Sample text for The brand-new house book : everything you need to know about planning, designing, and building a custom, semi-custom, or production-built house / by Katherine Salant.

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Counter Getting Started

Thomas Jefferson was a Renaissance man of extraordinarily wide interests. He loved architecture, designed the University of Virginia campus, and spent much of his life building and rebuilding his own house, Monticello. But were Thomas Jefferson to build a house today, even he would find it daunting. At every step of the process, the number of choices can be overwhelming.

In Jefferson's day, housing styles changed slowly. Monticello was unique in its plan and ambiance, but stylistically it was similar to other grand houses built at that time. Today, the number of stylistic options is huge, and with the materials now available, anything is possible. Jefferson could re-create Monticello down to the last handmade nail, build a look-alike largely out of synthetic materials that require almost no maintenance, or build a house that bears no resemblance to anything ever built before.

The choices are not merely matters of final appearance; they also include how the building is constructed. In Jefferson's day, there were only two or three ways to make a window, only small panes of glass were available, and craftsmen built them at the site. Today there are nearly a thousand window manufacturers in the United States. You can have a window with one, two, or even three layers of glass; the frame can be made of wood, man-made materials, or a combination of the two. You can add a coating to the glass and fill the space between the layers of glass with an inert gas to make the window more energy efficient.

Today, Jefferson would need a lot of time just to figure out what he wanted. A big house that seems to go on forever? A little house crafted like a jewel box? How much would either cost? What could he afford? Should he stretch his wallet to the max and eat hot dogs for dinner every night, or stay within limits and leave room in the budget for the occasional steak and a fine wine?

Eventually, he would get to who would build his house, and where he would build it. But at each point in his decision making, he might find himself stopping to rethink the whole picture.

As you embark on your new-house project, give yourself at least as much time as Thomas Jefferson would need and then some. Sifting through all the information; looking at model houses, talking with builders; perhaps hiring an architect, comparing floor plans, materials, and finishes, land costs and location; plus figuring out how to finance this venture; and making all the decisions large and small is time-consuming but necessary. If you short-circuit the process, you could find yourself inspecting your new house at the final walk-through and realize that it's not what you wanted.

Be good to yourself. If you want to buy a house from a production builder (as tract builders prefer to be called), give yourself a month to get your feet wet, at least two or three months to learn who the builders are, where they're working, what their price ranges are, and what their houses look like. If you want to build a custom house, choosing a builder and a design takes time. Besides looking at the finished work of each builder you're considering, you also have to talk with their former clients; this can take you two or three months. If you want to hire an architect, it may take you a while to find one you like, another four to six months to develop the design, select all the materials, and produce a set of construction drawings and specifications--and then you still have to choose a builder.

Once construction starts, a production-built house takes on average about four months to finish, assuming that the weather is decent and the builder does not face labor or material shortages. A custom-built house will take at least six to nine months, longer if the weather is bad, the design is complicated, or you want hard-to-get, unusual materials.

No matter which route you take, you will still face decisions large and small about everything from cabinet selections to carpet colors. And you will have more than one soul-searching moment when you have to decide what to keep and what to give up to stay within your budget.

Keep in mind that price is not everything, and it's not the only thing. The goal is to get the best house you can afford, not the cheapest, and not the most house for the least money. The challenge is to use your money wisely, make prudent choices, and have fun. Building a new house is at times confounding. But it is also exciting and exhilarating. The smell of freshly cut wood, the sounds of construction, and the transformation of a site from a big hole in the ground and piles of materials to a finished house is one of life's most satisfying experiences.

Setting Benchmarks

When you start looking at models, studying floor plans, and planning your new house, where you live now will be your benchmark, and the basis for all your comparisons. But if you rely on your mind's eye when you are making the comparison, you may find yourself saying, "This house is sort of like the place we have now, but different"--a vague and basically useless appraisal. To make the comparison helpful, take out your tape measure and make a rough sketch of your present house or apartment to take along when you start to look.

Another house that may be etched on your brain is the one you lived in as a child. If your family is still there, ask someone to make a sketch that includes dimensions. If you really like a friend's house or certain rooms in a friend's house, ask if you can measure them.

After you've finished measuring and made your sketch, make a thorough accounting of your house by going through each room and noting its pluses and minuses. This will produce a very specific list of what you are looking for in your new house, and may lead you to consider things that are not in your present house but that you would like in your new one. For example, if you have stacks of books or magazines in too many corners or closets because there's no place for shelving, built-ins could be a high priority.

Some of the items on your list may be those prosaic little details that have become daily irritants, such as minuscule closets. So you don't end up just as cramped in your new house, be sure to measure the closets where you live now, and include the measurements on your sketch. Then measure the closets in any house you get serious about.

The kitchen is one room where you spend a lot of time, so study yours carefully. Are the work areas too small, or ample? Is the storage adequate? Note the number of base and wall cabinets allocated to food storage, pots and pans, and dishware. If you're moving to a smaller house--what the home building industry calls a move-down--you need to make sure that the new kitchen is adequate for a lifetime's accumulation of kitchenware and small appliances. Conversely, if you're moving to a larger house, you're likely to acquire more cooking equipment and dishware in the future, so you'll need more cabinets than you have now, not just the same number.

In addition to specific comments for each room, you may also have generalized gripes about your current house. After all, you're moving for a reason. Often these involve storage problems, such as there's no place to put kids' sports equipment. You may have a design gripe (the first thing you see when you open the front door is the powder-room door), or a lifestyle gripe (when you entertain, everybody ends up in the kitchen but there's no place to sit, or, even worse, there's no place for guests to hang out in the kitchen, so you end up alone and feel like a servant).

When you start looking at furnished models or floor plans, you'll quickly discover that no house will have everything that you want. So when you've finished with the pluses-and-minuses list, prioritize the items. What are the "must have, can't live without" and the "no way, no where, no how can I live with those"?

Spending so much time thinking about what you want may feel like you're just standing in place when you could be out there checking all the new-home communities in your area, or meeting with an architect, or interviewing a builder. But the more that you can articulate to yourself what you want in a new house, the happier you will be with the final results. If an architect or custom builder has to intuit what you want, they might not get it exactly right. If you are looking at production-built houses, you will have to decide whether a given house will fit your needs. The more precisely you define those needs, the easier it will be to know which one is the right one for you.

What's Your Style?

Your new house will have some architectural styling. Most people like the traditional look, so this may be where you're headed. But just as important as the architectural style is your own personal style--what you like. Nailing down the characteristics of houses that you like or don't like will help you define your own style and sort out the overwhelming choices that await once you start house shopping. Whether a house is wildly contemporary or strictly traditional, do you like dramatic, eye-popping foyers and houses that make guests say "Wow!"? Or do you feel lost in a huge, two-story foyer? Some houses have big spaces and open floor plans that seem to go on forever. Others have smaller rooms with more contained spaces. Some houses have both. Which one appeals to your temperament and taste?

What Size?

In addition to the rough sketch of each room of your current house, you need to know the overall size--this too will be a benchmark for comparisons. You can calculate the area in square feet using the dimensions you took for your floor-plan sketch, but it might be easier to call your property tax assessor (property tax assessments are usually based on floor areas). When you calculate the total floor area, do not include the garage, attic, or any other unfinished areas. Regardless of whether it is finished or not, you should also leave out the basement, because by industry-wide convention a basement is not included in a builder's square-foot figure (unless the size is given as "finished square feet above grade" and "finished square feet below grade"). If you ask the tax assessor for the square footage, ask if the basement is included.

To get an idea of what new houses of various sizes look and feel like, visit a number of home builder's furnished models. As you develop the ability to correlate what you see with actual size, you may be surprised to find that only upper-end production-built houses are enormous, and mid-range ones are not that big. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average-sized new house in 1999 had 2,225 square feet of finished space. Though this is a 44 percent increase over the average-sized house of thirty years ago (it was 1,520 square feet in 1971), and more than 100 percent bigger than new houses built fifty years ago (it was 1,000 square feet in 1950), it's certainly not excessive. Many people would consider a 2,225-square-foot house modest, even small. An increase of a bit more than 10 percent to 2,500 square feet, though, and most people would feel comfortable. A two-story house of this size can include an eat-in kitchen/family room, a small den/study, small formal living and dining rooms, and four bedrooms, including a master suite with a large master bathroom.

You may be able to afford a much bigger house than 2,500 square feet, but be forewarned: Size can be seductive. Beyond a certain point, it doesn't add that much more utility, unless you have an enormous household or you entertain frequently on a large scale. You may be happier scaling down the total size and getting more finishes and features. If you scale down from a 4,000-square-foot house to a 3,000-square-foot one, for example, you will still have a big house, but with the money saved you can do wonderful detailing.

Scaling down from 2,500 square feet to 2,000 square feet probably won't save enough to add in elaborate details because you still have the fixed costs for the kitchen, two and a half baths, plumbing, heating, and so forth.

What Can You Afford?

Whether you go for size, features, or some of both, the dollar amount that you can afford will depend on how big a down payment you can make and how large a mortgage you can finance. Figuring out the down payment won't be hard (you know how big your nest egg is), but the mortgage amount depends on a number of factors including your income and credit history. There are mortgage calculators and helpful information available on the Internet, but you should meet with several lenders in your area to discuss your mortgage prospects and get a sense of how a lender arrives at the figure he is willing to lend.

As you wade into the mortgage maze, you will also start hearing about closing costs--additional charges that must be paid at closing, when you sign all the papers, take possession of your new house, and assume a mortgage. The closing costs vary from lender to lender and market to market. In some places, closing costs can be as much as 5 percent of the mortgage amount; in others they may be only 1 percent. That is, for a $150,000 mortgage, the closing costs could range from $1,500 to as much as $6,500.

There are not nearly as many decisions or tradeoffs to make when choosing between mortgage loan packages and lenders as there are in the building of a house (all those floor plans, materials, and location choices), but it's an essential part of the process. The ins and outs of mortgages can be confusing, so you need to allow plenty of time to bone up.

Hire Expertise

Buying a house is not like buying a car. The size of the purchase, the number of years of financial obligation involved, and all the choices and decisions you will have to make before you sign on the bottom line make a new-house purchase much more complicated. Another crucial distinction between buying a house and a car is that with a car you can kick the tires first. Before making your final purchase decision, you can see what you are buying and take it on a test drive. When you buy a new house, though, you have to make your final purchase decision and sign on the bottom line before the house is built and before you can see what you are buying.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: House construction Popular works, Consumer education Popular works, House buying Popular works