Build the House You Want (and Can Afford)

Advice From an Architect

Two male builders plastering interior room of house
What if my builder does something in a way I don't like?. Photographer: Peter Cade / Collection: Photodisc / Getty Images (cropped/sized)

A builder may pour the foundation and raise the roof, but only you can make your new house a home. A seasoned architect offers tips to help you avoid costly and heartbreaking mistakes.

Your new house is an exciting, and mind-boggling experience for you; it is routine for the builder ("been there- done that"). These attitudes often tend to clash. Building your new house should not (and cannot) be a passive exercise.

A myriad of decisions have to be made, by you. Where you are unable, or unwilling to make decisions, you will force the builder to make them. To make sure your new home fulfills your own vision, follow these guidelines:

Understand Your Contract

  • You will party to a contract involving a massive amount of money when you sign on the dotted line for the construction of your new house. By so doing, you abdicate NONE of your basic legal rights; therefore, know them, and exercise them!
  • Start by reading the contract and understanding it. You are paying (or will pay over the next 25-30 years) for the knowledge of the builders -- their experience and ability. PLUS you are paying your builders a profit above their expenses. What do you expect in return? How do ensure that you get what you expect?
  • COMMUNICATE - WRITE IT DOWN - COMMUNICATE- WRITE IT DOWN - COMMUNICATE - WRITE IT DOWN. Anything you add to the house after the contract is signed, the builder will keep track of -- assiduously! Anything you delete or reduce, YOU keep track of -- assiduously!

    SEE: The Building and Remodeling Contract

    Save on Building Costs

    • Keep costs in perspective; $10 a thousand more for brick you like better translates into only $100 more when 10,000 bricks (a typical amount) are involved.
    • The average house contains approximately 1,500 to 2,000 square feet; do you need more? Why? How much more?
    • Take care that glitz and gadgets (suggested by friends, the builder, or magazines) do not overwhelm good basic construction-- don't trade them for lesser construction. Bouncy floors (where joists are stretched to the maximum) are not remedied by a hot tub, flocked wall covering, skylights, or jazzy door hardware.
    • You pay for each and every square foot of space in your house, be it occupied, usable, or otherwise. If the cost is $50, $85, or $110 per square foot, "extra", unused, vacant and unnecessary area is provided at the very same cost.

    SEE: Build on a Budget

    Check Building Codes

    • Don't expect to control the number of nails used. Do expect a substantially built house, free of defects, and in accord with all applicable codes and regulations. Require proof of such compliance (many jurisdictions issue Certificates of Occupancy) at the closing of your mortgage. This indicates accord with the MINIMUM code and safety standards.
    • Realize that some things are virtually unchangeable; they should be done properly, first off. This includes a properly sized and constructed foundation system, a properly designed and installed structural system, etc. Changeable items such as finishes, coverings, etc., should not distract you from watching for and requiring good basic construction.
    • Watch for things that are not necessarily what you want and that you will not be able to change easily or cheaply. Question things that just don't look or seem right. Most of the time they are NOT right!
    • Seek some reliable outside, impartial advice -- other than your father (even if he is a builder!).

    Be Flexible

    • Be ready and prepared to resolve situations and problems by compromising. Be aware, however, of what you may be giving up in this process -- examine and understand both sides. IS the situation worth what you are losing?
    • The builder is fully capable of doing anything (or can find someone who can) you wish; BUT, this all will come with a price -- so be careful and wary of unique, inordinate, or far-out requests, new technology, and untested materials and equipment.
    • Understand that construction is an imperfect science. This combined with natural elements (site conditions, weather, wood members, human foibles) means that things could change, must be changed, or simply exceed capabilities.
    • Flat-out errors do happen. Absolute perfection or your idea of perfection may not (and more than likely, will not) be achieved. Drastic imperfections, however, can be corrected, and they should be. It is within your rights to require this.

    More Tips and Questions to Ask >>>

    Keep Records

    • Things not clearly and specifically noted, written, described, or shown will be interpreted, by both sides; there must be a meeting of minds where interpretations are fully understood and resolved. When this does not happen, expect dispute, confrontation, pique, anger, frustration, and perhaps even litigation.
    • Be redundant; leave nothing to chance. Follow up verbal discussions and instructions with written verification. Keep records, receipts, record of phone call, all correspondence, samples you approve, sales slips, model/type/style numbers, and the like.
    • Don't allow yourself to be reduced to buying any aspect of "a pig in a poke."
    • The more time and effort spent up-front in programming, planning, designing, and understanding, as well as in establishing specifics of the project, the better the chance for a smoother construction period and a satisfactory result.

    Be Businesslike

    • Be pragmatic, and absolutely businesslike in all of your dealings with the builders. They are working FOR you; you are not seeking them as new friends.
    • If a friend or relative performs part of the work, treat them in exactly the same manner -- have a contract, demand adherence to your schedule, etc.
    • Don't let a gift or a good price disrupt the project overall.

    Questions to Ask

    • What is a good design for our needs?
    • What is a building code? Does it affect us? How does it work? What doesn't it do?
    • Who is responsible, overall, for my building project?
    • What are good sizes and proportions for rooms? What style do I want?
    • What am I really getting from the builder?
    • What problems do I have in my current house that I don't want to repeat?
    • Where can I find answers and help? How do I make my desires known?
    • What does that line on the drawing mean?
    • What is a dispute; what is a lien?
    • What are specifications? Does the builder write and provide them?
    • What if my builder does something in a way I don't like? Is the house going to be complete; will something be left out?
    • When will the house be finished?
    • What is a contract? How do I play a part in it? What does it say?
    • What is "an extra"?
    • Is that a good material, I've never heard of it?
    • Can I change things?
    • Who picks the color of the paint, wall coverings, etc.?
    • Is landscaping included? Sod? Seed? mud and rocks? Slopes? Are landscape features guaranteed?
    • What if I disagree with the builder? Can I stop the work?
    • Am I allowed on the job site? Can I inspect the work as it goes up? Can I bring someone with me?
    • I really want this ________________in the house -- how do I get exactly that?
    • I can buy the light fixtures from my brother-- but who will hang them? What do I do?
    • Should I close on the mortgage and pay the builder in full? I have several items that I don't like - must I still close?
    • Why do we have to make all these trips to pick things out?