Should I (hire a GC to) build a new house?
February 16, 2011 8:19 AM   Subscribe

So, after an exhaustive house search, not finding what I want, I'm debating building a new house. Er, hiring people to build a house. I know what I want, I know where I want it, I think I have the budget. Where do I go from here?

I know the obvious answers are "architect!" "general contractor!" but I'm looking for what I'm missing. How do I find a "good" architect -- how do I even know what a good one is? Same for the GC.

I'd like to go with a custom or smaller contractor as I am not exactly in the mood to have a tract POS suburban home put together. That said, I realize that smaller opens me up to potential contingencies "We've never done that before!" etc.

Basically, I googled a lot of AskMefi threads but I didn't find anything related to the actual thought of building a home. Assume I have the lot and the neighborhood/permitting/etc will be taken care of. What does one do when confronted with an (empty) piece of land and a dream?
posted by cavalier to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Have you found any architects that are designing custom homes similar to the one you're looking to build? That would be my first thought. Basically I would look for a house that has a general footprint and layout that could be re-arranged to my liking. I'd think a bad architect would tell me "sure no problem!" A good one will say "hrmm let me get back to you, we'll have to calculate any changes in load and adjust the truss layout accordingly."

Either way, finding a similar build would be the way to go for me. From there, I'd research a custom home builder extensively. I'd check their BBB ratings, and any other feedback I could find online...especially for the contractors local to my area. Being that you're looking for a smaller contractor, I'd talk with as many as you around. Basically you'll want to work with one that'll be upfront about projected costs for materials etc. You may have to work with an architect separately from the company contracted to build the home.
posted by samsara at 8:34 AM on February 16, 2011

Best answer: Some random thoughts:

First off, start by making a wish list. Think of everything you want in a house. Go crazy. Do you dream of having a brick oven in your kitchen? Write it down. Now, go through the list and rate things from “absolutely must have” (porch, fireplace, three bedrooms, etc) to “just a pipe dream” (brick oven in kitchen, sauna for the cat, etc).

Decide on a budget. This might be tough to do without knowing what things cost. Building costs can fluctuate wildly over time and you’ll find huge differences in the various bids you get from different contractors. An architect can assist with this somewhat.

What style of house do you want? Find an architect or contractor who has done similar styles. Interested in green technologies? Find a contractor who has built green homes. A lot of them will say “Yeah, sure, we can do that, no problem” and then when the time comes they have no idea what to do.

We found our architect using the Not So Big House directory of professionals. We liked her books so it was a good place to find someone.

Call around to several different architects or contractors. Remember, if they don't return your call now they're not going to return it when you're calling to find out why no work has been done for a month. Interview several and go with your gut. If something isn't sitting right, find someone else.

If you work with an architect, ask him if he has a good relationship with any particular contractors. A lot of contractors don't work well with architects and vice-versa. It's sort of a white collar / blue collar thing. You want a contractor that is used to building custom homes and working with an architect. Even better if he knows your architect and they work well together.

Start reading your town zoning by-laws now. Don't assume "permitting will be taken care of" because there are a lot of obscure little things and the appeals process can take months and be very, very frustrating. Ultimately you can't get a permit until you have a design and/or a contractor so you may not know of the delays until you're ready to build.

Find out if there are any rights-of-way or easements on your property. We had to move our neighbor's water line before we could do anything. Are you on a septic system? That can limit the number of bedrooms you can build and where you can put the house.

MeMail me with any other questions, or post them here. It's a long, sometimes frustrating process, but it's very exciting and in the end it's totally worth it.
posted by bondcliff at 8:40 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Disclaimer, I am a contract web developer, I have not built a house before. However, from all I've read I feel that the client-architect relationship is something very similar, and have learned a lot from how I work with clients from studying how architects work.)

Start with looking for an architect, do not look for a GC on your own just yet, a good architect will be able to help you with that. Yes, I imagine sometimes a less than savory architect (or even a decent architect) will kick contracts to GCs they like over better GCs. Sadly, that how it goes in every business. However, a good architect will keep your requirements in line.

Little bets recommendations from friends whose opinions you trust, but remember because an architect worked will with someone else doesn't mean they'll work well with you.

Go take pictures of recently constructed houses you like. If you go to city hall, the clerks can help you look up the architects and builders in the building permits. Shop around, interview them. Go in with a good idea of your budget (maybe also the cost per square foot), bring pictures. You don't need concrete blueprints of what you want, but make sure you can articulate your vision well. You've got a dream, make sure others can see it, too.

A few years ago, another web developer started a blog called A House by the Park to document how he bought property and had a new house built, he had a blog post on how he went about picking an architect, that was very enlightening.

(Oh, start a blog and keep us updated! I love reading about people building houses.)
posted by thebestsophist at 8:56 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Getting what you want out of any relationship is all about communication. Interview several architects/builders whose previous work meets your expectations for quality and aesthetics; your final selection should be based on who you really connect with on a professional and personal level. Designing and building custom homes may be all in a day's work for these professionals, but for you, it'll be an all-consuming passion and a big piece of your life, so hire folks who take that responsibility seriously.

An architect will help you to develop the program, but definitely start with a wishlist as bondcliff mentioned. You'll want to figure the absolute upper limit for your budget, and then keep it to yourself; tell everyone your limit is 20% less than that.

Don't just call around, definitely visit designers' offices and meet the people you'll be working with. Initial interviews are typically free, so don't waste peoples' time, but definitely take the opportunity to get a feel for different options.

There are many different ways to go about the actual process of design and construction, both practically and contractually. The traditional approach is "design-bid-build", where all parties are separate and somewhat adversarial, but you get to choose from several contractors' bids after the design is complete. Some firms are "design-build," which means the designer is also the contractor, or there is a contractual relationship between them early on in the design process. You don't get competitive bids, but you get efficiencies and better communication between the design and construction team.

An architect can also help ensure that you have the needed property entitlements to build, or point you to a property attorney if need be. You don't need to be an expert on the zoning ordinance or anything. However, you should know as much as possible about the proposed site before you purchase it, so that you aren't blindsided by restrictive covenants, easements, etc. after the sale.

Ultimately, the architect is supposed to be your advocate throughout the construction process, because they're the expert and you're not. Just like a lawyer, they have a professional and fiduciary responsibility. So, like I said up top: communication is key.
posted by Chris4d at 9:09 AM on February 16, 2011

It will cost you about 10k for the architect. They will help you through the entire process, mine found our contractor and was on site for the build on a weekly basis.

You will need a construction to perm loan, which is harder to get than a regular loan because they are hedging against what hasn't been built.

I needed to take the designs and a signed contract with the contractor to the bank before even getting approved for the money.

It took, from engaging the architect for the first time, to moving in, about 18 months total. 6 months of that was actual build time.

It's a pain in the ass, but way worth it.
posted by TheBones at 9:14 AM on February 16, 2011

Regarding your budget, home construction loans are different and a lot more difficult to obtain versus a comparable mortgage. Make sure you have your finacing firmly in place before you start signing contracts.
posted by saucysault at 9:16 AM on February 16, 2011

Jinx, TheBones, you said it better than me.
posted by saucysault at 9:17 AM on February 16, 2011

My partner and I did this. We did a lot of work in the beginning to find the right GC and we were very happy with him. However, we started by talking with others who built their own houses and found the planning department was going to be the biggest problem for us. The planning department in my county (250,000 people) is the second largest in California, just after LA County, and it is famously Byzantine. The number and kind of submittals was amazing, and all of it subject to quibbles that took time and money to solve. By the time we applied for the permit - applied, this is before a single thing was actually done on the land - we had a fourteen-inch-high stack of documents on which we had invested roughly $100k in 2001. I hope your planning department is not like that; few are but you absolutely, positively need to know the planning department's reputation and adjust your budget accordingly.

The architect helped us quite a bit with the wish list bondcliff mentions. We ended up with high ceilings because of her designs and we really like them. The layout of the kitchen, critical for us, is absolutely wonderful. The architect shined in this part of the project but she did a lot of half-assery in the engineering. The prints were acceptable to the planning department and that is what un-blocked the project; then there were a lot of changes to make what she had designed actually build-able. We did not spend enough time selecting our architect and if we had a do-over today, we would talk to five or six of the local contractors to get their thoughts about them.

We were very, very happy with our GC. He knew the architect and had figured out a lot of the real needs of the house in spite of the prints. The result is a structure that has been extremely stable and silent in the eight years we have lived here. The GC is still in business. He does not advertise, ever, and always has a waiting list. He gets 100% of his work from word of mouth. We were lucky because at the time builders were very busy in this part of California.

The GC's relationship with the town or county inspectors is pretty important. If you get on bad terms with an inspector, you're very likely in expensive trouble until they are rotated out (very often inspectors are rotated to avoid situations just like that, where they are subject to bribery or can develop a dislike for a project that enables them to pretty much shut it down). The sign to look for, as I now understand it, is the GC's longevity in the neighborhood where the house is being built. Inspectors gradually learn to trust or distrust particular GCs and that reputation has implications worth a lot of money and time.
posted by jet_silver at 9:32 AM on February 16, 2011

It will cost you about 10k for the architect.

This really depends on where you live, what you build, what the cost is, and who you hire. Ours worked on an estimated percentage of the project, broken down into phases of the project. We interviewed one that billed hourly but we didn't like that because we didn't want to worry about paying every time we needed an on-site meeting. There are a LOT of meetings. Go for a flat rate, unless you just want someone to do up some simple plans for you.

They will help you through the entire process

Again, it depends on what your contract with him/her is, but I would totally recommend finding one that will work through the whole process. Our was indispensable. Architects are often very proud of the houses they design and they don't want any contractor messing it up. You want them to be your advocate.
posted by bondcliff at 10:15 AM on February 16, 2011

Watch out that you select people who are doing ok financially. When you use a bank for construction/perm financing, many times it will require financial statements and a credit report from the contractor, just to make sure that when they get money, it will be spent on the project at hand.
posted by brownrd at 10:18 AM on February 16, 2011

If you are doing infill - you need to talk to the neighbors about your plans. No sense building your dream home if your neighbors hate your guts.
posted by Gor-ella at 12:56 PM on February 16, 2011

Lots of good advice here. Like anything else, you need to ask people for good referrals for design/build firms or contractors that have done quality work for a house style you have in mind (assuming the style of house you have in mind exists in your local area). One-of-a-kind can get very expensive, and very complex with lots of unforeseen problems.

My sister had her dream house built in 1991, only to deal with a leaking steel roof for eight years. (The house was in a very modern style, even with several curved exterior walls, and an unusual roof structure.) Untold hassle and ultimately solved the problem, and spent close to $100K to finally get to the cause - faulty construction way up near the roof crown. Their contractor by the end of their ordeal had gone out of business.

An interesting DIY option is UBuild-it. They are basically a consulting firm, that lets you act as the GC, referring all the subcontractors (including designers or architects) and assisting with every phase of the construction. Can save serious $$$ if you are up for it.

I've acted as GC for one major remodel, and have lived to tell the tale. Not for the faint of heart...
posted by scooterdog at 11:48 PM on February 16, 2011

Response by poster: Hmm! Thanks everyone! Going to take a drive and take a look at like-minded recently built homes and try to track down the builders ;).
posted by cavalier at 12:18 PM on February 17, 2011

« Older Wire wire go away!   |   Is it easy to transfer music files from an iTunes... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.