The idea of building your own home is a bucket-list dream for many of us. Imagine: You get to customize it to your needs and tastes—whether that means a classic rocking-chair porch out front or a hot tub in back—and watch your personal palace take shape, right in front of your eyes.
But it’s also a really, really daunting experience. It’s one of the hugest undertakings you can slide onto your plate, and is it ever complicated! So many details, and plenty that can go wrong. I know this from personal experience.
When my husband and I built our house in 2014, we made a bunch of mistakes. Some big ones. And I’m going to put them all out there for public inspection.
1. Not working with a licensed architect
One of the best parts of building your own home is considering all the possibilities.
My husband and I went through tons of house-plan catalogs. We looked online. We did some simple sketches ourselves, trying to capture the flow of rooms and the details that would create our forever home.
Finally, we realized that we needed an architect to translate our ideas into a house plan that made sense. Then reality set in: This kind of service could be very expensive! So when a friend referred us to an “aspiring” architect, we thought it would be a great way to save money.
We met with the architect wannabe and shared all our ideas. He then input all this information into a computer program, which we assumed was a reliable, professional tool, and (drum-roll, please!) printed out floor plans for our review, which we tweaked for a few weeks.
We thought this joint venture had gone well and that we now had a solid plan.
That belief lasted until construction started. Then, the floor plans proved to be lacking some major must-haves for building a house, like electrical and plumbing diagrams.
Also (and it pains me to remember this), some of the spaces literally didn’t line up when the different floor plans were put together.
For instance, the floor plan for the main level of the house showed a single staircase, going straight down to the basement. When you looked at the plan for the basement, however, the staircase took a U-turn!
Fixing these kinds of errors cost us time and money, and triggered all kinds of stress.
Lesson learned: Go pro. If you want to design your own floor plans, collaborate with a reputable, licensed architect with a great track record of residential projects.
2. Doing business with friends
My husband grew up in the small town where we live, which means that he seems to know everyone. We thought we’d save money by having his friends in the local home-building industry do the work for us. My husband had seen some of his pals’ work firsthand. He was impressed, and he trusted these people.
However, when it came to constructing our home, the situation shifted, and fast. If his friends in construction didn’t do something the way we asked them to, my husband was reluctant to ask them to correct it.
Given their long-standing connection, he didn’t want to sound as if he was criticizing their work. So we hung back, which meant we didn’t get some dream-house details we wanted and which created ongoing issues with our home that continue to cost money to this day.
Lesson learned: If you plan to work with friends or family members on building your own home, set expectations way upfront. Make it clear that you don’t want there to be any hard feelings if you butt heads. Or simply heed the old saying, “Never do business with friends.”
3. Adding upgrades you don’t really need
During the build, my husband’s friend aired a slew of ideas that he said would “add value” to the home, such as digging out an extra 400 square feet in the basement. He felt we would be grateful to have this room to grow into.
You know where this is going, right? We didn’t need the bonus space then, and we still don’t need it—after 17 years. There’s no indication we’ll ever recover the costs we paid for this “added value.”
Another suggestion came from our building supplier: Instead of standard doors leading from the back porch and basement to the yard, he sold us on French doors.
They sounded pretty, and they are pretty, but what we didn’t know is that they require a lot more effort to unlock and open. As we approach 20 years in our house, we still struggle with the locking mechanism on the doors, and to be honest, most of our friends and family can barely get the doors to open.
Lesson learned: Trust your gut. Just because a friend or professional suggests something that sounds cool, it doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Do your homework before you make a decision, and stand your ground if it doesn’t appeal to you.
4. Not understanding construction insurance
It’s a no-brainer that you’ll get homeowner insurance to protect your home and personal belongings once you’ve moved in. But who knew you actually need insurance on your home build while it’s under construction? Commonly called builder’s risk insurance, these policies provide coverage in the event of theft, vandalism, or natural disaster.
Yes, it is a given that contractors carry insurance to protect against theft or damage to their own tools, as well as liability in the event that a worker gets injured. The problem is, their policies don’t always cover damage or theft of things that you own, which can be a huge loophole.
In our case, we had new appliances delivered to our home site, awaiting installation. Then, one night, they were stolen, along with the bathroom and lighting fixtures. The thieves drove off with anything they could return to a big-box store for a refund. Ouch!
We were gutted. No one had told us that this could happen. Thankfully, we did have a builder’s risk insurance policy, and were able to recoup the funds needed to replace the stolen items. Phew.
Lesson learned: It’s essential to discuss insurance coverage with all your contractors, to know what they have in place.
Don’t be afraid to ask for copies of their insurance declarations page to confirm that they have coverage. Then speak with your insurance agent to find out what builder’s risk insurance coverage you may need to cover any gaps. Your construction-loan lender may well require you to take out a policy.
Materials that are left inside and out during home construction can catch the eyes of thieves.
Despite these issues, building our home from the ground up was a dream come true for my husband and me. Sure, we made mistakes, but we love this house. It’s a reflection of who we are, down to the very last, hand-selected doorknob.
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