Have you ever wanted to build a house but weren’t sure were to start? Maybe you are tired of cookie-cutter subdivisions or cramped apartments? Maybe you are considering adding onto your existing house, remodeling, rebuilding, or starting from scratch on a new lot. Knowing where to start and what questions to ask can be a daunting task. Having designed custom homes for dozens of people over the past 20 years, I’ve been through the process a few times. Here are some basics about how to start the process.
"Buy land, they’re not making it anymore." --Mark Twain
The first step when you are considering new construction is to find property and to understand all of the legal rules and restrictions associated with the lot. If you are wanting to purchase property, a good way to do a quick check to see if there are any encumbrances on the lot is to check the county tax assessor’s website. Most cities or counties have GIS databases, or Geographic Information Systems, that allow public users to look up a piece of property and get information that is useful when considering building. By toggling the layers, you can usually get property dimensions, zoning information, and learn if the property is in a flood zone. Some maps even have topography features that show you how much slope the lot has. Often, GIS will indicate which utilities are available at the site including sewer, water, etc. You can also often find information about which neighborhood association and school boundaries a lot falls within.Real Estate agents should also have some of this information but it is a good idea to do a little research on your own to verify the property data before you purchase. If you are planning to build on property you already own, it is still important to find all the relevant information in the early stages.
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Once you have basic information about the property, I recommend you get an Architect or Designer involved. I could probably write a book on how to select an architect, but generally speaking, the most important things are that he/she understands your personal taste and that you are drawn to his/her style of work. The architect needs to be able to communicate well with you so there are no misunderstandings. You are going to have to work together closely, so pick someone you enjoy working with! Most architects would be willing to come see your property and talk about your project without being hired, so you could talk to a couple. I think it is good to get a contractor involved early in the process, too, so you get an understanding of costs and construction logistics. The same rules hold true—things don’t always go smoothly in construction so your contractor should be someone you communicate well with. Assemble your team early in the process and make sure they get along because you will be on this journey for quite a while, and there is nothing worse than being stuck in a car on a long trip with screaming kids (metaphorically speaking).
These professionals can help you navigate through the zoning requirements of the city which typically deal with height restrictions, setbacks from property lines, floor area ratio (FAR), requirements for pervious surface areas, and much more. A good architect will also make recommendations on items you may not have considered including solar orientation, sustainable building options, and placement of the structure on the property.
Neighborhood and Home Owner Associations
Many Home Owner Associations (HOA’s) have restrictive covenants and codes that dictate everything from paint color to grass species. It is important to check if the architectural style and exterior finishes you love are allowed in the neighborhood. Some have requirements for the types of exterior finishes that are allowed, roof pitches, and overall building styles. If you plan to have an urban chicken utopia or want to plant a vegetable garden, be sure to check that those things are not prohibited by the neighborhood association. It is important to understand what the neighborhood approval process requirements and timeline are before you get too far down the road.
The Fun Stuff
Building a house is something you will probably only do once in a lifetime, so you should enjoy the journey (refer to the previous screaming kids comment to drive that thought home). It requires a million decisions and can be stressful at times, but it can also be fun and exciting. We tell our clients to compile Pinterest boards or other visual databases of the things they like. It can be rooms, finish materials, furniture, artwork—really anything that inspires you. Pictures are worth a thousand words and often communicate more clearly to a visual person like an architect.
An architect is looking for an overall "vibe" rather than specific details so ideas can be all over the spectrum. As you compile your favorite things, look for commonalities since those are probably the things you are most drawn to. You should keep an open mind and remember that there will be trade-offs and compromise. The architect probably can’t incorporate all of your images (nor should he/she try) but this is the time to be creative and dream big and to give him or her a glance into your head. Paint a good picture of who you are, and then let him/her work them go to work! He/she should value your input and also be able to provide ideas and perspective you hadn’t considered.
Kimball Hales is a licensed architect at Hufft in Kansas City, Missouri. He has designed custom homes for over 20 years. He loves modern design and fresh eggs from his backyard chickens.