Home is Where the Heart Is: Building a House Q & A

Writers: Allie Mikenna, Kelly

Allie: Back in June, in the midst of wedding planning, my (then fiance, now husband) and I decided to build a house where we’re settling down in central Iowa. We wanted to build something that could be a forever home, and that we didn’t have to make compromises on.  People have called us crazy for trying to plan a wedding and build a house at the same time. But now that the wedding is done, I can more confidently say I’m glad we’re knocking both out back to back. Although, I’m very ready to move and get settled when we close next month.

Kelly: Just two weeks ago, my husband and I purchased our house to be built in Northern Virginia. I’m at the onset of the home building journey with a lot of unknowns in the next few months and I immediately turned to Allie—a home builder at the end of the building journey—for her expert advice.

What reservations did you have about building?

Allie: I was most worried about finding a builder that would be able to create our dream home and stick within our budget. We knew exactly what we wanted to spend and were pretty set on sticking to that price range, so having a builder that could maintain a high quality build while fitting our budget was key. We were also worried it would be an extremely complicated process, but our builder has been a dream to work with and it’s been shockingly simple and fun.

Kelly: My biggest reservation about building was the amount of time it would take. We moved because I was starting a new job and we needed a place to stay as soon as possible. Initially, we didn’t even consider building, but after preliminary house-hunting, we decided it would be best for us long-term. I was worried it would take 6+ months, especially considering that our build was starting in the fall and would continue into winter (NoVA winters can be unpredictable!).

What was the most unexpected expense?

Allie: I think everything costs more than you expect it will. Custom homes cost more per square foot than an older home usually, but we knew going into the process that we’d be paying for the customization we wanted. Our builder uses an online portal that requires you to sign off on every item in the house and everything you change or add on during the build process. So there haven’t been any unexpected expenses for us. We’ve had the chance to review everything and decide if it was worth the money, or if we wanted to backtrack on an idea. We did decide to purchase most of our lighting and bathroom fixtures on our own instead of through the builder in order to save in that area.

Kelly: The base price of the model home we picked was much lower than our actual budget, allowing us more room for modifications and “upgrades.” We closed off the upstairs loft to add a fourth bedroom, added a basement, a second sink in the bathroom closet, blinked and we were at our budget price before we had picked out any of the interior design pieces like flooring and cabinets (of course, there are “standard” options, aka the free, generally bottom-of-the-line options, which are not additional costs, so we could avoid going over budget).

What advice would you pass on to other people interested in building a house?

Allie: Do your research! You really need a good understanding of what builders in your area have good reputations for building quality homes.  Also look for a builder that’s good at communication; this was the biggest thing for us, and it actually caused us to switch from a builder we thought we wanted to the builder we’re now working with (and we’re so happy we made that choice).

Don’t be afraid to work with a realtor who may know builders and have advice to share (just make sure they aren’t a realtor that sells homes primarily for a specific builder). Ask a lot of questions. Your builder should be able to openly communicate things like pricing or allowances for flooring, appliances, etc. They should also be able to tell you what companies/ contractors they work with for items that go in your home once. You’ll want to research major things like the heating/cooling company and window brand, so if they won’t disclose that info, that may be a red flag. We also wanted a builder that would let us visit the home throughout the process, but some are more hesitant to allow that than others, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Kelly: Be willing to commit! There’s a fair amount of time and effort needed to design and build your house, you will be selecting everything from structural components, like how many sinks in the master bathroom, to the smallest details, like what kind of doorknobs. In my experience, we spent hours and hours at the development office asking questions, changing build designs before we selected the model home we wanted with the features we needed. Next, we will be spending an entire Saturday (they recommended allotting eight hours) at a “home gallery” selecting the cabinets, floors, sink faucets…then we have to wait for it to be built! It is definitely far from turn-key ready, but if you are willing to put in the time, it can be exactly what you want.

Also, keep in mind that everything costs money. Be smart about what you need in the house now, such as structural details, and what you can do yourself or change out later, like door knobs or appliances.

What research did you do when starting the process?

Allie: Since we had a lot of options for what suburb to live in, we started by researching school districts and taxes. From there, we looked at what builders even owned lots in the areas we were interested in. We did also do the math on how far work commutes would be. Then we researched various builders in our price range that had a good reputation. From there, we checked out floor plans available on their site to get an idea of who had designs we liked and what layouts we were drawn to. Once we settled on our specific builder, we did have to double check what neighborhood covenants were for our lot to make sure we can build the fence we wanted for our dog.

Kelly: We started by looking at the development closest to my parent’s house and exploring the model homes and homes that were in the process of being built. We asked what the model homes with the additional upgrades were priced out, how much additional cost an average build costed, the length of the build, what Home Owner’s Association (HOA) costs there were, if any, and what the lowest price model home was versus the most expensive. We wanted to get a sense of the neighborhood and the proximity to our jobs.

How did you settle on the builder you picked?

Allie: We actually thought we had found our perfect builder based on our research, until we started meeting with them. Every conversation felt like we were trying to convince them to let us work with them, when it should have been the other way around. We fell in love with a specific lot in a neighborhood that another builder owned, and they couldn’t find any close to it. Communication was severely lacking and they just weren’t meeting our needs, so our realtor recommended we look into another builder.

Funnily enough, that builder happened to own the lot we had fallen in love with.  And when we met with them, the conversation was as different as night and day—it was all about what our vision was for our dream home, and how they could help us achieve it. Their communication and customer service were great from the first conversation, and continues to be great today. We liked the owner and the people we’d be working with, we knew they’d do quality work, and we didn’t have any communication concerns. They ended up being our perfect fit..

Kelly: The builder wasn’t as much of a priority as the location/development. In our area, there are a fair amount of builders, but we were very specific about where we wanted to live and our price range, which drove us to pick the development/builder we landed on. We wanted a builder with quality work and not a crazy price. In the end, we actually went 10 minutes outside of the city to get a better lot, better price, and better-quality builder. We researched other locations that they had built and reviews online, including what product lines (cabinets, counters, etc.) they put in the houses.

Would you recommend building to others? Why?

Allie: Yes, if you have patience and you’re willing to do the up front work of finding the right builder for you. You need to be able to have some level of trust that they’ll do a good job, but make sure you have enough time to visit the home from time to time. Building can be as affordable as buying something already on the market if you value getting exactly what you want versus something that’s a fit but may not be perfect. We are so glad we chose to build and if we ever outgrow this house, we’ll probably choose to build again.

Kelly: I’m still early enough in the process that I can’t attest to the outcome, but I will say that building a house was the best decision for us. Builders are offering model homes and “upgrades” that are more affordable to appeal to the millennial market that is saddled with student loans but still want to buy a house. It was much more affordable than I had originally thought and we get to put a lot of elements into the house that we want and skip over things we were not interested in. We would definitely do it again.

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