The ground rules for building a house

Your good friends recently bought a house and are now settled in and loving it. You are very happy for them. Your heart’s desire, however, has always been to buy a piece of land and build your own dream house.

What’s involved in that process?

The initial part of the process is similar whether you are looking to buy a house or simply some land. It generally begins with a realtor, then the search for the right property, and concludes with your spending way too much. That, however, is what it takes to own a piece of the Hole.

You have now purchased a piece of dirt with a view that takes your breath away. Life is good. What next?

Unless you are a builder — or are married to one — your best bet is to hire an architect to help you design and draw the plans for your house.

There are other options, such as buying a log kit, buying a book with house plans or obtaining information on the Internet. For those hardy, practical, do-it-yourself kind of folks out there, I say go for it. For the rest of humankind, especially those who, like me, suffer from mechanical dyslexia, an architect is a necessity on the journey to building your dream house.

The architectural process involves a number of phases. They include programming (determining the size of the structure, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, etc.); designing the house; drawing up construction plans; and supervising the construction.

You may hire an architect to help with some or all of these various components. Let’s say you hire an architect to provide the full range of services. Your architect’s fee will be based on a percentage of the construction cost to build your house. The percentage will vary depending on the size and the cost of the house, but it will generally be between 10 and 12 percent of construction costs.

That’s $40,000 or more for a house that costs $400,000 to build. Sounds like a lot of money, doesn’t it? It is. But even though you can’t afford it you will very likely realize the value in the end product, unless you have the misfortune of hiring an incompetent architect or one who is involved in a divorce or other mind altering experience.

In the 1990’s, with all of the incredible new wealth that is parking itself in Teton County, the construction business has undergone a dramatic transformation, and working with architects and builders is somewhat different now.

It used to be common for the completed house plans to be “put out for bid” to any number of contractors. Each contractor would submit a sealed bid, or fixed price quote. All of the bids would be opened at a designated time and place. The owner would then select a contractor, frequently, but not always, the lowest bidder.

Those were the days when there were not many homes being built. My, my, how lots of money changes things.

Although the bidding process is not yet extinct, good builders are now in such demand that if you ask one for a fixed price bid he will undoubtedly fall over laughing.

So, long before your architect is finished completing the drawings and detailed specifications for your house, you have some decisions to make in selecting your builder. I suggest that you ask your architect to recommend three reputable builders, then interview each one, look at a couple of houses built by each and then talk with the homeowners themselves to get the real skinny on each.

You cannot spend too much time selecting your building contractor.

There are so many horror stories on this subject in Teton County alone that I could spend weeks telling you about them. Just be careful.

One of the invaluable functions that your architect will perform (for the full service fee) is supervision of the construction process. He or she will act as your eyes and ears during the building process to make certain that the house is being built in accordance with the drawings and specifications, and that you are being billed only for the work that has already been done.

This part of the process works best if you promise to obey a few simples rules. The most important rule is to let the architect and the builder do their respective jobs. Any information you want to communicate to the builder should be done through the architect. He or she is your agent and has the expertise in dealing with the contractor. If you bypass the architect and talk directly with the builder about this change or that change, you will spend eternity in purgatory (or worse).

I can tell I’m beginning to get worked up about this stuff. See you next time.