Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Selecting a Builder

Selecting a builder is probably the most important decision that you'll make when building a custom home.  I won't get into a lot of boring details about the process of interviewing builders, but here are some important points when it comes to picking one:

  • What is your gut feeling?  In our case, I had a pretty strong gut feeling about our builder.  I appreciated his confidence, trusted his judgement and was impressed with his honesty.  As with all things in life, I think it's always good to trust your gut.
  • Is your builder on time?  Our builder is consistently on time, and this tells me that not only does he respect my time, but he also respects his business and reputation.  
  • Can you have an honest discussion about finances?  Building a home is a huge financial undertaking, for both you and your builder.  Both parties have to come to the table knowing that there will be some pretty frank discussions about finances.  What can you afford?  What is your budget?  Is your builder pushing you to go above and beyond what you're comfortable with?  (Big red flag!)  Has your builder fallen upon hard times during the subprime lending crisis and subsequent economic slump? All of these questions need to be answered before applying for a construction loan, because the answers will come out in that process (more on that in another post!)
  • Will your builder provide you with a few references?  Ideally, your builder will have past clients who are very pleased with his/her work.  Word of mouth seems to be everything in the construction business, so it's important to get connected with people who have worked with your builder.  These references can come from subcontractors, lenders, and ideally past clients.  In our case, we were able to tour a recently completed home, and the quality of work spoke volumes about our builder's work ethic and capabilities.  
  • Do you like your builder?  If your builder is a major jackwad, you might want to look elsewhere!  I'm a woman, and I also happen to be the "project manager," because I work odd hours and my husband spends most of his week at work.  Believe it or not, even in 2012, I've been stereotyped and talked down to by some of the "ol' boys" in the business.  Obviously those men didn't get my business and never will.  Bottom line: I like our builder.  He's on time, has a pretty good sense of humor, doesn't talk down to me despite a gap in gender and generation and he's easily accessible by phone/text/e-mail.  You have to like your builder, because you'll be communicating with them several times a day, every day.   
  • Does your builder respect your vision?  This one is pretty simple.  If your builder thinks that you're an idiot because you want to put cork floors in your man cave, it's probably not going to be a good match.  Obviously your builder will have different taste than you do, but part of the builder's job is to be an objective party in creating your dreams.  A good builder will tell you if you're making a huge mistake, but they'll also allow you, the client, to make decisions based on your needs and wants.

Up next: Securing a construction loan

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Step 1: Designing your home with an architect

Selecting an architect will be one of the most important decisions that you make when building a home.  One of the best ways to find an architect is by word of mouth.  We ended up using a local architectural firm, who had a strong referral from my colleague.  When I called the firm, I asked for an architect who was familiar with the intricacies of building a house in our particular city.  As you go through the process of designing a home, it's really important to work with someone who has a strong understanding of things like: height restriction, setbacks, view corridors, etc.

A question that I often get is: "So how did you even start?  Did you work with a designer?"  The process is really quite simple when you break it down.  Our first meeting with our architect was an unstructured cluster of ideas.  We literally sat around a conference table telling him our likes and dislikes.  Many people have a "dream home file," myself included.  I had been tearing out pictures of things like: kitchens, baths, exterior trim, light fixtures, outdoor living spaces, etc.  All of these pictures are worth their weight in gold to an architect, because he/she can decipher a lot about your personal taste and style.  As our architect told us: Bring in lots of pictures, because these pictures are worth a thousand words.

Our list of must haves:

  • Basement: pretty rare in the Northwest, but when you're from the Midwest, a basement isn't just a place where the dust gathers.  For us, it was all about utilizing the space for extra storage and housing our mechanical (more on the basement saga in another post)
  • Mud room: a place to kick off our shoes, set down bags, hang up coats, wash dirty hands and a space that provides a transition between the garage and the main living area.
  • Open concept kitchen/great room: most people these days don't really use a formal dining room.  My husband has an awesome garage sale table that easily seats 8 people, and it was this piece of furniture that inspired creating a large area in the kitchen/great room to serve as our everyday table and the place where we'll host holiday dinners.  Instead, we decided to put a "flex room" in the place of a formal dining, which will allow us extra seating and a place to house my beloved Steinway piano.  
  • Big island and a small desk in the kitchen: while it seems somewhat obscure to have a built in desk in the kitchen area, it took some thinking about how we really  live to plan the kitchen area.  I love to bake and my husband loves to cook, so we wanted an area where he could be cooking the Thanksgiving turkey and I could be rolling out pie crusts on a large island.  We also included double ovens and a walk in pantry.  A prep sink may find it's way into the kitchen if the budget allows.  The desk is something that's a no-brainer to me.  If you're anything like me, you walk down to the mailbox and then come straight into the kitchen and plop the pile of mail on the counter.  Instead, I hope to use the built in desk as a receiving area for mail, as well as a place for my laptop where I frequently go to find recipes and design inspiration.  
  • Upstairs laundry room: essential!  After living in our old home for about 7 years, we realized that having the laundry room upstairs is the best idea ever.  Let's be honest: I hate doing laundry, and what I dislike even more is dragging loads of laundry up and down the stairs.  
  • Maximizing the view from the master bedroom and our child's bedroom: an absolute must, considering our lot has lake views.  
  • Utilizing the backyard in a way to give us the most outdoor living space.  This idea allowed us to get an entirely covered back porch that spans the width of the house.  Obviously, Seattle is a rainy place, but we're the type of people that don't mind sitting outside when it's drizzly and gray.  The outdoor living space is one of the things that we're most looking forward to!
From our list of must haves, we allowed our architect to use his talents to create a home that would be comfortable, casual and a blend of Northwest meets Hampton's coastal.  We wanted a home that was inviting, a place where friends could kick their shoes off, put their feet up and relax.  I also wanted to infuse a bit of character into the house, using shapes like circles and ovals.  Here's a sneak peak of the circular window that turns the corner of our master bedroom into a charming reading area:

Side view of house with circular vent and window
The entire process of designing our home took about 6 months.  You can expect to have weekly meetings with your architect to go over things like: floor plan, exterior elevation and trim, window packages, kitchen layout, revisions of things like how the stairs will land into your foyer and the placement of coat closets.  Just remember that throughout this process, there's quite a bit of "give" and "take."  I had to let go of a perfectly symmetrical front elevation to get things like a coat closet in the foyer and an upstairs laundry room.  With that being said, I think that so often, the "give" moments lead to an even better "take," so go into the design of your home with an open mind.

In my next post: Selecting a builder.

Friday, May 25, 2012

How did you guys decide to build a house?

One of the more frequently asked questions that we get is "How did you guys decide to build a house?"  People are curious about the process, and how a family on a modest income is able to undertake such an endeavor.

Here's how it all fell into place: We had been looking for several years in an area just outside of Seattle.  Good schools, easy access to work, within walking/cycling distance to the store, bank, Starbucks and public transit.  I spent almost every night on local real estate websites looking for the perfect house to pop up, within our budget.

As you can guess, that never happened - and if anything came close, it was "pending sale" within 24 hours.  Just when I started to lose patience, the perfect scenario came along.

What did happen was sort of crazy.  I had driven down 7th Street many times, where I saw a "For Sale By Owner" sign.  On a whim, I decided that I would call the owner, who happened to live several states away.  To make a long story short, we were the first family that he actually even considered selling the lot to.  His grandfather had built the original dwelling on the plat at the turn of the century, and said plat was later subdivided into 4 lots.  Since he had grown up on the original plat, he had a strong emotional connection to the land and wasn't ready to let go until he met us.

It was important for him to know that in buying the land, this would be our forever home.  I envisioned a house with a big front porch, a place where our guests could kick off their shoes, pick apples in the backyard and a place to celebrate family and friends.

Long story short: We ended up buying the lot, with the realization that buying land and building a custom home would be less expensive than buying a current listing.

Up next: Step 1, designing your home with an architect.


I'm starting this blog to chronicle the process of building a house, from the ground up. We'll be discussing the joys and frustrations of building our dream home. Pull up a chair and let's get started!