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Do Your Research, Set Expectations Before Building a Home

Posted on Jan 19, 2017 in:
  • Seattle Times HomeWork
  • Build
  • Homeowners

By Mike Walsh, Terrene Homes

Q: Building our own home: smart or not smart?

A: In today's competitive marketplace, it might start looking attractive to simply buy a vacant lot and build your home. How hard could it be, right? In the process, you could also avoid the builder markup and put the savings in your pocket.

While that's certainly possible, there are things to consider before pulling the trigger on this plan.

First, finding land on which to build your home is not as easy as it might seem. Depending on where you're looking, there are not very many building lots available that don't already have a home on them, especially near city centers. You're more likely to find a piece of land in rural areas, but then you have to account for wells and septic systems. Like the housing market, the market for lots is really hot right now; you'd likely be competing against the builder community when negotiating for the land.

Then, there's the design and cost of building. One of the big attractions to building your home is the opportunity to design the exact house you want, creating those cool spaces you've always dreamed about and putting in all the features you've seen on the TV shows. Maybe it's a home theater or a wine cellar. Perhaps it's that grand patio with the outdoor kitchen.

More often than not, when the pencil meets the pad, and after you've spent the money to complete the design, the cost estimate to build your dream is significantly out of balance with your pocketbook. This often requires heading back to drawing board.

To avoid this, it would be wise to set your expectations correctly so that you're not disappointed when the design is complete. Go out and look at new construction homes that you can afford. Take pictures and grab flyers. Notice the finishes, the windows, doors, surfaces, appliances, etc. Count the rooms, fireplaces, and garage bays.

Once you have a good feel for the type of home you could afford if you were buying it from a builder, you'll be in the ballpark for what you can afford when you build it yourself. Feed all this info to your architect before you start the design.

Professional builders get really efficient at building. They develop relationships with their trade partners and vendors to get the best pricing and they're really good at managing schedules. The margin they make is due more to the savings they can find rather than a simple markup. The point is, if you choose to build your home, it should be to get the home you want in the location you love. The chances are that the final cost of the home will likely be very comparable, whether you build your own home or buy a finished home from a builder. But for this to be the case, you'll need to show some real restraint when you head to the design centers.

The last—and probably the most important—strategy is the building of the structure. Flying an airplane is quite easy if you're a pilot. Knee surgery becomes second nature if you're a surgeon. But none of us would try any of these things if we didn't have the training or expertise. Building is no different.

You should engage a professional builder to help you through the process. I promise you, it will be money well spent. They will be able to develop a schedule, coordinate the trades, identify mistakes, and make game-day plan adjustments that work. Building a house is like a puzzle and your construction manager will typically know how all the pieces fit together.

Do some real diligence in selecting your builder. Contact the Master Builders Association, visit active construction sites, talk to your architect, or ask representatives from the building supply companies. When you've identified a few prospects, call their references and check the state Labor and Industries website to confirm they're licensed and bonded. Have the builder give you a breakdown of how they bill for their services, too.

Building your home can be very rewarding and, if handled correctly, can be a great experience.


Mike Walsh, principal of Terrene Homes, is this year's president of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. HomeWork is the group's weekly column. If you have a home improvement, remodeling, or residential homebuilding question you'd like answered by one of the MBA's more than 2,800 members, write to

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