Build a home, not a headache

By Lew Sichelman / United Feature Syndicate

Originally published in the Orlando Sentinel, Sunday, September 23, 2001

Architect and customer businessman shaking hands top view, desktop with building project, tools and wood swatches on background

WASHINGTON – Building or buying a house is nothing if not an emotional roller coaster. But the trick to bringing your ride to successful conclusion is to try to even out the peaks and valleys.

The way builder- educator Tom Stephanie describes it in his seminars for builders and buyers, the journey typically starts out on a high note as you through the preliminaries of finding the area where you want to live, picking a particular subdivision or neighborhood and choosing a model or design.  Then the bottom tends to drop out as you pick your options and figure out how much it will cost. You plummet quickly from feeling of excitement to shock or anger. Some people give up. But those who decide to keep going often find that the trip starts to level off as they sign the contract and are approved for financing.

In anticipation of breaking ground, though, the ride generally starts to pick up steam again and heads back up-hill. By the time the framing starts, euphoria sets in. You finally can see your dream taking shape.

Unfortunately, it’s at this point that the experience often takes another plunge. As the house goes through the various stages of construction – the installation of the mechanical system, the drywall, exterior finishes, and painting –many people wonder what in the world they were thinking when they decided to build a house, and things sometimes don’t get any better as you list of flaws and blemishes grows from one page to another and then another during your final walk-through. Not even after they close and move in do some people ever again experience the euphoria and anticipation they felt when the roller coaster first pulled away from the platform.

Which is why Stephanie, a Chicago-area builder and developer who has presented more than 125 seminars during the past decade to 7,000 consumers interested in building, buying and remodeling a home, tells folks: “Building a home can be every bit as stressful as childbirth, divorce or loss of a job.”

Do your homework

But the ride doesn’t have to be so challenging if we know what to expect. If you can avoid the most common mistakes, your tale can be the exception rather than the rule.

Here are steps you can take to have a successful experience. The list isn’t all-inclusive. But if you follow it, at least you’ll be starting out on the right foot.

Set realistic expectations

This is not a spectator sport. Be involved. But most of all be prepared for the ups and downs that lie ahead. One of the most frequent complaints is that the process takes too much of the buyer’s time. And that’s usually because he has no concept of what is involved in building a house.

Don’t choose a builder on a cost-per-square-foot basis

“It’s like buying a car by the pound,” Stephanie warns. Costs are driven by many factors, only one which is square footage. Materials like lumber, concrete, drywall and insulation have a direct bearing on size, but others – floor coverings, cabinets and exterior finishes, to name a few have only an indirect relationship. And items like driveways, utilities and landscaping have no correlation at all.  Moreover, not all spaces are created equal. Kitchen and bathrooms are the most expensive, followed by rooms with fireplaces, high ceilings and numerous windows. The least expensive spaces are bedrooms, living rooms and finished basements. The correct way to judge a builder is by reputation, professionalism, experience and the warranty provided. Ask friends and relatives for recommendations.

Make your choices early

People often are surprised by the number of decisions they must make. More choices are required when the house is a one-of –a-kind custom home. But even production houses require you to pick and choose roof colors, flooring, counter tops and cabinets, among a few other things. The earlier you decide, the less hectic and perhaps the less costly your home buying experience will be. So shop early. Once you make a decision, stick to it. Changes are not only expensive, they cause delays. Once construction begins, resist the urge to make changes.

Don’t get upset when nothing is happening

“We won’t be on the job everyday, all day,” says Stephanie who was last year’s chairman of the National Association of Home Builders’ education committee. Not only that, but sometimes nobody at all be on the job. Realize that builders often have other projects going on at the same time as yours, and subcontractors have lives too. If there is no activity after a week or so, a call to the builder is in order.

Delays are inevitable

Building a house is directly dependent on numerous things over which a builder has little or no control, including people, weather and the availability of materials. When construction is booming, subcontractors and suppliers are often hard to come by. According to one builder, when he finally was able to locate the brick he needed recently, he couldn’t find a truck to deliver it.

The quality isn’t what you expect

Often, it’s not what was promised by the build
er, either. But either way, says Stephanie, it’s usually because neither one of you bothered to define the term “quality” in the first place. For starters, don’t confuse “luxury” with “custom,” the builder trainer advises. Production houses built from standard plans with little room for changes can be just as expensive as custom houses. And some one-of-a-kind houses can be reasonable in cost. Stephanie defines quality as “the merging of good design with appropriate products and materials installed with superior workmanship.”