Building a custom home for yourself: the joys and pitfalls

Most people buy a home, take possession, move their furniture in and call it a day.   But those that are a little more adventurous decide to buy a piece of land and have a custom home built for them selves.  This is an opportunity to tick off more boxes and get a whole lot more of what you want in your home than you would by buying.  You can custom design your space just the way you want so it suits your lifestyle and tastes.  In this article I will try and share some of the wisdom I’ve gained over the years while helping families and couples through this process.


1.Bring the builder into the picture early.  When you first decide you want to build it may arise from a frustrating unsuccessful search to find the home you want.  Or it may have been your goal all along.   I’ve had many clients buy their property, hire a draftsman, design their home and then call me the builder.  Sometimes they even hire consultants and get their permit and then call me.  In doing this they have missed an opportunity to have me, the builder give them advice from my years of experience.  In some cases I could have saved them thousands of dollars just by making simple changes to their design so it can be more “build friendly.” I can ALSO lend my advice in terms of how the building will interact with its surroundings and with deciding which type of building is suitable for each property.


2.Thoughtful design.  It’s my belief that every new home should be designed individually for the property it’s built on.   Some people have the idea they can buy or use a set of house plans that was used somewhere else.  That may work sometimes and it may work for homes on the flat prairies where subdivisions are all cookie cutters.  Here on the west coast our land is so full of rocks and hills it’s difficult to just pick any old plan and expect it to work.   Things like orientation to the sun, slope of the land and potential views all should be important factors in designing your new home.


3.Getting out of the ground.  The part of building your new home that has the most potential to effect the cost of it with out you having anything to do about it is the cost of the excavation, backfill and foundation.  The reason for this is because when we start digging we don’t always know ahead of time what we might find.  If we don’t find a suitable building surface to put down the footings then we have to keep digging until we do and that means we need to come back up with a taller foundation.  It’s for this reason that we always recommend a design that does its best to work with what nature has given us.  What that means is that if a lot slopes up we design a lower entry and living up, but if the lot slopes downward then we design a level entry with a walk out basement.


4.Fixed Price or Cost Plus.  There are essentially two different ways to go about the pricing, planning and paying for your construction project.  There are pros and cons to each.  In a fixed price situation there is a precise pre-determined cost for the entire project right from day one and a detailed design including specific quality and finishing products.  The more detail that is put into these specs the more accurate the price will be.  The benefit to this method is that the client and the builder both know the final cost before the start.  The potential pitfalls come when the builder and customer don’t agree on a specific finishing item.  This is where the detailed planning comes in.  Another huge pitfall comes in the part I mentioned in my earlier point about getting out of the ground.  If we as the builder were asked to place a fixed price on this part of the project we would be forced to price a worst case scenario.  The same goes for the sub trades that do the excavation work.  Most of these companies work by the hour on excavations because of the unknowns.  There are a few that will give fixed pricing, but again these prices will be worst case scenarios.  Cost plus is just like it sounds, you pay the cost, plus a fee.  Some times the fee is a fixed amount and sometimes it is a percentage.  The percentages in our area range from 15% to 25%.  This allows flexibility.  The customer can basically build and choose anything they want and they know they will pay its cost plus the fee.  The benefit to this system is that the clients can be free to choose whatever they want for the fixtures and finishes and can feel free to make changes along the way.  And of course this becomes a danger if both the client and the builder don’t at least keep some attention on the overall cost.


5.I want to do some of the work myself.  For people who are handy do-it-yourselfers, getting your work clothes on and doing some of your own work on your project can save you some money and can also give you a sense of pride knowing you had a hand in building your new home.  If you are handy enough, you really can save yourself enough money to make a measurable difference in the cost of building your new home.  This is often known as “sweat equity.”  The items typically that the average homeowner can tackle themselves are things like interior painting, exterior painting, laying floors like laminate or hardwood, and baseboards and trims.  Some clients like to do their own clean up, this too can save some money.  The pitfalls of this are the quality of the finish work may not be up to the same standard as the professional who does it for a living.  Another potential pitfall is this may interrupt the flow of the project.  Most homeowners if they are going to tackle their own work are going to be doing it on evenings and or weekends, so if this takes longer than planned they may cause a subtrade coming after them to be delayed.  During busy times, missing a spot for a subtrade has a trickle down effect that can sometimes cost weeks of time on the project.  Overall, doing some of your own work on your project is encouraged and has more benefits than pitfalls if its done right.  We encourage our customers if they are so inclined, to take an active role in the construction of their new home.


6.How much does it cost to Build vs Buy?  It is my belief that overall once you buy your property and hire someone to build it you will still come out ahead financially vs buying the exact same home.  And of course the bonus us that you get to help design it the way you like and to suit your lifestyle and tastes.  This is difficult to prove since no two are alike.  As for the actual cost of the building part, asking what it may cost will likely get you a different answer depending on who you ask.  I will try here now to give some numbers to be used only as a general guide.  As I write this we are in 2018 in the central Vancouver Island area and from my experience the starting cost for a custom build is around $140-$190 per square foot of living space not including garage.  This is for an average cost to get out of the ground and for a modest or entry level grade of finishes.  Vinyl siding, laminate countertops, laminate floors, and basic trims and finishes.  The next level up from this is  $175-$225 per square foot.  This will get you hardie plank siding,  Quartz countertops, hardwood floors and mid level finishes.


7.How do I keep from going over budget?  It seems in construction that everything takes longer and everything costs more.  It’s a saying that I have developed in my decades of experience in this business.  “Everything costs more and everything takes longer.”  The part about taking longer sucks and is inconvenient, but it’s the costing more that really hits home.  I have worked with many different clients over the years on custom homes.  Some stay on budget and some go way over.  As an organization we feel that we have a huge responsibility to our clients to make them aware each time they make a decision or buy something for their new home what it will do to the overall cost.  We provide regular updates on the progress of the project and where the cost is vs the projection.  This doesn’t stop some clients from going way over and then being shocked at how over budget it is at the end.  In my experience it is the clients who diligently watch their spending through the entire project that are the ones who finish on budget.  This does not mean you can’t splurge now and then.  A splurge on a custom quart countertop can add a few thousand dollars to the cost but can make the difference between a kitchen really like and one you absolutely love.


8.Too many opinions.   When you are going through the process of building you will inevitably be bombarded with other peoples opinions.  Your builder, the crew, the sub trades, your family and your friends will all be eager to weigh in on what’s right or wrong or what looks better or worse.  I for one always try to express my opinions but clarify that they are just my opinions.  Others may not be so clear and they may be very convincing that their opinion is right.  This can be the placement of rooms and windows or types of tile and flooring or wall colors.  Its always okay to listen to these opinions because they usually speak from experience and you will learn a lot from those around you but in going through this process you should always stay true to your original vision and be strong.


9.Conclusion.  The process of building has broken marriages, caused people to go bankrupt and maybe even caused suicides.  But these are the small minorities.  Most people take great pride in living in the spaces that they had a hand in creating even if it was just to make the choices of wall colors and finishes.  There are pitfalls, but the joys far outweigh them.  If you are thinking about building a home for yourself then I hope this article has given you a bit of insight into the process.  At Boehm Construction, myself and our team can guide you through the process and try to make sure that there are far more joys than pitfalls in the process and we promise that in the end you will be glad you built instead of buying.