.

3. Codes and Laws

Like it or not your new home will be required to meet codes.  The law of the land is the international residential code.  It is issued in three year cycles, and your local jurisdiction may not be using the current version because of their own review cycle.  I encourage you to build to the current version however, because eventually your jurisdiction will catch up and why be illegal sooner than you have to?  Of course, you will be grandfathered in, but it’s important to recognize that the code is only a minimum standard. This is especially true with the energy code, it is probably the fastest moving target in the code update process right now.  It’s wise to exceed the energy code by A LOT, it will mean a better built home and one that can be sold as code compliant in the future.

Before you do anything, visit your local building department.  Find out what the zoning and code requirements are for your property.  It’s also good to get to know the people in the department and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Generally, building officials aren’t nasty, they are just doing their job and it’s good to understand what their job is so that come permit time the sailing is as smooth as it can be.​

4. Landscaping

Landscaping is one of the items that tends to fall to the bottom of the priority list because it can always be done later. When money is tight, as it often is in a building project, landscaping is usually the last thing on everyone’s mind. The fact is that landscaping can go a long way to helping your new house feel like a home. Getting plants in the ground, with irrigation if you need it, is the finishing touch to a project. If money is tight, consider starting with smaller plants, even if they look tiny today they will be bigger next year and the year after that. You may actually save money by growing them to the larger size you might otherwise have paid for.

5. Aging in place

Most of us would like to age gracefully and die at some far off date. We imagine living in our own homes and never having to move to a place that offers assistance. For some of us, that fantasy isn’t reality because most homes aren’t designed for aging in place. A home that is built for aging in place is easy to navigate and is in a location that makes the daily experience of living easy, or a least doable. Examples of easy navigation include a house without stairs, and doorways that are wide enough to let a wheelchair through. Things that are external to your home that make living easier might include being near a bus line or other forms of public transportation, being near shopping and entertainment, and having helpful neighbors. Simple things can make a big difference.

6. Size Matters

Houses come in all sizes from big McMansions to tiny little huts. Most of us don’t need or want either, rather it’s somewhere between. Of the two extremes, there is a lot to be said for building a smaller home. On the practical side it costs less to build smaller. That means that being a slave to the mortgage will end sooner and it might also allow you to buy that nicer lot that you’ve had your eye on.

7. The Gobs Of Money You Will Spend

Building a house is expensive.  If you want a well built house, WHICH YOU SHOULD, plan to spend some bucks.  Generally, I’ve seen two approaches on the money thing.  One is the bleeding money approach and the other is the keeping it in check approach.

Typically the bleeding through the nose approach is characterized by Owners who haven’t done enough homework.  ​This is usually people who aren’t clear about their budget and people who don’t understand the process.  If you think you might be one of these people, I encourage you to dive into learning all that you can about the home building process, it’s the only way to really keep it in check.

You can hire a great team and tell them to keep it in check, which they will work hard to do, but ultimately it comes down to the decisions you as an Owner make.  A lot of people are prone to boneheaded decisions when it comes to their home, putting money first into finishes rather than infrastructure.  They don’t fully realize the implications or the costs of decisions and make fairly blind choices.   ​

Each construction project is unique and things don’t always go as planned. Consider holding 10% of your total budget out of the “house budget” for the unexpected. This will give you some cushion and if all goes well it is 10% in your pocket.

8. Find a Good Team

A good team is probably the most important thing for a successful project. A good team will certainly include your contractor, it can also include designers and engineers. Make sure that you are comfortable with all team members and they have the right experience to build your new home. Interview several team members to find the best fit for you. Get recommendations and trust your gut.

9. The Clock Is Ticking

Patience, Grasshopper.  

Building a home takes a lot of time.  The process might easily take a few years from the sparkle in your eye to turning the key in the door.

10. Energy Efficiency

It is just as easy to build for energy efficiency as it is to ignore it. Homes that are energy-efficient save you money every day and are more comfortable to live in. Terms to look for when searching for a plan include net zero energy (a house that makes as much energy as it uses over the course of a year), high performance, and passive house.

Building an energy efficient and durable house costs more money…initially. However, spending money up front for good materials and a good builder who understands how they should be put together will save in fewer repairs down the road. A durable house that lasts 100 years is a sustainable house.

11. Bonus

This may not seem like a bonus, but it’s offered in the spirit of one. Ask yourself if your marriage or partnership can handle a project this big.  With endless decisions to make, money on the line and schedule over runs, building a home can get stressful. Make sure you have a solid foundation, that you can discuss money issues openly and that you have mutual regard and respect for each others decision making ability.