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)

Congratulations on your (soon-to-be) home! While building a new house is an exciting—and possibly mind-boggling—experience for you, it is important to stay involved in every step of the process. Generally speaking, building your new house should not be a passive exercise. A myriad of decisions must be made, and they should be made by you. When you are unable or unwilling to make decisions, you force the builder to make them, and the result may waver from what you were hoping for.

To make sure your new home fulfills your own vision, follow the following guidelines for staying involved when building a house.

Understand Your Contract

No matter what type of contract you sign, you become a party in a legal document involving a massive amount of money for the construction of your new house. Therefore, it is essential that you know your rights—and exercise them.

Start by reading the contract thoroughly and understanding it. Remember: You are paying for the knowledge, experience, and abilities of the builders. You're also paying them a profit above their expenses. So, what do you expect in return? How do you ensure that you get what you expect? Expectations of all parties should be laid out in the contract.

Watch 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.

You also want to keep costs in perspective. For example, say the brick you really like costs $10 more per thousand than the standard brick. When a typical amount of 10,000 bricks is involved, that's a total extra expense is $100. It's up to you to decide if the special brick is worth the extra cost, but doing the math yourself in the first place will help you make informed decisions about your home.

Overall, be smart. Take care that glitz and gadgets suggested by friends, the builder, or magazines do not get in the way of good basic construction. Bouncy floors where joists are stretched to the maximum are not remedied by a hot tub, flocked wallcovering, skylights, or jazzy door hardware.

Comply With Building Codes

No, you should not expect to control the number of nails used in your home. However, you should expect a substantially built house that is free of defects and in accord with all applicable codes and regulations. Require proof of such compliance at the closing of your mortgage. Many jurisdictions issue Certificates of Occupancy, which would indicate accord with the minimum code and safety standards.

Realize that some details are virtually unchangeable because they need to be done correctly. 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 requiring good basic construction.

At the same time, watch for things that are not necessarily what you want and that you will not be able to change easily or cheaply. It may be able to be corrected. 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 left up for interpretation by both sides in the future. Therefore, be redundant in your record-keeping, leaving nothing to chance. Follow up verbal discussions and instructions with written verification. Keep receipts; records of phone calls and other correspondence; samples you approve; sales slips; model, type, and style numbers; and the like.

Knowing the exact details of all aspects of the building process can help you immensely. If an issue arises somewhere down the road, there will be no room for doubt or argument, and a resolution can be found quickly and without dispute.

Keep It Professional

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.

Questions to Ask When Building a House

  • What is a good design for my needs?
  • What is a building code? Does it affect me? How does it work?
  • Overall, who is responsible 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 home 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?
  • When will the house be finished?
  • What is a contract? What does it say? What is my part in it?
  • What is an "extra?"
  • Is that a good material? I've never heard of it.
  • What can I change?
  • Who picks the color of the paint, wall coverings, tile, type of wood, siding, etc?
  • Is landscaping included? Are any 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?
  • If I buy an element of the house myself, who will install it?
  • I have several items that I don't like. Do I have to close on the mortgage right now?

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.