Lew Sichelman

Even though I live in a custom-designed house, I don’t recommend designing your own place from scratch. It’s not for everyone.

For one thing, choosing flooring, fixtures, appliances and everything else that goes into a house can feel like picking out every screw and nail: often excruciating. That’s why production builders make most of the choices for their buyers, leaving only a few choices up to the customers.

For another, I had help. My son is an architect (a young one, at the time), so I let him look at our plan and make some suggestions. Then I took it to a highly respected production architect in town, who made a couple recommendations of his own. My handyman made some good observations, too.

Armed with their guidance, we took our final plan to the builder, who quoted such a low price that I asked, “Can you start yesterday?” I still don’t know why his bid was so reasonable. Maybe he just miscalculated?

Watch Your Square Footage

Whatever the reason, we ended up with a wonderful house that we love – so much so that my bride says she’ll never leave. Still, there are a few flaws in the design that would have been discovered and fixed right away had it been a production model.

The most serious mistake was that I, who should’ve really known better, failed to pay attention to the square footage. So now we live in a house that’s really too large for two people. We still love it, but it is bigger than the house in which our children grew up.

Actually, size is something most people cannot gauge, said Matt Clancy, director of sales at Zonda House Plans. Zonda is the parent company of houseplans.com, one of several websites that sell stock house plans to both consumers and homebuilders. (Stock plans are a cost-effective alternative to one-of-a-kind plans drawn exclusively for a single customer by an architect.)

If you are square-footage-challenged, Clancy suggested laying out the proposed space with a tape measure, then walking around in it to get a feel for the size of each room. You might want to order interior renderings along with the plan itself to get an even better feel for the space.

Most plans come with cost-to-build estimates. Cutting the square footage will decrease your building costs, of course, but the shape of the structure is key, Clancy said. Simplicity rules. It is far less expensive to build a simple box than a place with lots of complicated angles.

Before scrolling through available plans, though, you should learn how to read them. You’ll need to understand all the architectural symbols: A line with a semi-circle at the end indicates a door and which way it opens, for example, while a thin rectangle that disappears into a wall represents a pocket door. A blog post on houseplans.com offers a basic tutorial on deciphering the plans, and it’s “one of the most popular” pages on the site, said Zonda marketing director Aurora Zeledon.

Stock plans are not drawn in stone; they can be customized to meet your desires. So if you’d like, say, a sitting room off the main bedroom, or a larger kitchen, you can ask for those changes.

Keep An Eye on the Budget

Start with a plan you can afford to build and go from there. Minor changes can be worked into the plan without much extra cost, said Clancy, while more substantial ones may be “budget busters.”

Still, even big alterations are cheaper before you start building than they are in the field when work is already underway. These so-called change orders not only add to the construction cost, but they also rack up contractor fees.

“It’s always best to provide the builders with exactly what you want,” said Clancy.

Don’t forget to consider your build site when choosing your plan – the lot’s size and shape will be a big factor. Not every plan fits every lot, and it’s much easier – and far less expensive – to make the house fit the land than the other way around. Fortunately, most outfits offering ready-to-build plans carry layouts designed specifically for narrow sites, sloping sites or practically any other configuration you can think of.

If you don’t already own your building site, buying it on your own could be difficult because lenders are extremely cautious about financing raw land. Because your lot could prove difficult to dispose of in the event of a foreclosure, the lender is likely to want a big down payment and a relatively high interest rate for a rather short term. Another option is to allow your contractor to buy the lot on your behalf. And if you’ve chosen an “On Your Lot” (OYL) builder, you’ll likely pick a lot from their inventory.

Many OYL builders will be able to arrange construction-to-permanent (CTP) financing on your behalf. Sometimes called one-time close loans, CTP mortgages start out as construction loans and then convert to permanent mortgages automatically when the work is complete. This type of combined funding is often less expensive than taking out two loans – one to build the house and another to own it.

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 50 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance industry publications. Readers can contact him at lsichelman@aol.com.