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Who Knew? What to Know Before You Build From Scratch

If you’re intrigued by the possibility of building your dream home rather than settling on homes already available on the market, you’re not alone.  When my husband and I happened upon an available parcel of land back in the fall of 2000 while walking our dogs around the neighborhood, we decided we might try our hands at building a home from scratch.

Picture of the street leading into our home in the corner before everything was built out.

In our situation, this neighborhood was being developed by a realtor who had purchased the land and was building semi custom homes for interested parties. Because we were one of the first to deal with him, we were able to purchase a plot of land from him and then do everything else ourselves.

While I could write a novel about our experience, (the good and the bad,) for the purpose of keeping this blog manageable, I will focus on the ‘who knew’s?’ my husband and I encountered along the way. Hopefully, this will give you the best insight into our experience with this process and help you to decide whether you want to try it or not.

Digging out the dirt, getting ready to start the foundation.

Nineteen years ago we purchased 1/3 of an acre, (about 14,000 sq. feet,) for $125,000 in Lakewood/Golden. Today, that land would probably go for twice that amount. Who knew, even with a good sized piece of land, we would still have to be very careful how we placed everything on our parcel to make sure we could build our driveway to the street and build the house we wanted?  In actuality, we couldn’t. We found an architect and tweaked some plans we mostly liked, but the way the land was sub divided, our plot was more narrow in the front, so we weren’t able to build a large front porch and a side garage as we’d hoped unless we wanted to sit the home very far back on the property and have a ‘concrete jungle’ as a means to get to the street.


Picture of our house after completion. Notice the little triangle of cement, that was the easement we paid for to even out our driveway which we had to give back when we sold it.

As it was, we still ended up with a very long, twisted driveway which was difficult to navigate.  Additionally, the developer had placed the neighborhood electrical box on the front part of our property, right at the entrance to our driveway, rather than at the back of our home. Until we put a HUGE rock in front of it to keep people from backing into it, we had it run into several times, knocking out the power to the neighborhood more than once. This leads me to our second who knew. Who knew that not all land developers actually know what they are doing when they are subdividing a parcel of land? In our case, the realtor/developer we had didn’t properly allocate for the driveway for the home he was building to the east of us. Essentially, our neighbors would have a driveway that ended so narrowly at the street, it couldn’t fit a single car on it. As a courtesy concession, we relinquished some of our property, (approximately 200 feet,) to him for $200.00 and the understanding that we would then get a small sliver of his property from the house to our north so we could fill out our driveway as well and it wouldn’t be so hard to navigate. Who knew that aforementioned realtor/developer, would register the ‘easement’ we gave with Jefferson County, but NOT register the ‘easement’ he gave nor tell us we needed to? Ten years later, when we tried to sell this house to move, our neighbor to the north decided to be a stickler, and asked for our easement back. Because we hadn’t registered the easement, he was allowed to do this because we still had access to the street, (albeit challengingly,) so the ‘Right of Way’ principle didn’t apply and we had to dig up all the cement in that section & forfeit it back to the original parcel owner. The cost to reverse this was $8000k so it was a pricey lesson. If you’re going to build a home, make sure you understand where and how your property lies, and how it relates to what you are building before settling on a price and signing a contract.

The actual process of building the house, (once we realized we couldn’t build the house we had hoped for,) was pretty easy. Who knew people get divorced over building a home together?  Some relationships barely survive minor home renovations. We were lucky. My husband and I have very similar home aesthetics and priorities when it comes to spending money so for us, this process was relatively painless, and actually kind of fun most of the time.  Another thing we learned through this process was to spend the money now for anything you want that is part of the foundation/electrical/plumbing segments of building.  My husband really wanted a steam shower in our master bath.  Even though the cost of this was around $2,500, it was much cheaper to install it in the initial stages of plumbing, rather than trying to do it later. For us, this was a much appreciated purchase; not only because my husband’s terrible migraines benefitted from the steam and heat, but because we later had a kid who developed terrible croup every winter and used this steam shower regularly to help defeat that condition. Decide on your big purchase items, and make sure you budget for them.

Did you know when you build a home you have to choose ALL the hardware? I don’t mean just the fun stuff like the lighting fixtures, and the tile accents, I mean EVERYTHING, like floor vents? Who knew?  Do you want metal floor vents, or wood?  If you want wood, decide now so your hard wood contractor can be sure to cut the floor correctly and stain the wood vent to match the rest of your floor.  How about door hinges? Yep. Have to choose those too. Do you want nickel plated, or gold?  Shiny gold or polished gold? Holy cow, the decisions.

Who knew that your General Contractor, (GC) could truly make or break your experience?  We were fortunate to find our general contractor through our stucco contractor. It was his wife. She hadn’t ‘officially’ been general contracting for long, but she had built their home in Brighton which we toured, and a couple others around town. I liked that she was a woman in a field dominated by men, but I also liked the fact that she had exquisite decorating tastes so it was like having a bonus interior designer without having to actually pay to hire one. It also didn’t hurt that her husband was built like a Mac truck, so if she ever got into any kind of verbal scuffle, I knew she’d be alright. Did you know some contractors don’t do what you pay them to do? Sure we all know this, but it still stinks when it happens. Who knew that a good GC will know how to look for these things and champion for you to get them done correctly?  Our hard wood flooring contractor came in and had laid almost half of our first floor when my GC came to overview their progress and realized they were screwing it up pretty badly.  She called us out to look, and I honestly had no idea what was wrong with it. It looked pretty to me! Our GC pointed out that the wood, (although it looked plenty tight enough together in my opinion,) had too wide of gaps between the wood slats and would separate really badly when winter came and the air humidity dropped. “No problem,” I said…”I bet they can just go back in and bang them together.”  Nope. They had to rip everything out, (on their dime,) and redo it correctly. The way it should have been done in the first place.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not great in confrontational situations, especially when I’m not positive I’m correct. This mistake alone could have cost us upwards of $10k if we didn’t have a strong GC managing every phase of building.  Be sure you’ve done your homework when hiring a GC. Unless you plan to set up camp at your building site to overview everything going on rather than having a life, you really do need someone there full time.

Who knew that building a home where you get to choose everything can sometimes be the epitome of a kid in a candy store? It’s kind of hard to believe that faucets, light fixtures, & even door handles can be exciting to buy, but they can, and that can add up. Fast. When you’re involved with an expensive endeavor like building a home, it’s easy to start adding ‘a la carte’ items like crazy, or upgrading on all those ‘little things’ but before you know it, everything is installed, and you’ve just out priced your budget and potentially landed in some trouble for financing your home. Don’t let this be you. When you’re budgeting for a home, be sure to put your money into the big items first, and especially anything that will help your home with resell value. Make sure you’ve spent your money on the ‘wow factor’ areas, specifically the master bedroom/bathroom and the kitchen.

Bottom line to building your own home is, do your research, hire wisely, don’t take it all too seriously, but serious enough you can see the project to the end, and enjoy the final product. After all, you’re going to live there forever, right? Or, you might end up selling it due to unforeseen circumstances, or maybe even a chance to build again, but bigger, and BETTER!  And to that I say…who knew?

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