For the past year, you’ve been poring over those glossy home magazines, clipping photos of every to-kill-for kitchen, dazzling living room, elegant entrance and classy front façade that’s attracted your attention. Soon, you think. You’ve gone for long drives looking at houses specially built to fit their surroundings, and perhaps you’ve even scouted out a few lots. Really soon …
By this stage in life, you’ve likely rented garden apartments, bought a comfortable home or two that someone else built, maybe even purchased a vacation beach house or a ski-resort condo. Now, you’re ready to design and build your own home from scratch.
But where do you start?
Mike Christopher has been building and renovating homes for 35 years, and he doesn’t hesitate for a minute. “I always recommend that the person start by looking for an architect,” he says, sitting in the conference room of Bancroft Custom Homes, which overlooks the tumbling Brandywine Creek.
Soon enough, we’re on the phone with architect Rick Longo, founder of Chester County’s Hillcrest Associates, who’s vacationing at his home in Florida.
Our team of experts is complete with Joe Horisk, who’s serving as general contractor on a new home on Old Hill Road in Wilmington. “I’m downsizing to a 5,300-foot living space,” he says with a straight face, as a cadre of painters and tile specialists work around him in his new living room.
We asked all three experts what sort of advice they would give first-time custom-home builders.
Do some dreaming. “You should start with a vision,” Christopher says. That means collecting all the ideas and magazine articles you’ve accumulated about what your dream home—or your next home, if you’re downsizing—will look like. “Go through sample homes in developments,” Longo says, “and make notes of what you like and don’t like.” Put your thoughts on paper—maybe even sketch out some general floor plans.
Put your team in place. Your first reality check is the architect, who will put your dream on paper, followed by your general contractor, with some thoughts on how it will all fit together and what it will cost. How do you find the right architect and home builder? Ask friends who’ve gone through the process. Have preliminary meetings with architects and contractors to see if the fit is right. Look at their track records. “Some people also hire an interior designer to work with them,” Christopher says.
Set a budget, then be ready to change it. “Contractors inject reality into the process—the budget,” Christopher says. “An architect will provide a good schematic, and then we market test it.” At this point, the builder can provide a fairly accurate idea of what your mansion-in-the-making will cost you, with a couple of caveats we will get to in a minute. If the estimated budget is higher than you thought, ask the architect and builder if there are economies that can bring reality back in line. Or take a deep breath and start over.
Make a realistic timeline. This is the easy part. Unless there are complications, it will take a year to 18 months from the time you walk into an architect’s office until you walk into your new home.
Think about the future—and options. “People often plan a home thinking only about where they are now,” Longo says. “But they often end up living in their new home longer than they planned.” That means thinking beyond children’s bedrooms and basement playrooms. Does it make sense to have a first-floor master bedroom, just in case this becomes your home in retirement? Longo also recommends that people consider adding an extra closet (“You always need plenty”) for space that can later be converted into an elevator. On a different note, think about how the house will look on the re-sale market. Is there too much wasted space? Will that in-ground pool turn into a liability when you decide to sell?
Don’t get hung up on square footage. Longo says that people often have a certain size in mind—particularly when downsizing—and try to cram too much into too little space. It’s not uncommon for them to forget stairwells and hallways. At the same time, he points out that formal living rooms, plus mud rooms and other transitional spaces from the outside, aren’t considered necessities these days.
Be as modern as possible with electronics and energy. While we can’t anticipate the future, be sure all wiring is up to date. Do you have enough insulation? Do you really need that monster washer? And what are your thoughts on alternate energy sources?
Consider the home site and what comes with it. “Check out restrictions and covenants on the property,” advises Horisk, who himself sought out a south-facing lot for installing solar energy. Does your intended site have enough—or too much—morning or evening sunlight? Horisk recommends protecting yourself with “rock clauses,” in case you have to drill to construct your basement. Christopher and the Bancroft team are masters at understanding local building regulations and how to meet them. Most contractors can even help you find a lot if you don’t have one.
Make as many firm decisions as you can as early as possible. Changes cost money. Longo uses an in-depth questionnaire to guide clients in getting details and preferences early. “The more decisions you make before construction starts, the fewer problems,” Christopher adds.
Continue working with the architect and the contractor as the project evolves. Christopher tries to get the homebuilder and the architect together every two weeks to review progress and walk the new home site. If you need to make a change during construction, sometimes a cost added now may be balanced off by a credit later.
Horisk urges owners-to-be to look at what he calls “workability,” determining that traffic flow is optimal, even if it means changing a door location slightly or reworking the elevation of a cabinet. Better to add a cost now than to experience constant annoyance after moving in.
Recently, Horisk found himself at odds with his interior painter about the estimate and execution of his current project. “I have a lot of moldings and other woodwork,” he says, looking around the living room. “To me, it’s like furniture, and I don’t put a paint roller on my furniture.” The two renegotiated the price upward. The moral? Be sure the right subcontractors have been chosen to provide the quality you want and, more to the point, can afford.
All this advice can be boiled down to a few key points: Plan well in advance, work closely with your architect and builder, and stay on top of the process. That way, you’re more likely to arrive at the home you really wanted—and you
may find that you’ve actually enjoyed the process.