Building your dream home from scratch is a daunting task, especially if you’ve never worked with an architect, builder, and design team before.
To make the project a little easier to wrap your head around, here’s some advice from construction professionals.
Do your research
The building process isn’t short, so make sure you are happy with your team – you’re stuck with them for a long time.
This requires doing a little homework.
To start the building process right, you’ll want to do the following:
- Conduct extensive online research to make sure you’re using a reputable builder
- Get referrals from friends and family
- Look at examples of the builder’s current work
Nikki James, studio manager at Ashton Woods, a builder and design studio constructing homes in the South and Southwest, recommends visiting a builder’s model homes and those under construction.
It’s fine to even be a little sneaky, says Jesse Fowler, president of Southern California-based Tellus Design + Build. Pop in at a construction site unannounced to see what the job site looks like. Workers not wearing hard hats or lots of garbage on the ground are red flags.
Ask questions (and more questions)
You need to understand the parameters of what the builder is doing for you, advises Roger Kane of Kane Built Homes in Massachusetts. And you get that information by asking questions. Make sure the builder can execute what you want, because not all builders can accommodate custom designs.
One of the first things you should do before meeting with your team for the first time is to identify what you don’t know, and then eliminate that doubt.
If this is your first time building, there are probably going to be a lot of things you don’t know, and that’s fine, Fowler says. There are no dumb questions.
Here are a few starter questions:
- What exactly are you paying for?
- Do you need full architecture/design/build services, or do you just want a blueprint?
- How much time should you allow?
Know what you want
“Design inspiration can come from anywhere,” says James. She asks her clients to bring in plenty of pictures, scraps of fabric, or anything that speaks to their aesthetic.
The first thing to do, Fowler says, is to figure out the look and feel that a customer likes, and weed out what they don’t like.
It’s also important to know your limitations, though. James warns that you must make the structural selections for your floor plan before picking design elements so you know what you can and can’t have. For example, if you want a freestanding tub, you will first need to know if you have the right plumbing for it.
An architect wants to know how you’re going to use your home, advises Kim Nigro, the architect at Chicago-based Studio Nigro Architecture. Tell your architect what you don’t like about your current home, and what your day-to-day needs are.
This can be as simple as letting them know you shop at Costco a lot, so you want a big pantry, James says.
The details matter
You probably never thought about what kind of grout you want between your tiles. But these are the kinds of decisions you will be making.
Ashton Woods gives its customers a checklist for details like this, and there are a lot of specific items on it, from what kind of edge you want on your counters to how many outlets and phone jacks you’ll need.
This sounds overwhelming, but Kane’s advice is to just take it room by room. Start out with the basics. Determine how many bedrooms and bathrooms you need, then go inside each room and think about what should be in it.
“Make a list,” he says. “‘We want hardwood flooring; we need his-and-her closets.’ Make your own little notebook and just address every room. That’s a great way to start.”
Know your budget
The harsh reality is that you can’t buy something you can’t afford. So, do your math, and be upfront about your budget.
“Not communicating a clear budget to a designer is a mistake,” Fowler advises. “Designers need something tangible. If you let them go wild, 99 times out of 100 they are going to do something you can’t afford.”
There are good reasons not to pinch too many pennies, though.
As the saying goes, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” You probably shouldn’t go with the cheapest guy out there, Fowler suggests. A lot of builders, he says, cut corners by doing things illegally.
Don’t get roped into a mess like that. Saving a few bucks now might end up costing you more later.
James recommends doing things exactly the way you want them from the beginning, because remodeling later will cost you more money and more stress.
“We see a lot of buyers getting nervous about spending too much. As people get closer [to finishing], they wish they had spent that extra money,” she reports.
Spending more for quality products is another big consideration. Kane uses sustainable products for the exterior of his houses that last “pretty much a family’s life in a home – 30 to 40 years.”
That’s good for the environment and your wallet, because regular maintenance like repainting the outside of a house can cost $15,000.
The biggest mistake Kane, a veteran homebuilder, has seen homeowners make is being wishy-washy with their decisions.
Once a home is under construction, it’s important to have made all your major design selections.
“Paint color’s not a big deal,” Kane says. “But you should have things like all your tile and granite picked out.”
Why? Because at this point in the process, your selections could be backordered, and waiting on them is costly to the builder and to you.
If you do tend to change your mind a lot, make sure you pick a builder with a good warranty program.
Communication is key
One core piece of advice from construction professionals: Keep the lines of communication open. The biggest mistake you can make, says Fowler, is leaving gray areas in your building and design plan.
“I’ve heard horror stories, and most are because one party’s expectations were different from the other’s,” Nigro states. “The more developed drawings can be, the fewer assumptions the contractor will have to make.”
And it’s not only important for you to communicate to your design team. The members of your team need to be on the same page with each other as well.
“They need to really create a collaborative team,” Nigro says. “There are a lot of decisions to be made.”
Fowler recommends getting the whole team together to meet each other and start working collaboratively from the start. Most times, he says, architects, designers, and builders who work in a community have met and done projects with each other before.
Consider the trends
More homes across the country are being built “healthy” or “green.” These are homes built with non-toxic, natural products and materials.
Nigro says she used to recommend healthy building to her clients, and now people are coming to her asking for it.
Another trend sweeping the nation is “mother-in-law suites” or homes that accommodate multi-generational families.
Over the past five years, a lot of Nigro’s clients have started looking down the road to when older relatives might move in with them, or maybe their adult children will move back home after college.
This could mean a separate apartment over a garage, or maybe a guest bedroom on the main floor.
Why are trends an important factor to consider? It could help you sell your home in the future.
“It’s important for us to personalize your home and make it yours and something that you’re proud of,” James remarks.
If this means having a full basketball court right on the main floor next to the dining room, like one of Nigro’s customers wanted, then that’s what you should have!
Custom features can range from practical to fantastical: Fowler has had clients ask for water pipes over their nightstand so they wouldn’t have to get up for water in the middle of the night; “living walls” (walls with plants or grass growing right on them); hidden cameras; and even an unexplained hole in the closet floor.
Hey, it’s your dream house, after all.
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