Build Your Own House—With Control

Advice From an Architect

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

While 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. When you are unable or unwilling to make decisions, you force the builder to make them. To make sure your new home fulfills your own vision, follow the following guidelines.

Understand Your Contract

No matter what type of contract you sign, you become a party to a legal document involving a massive amount of money for the construction of your new house. By so doing, you abdicate none of your basic legal rights. Therefore, know your rights and exercise them.

Start by reading the contract and understanding it. You are paying (or will pay over the next 25 to 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 you 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!

Save on Building Costs

The average house contains approximately 1,500 to 2,000 square feet. Do you need more space than that? Why? How much more? You pay for each and every square foot of space in your house, whether it's occupied, usable, or otherwise. If the cost is $50, $85, or $110 per square foot, "extra," unused, vacant, and unnecessary areas are provided at the very same cost.

You want to be in control of building costs, but you don't want to skimp. Keep costs in perspective; for example, that cost of $10-per-thousand more for a brick you really like translates into a total cost of only $100 more when a typical amount of 10,000 bricks is involved. Do the math yourself.

Be smart. 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 wallcovering, skylights, or jazzy door hardware. Know what you like.

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, and so on. Changeable items such as finishes and coverings 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 indeed are not.

Seek some reliable outside, impartial advice—other than your father, even if he is a builder!

Be Flexible

Be ready and prepared to compromise in order to resolve situations and problems. 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 finding someone who can do anything you wish, but "anything" always comes with a price. 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. Combine that understanding with natural elements (e.g., site conditions, weather, wood members, human foibles), and you might face situations where 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.

Keep Records

Issues not clearly and specifically noted, written, described, or shown will be interpreted by both sides. A meeting of minds must take place, where interpretations are fully understood and resolved. When this resolution does not happen, expect dispute, confrontation, pique, anger, frustration, and perhaps even litigation.

Be redundant, leaving nothing to chance. Follow up verbal discussions and instructions with written verification. Keep records and receipts; records of phone calls and all correspondence; samples you approve; sales slips; model, type, and 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 that person in exactly the same manner: have a contract and demand adherence to your schedule. Don't let a gift or a good price disrupt the project overall.

Summary of 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, tile, type of wood, siding?
  • Is landscaping included and what form does it take? 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 xyz 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?

About the Author, Ralph Liebing

Ralph W. Liebing (1935–2014) was a registered architect, a lifelong teacher of code compliance, and the author of 11 books on architectural drawings, codes and regulations, contract administration, and the construction industry.  A 1959 graduate from the University of Cincinnati, Liebing taught at the University of Cincinnati School of Architecture and the College of Applied Science & Technology at Illinois State University. In addition, he trained carpenters' union apprentices, directed classes at community education programs, and taught architectural technology for Dayton's ITT Technical Institute. He practiced architecture in both Ohio and Kentucky.

Liebing published many textbooks, articles, papers, and commentaries. He was a fierce advocate for not only enforcing specifications and codes but for design firms to engage owners in the process. His publications include "Construction of Architecture: From Design to Built," "Architectural Working Drawings"; and "The Construction Industry." In addition to being a Registered Architect (RA), Liebing was a Certified Professional Code Administrator (CPCA), Chief Building Official (CBO), and a Professional Code Administrator.

Ralph Liebing was a pioneer in creating useful, professional web content of lasting quality.