Have you worked with houseplans.com?
August 2, 2014 8:28 PM   Subscribe

We need to build a house on a budget but with limited DIY abilities, and have therefore been looking at houseplans.com (this one in particular). Have you ever worked with houseplans.com or a similar service where you buy prepared house plans? Would love any advice, caveats, or other details about the process.
posted by librarina to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The particular plan you presented is not one that lends itself to a low cost/high quality build or easy maintenance/modification. All of the plumbing is routed on outside walls with no common wet wall (a wet wall is a wall that contains plumbing-water and sewer lines. The least expensive way to build in the plumbing is to have it all radiate out from a central core with no/as few as possible lines on outside walls (this also almost 100% will prevent any lines from freezing). The closer you have all the plumbing fixtures together the cheaper it is to build and the cheaper it is repair. For instance any second story bathrooms should be directly above downstair bathrooms or the kitchen. The bathrooms and the kitchen should share a common interior wall and all should be within easy distance of the central vent. One single vent gives the fewest roof protrusions-less chance of a leak, less heat loss. These things all build on each other-By keeping the plumbing out of the outside walls you can build in more insulation so the house is tighter and cheaper to heat also. Here is a great overall resource for house stuff. With this being the affordable house cost page.

In general the lowest cost house that will hold its value and be nice to live in is a kit or modular homes (not a manufactured or trailer-those are built on a steel frame and hauled to site-but built in modules in a factory to order and then assembled on site but in a way indistinguishable from stick build). Every area of the country has their own suppliers, and you have do your research here. I would start with your local building department. Just go in to the public works front desk at city hall and asked to see a building official, and explain what you are doing and ask for advice/contacts in the community. Try to keep it short-most public works/building departments are really, really short staffed after the recession and we are all overworked.

A good resource is to find out who designs habitat for humanity homes in your town and use that firm (almost always a VERY good engineering/architecture firm). They won't be real cheap but every dollar you spend on engineering is usually multiple dollars saved on the site. Civil Engineering is only a little bit about the technical details, but mostly about the logistics.
posted by bartonlong at 9:22 PM on August 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks bartonlong, that is super helpful. Your mention of keeping pipes from freezing makes me think I should have specified location: we are in western Washington, so rain is an issue; keeping cool in summer is somewhat of an issue, since nobody has AC; temperatures below 32ºF are rare and below 0º basically unheard of.
posted by librarina at 9:40 PM on August 2, 2014

I live in the Willamette Valley and have pretty much the same climate. Last year we had about a week of temperatures below freezing (meaning it never got above 32 deg F for 1 week) and a LOT of people had frozen pipes because it never freezes here and who prepares for that? So you never know.

The biggest thing I would make sure I got was a siding system that breathes well. There are several systems out there and most are good. The key is a good way for air to circulate under your siding but outside you insulation envelope. It really helps your house last without mold or mildew.
posted by bartonlong at 9:51 PM on August 2, 2014

I'm not sure what your budget is, because "on a budget" doesn't really mean much (and houseplans.com wants $35 to give a cost to build estimate, wtf) but if you're looking to build as cheaply as you can, your two best options would be to find plans for a simple ranch house or look into modular. TLC Modular Homes is in your state and seems to be well-regarded.

I live in Oregon and am also in the research phase of building, and these are the conclusions I've come to anyway. It seems to me that the main advantage of modular besides price is that it can be built quickly, while the advantage of site-built is that you can hire a general contractor who's friendly with the local building department.

I too have been looking at houseplans.com and other plans sites, but mostly for ideas at this point. Before I bought plans I would find a GC and ask them if they've ever worked from plans like you're thinking of buying, and how that worked out.

Also, if you're OK with doing something simple like a ranch, and you find an experienced builder, they might be able to just build it for you from plans they've done before.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:34 PM on August 2, 2014

bartonlong makes some important points especially about plumbing on outside walls. The scattering of the fixtures also means that you would buy a lot of copper pipe and a lot of waste pipe. While I hate to pile on, I must say the floor plan is unusual in that the front door opens to a flex room (?), and it is necessary to go around through the dining room to get to the kitchen or the living room.
posted by Cranberry at 12:24 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I looked at the same option, my architect acquaintance strongly suggested that I hire an architect to review the plans before another step is taken. Minimal hours to detect the glitches like those pointed out bartalong above.
posted by Lornalulu at 4:48 AM on August 3, 2014

While I hate to pile on, I must say the floor plan is unusual in that the front door opens to a flex room (?), and it is necessary to go around through the dining room to get to the kitchen or the living room.

That was what jumped out at me as well (along with the aforementioned plumbing issues). Maybe it would be ok in reality, but it is definitely a bit different. The upstairs layout is a bit imperfect to my eyes as well, but again it only has to work for you.

Some acquaintances recently had a house built. They used a big local contractor who had an in-house architect on staff; they found plans they liked in books and online for the starting point, and then the architect worked with them to draw up the actual plans for their house. It was included in the builder's fee, not a separate charge, which they liked, and there were definite advantages to having the architect and builder connected in that way. (For example, there were never any change orders or overages based on issues with the drawings.)

So there's a middle ground between ordering plans online and hiring the fanciest architects in town, ranging from an in-house architect to a builder modifying existing plans, that I think you should explore first. If you have a friendly and accessible local planning department, I'd also ask them if they have seen issues (e.g. people having to make expensive changes to generic plans to meet local code, say) or if you are required to have local engineering or architectural sign-off as part of the process.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:42 AM on August 3, 2014

Another thing to consider if you decide to adapt this plan is that the front elevation shows the columns, which are lovely, aligning poorly with (well, obscuring) the front door and dining room windows. The view of the front door is blocked from the street and the view out of the dining room windows is interrupted. You can also see this clearly in the floor plan.
posted by carmicha at 6:35 AM on August 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have not used a premade plan, but can speak to how essential is it that your plan be precisely fitted to the lot and your needs. Custom plans are cheap relative to the costs of materials or the inconvenience of living in a house that doesn't exactly work for you. An architect than interviews you and understands how you're going to use the space will save you a ton of aggravation. Unless you are absolutely sure that plan works exactly as you'd like for your family, then a cheap plan is pennywise and pound foolish.

As an example, we're working with a landscape architect now who listened to our thoughts and said "You know, you'd save yourself a lot of aggravation if you just cut a door into this wall." He's absolutely right and we would have never figured that our on our own. FWIW my husband is a engineer who works in construction. I'm the granddaughter of a contractor and have never owned a home where I didn't move a wall. We both know construction and the simple solution of adding some doors would have eluded us.

The plan you selected seems to be a plan for someone who sees clients in their home office. Clients could enter, hang their coat, use a lav, and visit the office without entering the family part of the residence. If you don't have a specific use for the flex room then it's going to be a rather awkward entry. There are some other trade-offs to get that client office. The kitchen is open concept to the dining area, but closed to the living space. The work space of the island looks out to the staircase wall.

Short answer: having the right plan will make your construction easier and help you love your home. Even on a tight budget, I'd pay to have a custom plan if I was building my own home.
posted by 26.2 at 12:34 PM on August 3, 2014

I'll also add that this seems like a penny-wise, pound-foolish kind of situation.

My non-expert anecdote: my husband, with a background in construction, designed and built his first home. It's lovely but there's some awkwardness an architect likely would have thought through and avoided.

We bought a second home, a fixer that we wanted to add onto. We spent ages trying to figure out how to do the addition -- and then we hired an architect, recommended by a friend, who, in about 10 minutes in our house, came up with a few ideas we never would have come up with in a million years. We were so sure one big addition would be all we could afford that we never considered two smaller additions. He drew up the plans and had them engineered (or whatever it's called) to get the proper permits. My husband was then able to do a lot himself because we started with excellent plans.

We're now in our third house, another fixer (because apparently we don't learn?), and I say again that having a couple of architects in our home made all the difference.

I know you are building from scratch, but hiring a local architect means someone who knows the climate, local permit regulations (so important), your site, and what materials might be more or less affordable in your area. I suspect it will save you time and money in the long run.

Good luck!
posted by bluedaisy at 1:22 PM on August 3, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks all -- I clearly need to back up a couple of steps here. Appreciate the perspective.
posted by librarina at 5:20 PM on August 3, 2014

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