House building advice?
October 16, 2013 7:57 AM   Subscribe

The Mrs. and I are planning to build a house next year on some land that we bought recently. What should we know about house building before undertaking this massive endeavor?

Pertinent details:

> Location: northern Rhode Island
> Current floor plan is roughly an 1800 sqft Ranch (1-floor) style so that we can live there forever and not have to climb stairs and has an open kitchen/eating/living room.
> Propane or oil?
> Open and favorably inclined towards green technology suggestions (Is geothermal/on-demand hot water/solar power or water heating worth the extra expense)
> Can we build for $250k or less?
> Where should we splurge, and where should we save?
> What energy-efficiency tax breaks should we be aware of?

Please feel free to offer any other advice, unrelated to the above. Thanks!
posted by LouMac to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Here is a tool to estimate cost (I have NO idea how accurate it is).

Rest assured that you will NOT come in under-budget, plan for that.

Insulation is your friend.
posted by HuronBob at 8:09 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in taking a class with Yestermorrow.
posted by adamrice at 8:12 AM on October 16, 2013

Best answer: Is geothermal/on-demand hot water/solar power or water heating worth the extra expense

By "geothermal", I assume you mean a ground source heat pump. Whether or not it's worth it depends on a lot of things. If you have the land you can do a horizontal loop, which is cheaper than a vertical loop (digging is cheaper than drilling). If you do a vertical loop and you have to go down 200 feet before you hit bedrock (which happened in my case) it'll be more expensive because everything before bedrock needs to be cased in iron pipe. If you have a water well you might be able to do an open loop, which again is cheaper.

So my point is, talk to someone who installs them, evaluate your environment, and make a determination based on how long you intend to live there.

Before you look into any sort of heating or solar system, look into good insulation and windows. That's where your best ROI is.

Can we build for $250k or less?

Possibly, depending on a bunch of things. Custom or out of a book? Modular or site-built? The range, even for the house you're talking about, can be in the order of a couple hundred thousand dollars, depending on your tastes, your methods, and your circumstances.

Having gone through this process (in MA) a few years ago, here is what I wish someone had told me:

This is a very exciting process. It can be frustrating at times, but it's the sort of frustration most people would welcome, as it's better than most of life's other frustrations. When there's a two week delay because of REASONS, put it in perspective.

When the project first starts, and for the first few months, you'll be so excited you'll visit the site as often as possible and scrutinize everything. Then, after a few months, you'll be excited about moving in. You'll want them to finish things up and it'll seem like very little is happening. You won't care as much about little mistakes because you know that'll just delay things. However, THE END OF THE PROJECT IS WHEN YOU REALLY NEED TO BE PICKY.

Be picky about the finish work. Sit in your bathtub (or where the tub will be) and look around. Did they leave a 1/2 gap under the windowsill? Lie in your bed, or where the bed will be. What do you see? What did they miss? Have them correct it.

Pointing out mistakes or shortcuts in the finish work is something that your contractor can probably fix in ten minutes. On the other hand, if you notice it after he's done, good luck getting him back to fix it. Not going to happen*.

Seriously, be very picky towards the end. You won't want to be, you'll just want to be done, but don't let them cut corners.

Of course, you still need to be reasonable, but speak up. It's your house, you're paying for it.

*You'll probably have some sort of warranty in the contract, probably a year. You'll have a few drywall screws pop, maybe a crack in the drywall or two, and a few other things. The best thing to do is to make a list of things over the first few months, call him after eight months or so and see if he can spend a day fixing those things. He's not going to want to come back for an hour one day and an hour another day.
posted by bondcliff at 8:18 AM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You can spend hours of time (and untold amounts of energy, and probably have more arguments than you want) picking over many little details.

Alas, I can't say what's "more" important about things. Like maybe you will daily treasure the drawer pulls on the kitchen cabinets, maybe you won't.

Some of it is the paradox of choice and paralysis by analysis. (That's why people hire decorators to handle many of those details).

So find a way to step back/give over control/not worry about every. little. detail.
posted by k5.user at 8:19 AM on October 16, 2013

Best answer: Congratulations!

I would employ every energy saving technology available. You won't be sorry!

Find an archetect that you like and have him/her draw up the plans. Once you've committed to the plan, CHANGE NOTHING! EVER!

Then put out a request for proposal with local General Contractors. You want someone who has been in business forever with lots and lots of good references. Ask to see the buildings, talk to other homeowners. Check with your state department of building trades and research the guy inside and out. Check for law suits. Spend whatever it takes to insure that the person you hire is a GREAT contractor and only works with excellent master subs. Also, you want to like the person, so he/she should at least be personable. I'd pick someone who will educate you during the process.

Go to the bank. You're going to want a "Construction Loan" if you want to finance, they'll explain how it works. Basically an escrow account is established with 'draws' being allowed as certain phases of construction are complete, inspected and approved. If you're paying cash, you'll still want a bank to administer the escrow account.

Check for federal, state, county, municipal energy rebates and savings that may be available to you. Even your local utilities may offer rebates, so call them up and ask.

If you have $250,000 to spend, budget $165,000 for the project. That gives you a lot of buffer for issues that may spring up during construction.

To keep costs down, source appliances from scratch and dent places, ditto cabinetry, hardware, light fixtures, faucets, countertops, etc.

In the contract be sure you put TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE, and have dates by which certain things MUST be done for the contractor to get paid. This includes permits.

If any changes are made, they must be made on a change request. This stands no matter who initiates the change.

Manage all the variables as much as possible. Build in good, comfortable buffers for time and money. Realize that something will go in the ditch, or some huge, ugly issue will occur during construction and that it's all part of the process. Go with it.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:25 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The federal government offers a 30% tax credit for new houses with solar, ground source heat pumps, etc: Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit. Rhode Island may also offer some incentives for various renewable energy systems.
posted by bradf at 8:41 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Check Houzz and Pinterest for neat ideas. For instance, electrical sockets in the roof soffits to plug in Christmas lights.......

I would suggest exploring what the cost would be to have a 9ft basement. The extra space will be worth it if you have a need to build living space into the basement.
posted by lstanley at 8:53 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Watch lots of episodes of Grand Designs. Some of the pitfalls are stupendously common.
posted by corvine at 9:10 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A good architect will do this anyway, but the direction your house is facing will also have an impact on your quality of life/how much insulation you need. Spend time on the property at different times of day and think about where the sun is/what shade you have in relation to the directions windows of various rooms will be facing. Many people down here in Tx prefer the house front to face north, but the weather patterns in RI, how your lot is sited and what's next door may lead you to try a slightly different set-up.

Of course, this depends on where you are building; in a subdivision you only have so many choices (or none), but on a more rural property, you have free rein.

Also related to this, get to know the trees on your property. Which ones can you keep up? Are they a species that sheds a lot and is going to constantly clog your gutters? Are they all healthy? Do they shade your property in a good way or block out too much light? If you are bringing in power lines, will that require cutting holes in their crowns?

And congratulations! Building your dream home is exciting.
posted by emjaybee at 9:35 AM on October 16, 2013

Best answer: Outlets. Outlets everywhere.

Think of all the times you've had to run extension cords because builders can't seem to figure out where things will be plugged in. If you have one wall in the master bedroom that is the obvious place for the bed, a builder will put the single outlet in the middle of that wall, so that you have to crawl behind the bed to plug everything in. The outlets belong behind the nightstands, not the bed.

Put an outlet under each window that you plan to put holiday lights in. Put outlets all around the kitchen, in the walls above the counters. If you plan on putting sofas and tables in the middle of a room, away from the walls, put outlets for the lamps in the floor.

Figure out where your charging station will be and put multiple outlets there. Consider USB outlets, so that you can charge without adapters. Put multiple outlets in your entertainment center; you will always need one more. Put multiple outlets in the garage, and some in the attic. If you use electric tools for yard work, put multiple outlets on the exterior of the house, and consider some out in the yard, away from the house.

In short, look at the tangle of extension cords you've accumulated over the years, and try to imagine every place you wished you had an outlet. Outlets are fairly cheap during construction, and very expensive thereafter. Put in more than you think you'll need.
posted by dinger at 10:10 AM on October 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Construction always runs over schedule. Always.
posted by Specklet at 10:22 AM on October 16, 2013

Also, this book was very enjoyable reading before the project.
posted by bondcliff at 10:23 AM on October 16, 2013

Best answer: Focus on getting the things right that you can't change (easily). Worry less about the stuff that is easy to change. For example, make sure you've got the windows in the right place (and right size), worry about door locations and architectural changes. Don't worry so much about paint colors or appliance selection.

Focus on the things you use every day in your current place. Make sure the light switches are in the right place, decide what sort of things will be plugged into the electrical system in each room, then add a few extra outlets. Do you want an open layout, or a more traditional layout. How many people will be using the bathroom in the morning? Plan for the right number of sinks and the right amount of space to navigate around each other. If you're a pack-rat, make sure you plan for enough storage.

When the architect/designer/builder/whoever offers you various upgrades, check out prices at Home Depot (or your equivalent) and make sure it's reasonable. A couple of upgrades our builder offered us were 5x the price of doing it on our own. Conversely a few items we added to our house were priced well below what we could have done them for ourselves, since they already had the tradesperson there doing something else for us.

Alternate energy sources are generally not cost-effective unless you can get subsidy or tax-breaks from your local government, or if it's a change you really believe in.

Reserve part of your budget for your lot/landscaping. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it's important to get the grading right, and it's easier to move a lot of dirt before you move in.

Since you're planning on living there forever, plan for the long-term and try to find lower-maintenance long-life options. When you move in, make a note in your calendar that the roof will need to be replaced in 20 years (depending on which product you use), your insulation may need to be re-evaluated or topped up in a few years if it's the kind that settles.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:37 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, and one more tip: When the framing of the house is complete, take pictures of every wall and the ceiling in each room. You may need to open up a wall in the future (eg: to run new wiring, or whatever), and pictures will save a lot of "exploratory" damage.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:40 AM on October 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: We are in the process of building a house and the above advice is all very good. I will say two things. First, if you are going through the process of finding a contractor/builder, you need to realize that there are different types of construction contracts that they offer. Many builders offer "cost plus" contracts. What this means is that when they give you a bid, they are giving you an estimate for the work. Then as they do the various stages of the work, they will charge you for the actual cost (based on the subcontractors bills and materials costs) plus their set fee (usually between 8-15%). So the actual construction cost could be more or less (but usually more) than their initial estimate. I did not want to work with this type of contract.

You can also get contracts where the price is fixed, or is also said "not-to-exceed". To get this type of contract you probably either need to work with a builder who is a little more focused on mass producing homes using plans that they already have (because they know their costs already), or you have to be willing to spend more time before the contract picking out all of the variables that would affect your cost.

The other thing I would mention is that if I lived in the Northeast, like you, I would strong consider doing a pre-fab or modular build. There are a number of companies doing this, but one that I am very impressed with is Unity Homes, which is the pre-fab arm of Bensonwood a high-end custom home builder. It looks to me that Unity could do a home in your price range. They can use their system to build any plan or custom-design something with you.
posted by bove at 10:42 AM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Get a subscription to Fine Homebuilding Magazine, yesterday. They are published by Taunton, which does a LOT of homebuilding/construction guides and all are pretty good. Learn the stuff because noone is going to inspect as good as you are, if you know what you are looking for. Get the books from Mike Holmes on building it right.

Spend your money on a good architect/engineer and once you get something decided on change nothing, no matter how it feels during construction. Change orders KILL budgets. I run multimillion dollar heavy civil construction (roads, sewers, subdivisions, etc) and change orders are the death of budgets. A good designer is worth what you pay for it. Don't go with the lowest bidder here. I would find the group of professionals that did the nicest looking subdivision near you and find out who designs those houses-that is who you want. Often the difference between minimum code and good stuff isn't all that much if done from scratch but it is really, really expensive to open up stuff and fix something after construction is done.

Don't spend a lot of money on easy to upgrade stuff, spend your money on structure/bones. Make all your electrical circuits capable of 20 amps minimum not 15. Buy good quality pex plumbing and install a home run system with cutoffs on every branch. Spend the extra on 4000 psi concrete for your foundation instead of 3000 psi. Don't worry too much about cabinet pulls and light fixtures, those are easy to upgrade as time and money allows by yourself. Opening up walls because you need a new circuit or something is no fun at all.

Don't skimp on insulation. Go for beyond minimum code requirements it will pay for itself. Especially the roof. Layer it just like you do your clothing with outer styrofoam sheets under the siding/roofing then either bats or spray foam than a good airtight interior finish. It will also allow you to buy cheaper heating and cooling systems. A solar hot water system, if designed in from the beginning especially, is the best investment over photovoltaic or heat pump.

Look into pervious concrete for your driveway if snow is a concern. It will never be icy or really need shoveling as the water will drain right through it and not freeze on it.

And lastly, get some costs estimate for things like Structural Insulated Panels or Insulated Concrete Forms and DEFINITELY call some of the pre fab builders near you. Pre-Fab/Modular homes can be very, very nice and much cheaper than site build.
posted by bartonlong at 10:49 AM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Thoughts from a general project management perspective:

Decision making will be much easier if you have a really really clear view of your priorities before you start. Try writing down all your conflicting considerations and putting them into order. For example -

- staying within budget
- staying within time estimate
- accessibility
- cheap bills
- low environmental impact of build
- usability / ergonomics of spaces, activity flow inside/outside the house
- privacy
- awesome party house
- kerb appeal
- fit and finish
- lots of natural light inside

Once you have this down, it will be much easier to make a call when your contractor says look, you can have these large bespoke windows but it will cost X and delay the contract by Y.

Once you're going, it helps to have the mindset that things will not go to plan. Eisenhower said something like "Planning is everything. Plans are nothing". If everything that causes a cost or schedule overrun from your initial plan makes you break down in a panicked heap and feel like you messed everything up, you're going to be SO worn out at the end. If you can come at it like - "yes, another problem; we can solve this problem; we know what our priorities are and where we might have to compromise" - then you are more likely to retain your sanity. It's just not possible to plan for everything perfectly up front.

Don't cheap out on the architect or the person who is managing the project. Don't fall out with either of these people.
posted by emilyw at 10:55 AM on October 16, 2013

Best answer: We've always been inspired by the concepts employed by the BrightBuilt Barn people. I'd read up on it and consider what's feasible where you are and with an 1800sf home.

You may want to consider the possibility of future electric car ownership and what you'd want in the garage to accommodate that.

Consider simple water catchment solutions with your gutter design. Don't know the cost of water in your region or how it will change over time, but this is an inexpensive consideration, so why not be prepared to have nearly unlimited water for the garden, the pets, cleaning, washing the car, etc?

If this was me I'd be asking my local planning department about the legality of incorporating a mother-in-law apartment in my building design. Think 500sf light and bright design in the basement with both interior and exterior access. Long term you may wish for extra income from a renter, or space for a ailing family member or an adult kid, or a live-in caregiver. Initially the space could simply be left unfinished without appliances, or even flooring, but if you consider it during the building phase, you will have whatever electrical, plumbing, egress or separate ADU requirements in place for an easy transition. If a basement isn't part of your plan, just think outside the box about this idea and how you might convert one end or corner or your ranch for this purpose.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 11:15 AM on October 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My understanding is that the ROI on solar hot water in most climates is excellent.

I disagree with the idea that you should save your pickiness for the end of the project. There are some things that are hard to change or work-around. For example, when my brother built his house, they dug the basement and poured the foundation before he realized that the hole should have been 6" deeper. He was so frustrated with all the delays that had already held up the project hat he just went ahead. In the end though, his basement, while perfectly useable isn't quite as nice as they'd planned.

As for where to splurge, and where to skimp, I don't have a good answer, in part because the answers depend on you. I would suggest that you spend lots of time in the up front planning. You may feel the meter is running now since you own the lot, but an extra month or two now is going to be a lot cheaper than an extra month in the middle of the project, or doing a revision after you've moved in.

Beyond that, I'd invest in the things that you use every day, that you will use forever and that are hard to change. For example, nice faucets in you main bathroom because you use it a lot and nice stuff will wear better and feel better. Cheaper sink faucet in your extra bathroom, because it doesn't get much use and it is relatively easy to replace. On the other hand, the tub or shower valves for the same bathroom should be higher quality than the sink hardware because replacing it will probably require opening a wall, or removing tile.

Good insulation comes before PV solar, or a fancy heating/cooling system. PV solar electricity may already make financial sense, but costs are still dropping and it might be better to just make sure they are easy to install in the future by putting in conduit to the attic and setting aside some space for the inverters and other support equipment.

One thing I'd be looking at seriously if i was building a house is LED lighting because you can make much more effective use of it when it is part of the initial design, rather than a retrofit into tradition fixtures/placements.
posted by Good Brain at 11:42 AM on October 16, 2013

Best answer: As someone who was a remodeler for better than a decade I would first advise you ask for recommendations - especially from customers with houses that have been around a while. A lot of the shortcuts that builders take aren't at first apparent, poor construction takes a while to manifest. Second, take an active interest, visit the worksite as often as possible and take pictures. You may be uncomfortable here [perhaps say you are excited about your new home and want to show your friends and family pictures] but I've seen too much crap work and you are making a lifetime investment. Honestly here; contractors will pressure the subs to "get the job done" but the subs will do better work if they can put a human face to the customer. Ask them how they do that. Don't show up to any of this in an expensive suit. Maybe bring donuts and coffee on Friday.

To the sage advice of dinger above, "Outlets everywhere." I would add ethernet and coax. I don't know the exact multiple but it is absurdly more expensive to add an outlet or connection once the walls are closed.

Elaborating on blue_beetle above, "Focus on getting the things right that you can't change (easily)." I will note that the 'wet' rooms are the most labor-intensive and hence expensive to upgrade. Better to go with the less expensive lighting in the dining room than the less expensive tub.
posted by vapidave at 2:04 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You're in Rhode Island -- you need to know about RI house-building experiences, especially those involving whoever is issuing permits and inspecting the work in your area. I think you know what I mean.

A relative of mine was having a garage built in South Kingstown. The permits had been issued, but a building inspector strongly suggested that the homeowner make a sizeable payment "to avoid problems" with inspections. My relative declined to pay, and two inspectors sat in a truck on the property during the work, start to finish. I don't know if this means one can pay the fee and and ignore the code requirement. It does mean that in that town at that time, "expediting fees" were a thing.

I love a lot of things about my home state of Vo Dy-lin, including the fact that there's always an angle if you know how to find one. But you have to know how things are done.
posted by wryly at 4:11 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was going to say something about knowing your local zoning, codes, and other regulations, but it sounds like wryly has covered that for you in a much more comprehensive manner.
posted by yohko at 6:12 PM on October 16, 2013

As mentioned, get personal recommendations for a General Contractor from people that you know who have gotten work done and were happy with the final results. Also, the GC should have a resume binder of photos of past work with references. Call the references and ask them if they were happy with the results. Do this. It's not an imposition, if someone is proud of their house, they really will want to tell you about it.

Also, as client you do have permission to change things, as long as you understand that the cost involved often multiplies exponentially.
posted by ovvl at 6:42 PM on October 16, 2013

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