Seven years ago, we built a house. It’s in a lovely location on a lake in the woods.
We had the land a full two years before we started building a house. And during those two years, we did a LOT of research. Our focus was on building a modest home made of the best materials that we could afford. We wanted to create the home where we plan to live for the rest of our lives.
We spent a lot of time exploring options including manufactured and modular homes. We even looked at moving a couple of older homes. In the end, we decided to hire a contractor to build the house. We felt like this was the best way to ensure control over the details and get long-lasting quality.
And in the end, we got a great house. We love it here. But building a house is not an easy experience. Since I was 8 months pregnant when we started building the house, I know with certainty that it is a lot like giving birth. You spend a lot of time dreaming, a lot of time worrying about how you’re going to pay for everything, and after a lot of time and struggle you end up with something pretty special.
If you’re thinking about building your dream home on a budget, here are some things to consider:
A simple design can make all the difference when it comes to saving money building a house. A roof with lots of tall peaks and vaulted ceilings will cost you considerably more money than a standard roof. (Not too mention it will cost more to heat and cool!) Building a multi-storied house can save money over a sprawling single level home. (It takes less building materials to build up than out!) The location of your bathrooms can make a world of difference in your plumbing costs. All of our bathrooms are on the same side of the house – which means less pipes to run.
We looked at a lot of house plans online and in magazines and ended up drawing out our own ideas. We took them to a drafter (instead of an architect). The drafter was considerably cheaper than hiring an architect and he had some great ideas for ways to save money on the construction.
Consider the size of your family and whether you’re planning on having more children. How many bathrooms will you need? Will you need a lot of storage? How will this house age with you? Will you still be able to live in it if you were in a wheelchair?
If you’re looking to save money on construction, the more thought you put into the design, the more you can save. Keep things very simple.
Focus on the bones of the house.
It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of picking out kitchen counter tops, light fixtures, and paint, but those things don’t really matter over the long term. What matters are the bones of your house – how it is built – how the systems (heating, cooling, electrical, etc) operate. Consider investing in materials and systems that will make your home energy efficient. Buy quality roofing materials, insulation, doors and windows. Research energy efficient water heaters, furnaces and air conditioners. Focus your spending on quality building materials and the various systems in the house, and it will save you money in the long run. You can always upgrade counter tops later, but it’s extremely cost prohibitive to switch out all your windows and doors after the house is built.
Don’t ignore the little details.
There are hundreds of little choices you can make that affect the cost of your new home that a lot of people don’t think about: Door knobs are cheaper than door handles. You can often get a discount on your lighting if you buy a family of lights from one dealer. Chrome faucet fixtures cost less than brushed nickel. Look at every decision – big or small – as an opportunity to save money.
Act as your own general contractor.
If you have any knowledge about home building, and can devote the time to monitoring every detail of your home’s construction, you can save a lot of money being your own general contractor. The general contractor coordinates everything that needs to be done to build the house – from the pouring of the foundation to deciding what doorknobs to put on the doors.
My parents had served as their own general contractor when they built their house, so we had an idea of what the experience would be like. We felt like we had done enough home improvement projects on our old house that we could handle serving as the general contractor. We also had time – my husband is a teacher who had the summer off, and I was on maternity leave (although, we were a bit sleep deprived!)
Being your own general contractor is a big job, but it is one that can save you tens of thousands of dollars. You must have great organizational skills and pay attention to Every. Single. Detail. about your home. Be prepared to answer all kinds of questions, deal with the personalities of dozens of subcontractors, and know how to handle any problems or issues that arise. Your job is to keep the project moving forward and on budget, and the more time and energy you put into the job, the greater the savings.
Find good subcontractors.
You’ll need a team of subcontractors to tackle every aspect of building your house – carpenters, excavators, plumbers, electricians, heating/air conditioning technicians, and more – to get the job done. Get written estimates from a lot of contractors. Ask for references (both from the contractors and from people you know). The lowest bid may not always be the best one. You want people who share your vision, do quality work, stay within budget, complete the work in a timely fashion, and most importantly stand behind their work.
Do some things yourself.
We’re not big DIY types, but we did quite a bit of painting, and my Dad generously donated hours upon hours of time staining our doors and trim. We also planted our lawn ourselves. You’ll save money if you can do things yourself or have family willing to help.
Prepare for budget creep.
Build an extra 15% into your budget for budget creep. You will spend more than you planned. Why? Because with every decision you make, there are upgrades and add-ons available. You will have to constantly make decisions like whether it is better to pay just a little bit more for the flooring with the 20-year warranty, or whether you can live with the lower price and a shorter warranty. Some of those decisions will be easy to say “No” to, and for some, it may make sense to pay a little bit more to upgrade. Plan for those little increases and you’ll stay within your budget.
Your new home will never be “Done.”
Even with all the dreaming and planning you do before a single nail is pounded, you will never feel like you are done. There will always be something you wish you had done a little differently or something you’d like to change. Things will need to be maintained and repaired. And that’s okay! One of the best things about building your own home from scratch is that you get to make it entirely your own. You will love it!
Building a home was one of the most challenging things we’ve ever done, but with a bit of planning, we’ve been able to realize a dream.
Have you built your own home? What tips do you have?