The pros and cons of building a house

April 22, 2014

Lately I’ve been talking a bit about a big anniversary that’s coming up next week – ten years this house! I’m pretty nostalgic about it. It means so much to me that we’ve been here for so long. I swear I’m getting the house a cupcake next Monday for the “birthday.”

Kidding. I’ll get myself a cupcake.

Now that we’ve lived here ten years I have new appreciation for the building process, so I wanted to pass my thoughts along. I’ve been wanting to write a post like this for years and I figured the ten year mark would be pretty appropriate. It’s a bit like labor – you forget all the bad stuff and only remember the good. Mostly.

Obviously you have to decide if building a house is for you. The idea of new and shiny everything is certainly a bonus – that is if you like new and shiny. :) If you prefer more character in a more established area then building a new home is probably not for you. (Unless you are going more custom.)

We loved the idea of starting from scratch and getting exactly what wanted. Honestly, we didn’t even look at any existing houses – we knew right away we wanted to build. There are good and bad aspects to the process of course.

The good:

You pick out all your finishes – every. little. thing.
You can schedule the build for when it works for you (we delayed ours for three months so we could get out of our apartment lease on time).
You pick your neighborhood and lot.
Everything is brand new (if you like that sort of thing).

The bad:

You pick out your finishes – every. little. thing. ;)
Your house won’t be ready for three to six months (more for custom). Ours took about five and a half months start to finish. (Eight and a half with the delay.) 
Building can be more expensive than buying if you don’t reign in all the extras.

Deciding on a builder is a biggie. For us it was more about the location and the house we fell in love with than the builder, honestly. We signed our contracts with Trinity Homes and then it was bought out by Beazer almost immediately:

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 10.14.21 AM

We lucked out. We had nothing but excellent experiences with them the entire time. In the ten years since about half of the builders in our area have folded – Beazer seems to still be going strong.

If you’re like us you find your location before your builder – I think that happens a lot. But either way, as they say, location is everything. My advice to you is to not put too many boundaries on where you build. Of course you’ll have a certain area you’d like to put down roots and if you have kids you’ll be thinking about schools. But I had a very specific area in mind when we were looking and didn’t want to go outside of it. I actually drove out to our neighborhood once to go through the model – and turned around because it felt like it was SO FAR AWAY. (Drama.)

It was about one mile past the “boundary” I had in mind. Later we found our model in another city and realized it was built in this neighborhood. We drove it again and all the sudden it wasn’t so bad. :) Now we honestly couldn’t be more pleased with the location. It’s minutes from great shopping and restaurants but we drive by farmland to get to all of it. I love that.

The easiest part for us was finding our lot:

tips for building a house

You’ll pay extra for more land, for a corner lot or for a tree lined backyard. We drove up one street and knew immediately this lot was the one we wanted. The backyard wasn’t big and it was sloped, but not as much as the others. All that mattered to us were the trees and the land behind the house. That land is why we won’t be moving any time soon – it’s just too hard to find anymore. That privacy is HUGE to us. A big backyard may be what is most important to you, it all depends on what you want for your family.

Right off the bat you’ll have to make BIG decisions. The structural stuff needs to be figured out immediately. That includes the elevation of the house (not the height like I always thought, but the design of the front of the home), how you want the kitchen set up (for us we had to decide on things like double wall ovens or a slide in), if you want fireplaces, a basement, all that big stuff: tips for building a houseAlthough sometimes the structural stuff isn’t big and you would never even think of it. So my advice is, before you sign one document -- pour over magazines, pinterest, walk through model homes and do your research! We had no clue what we wanted when it came to most of it. I wish we would have done the double ovens in the kitchen. :)

The stress of this process came when we had to pick out all of the finishes for the house. Again – I don’t think you can plan too much for this part. And again, we did very little of that. You have a very short amount of time to pick out all the finishes for the inside of the house and if you aren’t ready it is extremely stressful. Stressful in a first world problems kind of a way but still stressful.

We had a couple scheduled times to walk through the showroom and decide on our options. This is for EVERYTHING – the great thing was that we had endless options for lighting, flooring, faucets, brick, all of it. That was the bad part too. It is incredibly overwhelming if you don’t have an idea of what you want going into it.

And even then you will sit down to make your final decisions and find out about all kinds of stuff you never thought of. At least we did. A sound system (we added), an irrigation system (we didn’t), a security system (we did). Lots of systems. I hadn’t even considered all of that until we had to make the 100 percent final decisions. Hence the reason I think building can be more expensive than buying outright. If you’re not careful you tend to think you must do ALL THE THINGS to your house right then, instead of spreading them out.

I’ll do a separate post about what we would have done differently, but overall I have a few more thoughts about the process to pass along. The biggest is to be there as often as you can. It goes fast! We had an Amish crew frame our house and where there was a hole, a house was built within days. I would drive out almost every single day after work. First of all -- it was incredibly exciting to watch. Secondly, I just wanted to stay on top of the process: 

tips for building a house

Our superintendent was AWESOME and we were in constant communication. If something came up he would call and I’d be out there. A few times I noticed things as well – like that we were supposed to have a gas oven and dryer and only electric was installed. (I noticed it before drywall so it wasn’t a big deal to fix it.)

Don’t be afraid to ask for small changes along the way! At least with our builder we were able to tweak throughout the process. Little things like not having a half wall installed in our front room weren’t a big deal for them to adjust, and our super would often ask along the way what we thought. I was so thankful they were open to it. I don’t know if all builders would but it never hurts to ask.

When you’re visiting all the time, be sure to take photos! I took them every time something big happened – framing, electrical, drywall:

tips for building a house

That fireplace is now this one: how to decorate a mantel


I’ve referenced our build photos many times in ten years. I looked back at pics to see if I remembered right about the wood on our stairs before I decided to rip off the carpet:

tips for building a house

There are some changes I’d like to make to the kitchen and when I looked at the framing photos I realized there’s a huge plumbing pipe running right through a wall I’d like to change up. Drats. But it’s MUCH easier to study photos than it is to cut out drywall.

And finally, when you’re picking out all the goodies for your home – keep in mind what’s easy to change out yourself. When you buy a fancy sink through the builder it costs more than just buying it yourself (the bonus is that you’re paying for the sink over 30 years). ;)

So my advice is to go builder basic on things like light fixtures (at least ones you can reach to change out), faucets and hardware. (Or see if they will install items you bought instead!) Even a novice DIYer can change out a door knob and I promise switching out lights is not hard. Of course this depends on the time you have to dedicate to this stuff – if changing all that out seems like torture it will be worth it to just pay for what you want!

That’s the whole point, right? You’re building a home to your exact specifications. That’s the best part! That and the new house smell – I swear ours smelled new for years.

So those are my thoughts on building a house. There are definitely some things I’d do differently in our home and I’ll talk about those sometime soon. For us the process was pretty fantastic and other than some stress it was a fun experience. I would do it again for sure.

Have you gone through the building process? Did you enjoy it? Any other advice you would add?

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  1. We have never built a home, but when ours turned 100 (yep!!! 100!!) in 2010, we gave our house a birthday party. It was fun.

    I look forward to hearing what you would change.

  2. Woo Hoo - we are just kicking off on our custom build in Austin!!

  3. We had a new home built but were like "give us whatever is in the model" lol. We're not really into house detail, which leads me to blogs like this because new houses look sort of empty when you don't know how to decorate. haha

  4. We have not built but we are thinking of building our next home so I am very interested to hear more about your experience. Thanks for sharing!

  5. We built a custom home, because we could not find what we needed in our town to accommodate my husband's disability. It was a long bumpy road for us. It was two years from the time we put our previous house up for sale to when we broke ground on our new home. We went through offers that fell through, not being able to find the right lot, a designer that only had her interests at heart first- that resulted in us having to take legal action. We had horrible neighbors in the apartment we had to live in four a year. We also had issues with the bank appraiser appraising our plans super low because of a lack of comps in the area and the bank didn't want to lend us what we needed to build. We had a few bumps along the way in the construction process. The back entry was supposed to be zero threshold and was botched, so we ended up with the added expense of a deck. We had to compromise on some choices because our budget was so tight. Sometimes I feel like we sold our souls for this house, but it has been so worth it. My husband has complete accessibility and freedom in this house which is huge. We ended up saving a lot of money by buying our lighting and hardware ourselves, and were able to get exactly what we wanted. Our contractor was also a family friend, which saved us a lot as well and he was extra motivated to give us the best quality. It was kind of like going through a horrible pregnancy, terrible at the time, but so worth it in the end:)

  6. Just to add to your awesome post about things you can switch out later. If you find a builder like the one my parents had they negotiated what they wanted to finish or install. For example my mom wanted to do all the tile work in the house. They built 3200sq foot house and it had a lot of tile in various locations. However, they saved $5000. Or if my parents wanted a different type of fan in the bathroom they told the builder not to install anything, because he was going to double the price and charge $200 for a $100 fan. So it definitely pays to find a builder that will let you finish certain projects or just buy what you want outright! Can't wait for your post on what you would have done differently, you offered a lot of good insight in this post! ~Jill~

  7. We built our home that we just moved into last Thanksgiving. Our process was a little different though - we bought a lot and built ourselves rather than getting one in a new community. It was interesting to read your experience to compare. A lot of the process was similar in terms of picking finishes, etc. Building on our own was a lot more involved on our parts though - our builder only built the house itself. We also had to work with a land engineer to draw the site plans, a site work company, getting all the permits and approvals through the county, coordinating with the utility companies, etc. Our process took about 16 months from when we bought the land to when we moved in (mostly due to lots and lots of waiting on the county!). On the plus side though, since we took on more of the work ourselves, financially it worked out really well for us. Our house is worth at least $100k more than we spent on it. We live in the (expensive!) DC area, so the process allowed us to get more bang for our buck in comparison to buying or building in a new community. It was definitely very frustrating at times, but I'm glad we did it!

  8. You pick out all your finishes – every. little. thing.
    I loved that I picked everything out.. alas our builder in the end, took those picks as suggestions, so our 5" high molding ended up being builder grade 3".. and we get to do that ourselves. Someday

    You can schedule the build for when it works for you (we delayed ours for three months so we could get out of our apartment lease on time).
    LOL if only! Our engineer decided to play musical number with perc tests and septic plans.... moving number he got on an adjoining lot as our number. Alas the town was not amused and we had to redo everything. In the midst of 3 weeks of rain. Which meant we failed and the plans for septic and well had to be redone. And then the engineer decided he would charge twice for the job he did once.
    So instead of being the first house our builder did that year, we were the last. Which meant he had no money from the next job to float ours, which meant liens. Good times!

    You pick your neighborhood and lot.
    Well, sort of. My MIL gave us this 1 acre lot.

    Everything is brand new (if you like that sort of thing).
    Actually I found many if my finish materials- lights, vanities, toilets, pedestal sinks, cabinets,.. at an architectural salvage place, so while we have a 'new' house, many of our finishes are older and upgrades from what we would have ended up with
    Alas the appraiser opted to list the very incorrect basics about our house, and it's still not worth what the mortgage is for because of it.

    The plus in it all was that my husband and I were so mad at others [the engineer, builder, subs who liened us, appraiser,...] that our marriage made it through the process unscathed.

  9. We are in the process of building a house. We bought the property in 2012 and finally will be breaking ground in about two weeks. The reason it took so long is that we decided partially to pay in cash for some stuff (driveway, fill, and flood vents) and the other (larger) issue was finding a builder that we felt comfortable working with.

    We were very close to signing a contract with another builder, but we just didn't feel right about them. We decided to call another builder and thankfully, we are getting more house for a little less money.....and peace of mind.

    The process has been stressful in my opinion. Even though are building on a beautiful piece of lake property, it is on a food plain and had to pay extra to get permits, raising the elevation and purchasing flood vents.

    As far as options go, we stayed pretty basic. We upgraded the cabinets, counter tops, flooring, and 9 ft ceilings, because we knew those would be rather pricey (or impossible) to change out later. We didn't get exactly what we wanted due to the fact that hardwood floors and granite counter tops were over our budget, but our compromises are actually very nice (and I will be happy with them for a LONG time).

    I also figured that things like fixtures and hardware could always be changed later and didn't worry about that stuff. One interior paint color was included in the price of our home, and we stuck with that, choosing SW requisite gray. I'm one of those people who would enjoy making changes along the way, so things like changing out fixtures and painting rooms will be fun. :)

    I love reading your blog by the way and look forward to hearing more on your thoughts on the building process. :)

  10. Great advice! We built our home and still love it to this day. There is only 1 decision that we made on "big things" that I wouldn't make again and that is the shape of the 2 big windows on the front of our house. The tops are slightly rounded instead of square. Still love the look but that'll cost us when it's time to replace them. My biggest piece of advice is to add only the extras that are hard to change. Insulation or walls. For us, we changed our ceiling finish from popcorn (ugh) to knock down. Never regretted that decision! We also had several pocket door installed. Love those and we know it's the right decision because we rarely close those doors. We vaulted every ceiling we could and with a small home that's gone a long way to making our home feel bigger. Our builder is a custom builder so we could change whatever we wanted. Overall, it was a good experience!

  11. Thank you SOOOO much for this post, it's incredibly timely! We purchased a new home about a month ago in Colorado (we currently live in Maryland) and are headed back out in 2 weeks to do all of the design/audio stuff...... yikes! I've been searching for a post like this with helpful advice about what to invest in from the get go and what can wait and this is IT! Thank you!!

  12. I would love to build new but property around my area is a premium, there are lots for sale in the location that we want but at $300,000 just for the land, the house and land together would be over our budget! I love my house and I had mixed feelings when we moved in but I love it however we are looking for a bigger place. We have a town house and I love the maintenance free outside aspect. My husband wants the land and a 4th bedroom and a mud room. he thinks that if we had more room the kids would not want to play in the same room that we are, that we would spread out. Ha!! Not going to happen. I love our location, love it. So I am not compromising in that area because we do not HAVE to move. so I figure I can be picky.

  13. We built our house, we did not use a builder though. My husband Grandpa had built a few houses so he was basically our general contractor. There are a few things i would change but I am mostly VERY happy with our house. It is our dream house basically:) There were a lot of decisions and if there had been pinterest back then I'm sure things would be different. My husband helped with plumbing and electrical and we all worked on finishing touches. It took us a year and a half to build and during that time we also had our first son.

  14. We just built on our own lot, using a builder's semi-custom plans. Moved in a couple weeks before Christmas last year. 'the actual work crews were excellent (we had Amish framers too), but our sales rep was basically an over-promising dimwit, and our supervisor was um, not effective. We ended up talking directly to the owner of the company to finally get the house built.

  15. Just curious why you've never posted a floor plan of your house? I can never picture where certain rooms are in my head. I love your home though! Maybe someday you'll post the floor plan??

    1. Sarah I haven't posted our floor plan just because I'm not crazy about sharing exactly where rooms like bedrooms are in our house. It freaks me out a little. :) I have shared the basement floor plan and the kitchen/family room, but that's it.

  16. We just moved into our custom built home in December. I agree picking out every finish is good and bad. So. Many. Choices. :o) I had been looking on the internet and in magazines for years so I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted until it came to finding what I wanted. That was the difficult and expensive part. We live in a tiny, rural town without any home improvement stores. The closest Home Depot or Lowes is 2 hours away. We didn't want to change things out down the road so we splurged for (mostly) the finishes and fixtures we wanted. Our builder was awesome and gave his honest input on why he thought some of our ideas would/wouldn't work. We appreciated the input and adjusted along the way. Our home would have been done in 14 weeks had we not run into electrical issues with the neighbor refusing to give an easement. We worked through it all and we're finally in now....but far from settled. We still have a lot of decorating to do and we're building our own furniture (dining table, media center, bed, dresser, custom pantry shelves......the list goes on) but now that the weather is warming up, we're excited to get going on it. We absolutely love our new home and are happy with the choices we made. Thanks for sharing your building story!

  17. The builder is KEY in building a new home! We've built 3 and our last one, which we have just been in for 1 year, was a nightmare! That's because the builder was a disaster to work with. He was recommended by our real estate agent and we trusted her opinion. We were in a rush because we had sold our home in 3 days and had no where to go. We interviewed only 2 builders, and ruled out one due to a bad reference from a friend in the construction business. We should have slowed down and taken our time. We fought with our builder every step of the way because he would do things without asking us or say we didn't have a choice in our CUSTOM home!! My advice if you build is to be patient in selecting your builder. On our house before this one (which was built long distance), we interviewed 3 builders, chose ours, and it was a seamless, perfect process. It can be that with the right builder!!

  18. We are actually in the process of building our first home! We sat down with the builder and selected our lot (way in the back with trees and extra yard), our elevation, and all of the little things. We didn't have too many options for the interior (no fixtures to choose), but we did get to pick our hardwood color and granite counters and things like that. We are now just waiting for them to tell us the day that they will break ground. I'm so glad you posted about this. It eased my nerves about this whole process and made me so much more excited. Pardon me while I go scour Pinterest and Houzz for more ideas... ;)

  19. We're breaking ground on our new build right now so PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don't wait too long to do your next post about things you would do different! We're so worried that we're going to make huge mistakes with this build and would love to learn from your experience. Thanks!

  20. When we built our house, I thought I wanted a double oven, too, but after pricing them and considering the storage space lost for something I would only use 2-3 times a year, I decided against it. Shortly after moving into our house, the Target ad featured a counter-top roaster for around $35.00. That was the best $35.00 I ever spent. I store it in the attic and pull it out on the holidays to bake my ham or turkey, leaving my oven available for baking all the side dishes, and the meat I cook in the roaster is much more moist and tender than if I baked it in the oven. I also use this roaster on my front porch in the summer for baking main dishes, potatoes, baked beans, etc., without heating up the kitchen.

    Another choice I made in the kitchen that has proven to be really handy was to substitute drawers for most of my lower kitchen cabinets. It is so much easier to pull out a drawer to search for something, rather than getting down on the floor to rummage around for items. Also, if you want to put a piece of furniture in your kitchen for storage and to give it more character, leave some space for it. You don't have to completely fill your kitchen with built-in cabinets.

    I have under-cabinet lighting that I love, but the replacement bulbs are nearly $10 each and they don't last very long. Just something to keep in mind when choosing fixtures. My vent-a-hood also requires a special bulb - wish I had known before I chose that.

    And last, but not least, a screened-in porch can be an inexpensive way to add an extra room to your house. We spend lots of time on our porch, and it's a favorite hang-out when we have visitors.

  21. The rooms! I never found these rooms so gorgeous and amazing ideas.

  22. Many, many years ago I was a salesperson for a homebuilder. I think the most important thing when visiting model homes is to walk through with the standard option list. Once you add all of your must have options there's a chance you could be in a better section of the neighborhood with bigger lots for the same price since many of those options come standard.

    That's also good advice about getting out of your comfort zone in terms of location. What feels far out now will not be in a few years once the area is built up.

    I also used to help people make their selections. The fights between couples I have witnessed over countertops! If you aren't sure, look at other homes in the neighborhood or other model homes. Also, ask! While couples would fight I'd quietly put together combinations of cabinet/backsplash/countertops that were popular. We know what people like and you probably will like it, too!

    I'll stop now. ;) It was such a fun job, but my favorite was always decorating the mini-models, of course!

  23. I would love to have a house built! I am picky and want everything to be perfect. However, we decided the yard and area was more important, so we ended up in an established neighborhood, basically built in a forest over many years. The houses range from the 1960s- new builds! Ours was built in 1999, but updated a lot in 2006/2007.
    I'd still love to build a house someday, though! We will see....


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