Have you worked with an architect to build a home from scratch?
November 22, 2016 9:05 AM   Subscribe

We are considering buying property and building a house in southern California. Every part of the process appears daunting to us (the loans, trying to come up with a realistic budget, trying to come up with a realistic time frame for completion, choosing a architect, getting permits, choosing a general contractor). We are first time home buyers who know nothing about anything house related. We are also open to "this is a bad idea, don't do it" advice.

We have some medical issues that mean most existing houses need modest to moderate retrofitting to work for us. That, paired with current housing prices in southern California, has meant we've struggled to find housing so far. We spoke to a well reviewed architect who told us that we should plan on spending $300/sq ft if we wanted to build a home (including, he said, all facets of home design and construction other than the purchase of the land). He also said to expect that even if we don't build in a municipality that is difficult permit-wise, construction will take 18 months to 2 years. If we build in a municipality that has more stringent permits, he said it could take 3 years.

We'd appreciate any advice related to building a home, particularly if it is worded so a 5th grader will understand it. Please note, for medical reasons we won't be able to build this house ourself. A few specific questions:

-We're planning to also interview another architect, but for anyone with SoCal home building experience, is $300/sq ft and 18 months realistic for building a nice but not fancy home with some upgraded elements? (I saw this post but prices seem to be pretty wildly different in SoCal then elsewhere)

-We have 20% to put down on a home purchase, and are pre-approved. Our initial research on financing suggests that unlike a simple mortgage, we'd have to get two separate loans: a loan to purchase the land, and a construction loan to finance building the home, which would then be consolidated into a mortgage once complete. We've also read that each of the three loans requires financing approval so your credit, etc., all have to stay pristine throughout the construction process. This sounds anxiety-provoking - what if they give us 2 loans but not the 3rd? Have you done this, and any advice for us?

-We found two potential architects mostly by admiring homes they'd completed and finding them on the web. Both are accredited architects. We assume it is smart to interview at least two architects. Any questions in particular we should ask? We are planning to ask if they are open to supervising construction or consult during construction. We also assume that we should ask them if they'll help us get permits and build that into their fee. We're also planning to ask if they charge flat fees or a percentage of the overall project. We have no clue what is typical - any ideas?

-We hope that our architect will recommend a good general contractor. Is that a good idea/bad idea?

-The cheaper land available for sale is hillside land. We are sure that building on a hill is more challenging (and probably more expensive?). We're not sure how to quantify how much extra it would cost in design time and construction time/materials on a hill. Also, one of the hilly properties looks like it is a gully through which debris could wash during the rain. This seems super sketchy to me - but I'm not sure what kind of expert to consult to get a definitive "Don't buy this!" answer. Any suggestions?

Thank you for any advice you might have.
posted by arnicae to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
My son is in the process right now, in Santa Monica. I live on the east coast, so I have not been able to follow events closely. As to the overall time frame, it depends on what you want to include. Finding, buying and preparing a site can take quite a while. The architect can fail to hurry. The city can take an age to review plans, etc. The actual construction of my son's house is going end up take about year since it was recently delayed a couple months because the roof contractor ordered the wrong materials.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:18 AM on November 22, 2016


if your estimates are 18 months to 3 years then 18 months is not "realistic" - it's the lower bound.

when i worked with an architect (not to build a house) the most important things we discussed before were (1) who decides what, and are they happy with how i want things to work and (2) what happens if/when the money runs out.
posted by andrewcooke at 9:59 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


We looked into sexy modular homes briefly when we were shopping around, as we love modernistic/mid-century design. If this appeals to you, many architects will work with modular suppliers and you can truly get a customized home for cheaper (and greener!). I'm sure you could also get customizations for wheelchair access and general "aging-in-place" style retrofits.
posted by Drosera at 10:20 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


My wife and I did this in Massachusetts. We bought a "fixer-upper" intending to fix it up but ended up rebuilding instead once we learned just how badly our house was falling apart.

We spent about a year and a half on design and a year building it. We got lucky with both our architect and contractor and came in on time and on budget. A modular home in our neighborhood took just as long to build.

Yes, interview at least three architects but if one feels right, go with her.

The contractor will be getting the permits, but before you do anything you should talk to someone in your town about what you can/can't build on any land you may be buying. There are most likely lots of crazy little zoning laws. In our case we're on septic, we're less than 1/4 mile from the town well, so we were limited to the amount of bedrooms we could have. We also had to go to a zoning board meeting to get a variance because we did not have the required frontage on our lot. You'll probably have to deal with similar issues, depending on your land.

-We hope that our architect will recommend a good general contractor. Is that a good idea/bad idea?

Assuming it's not sketchy, like the contractor is the architect's uncle, it can be a good idea. Our architect recommended a contractor he had worked with previously. We put out several other bids but ended up going with that guy. They had a great working relationship and it really helped the project go smoothly.

We're not sure how to quantify how much extra it would cost in design time and construction time/materials on a hill.

This is a question you should be asking potential architects. They should have a good idea about what sort of structural changes will be needed, and how that will affect the cost and timeline.

We are planning to ask if they are open to supervising construction or consult during construction.

Yes. You want this. That service was invaluable.

Other questions to ask:

How is the architect paid? Flat fee or hourly? We did a flat fee and I liked it because I didn't have to worry about getting billed for every phone call or site meeting. There are a LOT of site meetings.

If you're interested in any green technologies or anything non-standard (like accessible features) , make sure your architect and/or contractor has experience in that area. A lot of architects and contractors will just sort of say "um.... yeah, sure... I can do that!" without really knowing much about it. Make sure it's something they've done before and the people they did it for are satisfied with how it was done, or that they're willing to put in the work to make sure it's done right.

Get references. Lots of them. Talk to people who have worked with that architect (and later, the contractor) and find out what their experience was like.

What is the communication like? Do they answer emails and phone calls promptly? If they don't now, they won't later when you might need them to come talk to the contractor who is insisting the chimney is supposed to go through the bathroom.

Practical things to think of that we forgot to think of: If you have cats, know where you're going to put the litter box and that there will be an unobstructed path to it. If you set up a Christmas tree, know where you're going to put it. Leave space on the sides of windows for drapes, if you want drapes. Make sure swinging doors aren't going to block where you want furniture. If you like art, make sure you have plenty of blank wall space that won't be covered by furniture, windows, open doors, etc. If you have specific furniture you want to keep, think about those things during design.

Get those toilet seats that go down slowly and don't bang. Those are awesome.

It's a long, fun, often frustrating process, but when it's all done you get to live in a house that you helped design and that you watched go up 2x6 by 2x6. Good luck. Feel free to Memail me if you have any other questions.
posted by bondcliff at 10:25 AM on November 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


Tracy Kidder's _House_ is an entire non-fiction book about this exact situation ... albeit in MA rather than CA. It's a bit dated as well, having been published in 1985.

It devotes particular attention to the relationship between the builder, the buyers, and the architect: lines of authority can get interesting when the building responsibility is split between two parties and the supreme boss does not have experience in construction.
posted by Sauce Trough at 10:31 AM on November 22, 2016


I worked for residential architecture firms in Southern California for ~10 years, primarily on high-end houses in San Diego, mostly 5-18 years ago. I think the first thing that should be mentioned is that you don't need an architect to be able to build a home in Southern California, although having one might be beneficial in a few ways. Depending on the house you want to build and the site, you may need some other kind(s) of design professional(s) to get involved, but for a simple house on a simple lot, you could easily get by with just hiring a contractor.

I don't feel like what the architect you met with told you is wrong. It's possible that you could do better, but not by a whole lot, and you could certainly do much worse. Where you can save money is by going with stock-standard parts available at Home Depot (windows, doors, cabinets, plumbing and lighting fixtures) and not doing anything requiring special structural engineering where steel framing or massive concrete construction gets brought in (large openings, trying to build on a hillside, etc.). Unless there's a lack of labor to build things 18-24 months of pure construction sounds a bit lengthy - I feel like that figure would include the design of the house as well, but that length of time will highly depend on how quickly you can make decisions.

Addressing some more specific points:
We hope that our architect will recommend a good general contractor. Is that a good idea/bad idea?
That's totally normal, but keep in mind that the contractors your architect recommends will be ones that they already have a decent working relationship with. This can be both positive and negative for you. They will also steer you away from contractors they don't like working with, and can probably provide you with pretty good reasons (at least from the architect's perspective) to avoid them. If you discover a contractor that you want to work with independently, they should be able to include them in the contractors they're looking at. You'll want at least three contractors to bid on the project. The architect can help iron out any radical discrepancies between bids, like if one is abnormally higher or lower than the others they might be missing something or including something that wasn't necessarily specified but that they feel will need to be included.

Both are accredited architects. We assume it is smart to interview at least two architects. Any questions in particular we should ask? We are planning to ask if they are open to supervising construction or consult during construction. We also assume that we should ask them if they'll help us get permits and build that into their fee. We're also planning to ask if they charge flat fees or a percentage of the overall project. We have no clue what is typical - any ideas?
Anyone calling themselves an "architect" need to be licensed to legally do so. This is not a point in their favor. Most architects will at least offer construction administration as a contract option. Most architects will run permits for you (this is one area where having an architect can potentially make things run much more smoothly if they're familiar with the municipality that you're building in), but all permit fees (like, checks that you'll need to write to the city to get them to check your plans and provide the permit) will be additional to the contract. The time they spend shepherding the building through the process will almost certainly be part of the contract in some way. The places I worked at primarily worked on an hourly basis, meaning that anyone working on the project would log the amount of time they spent on it, an hourly rate would get applied to that time with the rate depending on what level the person was at, and you'd get a bill every month for the work performed. Architects can typically also work on a fixed fee, which is usually the same as a percentage of construction - the fee is based on the estimated cost of construction, not the final cost. Hourly billing allows you more flexibility, especially if you're prone to changing your mind about something. With a fixed fee, once the building gets permitted, that's your set of "contract documents" and any changes you make to those documents will result in additional charges from the architect, which will vary depending on the scope of the change.

The cheaper land available for sale is hillside land. We are sure that building on a hill is more challenging (and probably more expensive?). We're not sure how to quantify how much extra it would cost in design time and construction time/materials on a hill. Also, one of the hilly properties looks like it is a gully through which debris could wash during the rain. This seems super sketchy to me - but I'm not sure what kind of expert to consult to get a definitive "Don't buy this!" answer. Any suggestions?

I wouldn't. It's not definite, and it depends on how much of a hillside you're building on, but when things get steeper you start looking at more structural gymnastics to get the thing to stand up, higher potential of questionable soil material, and at least in San Diego, you'd be much more likely to be getting into the realm of "difficult to permit" projects along with the distinct possibility of having severe limits on the amount of the property you can actually build on.

I don't know how much free cash you have on hand, but one thing people do is have architects look at the feasibility of doing something on a property that they want to buy - they'll usually know the codes well enough to scrap together a basic outline of your maximum square footage, maximum buildable height, potential issues and likely required permits. If you're looking at a lot that is in any way questionable (gullies, hillsides) you may want to get a soils engineer involved beforehand, or try to find out if a soils report has been performed for the property at some point. But, all that will cost money, likely paid hourly, and you could just get land somewhere else.

if your estimates are 18 months to 3 years then 18 months is not "realistic" - it's the lower bound.
No, there were two different scenarios given. The different time frames line up with my experience of how long an easily permittable house can take to build vs. a more difficult one. If you live in Southern California and you want to build a new house on a lot that you can see the ocean from, your permit will take a minimum 6 months and maybe $20K more in permit fees than building a similar house 5 miles inland.
posted by LionIndex at 10:36 AM on November 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Also, with hillsides in Southern California, I'd talk to your insurance agent before purchasing such a lot and see if they'll even cover it. Fires, earthquakes, landslides... I'd be pretty hesitant.
posted by LionIndex at 11:33 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


bondcliff: The contractor will be getting the permits, but before you do anything you should talk to someone in your town about what you can/can't build on any land you may be buying. There are most likely lots of crazy little zoning laws.

This is definitely the case in much of California, especially in Southern California, triply so on sloping land.

My suggested course of action: find a few properties you like, then go to the city or county and talk with them about the zoning regulations on those specific properties. This way, they can tell you everything from septic to setbacks, fire regulations and design specifications (including if a licensed architect is required for the rough idea of what kind of house you want on those exact properties).

This way, you shouldn't have any surprises. This exact job (intake processing, fielding general questions) was part of my job a few years back. If we had time, we'd walk a prospective home-owner through all the rules and regulations we could dig up over the counter. So call ahead and see how they work, and when might be a good time to come in and learn more. There might be a good bit of information online, as the County I worked for was moving that way almost 5 years ago.

They won't suggest or dissuade you from specific designers, architects or contractors, because they can't, so it's up to you to get and thoroughly check references - 3-5 homes per designer/ architect (depending on their workload - do they churn out basic projects, or work with designers who do the grunt work and the architect reviews and signs off as required? If so, look at more homes), and a range of dates of completion, at least back 5 years ago. Then talk with the home owners, seeing if you could even get a tour of their houses, if the owners are open to this (maybe this is a step too far, I don't know TBH). This should give you a good idea of how the end product, how the designer and/or architect and contractor work with their clients during the process, and how the product ages.


LionIndex: Also, with hillsides in Southern California, I'd talk to your insurance agent before purchasing such a lot and see if they'll even cover it. Fires, earthquakes, landslides... I'd be pretty hesitant.

I reviewed a number of projects on some really, really steep hills (20 to 30%), which can give you great views, but also cost a TON of money for the foundation. And then there's the insurances, as LionIndex said. I've seen the resulting homes, and they can be very nice, but they're also very expensive, just from the building cost side of things.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:09 PM on November 22, 2016


Builders in my neighborhood just put up a 5,500 square foot house in 5 months between demolition of the old house and move-in on new, and look to beat that time on a 7,500 square foot house going up across the street. 18 months to 3 years is for projects that change in the middle, run out of money or run into zoning / inspections problems, or have some huge amount of waiting time because of elaborate custom features or super-cheap sub-contracting (i.e. subs only work on the house when they have literally nothing to do and drop tools when a better gig comes up).
posted by MattD at 3:26 PM on November 22, 2016


Builders in my neighborhood just put up a 5,500 square foot house in 5 months between demolition of the old house and move-in on new, and look to beat that time on a 7,500 square foot house going up across the street. 18 months to 3 years is for projects that change in the middle, run out of money or run into zoning / inspections problems, or have some huge amount of waiting time because of elaborate custom features or super-cheap sub-contracting (i.e. subs only work on the house when they have literally nothing to do and drop tools when a better gig comes up).

Cool story, bro. Where is this? Who employs the labor? What's the cost per square foot in comparison to normal for the area? As you allude to, if you're building a 5.5K s.f. house with finishes to go with it, there's going to be some pay involved for the subs and there's going to be a lot to keep them busy with. The time figures given by the OP most likely include time for permitting, not just construction. Permitting in Southern California will take 1.5 months minimum from submittal to issuance for an "easy" permit, and more likely 2 months. First submittal alone will take 3 weeks to review. If you get into the really hairy hillside or coastal development permits, you're tacking 6 months to a year on top of that.
posted by LionIndex at 3:50 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


My background is architecture, I now hire architects as a municipal owner, my partner works in residential architecture, and I'm also renovating my house, but all on the east coast.

I would interview a number of architects who have work that you like and that's similar to what you're hoping to do. By similar I mean approximate size/expensiveness, style, and location. There are a lot of residential architects, so you should have a wide selection. Once you find some with experience doing the kind of project you want to do, you want to get a sense of how well you'll be able to work with them. It's a professional service that can get pretty personal and you want someone you trust and can communicate comfortably with. Check references, and make sure that they have done all the services you want to use.

In my experience involving the architect in the construction itself is extremely valuable, since that's when most issues will come up. They would also be helpful with evaluating potential property to determine physical and zoning requirements. If you're looking at potentially difficult sites, they can help coordinate the soil testing you're likely to need and navigate the permits. At least here, the architect prepares and stamps the permit drawings, and they, the owner, or the contractor can submit them. I highly highly recommend paying for the construction component.

Fees can work in a lot of ways. They often work out to about 10% of the construction cost, though that can vary a lot based on how detailed the work is. I suggest not just setting a total amount but divide it up by phase with at least hourly estimates of each phase and a list of tasks included in each phase. Even if you end up paying hourly, if you start with an estimate of each phase you can monitor progress. Ask for a construction cost estimate at each phase so you aren't surprised. Typical phases would be: conceptual design where they evaluate the site constraints and come up with a basic plan; design development, where they further detail the plans, and may start submitting for permits; construction documents, where they finish the plans (you can combine this with the previous for simple projects); bidding, where they help you evaluate contractor's bids; and construction administration. I would thoroughly discuss how many hours they expect to spend, how many meetings, what permit submissions are included, basically everything that will need to be done. Understand that if you want to change something in the later phases it will add hours and cost. Talking through that will also help you understand the process and what they'll expect from you.

If you've found a quality architect that you like, they should have a couple contractors to recommend but also be willing to work with others within reason. Here's a good diagram of the relationships between owner, architect, and builder.

I'm happy to answer other questions, too.
posted by sepviva at 7:18 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


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