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Build the House You Want (and Can Afford)

Advice From an Architect


Architectural Working Drawings, Fourth Edition, by Ralph W. Liebing (book cover)

Learn more about Ralph W. Liebing, About.com Guest Writer

Architectural Working Drawings book cover courtesy PriceGrabber.com
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 >>>

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