You know you want to build your dream house, but don’t know how to begin? It can seem like a daunting task to build a custom home. And admittedly, it is complicated. This 3-part checklist is aimed at getting you on the right track and providing an overview of the process.
Getting Started With Your Custom Home
You may have already thought about building your own custom home for a while, or perhaps you are just starting to think about it. This checklist starts at beginning steps and helps you think about setting a budget, timeframe, and finding the right piece of land.
• Make a budget
• Determine your timeframe
• Find the property for your custom home
Designing Your Custom Home
Rather than adapting to the layout of an existing home – this is an exciting opportunity to design a home to match your needs. You can create a space specific to the way you and your family live. All of the features – from the doorknobs and countertops to the type of heating and arrangement of rooms – are up to you. To know what to do, you must consider how you wish to use the space.
The questions and suggestions in this section should help you make your architectural program.
• Determine the size your home should be
• Are there any restrictions on the possible size of your home?
• How many stories do you want your home to be?
• What rooms do you need?
• What aspects of your lifestyle do you want to be built into your home?
• Consider the type of layout you want
• What structural features do you want in each room?
• Determine your design and style preferences
• Are there any special features you want to be included? (fireplaces, heated floors, etc.)
• Green building design?
Assemble your Team and Monitor the Process
This checklist includes information on assembling your custom home team, including an architect and general contractor. It suggests what questions to ask before you hire and advice on how to find the right person. We’ve also included some things to think about and keep track of once your home is under way.
• Retain an architect
• Hire a general contractor or put him on as a consultant
• Consider what other team members you need: landscape architect, interior designer, etc.
• Monitor the building process including insurance, permits, payments, inspections, clean up, and landscaping
Part 1: Getting Started: What is your budget?
Knowing your budget is essential. Prices for new homes can range from $80 – $200+ per square foot. Without knowing how much you can spend, it is nearly impossible to decide how large of a home you can build and where, or what design features can be included.
Things to factor into your budget include:
• The cost of the land
• Local fees and taxes
• Design and engineering fees
• Home construction
• Landscaping costs
• Interior decorating and furnishing
• + a contingency budget
Getting a loan: Most likely, you will need to take out a loan.
• Check your credit report. Correct any errors, as your credit score will affect the loan you can receive.
• Speak with multiple lenders to get the best interest rates.
• Consider mortgage options. Fixed rate or variable? 12 or 30 years? FHA or traditional? Only you, your family, and your financial advisor can determine what’s best for you.
• Prepare to make a down payment. Talk to your family and a financial advisor on what you can realistically pay at this time.
What is your timeframe?
Everyone wants their home finished as soon as possible. You probably have a general date you want your project finished by. But is there anything specific you should take into account when determining when you need to start and finish by? Considerations:
• Is there a new baby on the way?
• When is the closing on your current home or the end of a lease?
• Does your children’s school year effect when you want to move-in?
• Could the seasons in your area cause any setbacks? If you live in a rainy or snowy climate, for example, this won’t cause major setbacks but should be taken into consideration when setting a start date if you have a strict deadline.
Selecting the land for your custom home.
Where you build is nearly as important as how. And your home’s location will affect what you want to and can do with the house, structurally and aesthetically. The first step to designing a custom home is the location. Everything starts with the property: its orientation, the availability of sun, the topography of the land, the natural features on the site. When looking at properties, consider the following:
• The size of the lot
• Closeness of neighbors
• Slope/flatness of land
• Direction the plot faces (Where will the sun be?)
• Natural surroundings (forest, field, water, etc.)
• Trees (Remember – tall, old trees can’t just be planted)
• The style of other houses in the neighborhood (if applicable)
• Access to resources (Will you need a well? Septic tank? New power, phone or cable hookups?)
• Having a view versus privacy
Talk to a Professional! Although it is not necessary, having a professional such as an architect or contractor look at the property you are interested in may save your some headaches down the line by ensuring you can do what you want on that piece of land.
In some instances, an architect may be able to help you find the land for the type of home you want. They can tell you the advantages and disadvantages of a site. Homeowner’s may not be able to look at a property and realize that some aspect of it prohibits some design and build aspect. It may be helpful to do a site analysis with an architect before you purchase the land.
Once you find a lot you are interested in, research the property!
• Find information on the zoning, wetlands, septic connections, energy code, etc. These all affect what you can do. For example, zoning can affect the required setback distance from the street, the height of your house, and whether or not you can build an in-law suite.
• Is the lot in a historic district? If so, there may be additional requirements or restrictions on how your home must look and what materials it must be built with.
• Look into home values in the surrounding neighborhood. You may not want to build a $2 million house in a much less expensive area.
• Speak to the neighbors. This is one of the best ways to find out if the area is a good fit for your family.
• What is the school district? (if applicable)
Part 2: Designing Your Custom Home
By now, you should have a budget and timeline in mind, and have started looking at properties. Check out Part 1 of this checklist if you haven’t.
The next step is to develop an architectural program. This is a statement of goals for your custom home. You should have this started before hiring an architect. Use the following sections to create your architectural program. Go over these ideas with your architect, as they are professionally trained to know what is possible and how to incorporate your ideas into a functional design. This is why it is important to hire an architect as early as possible.
When making your architectural program, keep the following in mind:
• Dream big, then scale back. This is your chance to make something uniquely yours. At the start – go big on ideas. As things move forward you can adjust these ideas to the budget, zoning, timeframe, land and other realities.
• Separate the “needs,” “wants,” “dreams,” and “don’t wants.”
• Note which rooms are most important to you. In other words, what would you prioritize if it came down to it?
• Rank your desired features in order of importance. Prices can vary greatly on custom homes, and this will help you make difficult choices later on.
• Play the “what if” game. Prepare for the fact that some things may not go your way. Ask yourself: “What if XYZ happens?” What is your next choice /option?
• Collect pictures of things you like (and don’t like). Websites like Pinterest and Houzz are great places to start. You can also collect clippings from magazines such as Home + Gardens and Architectural Digest.
• Is there anything specific about your current home that simply doesn’t work for you?
What size should your home be?
One of the first steps in designing a custom home is figuring out how much space you have to work with. Deciding how large your home should be is determined by a number of factors.
• First, find out if there are any limitations on the height and/or square footage of your home. These may be based on zoning restrictions, neighborhood ordinances, or perhaps the size and layout of your lot.
• How many stories do you want? Are you looking for a single-story home? Two? Three or more? A split level? Do you want a basement? Consider at this stage if stairs are going to be a problem for you or any family members.
• Finally, think about size in terms of rooms. Deciding what rooms you want will play a huge factor in determining the size (and layout) of your home.
To get started, consider the following:
• How many bedrooms and bathrooms do you need?
• Which of the following spaces do you need/want?
• Formal and/or informal living spaces
• Home office
• Eat-in kitchen
• Formal dining room
• Children’s playroom
• Media room
• Dedicated laundry room
• Home gym
• Garage (if so, for how many cars?)
• Basement and/or attic
• In-law suite
Build your lifestyle into your home
Do you have any recreational activities to take into account? This is a custom home – so you can design it for your lifestyle! If you are an avid bike rider, you will want space for bike storage. If you are a musician, perhaps a soundproofed studio space. If you are an artist, you could build a custom studio space. Or if you are a woodworker, you can create the perfect workshop. Whether you are a surfer, skier, or artist, you can make your home work for you.
Other things to consider:
• Do you need space to display art?
• Do you want book storage? Do you want wall space for bookcases, or built-ins?
• Are you a musician? Consider a separate space for playing that can insulate sound.
Think about the layout
Once you know what rooms you want and how much space you have to work with, decide how you want everything put together. You have nearly unlimited layout options. How the rooms are arranged can affect traffic flow, privacy, and how guests and residents in the home interact.
Browse Floor plans It can be overwhelming to think about how to put together all the rooms you want. Start by looking at examples. This should help you determine what you do and do not like. Websites like Houseplans.com and Dream Home Source are a great place to start.
Questions to ask
• Do you want an open interior layout? Or separate spaces?
• Do you want separate formal and informal areas of the home (i.e. public v. private)?
• For multi-story homes: What do you need on the first floor? What do you want on the second (or higher) floors?
• How many entrances do you want? Do you want a private entry? Any rooms in particular in which you wish to have a doorway to outside?
• How do you want the indoor and outdoor space of your home to interact? Should they flow into each other, or be completely separate?
Think about the arrangement of specific rooms:
• Which rooms/spaces do you want near each other? Maybe you want the children’s playroom to be within earshot of the kitchen. Or does it make sense to have the laundry room near the bedrooms?
• Are there any areas of the home you want more private/separate? Maybe the master suite should be separate from the other bedrooms, or on a different floor? Should your office or artist studio be in a quiet corner?
• If creating an in-law suite, do you want it to be separate or integrated with the rest of the home?
What structural features do you want in each room?
Many rooms in a house have optional features that you need to decide whether or not you want during the design process. These aspects can affect the layout of your home. To get started, go through the following to determine what you do or do not want in different rooms of your custom home.
• How much prep/counter space do you need?
• Eat-in kitchen, or a separate dining space?
• Social space (to watch tv / hang out?
• Work /homework space
• Island or peninsula for food preparation or buffet
• Separate/walk-in pantry
• Prep sink and/or main sink
• Wet bar
• Gas or electric stove/oven (This will affect what hookups you need)
• Numerous closets? Walk in closets?
• Connected bathroom? (shared or private?)
• Shower? Tub? Combined shower and tub? Jacuzzi tub?
• One or two sinks? Separate vanities or together?
• Linen closet?
• Jack & Jill bathroom (connected to 2 bedrooms)?
• Should it be its own separate/dedicated space? Or combined with another room, such as bathroom or mudroom?
• Space for additional features? (folding counter/table, sink? Hanging rack?
• Outdoor spaces: Do you want a patio? Deck? Screened in porch? Convertible indoor/outdoor space? Balconies? Courtyard?
Determine your design and style preferences
Start by thinking broadly about style. It is important to consider this early in the process, as it may be best to hire an architect who specializes in that specific style. Is there a particular theme and/or architectural style you are drawn to? If so, what elements of that style do you particularly like? When looking at different styles, also consider if they fit your climate/location/neighborhood.
Ask yourself the following:
• What kind of accents do you want in the home?
• Any specific materials you want to include?
• What color palette do you want to use?
• Kitchen: cabinets, flooring, appliances, countertops, finishings…)
When thinking about general architectural style for your custom home, consider the following:
• Ceilings: Do you want taller ceilings? If yes, everywhere, or just in some spaces?
• Hallways: Desired width? Do you want as few as possible, or many?
• Stairways: One flight or more? Do you want a private staircase in the back of the house?
• Windows: What kind? A lot or a few? Skylights? Bay windows? Wide windowsills?
• Wall space: Do you want a lot of open wall space, perhaps to display art?
• Lighting (indoor and outdoor): Recessed lights? Sconces? Chandeliers? Look at some of the lighting options at the Home Depot to get inspired.
• Roof: Flat, pitched, asymmetric gable, multiple gables, curved? You can browse styles on websites such as The Roofing Calculator.
• Exterior: What kind of siding do you want? Browse options at Better Home & Gardens.
• Do you need limited mobility access?
• Safety considerations: Do you live in an area prone to earthquakes, tornadoes, or hurricanes? Ask your builder how to take these into consideration with design and materials.
There are an infinite number of additional features that can be built into your custom home.
Do you want any of these? • Fireplaces (gas or wood? More than one? (which rooms?))
• Media room
• Central sound system
• Heated floors
• Central vacuum system
• Pool and/or jacuzzi (indoor or outdoor?)
There is a growing trend today towards green design. Building with this in mind can reduce your carbon footprint. Plus, many features can be built into your home that will increase your energy efficiency and water conservation, reducing your utility bills down the line. Talk to your architect about what green design features will work best with your custom home. And to learn more about tips for building an energy efficient custom home, look at this article.
Part 3: Putting Together Your Team & Monitoring Your Build
You have now figured out the logistical matters of your custom build – when, where, and at what cost – and have outlined your needs and wants in an architectural program. If you haven’t, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this checklist.
The most important thing for a custom home – hire a good team. Work with competent people that you trust. It’s not about getting the lowest price; it’s about getting the right value.
Select Your Architect
Now that you’ve thought about your wants and needs, and developed an architectural program, it is time to find an architect. Do this early in the process. Architects do more than draw up plans. They direct your vision, listen to your ideas and needs. And they help you sort through what is and isn’t possible based on your land, budget, and timeframe. You will work closely with your architect, so it is important that you can work well with whomever you hire.
How to find an architect:
• Word of mouth – ask friends and neighbors
• Search your area for members of The American Institute of Architects. You can search for AIA members online
• Look up the architect on a house you like by searching the address’s permit history with the local building department
Things to ask an architect before you retain them:
• How do they charge Architects usually charge a percentage of the final project, as well as perhaps an hourly fee for initial planning
• Do they offer 3-D rendering? This can help you visualize your plans.
• What is their signature style? It is often a good idea to find an architect who has worked in your desired style before.
What to know during your first meeting with your architect:
• Architectural program – With it, you can better explain to architects your vision. And architects will have a better understanding of what your project needs, and whether they are the right fit for the job.
Hire a General Contractor
Now you know what you want, you hired an architect, and are starting the design. It is time to hire a general contractor. Most architects suggest hiring a contractor early in the design stages before plans are finalized. Discuss with your architect when the best time to hire a contractor is.
Remember — your general contractor is the one bringing your home to life; they are there when you aren’t, making sure everyone goes according to the plans. This is someone you have to trust and with whom you communicate well with. Hiring the right general contractor is vital to being happy with your custom home.
How to Find a Contractor:
• BuildZoom is an excellent resource that matches you to trusted local contractors and helps you find the best one for your project
• Referrals: Ask friends and family to recommend contractors.
• Ask your architect: Chances are, your architect has worked with builders in the past that they are happy to recommend. Likely, they can even suggest one who specializes in the type of home you are building.
Before you hire a contractor:
• Talk to previous clients: Ask about the communication, any misunderstandings or setbacks and if they work with them again.
• Get photos of past projects.
• Meet the foreman that would be working on your home.
• Ask who will be working on your home / what subcontractors do they use? How do they pick them? Are these people they work with frequently or once-off? Do they do background checks?
• Ask about suppliers. The material that goes into your home is just as important as the people building your home.
• Get at least 3-5 bids for your custom home.
Other Team Members
It is not necessary to hire other team members, but there are some you may wish to consider. These include:
• Interior designer
• Kitchen and bath designer
• Landscape architect
Monitoring the building process
• Insurance. Make sure there your general contractor has workman’s compensation insurance and general liability. In many places, contractors are required to hold active policies of both in order to be licensed. Get copies of both insurances for your records before building starts.
• Permits. Your builder should typically take care of this. Make sure this is the case and ensure that the correct permits are in place (or you will run into major problems with the local municipality, including fees and delays!)
• Don’t let payments get ahead of schedule.
• Inspections: Generally, your contractor is responsible for scheduling periodic inspections as required by your municipality. Confirm with your contractor that this is the case and find out the dates to ensure you can keep track.
Once your project is complete
• Clean up: Who is responsible for cleaning after construction should be written in your contract. Usually, the builder will take care of this.
• Landscaping: Now that the construction is out of the way, make the outside of your home as beautiful as the inside!
• Move in: Unpack your belongings, move furniture in, decorate the walls and make the place feel like home.
• Enjoy your new custom home! Show it off, have a house warming party and get to know your new neighbors!
For Further Reading:
Resources for further research into this topic include:
• “What you need to know before building a custom home”, The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/11/05/what-you-need-know-before-building-custom-home/
• “6 Things Homeowners Regret Not Knowing Before Building a Custom Home”, Apartment Therapy.com: https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/build-your-own-house-tips-31189880